Saturday, March 7, 2009

Spring Hair and other observations…

In Southern California (Orange County) spring is in the air. That means the pollen counts are high! Many trees have blossomed; some trees are past blooming and are presently sprouting new leaves. The pale green of new leaf graces the street I live on, as the Chinese Elm are putting on airs for St. Patrick’s Day.

But the newest thing I’ve noticed is Spring Hair: the dog version. Heidi, my German shepherd, is becoming a shedding machine. I like winter when she puts on a nice coat, and less of her fur shows up on the carpet and on my clothes. But winter is fading, and dog fur is flying. I’ve dug out her dog brush, and my lint brush, to avoid looking too tacky in public.

What things are you noticing as spring lurks just around the corner? Is winter packing her bags? How do you know?

Today I made a short trek to the Fullerton Arboretum to see what was in bloom there. I’ll be sharing those pictures over the next week or so as an added bonus!

Last week I succeeded in trimming a 50’ Liquid Amber in my backyard, and tomorrow I may sculpt my Pink Tabebuia tree. The 50’ tree required a tree saw, a pole, a pole extender, and a ladder. Tomorrow’s tree should be easier: no ladder. I want to get the second tree done before it puts out leaves. It’s already put on its flower show, but some hard cold rain abbreviated that spectacle.

Happy Saturday! Don’t forget to Spring Forward!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Help for tired teachers

It’s a funny time of year in the world of classrooms. There’s a tendency to give up on certain students who appear to be purposefully entrenched in bad habits, both academically and behaviorally.

Giving up is not a professional option, but redistributing the teaching efforts towards those that are ready to learn may be a necessary strategy for maintaining sanity and conserving dwindling emotional reserves. Teachers can start to run a bit low this time of year.

But do miracles happen after mid-year? Yes.

I spent a good part of last year trying to convince a student that his number one problem was that he didn’t think he had a problem. But, late in the fourth quarter he had an epiphany, and all of a sudden – he was ready to learn.

A few years back I had a similar situation, but the student talked his parent into transferring him out of my class (without consulting me).

Well, my life got easier, in fact the whole class seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s hard on the class when you have a resistant learner negatively impacting the learning environment. I still see this student occasionally, and I’m interested in his life. I still haven’t given up on him, but I don’t have to be confronted daily with his opposition to learning.

Teaching is a balance between being fair, being realistic, being hopeful, and being able to muster the emotional where-with-all to herd a group of learners through a full school year. Some students are more difficult and draining, and sometimes they can obscure the students who are making the daily effort, overcoming difficulties, and finding ways to “get ‘er done!” It’s easier to focus on the trials rather than the triumphs, but both are real.

Winter gives way to Spring. Soon students and teachers will find relief and renewal in Spring Break. Hang in there fellow educators, and all of you who feel like you’re at the end of your rope. Tie a knot and hang on! Help is on the way.

(Get some rest. Take a nap. Go to bed early. Tomorrow is another day, and new strength is just a dawn away.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Geography Puzzles are FUN

States create their own standards for education: that's how the Constitution works. (If it ain't Federal, it's State!)

As an Educational Specialist (Special Education Teacher), I'm often involved in helping students master parts of other courses. Due to a recent voluntary transfer from a junior high to an elementary school, I've been learning some of the grade level standards for the lower grades.

I should mention that I hate spending my time doing things that aren't necessary, so when I found out that all California fifth graders were required to memorize the 50 states and their capitals, I was perplexed, if not annoyed. But, before I opened my mouth, I did some research. Was this really a state standard, or just some nice-bit-of-memory-work invented by some by-gone, hard-nosed teacher?

It's a standard. (Who knew? -- Well, besides every fifth grade teacher in California!)

I work with kids who generally have poor memories; that is, they don't recall academic trivialities quickly and on demand. Unfortunately for them, school is full of such exercises in recall: they are called tests.

So in my spare time I created a cool PowerPoint that helps kids learn the states. I may try to market this bit of software this summer, but in the meantime, I've been looking around to see what others have invented. This is what I've found... and it's fun!

