About Me:

Aloha! I'm Wendy Kennar. I'm the mother of a seven-year-old son and a wife living in Los Angeles. I was a public school teacher for twelve years until a chronic medical condition made it necessary to leave my teaching career.

I've always been described as "quiet" - really, I'm just biting my tongue. I've got lots to say, and lots of thoughts to share, I just prefer to write them. That's the purpose of this blog. Each Wednesday, I post a personal essay offering my observations and thoughts.

A few fun facts about me: I've wanted to be a writer since second grade, when my teacher, Mrs. Jones, made me a "book" with a yellow construction paper cover. I have never learned to whistle, have always preferred sunflowers to roses, and have spent my life living within the same zip code.

Through the years, my writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, United Teacher, GreenPrints, L.A. Parent, DivineCaroline.com, RoleReboot.org, XOJane, and Brain, Child Magazine. Additionally, my personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including: The Barefoot Review, Beyond the Diaper Bag, Lessons From My Parents, Write for Light, Being a Grown-Up: A User's Manual for the Real World, Ka-Pow!, How Writing Can Get You Through Tough Times, Breath and Shadow, The Grey Wolfe Storybook, and Sisters Born, Sisters Found.
I am a regular contributor at MomsLA.com, and you can also find me at Goodreads.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Feel free to comment and share my blog with others!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Desire, Dream, Reach, Soar"

   Those are the words engraved on a sterling silver ring that adorns the ring finger on my right hand.  Shortly before I became pregnant, my mom and I took a day-trip to Laguna Beach, one of my favorite places and a place I wanted to share with one of my favorite people.  I have nothing but fond memories of our trip, and to forever commemorate our day in Laguna together, my mom bought me this special souvenir.

   I wear the ring (one of eight) daily.  But lately, I realized that I wasn’t being true to my ring.  Was I spending my day practicing any of these verbs - desire, dream, reach, soar?   When I was honest with myself, I admitted that it wasn’t enough to merely have a desire or a dream, was I acting on it?  Was I reaching for it, was I trying to soar?

   Honestly, the answer was, “Not really.”

   I was spending my days checking things off my to-do list: setting up appointments, renewing prescriptions, paying bills, cleaning, cooking.  I was toiling away in a career I was becoming increasingly disheartened with.  And in between, I’d have moments of bliss playing and being with my son and moments of exhaustion taking care of my son (meal times, bedtime routine).  Scattered somewhere in there, was a random hour to pursue my 
desire, my dream, to write.

   My life is imbalanced, with the pendulum favoring the list of things I need to do, instead of the things I’d like to do.

   I’m going to change that.
   2013 will be a big year for me.  It’s the year I turn 37, and those numbers have always held special significance for me.  3 and 7 have always been my preferred numbers (not sure if they’re really lucky).  My birthday is 3/7.  And both my mom and my son celebrate their birthdays on 03/30.  

   The lunar new year declares 2013 is the year of the snake.  I declare 2013 the year of Wendy.  As selfish as that initially sounds, I am hoping that a focus on me will have a positive domino effect that will benefit those closest to me.  

   2013 is the year I admit I am not the same Wendy I was.  2013 is the year I admit I live with a chronic medical condition.  2013 is the year I make some changes.

   Changes that will allow me to desire, to dream, to reach, and to soar.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The A to Z List of Verbs to be Practiced on a Daily Basis

      Each day, there are certain tasks I am responsible for completing (taking attendance, assigning homework, providing instruction).  Each day, there are certain tasks my students are responsible for completing (lining up when the bell rings, pushing in their chairs, turning in assignments).  Each day, there are things I believe I should do to enhance my students’ learning and their school experience.  Each day, there are things I believe my students should do to enhance their own learning and school experience.  Here are the list of verbs I believe we should practice on a daily basis.

A Accept.  Accept who I am - a teacher who can never remember how to spell “vacuum” and who has never learned to whistle.  Accept my students as they are.  I can hope to make a change, to improve their behavior, but ultimately I can’t force them to change.  They are who they are.  And I must accept that I’m not always in control.  There will be good days and bad days, announcements over the intercom, and the raucous of the lawnmower outside.

