Written for Mr. Tommy Bensberg on his 90th birthday.
When I got my first job as a band director in Harmony Grove Mr. and Mrs. Bensberg were some of my best supporters. I used to enjoy visiting their store in Camden, Arkansas, and am now amazed when I think of the time Mr. Bensberg would take to visit with a young upstart music teacher like me.
I already had a lot of respect for the Bensberg name because of my friendship with several Camden musicians during high school including David Garrison, Sherry Benton, Martha Jane Smith, Bruce Belin, and Danny Tate. We formed a little band called Spirit Wind. All of the voices were trained by Mrs. Bensberg and they could sing!
While teaching at Harmony Grove I got the idea that I wanted to learn to play the bass guitar. I rented one from Mr. Bensberg for about three months and then brought it back, realizing that I didn’t have the desire necessary to practice that instrument and learn how to teach band, too!
Toward the end of that year at Harmony Grove I had the good judgment to ask Becca O’Neal to marry me. She had come up through the Warren Band and Choir programs under Mary Lou and Curry Martin. I got the idea of getting Becca a piano as a wedding gift and called Mary Lou Martin for advice. I then went straight to Bensberg’s Music Store. Once I settled on a piano, I asked if my bass guitar rental might be applied toward the purchase and Mr. Bensberg kindly said he could do that.
The piano was delivered to my mobile home in Harmony Grove. I’m amazed that the truck didn’t sink in that Ouachita River-bottom soil out there. Needless to say, that piano was the classiest thing on the property. I covered it with a quilt and presented it to Becca before our wedding. I think she was surprised to see a brand new piano when I removed the quilt.
We still have that Baldwin upright piano and consider it a family treasure. Happy 90th Birthday Mr. Bensberg! Thank you for your years of service to the musicians and families of south Arkansas and thank you for being an encouraging friend to this young music teacher as he began his teaching career.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators’ newsletter, November, 2013
I have a bookshelf filled with maps, some of where I’ve been and some of where I want to go. Sometimes I’ll trace an imaginary path on a map trying to visualize the contour of the land or the view above treeline. Later, when I travel the actual trail, I’m always astonished by the beauty, realizing my imagination didn’t come close to seeing the magnitude of the place.
On a second trip to Santa Fe Baldy in New Mexico a fellow principal and I looked at our map and saw a small mountain lake located just a couple of miles over a ridge from where we were camped. We decided to explore Lake Katherine the next day. What we found was a pristine snowmelt lake bordered by spruce forests and steep snow-covered rockslides. I carry memories of that beauty in my mind to this day.
Without our map we would have missed what became a highlight of our trip. Having a map opens new possibilities. If you can orient yourself and determine where you are, a map can help you find your way to some pretty neat places.
I recently visited our third grade classes over several days. I knew from their curriculum map that they were representing data so I had a preconceived idea of what I would see. The reality of the learning and engagement blew me away. Students were excited about the data they’d collected. They worked in teams, determining how best to represent their data to the rest of the class. Some used line plots or bar graphs while others chose to show their data with pictographs. The teachers provided sentence stems so students could practice using carefully crafted language to express their findings verbally to their classmates.
What I saw in those classrooms was evidence of teacher collaboration around a shared curriculum that had been developed from Common Core State Standards. I heard similar language and saw similar (not cookie cutter) approaches to teaching. Teachers were using formative assessment and curriculum maps to determine where students were and how to move forward. Best of all, students knew their locations and were excited about their future direction.
As educators we sometimes hear comments about how limiting required standards and curriculum maps are as if they stifle our creativity. These are not lockstep scripts for teachers to follow but outlines of instructional direction which expert teachers can use to “stay found” on a path of learning. Far from limiting our adventures in learning, deep knowledge of the curriculum opens possible side trails that might lead to significant learning for students based on their interests and skills. A good map gives us the confidence to explore levels of learning we might otherwise miss.
Enjoy your learning journey. Remember to pack your map.
Written for the AAEA Newsletter for October, 2013
While hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail, my buddies and I came across a couple of college students. It was their first time on the trail and one said, “I’m carrying 60-pounds in this pack!” Surprised, I said, “Why?” He seemed a little confused by my response, and I then realized he was expecting me to be impressed but I felt only sympathy.
When we met these two guys on the next day, they were sprawled out in the middle of the trail totally exhausted. I casually mentioned that the forest road we were crossing went straight to Highway 7 where there was cell phone coverage. A few minutes later, I noticed them slumping down that road with their 60-pound packs, wisely cutting their trip short.
Hiking on, I began to think about some of my first outings when I carried about 45-pounds, equivalent to the World Book Encyclopedia volumes A-S. With experience, I found that some items were not essential or could be replaced with lighter items. Over time, my pack weight came down to 25-30 pounds depending on the season. My wife says my obsession with packing light saves money because when she suggests a new piece of equipment, I typically reply it wouldn’t be worth the added weight.
As an educator, I often feel like other people are trying to drop stuff in my pack, especially during legislative sessions. Successful organizations maintain dexterity and the ability to move fast, but our schools often stumble under the weight of requirements that can limit our ability to respond to the needs of students and teachers.
Sometimes, I spread out the items from my pack and try to eliminate what isn’t essential. I like Swiss Army knives and used to carry one. I found that a small single blade knife was all I needed and saved several ounces. It would be nice to have a complete set of cooking pots, but one small well-designed pot will work.
As my pack-weight came down my enjoyment went up. No longer walking head down looking at the trail in front of my nose, I could hold my head up and see the beauty around me. I became more responsive to changes in the terrain and could see land features that helped me keep my bearings. Challenges that would have been insurmountable with a 45-pound load were easily climbed with the lighter pack.
As educators, we have a responsibility to scrutinize everything we do in our schools to be sure our time and resources are benefiting students. Ounces add up. There may be practices we can drop or change. Some essential tasks might be better placed in someone else’s pack. We might develop leadership capacity in our schools by thoughtfully placing important items with others to complement their talents and strengths. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good rationale for loading a pack or setting priorities.
Earl Schafer, the first person to thru-hike the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail said, “Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.” It’s important that we, as educators, have the flexibility to pack what we need for our particular schools while avoiding having outside forces load us up with weight that doesn’t serve the needs of our students and teachers. Our involvement in the AAEA is critical to this process. The AAEA’s strength comes from the involvement and collective voices of its membership.
Bring legislators and community leaders into your school. Share your vision, your strengths, and the needs of your students. Share your expertise and make yourself a resource for state leaders as they grapple with matters impacting schools. Use the AAEA to stay informed, and be ready to speak up on issues when needed. These actions will help ensure that we carry what we need while traveling light enough to move our students, teachers, and schools toward success.