Puzzle Maps for learning US and World Geography.

I heard someone once say, "The best way to teach a kid something is make them think they are learning something else." I might add, "Make them think they are playing a game!"

In helping to find ways to help my students memorize things, I've learned a few tricks, but now I've also found some new games. I'm using them to learn the countries of Europe and Africa. Later on, I might learn the capitals too!

Follow the link and have some fun... you just might learn something!

(I actually had some kids go home, type in the URL, and play the games! They listened to me. I was stunned! But then, they all just thought it was a game.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Student Apathy or Six Simple Sentences

The whiteboard in the front of my classroom has several enigmatic messages written in my best cursive:

Help others learn.
Jack Sparrow’s Secret
Looking Smarter on Paper
Are you here to learn?
Are you here to change?
Is your life a P.O.O.G.I.?

These six sayings are permanently posted in my classroom. I teach mostly 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I work mostly with groups of 6 to 14 students at a time during the day. Some I help with math and some I help with English/Language Arts.

My students learn a lot of Math and Language Arts, but they also learn about life.

My only class rule is, Help others learn. (If you’re interfering with the learning of another, you’re breaking my rule. If you’re neutral or better, great!)

My students are generally 2 to 4 years below grade level. They need to catch up. Captain Jack Sparrow (think Pirates of the Caribbean) was asked by a crewmember why they were sailing hard, at night, and in a storm. Captain Jack replied, “Because we’re catching up!” That’s what we do in my classroom. We work hard, we work smart, and we don’t take many breaks, because “We’re catching up!”

Everybody wants to look smart, especially on paper. They want to gaze down upon their work and be proud. They want others to see their work and be admired. I can help students achieve that goal. I can’t make them any smarter, but I can teach them strategies and methods that will help them look smarter on paper. (I can even teach them how to look smarter sitting at their desks!)

As we hit the mid-year point, motivation lags for some students. Student apathy is one of the chief complaints of teachers. I run into that problem as well, but from day one of class, I seek to inspire my students to co-create in our classroom an “Accelerated Learning Zone.” This goal has led me to post the last three questions on my board:

1) Are you here to learn? Learning is a choice and it requires a decision. If a teacher assumes student buy-in, they are going to be consistently disappointed by many students. I actively seek and get buy-in from my students. If they don’t buy into what we’re doing, which is working hard to catch up, then they are going to be a drain on our classroom culture.

2) Are you here to change? I recently added this question because it more clearly defines what learning is. Learning is changing. Much of student failure comes from students not practicing the habits of successful students. So if these students are going to get closer to achieving at grade level, then they are going to need to change. This too requires buy-in.

Both of these questions put the student in the spotlight if they answer, No. If they answer, No, then they will not catch up. They are at an impasse, but my message is: You made the choice. You’ve decided you don’t want to Accelerate Your Learning, Catch Up, or Look Smarter on Paper.

3) Is your life a P.O.O.G.I.? This addition to my board always elicits questions. Pronounced pooh gie (hard g), POOGI is an acronym for Process Of On-Going Improvement. Eli Goldratt, creator of the Theory of Constraints, coined this “word”. Goldratt is an internationally renowned business consultant who helps businesses improve. (He also makes much of his training available to educators via TOC for Educators.) My life is an enjoyable POOGI, and I model that for my students. Slow learners can catch up: they just have to work hard, work smart, and see that life can be a process of on-going improvement. Perfection is not the goal, improvement is.

Effectively educating youth is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the unfocused. I help kids see themselves as capable learners, who are co-responsible for their learning. As a result, over time, most of them become strategic, life-long learners. Those who buy in, generally catch up. My six simple sentences help us focus and move forward.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Final Financial Fancies

I’m at the end of my current series of posts on finances. I have reviewed and expanded on my personal fiscal goals. Someone once said, “I don’t know what I really think about a topic until I write about it.” I agree with that. I’ve learned quite a bit as I’ve written these posts. I hope you enjoyed the trip… and today is the final installment.

My Future?

As I look down the road a bit, I anticipate retirement, so my final goal/affirmation is

“I am wealthy enough to retire when I choose to.”