B Breathe.  I know, it seems so obvious, but maybe that’s why we forget to do it.  Tense situations, scary situations, challenging situations - we react.  We tense up and we hold our breaths.  Without meaning to, we’ve made the situation more difficult because we are depriving our bodies of an essential element - air.  Without it, we really can’t properly deal with anything.  Slow down.  Deep breath in.  Deep breath out.  

C Create.  There is a lot during the school day that doesn’t really invite a whole lot of creativity (tests and standing in line, for example).  Yet, every chance I get, I try to provide my students with the opportunity to create.  Sometimes that means giving them an open-ended assignment and letting them run with it, see what they come up with when the guidelines are looser and they are given more freedom and flexibility.  Many times, I am impressed by their thinking and originality. 

D Dare.  Each day, my students and I need to dare to push ourselves - to try something new, to do something we didn’t think we could.  Many of my students don’t succeed to the levels I know they could simply because they don’t try; they don’t believe they’re capable.  We won’t know until we try. 

E Enjoy.  Certain tasks and situations (I’m thinking after-school meetings) are less fun and less desirable than others (I’m thinking the party on the last day of school).  But as much as possible, I must enjoy what I’m doing.  Because when I’m enjoying myself, it comes through to my students and they begin enjoying themselves as well.  They participate, they cooperate, they are engaged.

F Feel.  I know I am certainly guilty of sometimes going through the motions, and not truly experiencing the moment.  My students and I need to feel.  Feel the pride that comes with solving fifteen fraction questions correctly.  Feel the sense of accomplishment that results in running laps without having to stop and walk.  Feeling empathy for our friend when she has lost her homework.   

G Give - praise; credit; a second chance; an extra minute; a break; some space; a hand.  

H Hope.  Each day, I hope for a “good day.”  A day when all my students are safe and healthy.  A day when lessons are engaging, students are participating and cooperating, and we all feel productive.  It doesn’t always happen.  But then there’s tomorrow, and I can hope it will be better for each day is a fresh start. 

I Ignore.  For teachers, it’s a matter of “picking your battles.”  Which means that certain activities, certain behaviors will be ignored.  I can’t respond and react to all off-task behaviors.  Some must simply be ignored.  

J Jot down notes and ideas.  My students are expected to take notes during our daily math lessons.  They are expected to jot down review questions, vocabulary definitions, and their nightly homework assignment.

K Keep a positive attitude.  I tell my students that their effort is just as important as their outcome.  We all need to maintain a positive outlook, a belief that things will work out, that calculating the area of a triangle is not an impossible task.

L Listen attentively.  Make eye contact with the speaker.  Ask questions for more information and for clarification.  Make connections and offer valuable comments to further the conversation.

M Model desired behaviors.  I can’t make my students be courteous or polite.  But, I can “do unto others as we’ll have done onto ourselves.”  So I model what it looks like to be respectful (not laughing at others’ mistakes) and what it looks like to be concerned about our environment (recycling water bottles).  

N Nurture.  Each summer, I return to school early to open the closets, unpack my materials, and create a safe, welcoming, nurturing room environment.  I sincerely hope that each day my students feel they have entered a place where they are taken care of, where someone is looking out for them, and where they can thrive and be the best version of themselves.

O Observe others.  For some reason, children will mimic bad behavior.  I wish my students would observe all their classmates who are focused, who are following the rules, and copy that behavior.  My students can learn so much from each other.

P Produce something to be proud of.  I tell my students that everything that has their name on it, is something they should be taking pride in.  All completed work is a reflection of the student who completed it.  Make it something to be proud of.   

Q Question.  Each year, I am a bit surprised by the candidness of my students.  They are not shy about voicing their opinions and asking, “Why?”  “Why do you assign homework each night?”  “Why do we have to learn all 50 states and capitals when we live in California?”  Of course, there are respectful ways to ask these questions, but I am always somewhat heartened to hear my students respectfully questioning; that is, after all, what responsible citizens are supposed to be doing in a democratic society.  

