Tuesday, June 28, 2016


I have fallen into the Hamilton craze.

No, I do not have tickets to the insanely popular Broadway show, but I am planning to get tickets to the production in Chicago, which opens in the fall. I think the first 6 months or so are already sold out, but it's staying here (in Chicago) for awhile. For those not following theater news, Hamilton, the new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, won 11 Tony awards, including best musical. It is noted for casting people of color in the roles of the founding fathers. The website asks you to leave your email and they'll let you know when tickets are available. Tickets (through secondary sellers) are now going for around $1,000. For one ticket.

So in the meantime I bought the CDs. I am a classically trained musician who also loves classic Broadway shows (Oklahoma!) but I wasn't sure how I feel about the Hamilton score, which includes hip-hop, rap, R&B, ballads, boogie-woogie, and show tunes, but I loved the recording! It is amazing in its musical expression, bringing the characters to life.

Also in the meantime, I made a summer goal of reading Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow, that Lin-Manuel Miranda based his musical on. Not counting the index, footnotes, etc., the book is 731 pages long. And though it's sucked me in, it's still not a quick read. I'm on page 192 after several weeks. It's fascinating. I knew almost nothing about Hamilton. On page 192 he is 28 and the year is 1783 and already I am convinced that the United States would not be here today if it were not for Alexander Hamilton. What a brilliant man, across many areas of expertise. Our financial system was devised by him, giving us a stable currency. He saw very early that we needed a strong federal government and a new constitution. He helped stabilize the situation with the army at the end of the war when the officers rightly complained that they should be paid. That problem could have put an end to the new United States in 1783. He makes a great flawed leading man, too.

And yes, he belongs on the ten dollar bill!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

End of year reflection

Every June I reflect back on the school year, usually thinking about what improvements I might make. Things like, read more books with strong female characters to the class, fix that social studies lesson that didn't work, bring more focus to transition times. This past year was a tough teaching year for me. I had a troubled boy who decided he didn't care about anything and was going to make it through the year by being as disruptive as possible. I had a new student with many issues, including a significant lack of focus. They sucked up so much of my time and energy. I tried so many strategies - and I made progress with my new student. But I also yelled more this year than I every have -- 100% more, because I NEVER yell. But these boys would go into their own loud zone, tuning everything else out. My yelling was an attempt to penetrate their consciousness when ordinary measures had failed.

I did not like that I ended up as a yelling taskmaster - that was how I felt I was being. I felt the other students were being shortchanged. I never gave up trying to improve the situation, but at the end of the school year, I felt both exhausted and sad that I could have spent so much more time with my students who loved learning and came to school every day with eagerness.

Then I got end of the year cards (and gifts) from some of my students. "Thanks Mrs. Leff, you were an amazing teacher!" "I have learned so much from you. You are the best teacher I could have asked for." And from a parent: "It was a great, no absolutely amazing year for [her daughter]...I also thank you for creating a very warm, friendly atmosphere in your class, where all students were like family, like siblings... You were always kind, never raised your voice, thank you for that, too..."

This is post is not about how wonderful everyone thinks I am (believe me, everyone doesn't think that!), but how these kind notes helped me to see the year differently and also led me to my "ah ha" reflection on the year.

It wasn't as bad as I thought! It's true, I only yelled to get the attention of boys who were lost in their own, very loud world. We did a lot of wonderful things this year -- social studies simulations, debates, self-selected reading, hands-on math, and  on and on.

The thing that I am most proud of though, is the collaborative atmosphere both my partner and I have been able to create in the 4th grade for several years now. A few years ago the whole faculty had training in Positive Discipline. One of the cornerstones of that program is weekly class meetings. We have both held these meetings for the past several years. Starting with that first year, other teachers began remarking on the great ways that our students interacted and worked together. Students can bring problems to the agenda, which are usually problems getting along with each other. We teach them how to present and discuss the problems respectfully. They are then responsible for suggesting solutions and deciding which to try. The weekly meetings are eagerly anticipated by the class. Before the end of the school year, the class is a true community. Everyone may not get along, but I have seen classes rally to protect an outlier student who was eyed with suspicion at the beginning of the year.

Positive Discipline -- it's totally worth the time!

My "ah ha" revelation came from the parent quoted above. I was told that her child was somewhat cliquey and tended to be more interested in the social aspects of school. I never saw that in her, I saw a lovely girl who seemed to be kind and interested in learning. I didn't have a plan. I thought she was a kind, thoughtful, smart girl, and she behaved that way - she is a kind, thoughtful, smart girl. But if I had taken the warnings to heart, would she have behaved differently? My ah ha! Will this always be the case with every student? No, I don't think so, but this was really powerful for me. I want to know my students, but not peg them into a role.

And now to rest and recuperate!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Yesterday was the anniversary of the D-Day invasion, so I decided to post this poem, which I wrote a few years ago, in my dad's memory. He was an officer in the Navy; his subchaser was off the coast of France during the invasion.

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day
I think of my father
My father loved the water
He loved to swim
And fish
Gentle waves lapping the shore of a Minnesota lake
Row boat bobbing'In a quiet fierce sun
As we fish and wish

In another time
On another boat
My father sailed the dark waters
Of the Atlantic
Searching for German subs
As the endless waves tossed and rolled

Off the coast of France
Off Normandy
The search among the bobbing waves
For bodies, not for subs
I imagine the noise, the fierce sun
Or maybe it was cloudy
Because my father never talked of it.

My father loved the water
The deep reflective ripples
Blue green gray
Too bright to look at
Dark as the night sky
From Long Island Sound
To Puget Bay
The water called to him
Sparkling cool peaceful

Like the cemetery I stand in
On Memorial Day.