This goal is somewhat vague, but specific in ways that are important to me.

In order to maintain a certain (undefined) quality of life in retirement, I must have sufficient wealth amassed. Generally, retirement means no longer working and earning a salary, so you have to live off your accumulated wealth. I’m not sure exactly what “wealthy enough” is, but I know I’ll need to have it.

A second specific noted in this affirmation is “when I choose to.” I’m not sure when that will be: I like what I’m doing. I get lots of vacation. I have medical and dental! I don’t have to work nights or weekends. I don’t have to get on the freeway to commute to work.

I’m not ready to retire, but when I am ready, I want to have that as a viable option.

“I am wealthy enough to retire when I choose to.”

In the meantime, I’m learning about building wealth, enjoying life, and maintaining a balanced outlook. Perhaps when I get closer to retirement, I’ll set some affirmations for using that retirement.

(But for now… I retire every Summer, and come out of retirement every Fall. – It’s just not official retirement!)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Stretching and Supplementing a Salary

My next to last fiscal affirmation/goal is a two-part-er and reads:

I enjoy supplementing and stretching my annual teaching salary.

Based on the thinking I’ve done in preparing this post, I’m making a slight change: a reversal.

I enjoy stretching and supplementing my annual teaching salary.

This subtle change puts first things first. If I am not using my current salary wisely, and the month is longer than my paycheck, what’s to keep me from repeating this mistake with a larger salary? First I need to learn to stretch my salary, then I can think about increasing it. (If I do a good job stretching it, I may not need to increase it!)

I made two lists. One lists things I’ve done to stretch my salary:


Sort through conflicting financial worries: list them.
Create budget and set it up electronically.
Use electronic bill pay.
Track spending against budget.
Update my budget based on reality and cut spending where needed (and possible).
Use my Credit Union’s Summer Saver Plan to relieve summer work pressures.
Save for annual expenses: property taxes, car insurance, etc.
Save for special expenses: my emergency fund.
Save for gifts and vacations: I found this was one of my budget busters.

Part of stretching is learning balance spending and saving. I needed to learn contentment and practice delayed gratification.

My savings plans include:

401k, IRAs, CDs, and a pension plan.

New Stretching Strategies

Pay down debt to avoid paying interest and to build equity: a 50% bonus!
Get educated re: my pension plan and make adjustments.
Learn the rules of retirement and play smart.

The second list is my list of ways to supplement (or increase) my income:


Have done:

Summer jobs including working at the OC Fair and teaching Summer School.

Have not done:

Writing, lawn care, pet care, tutoring (Summer activities)
Create and Market Curriculum
Teach a night class

Have not thought of:


I left some blank space above, because I haven’t got that part figured out yet. I’ve done better stretching, so I haven’t been as concerned about supplementing. But I’ve set up my affirmations, and I go with the flow.

I’ve believed for years the adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” Now I’m discovering that affirmations and goal setting helps me find what I’m looking for. Cool.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Debt and Wealth: How is your money working?

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to ask better questions. Questions can be loaded: Does this dress make me look fat?

Some questions can be misleading: How much money do I save because it’s on sale?

Money related questions can be the trickiest, but also some of the most important. That’s why I’m taking the time to think some of these issues through via this blog: issues like debt and wealth.

Here's one thing I've discovered: Money works for you or for someone else -- it’s called interest. But money does it’s work in a subtle, almost hidden manner.

In a family budget, interest is a hidden cost. I’ve had a budget for years, and only just recently have I exposed this cost. Currently, I’m scheduled to pay over $50,000 in interest over the next 12 ½ years. (And I didn’t see that? Why not? It’s hidden in my car payment and my mortgage.)

That’s an example of money working for someone else. The bank lent me money, and I pay interest, lot’s of it. (And credit cards are worse, but they get almost no money in interest from me.)

I also have a 401k which should be working for me, but… that’s another slightly sad story. I also have a couple of CDs: that money is working for me. My CDs are earning interest and providing a financial cushion against the unexpected.