R Read.  I sincerely believe that every human being needs to read each day.  And when I say read, I mean read in any format (a comic strip or graphic novel, a chapter book or a Dr. Seuss early reader, a fan website or a sports magazine).  Additionally, different skills are involved when one reads silently, one reads orally, and one is read to.  Each is valuable.

S Study.  We all need to study daily.  I’m not talking about long study-fests; I tell my students that a solid five minutes a day of studying multiplication facts is valuable.  I remind my students that I was an elementary school student once too.  I wasn’t born knowing all this information.  I didn’t understand equivalent fractions for a while.  I needed to study, to practice, until I learned it.

T Trust.  Our instincts.  Ourselves.  Each other.    
When guessing on a multiple choice test, a test taker’s first guess is usually the right one.    

U Understand.  Hopefully, my students understand the concepts and skills I have taught them each day.  Hopefully, I teach with an understanding that my students learn differently.  Hopefully, my students understand that I’m human too - I have stomach aches and head aches just like they do; I also have days where I want to go home, and I want my mommy.  And hopefully, I understand that my students are still children, and are learning, each day to become the best version of themselves.

V Vanquish.  Many of my students come to school with a fear of failing so they don’t try.  I therefore strive to provide my students with a safe place for them to venture a guess, to make a prediction or an inference that may or may not be correct.   I want my students to vanquish these fears, to strive without worrying about failing, to make the effort.

W Wonder.  I hope my students never stop asking “Why,” or “How?”  Our civilization is dependent on inquisitive minds to keep wondering, to keep searching for explanations.  

X Exercise.  The brain is a muscle and needs to be exercised just as we exercise our biceps or quadriceps.  Each day, I expect my students to work, to think, to analyze, to write, and to infer.  To strengthen their brains, they need to exercise them.   

Y Yell.  Not yell because you’re angry, yell because you’re excited and enthusiastic.  At our weekly school assemblies, my class is known as the “loud class.”  when one of our friends is recognized for performing a random act of kindness or earning a student of the week distinction, we yell.  We clap, we cheer, we yell our support.  Applause doesn’t always have to be demonstrated in quiet, calm ways.

Z Zap negative attitudes, rudeness, and defeatist thinking.  I tell my students that their job is to be a student.  They are to do it to the best of their ability.  And bad attitudes that might hamper their progress need to be zapped and forgotten.  They are here to succeed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Going Up?

   I teach at a relatively small school.  We have one main building and one elevator that requires a key.  You only get a key when you need the elevator because of medical reasons.

   Unfortunately, I need the elevator.  

   And this school year, the elevator hasn’t been fully functioning.  For several weeks, the elevator ran without lights.  I resorted to carrying a flashlight with me while riding the elevator each day.  Then, the lights were repaired, the elevator worked, and all was good.  

   It didn’t last.

   For a month, the elevator didn’t work at all.  I was told the problem was something electrical in nature, and the first repair-person called out wasn’t able to fix the problem.  A new work order was placed.  When we’re dealing with Los Angeles Unified School District, any school employee will tell you that repairs don’t happen in a timely, efficient manner.  Finally, I received word that the elevator was working again.  And for one afternoon, it did.

   The following morning, I got to work, stepped inside the elevator and didn’t step out again until the fire department got me out.  Being trapped in an elevator has always been one of my fears.  Initially, I panicked, yelling, hoping someone would hear me.  Most of my co-workers weren’t at work yet, and I wondered how long I would be trapped until someone found me.  For the first time in my life, I attempted to send a text message.  (I am a person who has always shunned texting, but with a weak signal, I couldn’t make or receive phone calls.  Of course, my inexperience didn’t help; I couldn’t figure out how to put spaces between words, so my co-worker/good friend and husband each received messages that read: “stuckinelevator.”)  Luckily, the emergency call box worked which allowed me to get in touch with someone who did contact my school’s office.

   I felt infinitely better once people knew I was in there.  Then there was just the small detail of getting me out.  As more teachers arrived, word of my predicament spread.  Teachers would greet me as they walked by the hallway, and for the most part, continue on with their morning business.  Minutes passed and those doors remained closed.  Thankfully, a good friend of mine had the common sense to call the fire department and ask for assistance.

   The elevator hadn’t moved since I’d been trapped inside.  The doors had simply closed and locked me in.  For forty-five to fifty minutes.

   By the time I got out, my hands were shaky and I felt sick to my stomach.  I desperately hadn’t wanted to vomit in the elevator and feared I would.  

   Ten minutes after I was rescued, I began to teach.

   Fifty minutes of quiet solitude, something I usually desperately crave, and I couldn’t even enjoy it.  I sat on my jacket, leaned my head against the wall, and hoped that I would be helped sooner, rather than later.

   Most of the time all I could think of was each moment.  Will the power go out?  Will I get sick?  What if I have to use the restroom?  What if I get an asthma attack?  The “What if’s” weren’t helping so I had to stop that train of thought.

   My emotions fluctuated - fear and panic (What’s going to happen to me?  How long can I safely stay in here?), then anger and frustration (I have so many other things I should be doing right now).  Later that night, safely home, I thought of the scene in a favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail, when Tom Hanks’s character is trapped in an elevator with three other people.  They began sharing life-altering “If I ever get out of here...” statements.  His life changed that night.  

   I keep thinking I wasted the opportunity.  Was being trapped in the elevator supposed to be a sign for something?  Was I supposed to have left the experience with a newfound sense of knowledge or wisdom about my life, or life in general?  

   I didn’t.  Instead, I’m back to walking, slowly, up the stairs each day because although the elevator has supposedly been repaired, I don't want to be the guinea pig to to test it.  

   And, I’m contemplating getting a newer cell phone.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The A to Z List of Lessons My Students Have Taught Me

       In twelve years of teaching, I hope I’ve taught my students what they need to know in our year together. But, as my students will attest, I am far from perfect.  Much to their amusement, I don’t know how to spell all words, still can’t whistle, and once in a while can’t find something I had in my hands only moments before.

In twelve years of teaching, I have been privy to a multitude of lessons that my students have taught me, both implicitly and explicitly.  Here, I share with you the A to Z list of lessons my students have taught me.

A Academics.  They are not the only reason a child comes to school, nor are they the only way I measure a student’s growth and learning.  On every report card, there are two sections - one for Academics and one for Learning Skills/Work Habits.  My students need to learn certain academic skills and concepts, but they also need to know life skills such as “taking responsibility,” “cooperating with others,” “respecting authority.”  A child who demonstrates a better attitude, increased effort, or more appropriate social interactions has made progress and learned.  

B Bathroom visits.  I teach my students that it is their responsibility to visit the restroom before school, recess, lunch, and after-school.  Sometimes, though, exceptions must be made.  Sometimes, you cannot control when your bladder or your bowels must be emptied.  You just have to take care of it.

C Customize instruction.  Now, when there are thirty students and one of me, it is virtually impossible to make each lesson exciting and/or interesting for all students.  But I do my best.  I have found it advantageous to learn about my students - their likes, their hobbies, their interests - and then use this information in my teaching.  For instance, I may invent hypothetical math word problems that reference the popular movie many of my students have seen or score at the recent Laker game.

D Demonstrate your emotions.  Something changes between infancy and adulthood.  As babies, my students weren’t shy about letting their adults know how they felt.  Children cry, loudly, when hungry.  They squeal with delight and pleasure at a stuffed animal or a funny face.  As adults, we’ve been trained to keep our emotions in, not always expressing our frustrations or hurt or excitement.  Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the little ones in our life - laugh loudly when happy, cry loudly when sad, make your feelings known.  Our feelings need to be validated.

E Eat.  Eating can’t only happen at designated breakfast, lunch, or dinner times.  We all need snacks.  In our classroom, I’ve dubbed it “brain food” - snacks to give us a little extra boost to help us focus during a test.    