Now I’ve learned another way I can make my money work for me: it can retire debt.

Here’s some questions I asked and answered yesterday:

How much did that car really cost?
How much did the house really cost?

How much interest expense can I save by paying down my home loan?
How much interest expense can I save by paying down my car loan?

Using some free online pay-off calculators, I found the answers to these questions. As a result of this self-taught four hour learning session, I was able to plot a 5 ½ year course that will leave me debt-free while saving me about $30,000 in interest.

Paying off $1,000 dollars of debt earns me a $500 bonus. Wow. Who knew?

Some argue against paying off a mortgage for tax reasons, but consider this counter-argument from Crown Financial Ministries:

"The great 19th-century British author Charles Dickens said, “It has been my experience that if a thing sounds too good to be true, likely it is.” In the case of mortgage interest deduction, Mr. Dickens’ admonishment may need to be heeded.

A home mortgage interest deduction is often misunderstood. In order to recoup all of the interest paid on a mortgage, a person would have to be in the 100 percent tax bracket. However, most people pay around 30 percent of their income in taxes. Therefore, the IRS deduction they receive is 30 percent of the interest paid on the mortgage.

As an example (remembering that the tax rates are graduated and based on a lower or no percentage at lower incomes), assume that a person is in a 30 percent federal tax bracket and a 6 percent state tax bracket. That means for each $1,000 in interest paid on a home mortgage, 30 percent or $300 of the interest paid could be received back from the IRS and 6 percent or $60 could be received back from the state. This would net the taxpayer $360 from the federal and state governments for the $1,000 interest payment.

But, wait a minute – what happened to the other $640 you paid in interest? Well, of course, the mortgage company kept the $640.

Consider what would happen if a homeowner simply paid the taxes instead of paying interest on a mortgage; the owner would owe $360 in federal and state income taxes but would keep $640. Get the picture?

Most Americans accept long-term debt on their homes as normal. Understandably, with the prices of homes being what they are today, most couples need extended loans to lower their monthly payments initially when buying a house – nothing wrong with that.

However, couples could pay their homes off in 10 to 15 years if they would simply control their lifestyles and prepay their mortgage principal a little bit each month. Then, when they have no mortgage, they might have to pay some additional taxes, but the point is that they also get to keep what they would have had to pay to the mortgage lender."

So if retiring debt is such a good thing, how can I do it? (Crown Financial Ministries helped me again. Isn’t it amazing: The things you can learn if you can read, digest, and apply.)

Retire the debt

"Pay extra on the debts with the highest interest rates. If all interest rates are comparable, begin paying extra on the smallest balance. After that debt has been paid, apply the regular payment as well as the extra money that was going to it toward the next highest balance. After the second is paid off, then the third highest and so forth."

I didn’t get this method at first, but as I pondered it, I began to understand the power.

I have only a car loan and a house loan. If I make budget adjustments to pay those two bills plus something extra each month, once the car is paid off, I keep making the “car payment” but now it’s used to pay down the mortgage. My 13-year house loan thus becomes a 5 ½ year loan (via a fairly substantial “something extra” each month).

A bit over two years ago, my youngest daughter transferred to a University: tuition cost from Dad -- $500 a month. (I hadn’t saved for her college, she hadn’t either. I had income, she has loans.) But she’s graduated and I’ve got $500 extra in my budget, plus I got a small raise at work. There’s that something extra!

By retiring the debt, I’m building equity/wealth in the car and more so in the house. If, when I retire, I sell and move elsewhere, I could conceivably get back all I’ve paid in principal and interest on the house. That’s where the building wealth comes in.

I’m on step four or five of reducing debt and building wealth: goals, a budget, household agreement, emergency funds, most of these are already in place. I’ve done a lot towards creating fiscal balance, but now I can see my way clearly to move more intelligently towards retirement. One part of the puzzle is “simple: I'm reducing debt and building wealth.

If you made it to the end of this post, I applaud you. You must really want to get a grip on your finances and move more intelligently into the future.

This post represents my musings these days: financial, practical, and empowering. I hope my musings get you thinking.