F Flexibility is important.  Schedules and routines are vital, but a room full of children has taught me that a certain amount of flexibility is just as vital.  World news sometimes dictate our classroom lessons.  For example, the day the space shuttle Endeavor flew through the skies of Los Angeles, we had a conversation about the United States Space Program.  My students are people, with lives and concerns and worries, and sometimes we need to put away the history book to talk about the earthquake in Haiti and reinforce how to stay safe if an earthquake should occur during the school day. 

G Games.  Games should be fun, should be recreational and entertaining; however, they are also a great learning tool.  Through the years, my students and I have used Mad-Libs, played bingo (vocabulary, multiplication, states/capitals), done charades, and used an inflatable beach ball to play multiplication volleyball - all in an effort to convey different skills or concepts in a slightly unconventional way. 

H Hugs have no age limit.  I have taught kindergarten, fourth-grade, and fifth-grade.  And it has been my experience that all children benefit from a hug.  Hugs to calm us when upset, soothe us when hurt, welcome us back from a vacation, wish us well when leaving.  And hugs are just as effective, just as necessary for adults - for the very same reasons.

I Ice cream.  It’s a tasty incentive, a way to encourage perfect attendance.  Ice cream is a special reward - a build-your-own-sundae-party after a week of state testing.  Ice cream is messy and delicious, and brings a smile to a child’s face (mine too!)

J Jack-o-lantern.  Many of my students eagerly anticipate Halloween.  They speak enthusiastically about their costumes, our class festivities, the trick-or-treating they plan for later that night.  But for some of my students, Halloween is not a day to be celebrated.  Their families don’t observe Halloween, and they are not permitted to participate in our school festivities.  My job, then, requires me to plan “fall-themed activities” so that my students can interpret them the way they wish - making pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns.  And, I do my best to create a safe classroom environment so all my students feel comfortable even though they all have different beliefs.

K Ka-ching.  In my twelve year teaching career, I have found that the majority of my students have a very different concept about money than I did when I was in elementary school.  Many of my students get weekly allowances in the double-digits.  Many have cell phones, and many have stamps in their passports to places I can’t afford to travel to.

L Looks can be deceiving.  For the most part, young children are sweet and innocent-looking.  And some are, but not all.  In twelve years of teaching, I have had children lie, steal, and cheat in my classroom.  

M Multiple perspectives.  My students have taught me that there are usually two sides (at least) to each story.  What looks like talking from my perspective may be two students exchanging information about how to solve a math question.  Likewise, young friends are often guilty of misunderstandings, which escalates into questions of friendships and loyalty.  It’s always best to gather all the information to find out what really happened. 

N No homework.  Two magic words.  The answer my students get on the first day of school (their parents get the homework, filling out the requisite forms).  It’s the sought-after reward a table earns for filling up their marble jar.   

O Outside.  Children enjoy being outside, and honestly, many of my students aren’t given the opportunity to pursue outside activities in the neighborhoods in which they live.  I try to provide my students with opportunities to learn, and play, outside.  We have had a picnic in the school garden to celebrate Arbor Day, gone for a shadow walk and shape hunt around campus, and conducted a social studies lesson on the front lawn as if we were college students.

P Praise what you can do.  Acknowledge your strength, whatever it may be.  Not all students will be master mathematicians, read 200 words a minute, or always be able to thoroughly explain a story’s plot.  Yet, all my students have strengths that should be acknowledged.  Strengths may be remembering to write a name on each assignment, or volunteer to read aloud each day.  One student may grasp the concept of fractions with ease, another may draw skillfully, another may always pick up the errant piece of litter, and another never hesitates to share, whether it be a pencil or a snack.

Q Quickly - that is how children grow.  My very first class I ever taught is on the verge of graduating high school.  Children I once taught how to paint turkeys in kindergarten are now writing five-paragraph essays with me in my fourth-grade class.  Childhood is fleeting, so it’s important to savor all the moments while we can.

R Rest.  The longer I teach, the more our school days are designed to “go, go, go.”  We’ve got lessons to get through, tests to prepare for, skills to master.  Problem is, we can’t just keep going.  Kids need to rest.  (Their teachers do too).  And, sometimes, after a rest (whether it’s a longer story time, a shorter math lesson, an extended play period outside), the kids are recharged, rejuvenated, and ready to return to the tasks at hand.

S Sing.  In kindergarten, the first part of our morning was spent singing - a “good morning song,” a “days of the week” song, a “months of the year” song.  The older my students get, the less we sing.  However, I have found that most children love to sing.  We sing about the three main types of rocks, a song about Cesar Chavez, and the national anthem each day.  
T Truth.  They say “honesty is the best policy,” but I disagree to an extent.  When a child’s feelings are at stake, a “bending of the truth” or an “omission of the truth” is called for.  No one really wants to hear “No” to the question, “Do you like my new (fill in the blank)?”  

U Understand.  My students need me to never forget that first and foremost they are young people with problems.  Many of them have life challenges I have never known.  Parents in jail.  Homelessness.  Parents they have never met.  Difficulties associated with learning a new culture and a new language.  Potentially dangerous food allergies.  Life-threatening illnesses.

V Versatility.  As an elementary school teacher, I’m responsible for teaching it all.  But beyond the curriculum, it helps if I know a bit about sports, popular movies, popular songs - basically, what my kids are interested in (at the moment).  Then, of course, there are the questions - random, off-the-subject questions that curious children will wonder about.  I do my best to be knowledgable, but when I don’t know the answer, I admit it, and send a student to the computer to look it up and share the answer with us all.  And let’s not forget the other skills I must possess - things like fixing a stuck zipper, a knotted shoelace, and a broken necklace.

W Whistle.  Hum.  Or tap (your foot or your pencil).  Silence isn’t always golden.  During my credential program, I learned that students learn differently; some are auditory learners, some are visual learners, others are kinesthetic learners.  It is my experience, that students also work differently, and some need to make these sounds, the same way some adults sing in the shower or sing while cleaning the house.

X Xylophones are fun to play.  As are drum sticks (even without the drums), tambourines, shakers, and bells.  Instruments (regardless of their complexity) are almost irresistible to children who will not wait for further directions before picking up their instrument and making some noise, or music (based on your interpretation).

Y Yarn.  And paint, glitter, colored pencils, markers, and stencils.  Stickers, tissue paper, buttons, and cotton balls.  My fifth-grade students are just as excited when the art supplies come out as were my kindergarten students.  Never-underestimate the power of an arts and crafts project.  Children tend to be calmed by these hands-on projects, are more willing to offer assistance to each other, and a sense of tranquility permeates the classroom. 

Z Zoo.  Or the Natural History Museum.  The San Fernando Mission, Dockweiler Beach, or the Hollywood Bowl.  Field trips are generally a high-point for every student.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Our Corner of the World

   One of the best things about my son’s preschool is the people.  He’s got three (yes, three!) great teachers who have been working together for quite some time.  They’ve developed a short-hand between them, and they all work to meet the needs of each student.  And, there’s the student population.  This past session, my son was never in a class with more than ten students.

   And let me be up-front and honest, I’m not color-blind.  I think I’m even more mindful of skin color because my son is mixed.  I am white, and his father is African-American.  I want my son to feel comfortable in his own skin, never singled out for being different or because his parents look different.  We’ve already heard comments - “He’s so light,”  “I thought he’d be darker.”  As long as my child is healthy and happy, his skin color is not a big concern to me.

   And thankfully, at his preschool, it’s not a concern there either.  He’s sitting in a little secure microcosm of the world.  One of his classmates recently returned from a family trip to India.  Another, left for the winter holidays early for their trip back home to Australia.  And still another missed the winter performance because of his family trip to Mexico.  One classmate is also mixed - with an Asian daddy and a white mommy.  

   I am grateful that my son is growing up thinking it’s all perfectly normal.  He sees, and doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, that people dress differently and use words that sound different.  His babysitter is Indonesian.  Our neighbors around the corner are Orthodox Jews.  Our neighbors two doors down are Korean.  

   And it’s all okay.  That’s the way the world is, that’s the way our world should be.  My son has never once commented on the differences; he only seems to notice the similarities.