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Purplearn

908-216-8071

Social Education for Brain Health

My Blog

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Read the book!

Posted on August 29, 2019 at 9:29 AM Comments comments (36)
The Book is finally finished! 

Holiday Book Update

Posted on December 15, 2018 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (0)
It all came together for me with a new editor. It's funny how I thought that when I finished the book I would be finished with the book. There is always more to do.

I was hoping to be in print by the Asbury Park Cat Convention in April. There's a reason that the tale of a teacher who survives a school shooting and ends up with PTSD would sell well at this cat show. It's the same reason that the book is called, Sideways Boy. Growing up as a pet lover I always thought there were plenty of books showing how great dogs are. This book shows how great cats are, especially my deformed little Sideways Boy.

The tale of how man and cat, both broken by life, help each other heal is a beautiful one that will draw you in. It's amazing when two problems solve each other. 

Thank you to all who read for me. I appreciate you all and all your comments. Happy Holidays to all.

The Book Is Near Completion!

Posted on May 6, 2018 at 8:36 AM Comments comments (2)
As I type this I still have a hard time believing it is true, but the evidence in front of me is undeniable. The book is nearly finished. If any of my loyal friends here want to be beta readers, there are a few spots open. Email me directly [email protected]

End of chapter 1

Posted on April 22, 2015 at 5:46 PM Comments comments (3)
I burst through the double doors back at the top of the stairs. I mean to stop and open the door for what will hopefully be the arrival of a merely late, not absent sub next door to me, but I see a large, dark head in front of the classroom. His stylish goatee, almost regal bearing, and dark blue uniform mark him as a man among the boys even before I can see the actual word, security, stenciled across his back. Ahead of him a group of tightly packed minor trouble makers whisper to each other and walk quickly past me to get out of his line of sight. As if to erase all trace of doubt about who is in charge, he booms out in a deep, manly voice that cuts right through the hallway noise. “Let’s go,” he says. “Keep moving. Put your things in your lockers and get to class. Put away those hoodies and get going. The bell’s about to ring.”
His name is Tydell and all the kids have shortened Mr. Tydell into Mr. T. Even with the fairly recent reboot movie, they and he too are all too young to connect that nickname to a certain gold chain wearing, mohawk sporting muscleman, but I chuckle at the irony. “Good morning Mr. E,” he says and shakes my hand in a traditional handshake.
I grasp his hand warmly and echo back, “Good morning Mr. T.”
Keys jangle, the door opens, and kids are entering the still sub-less English teacher’s room as Mr. T is already in fluid motion. The moment he turns the corner, as if they were hiding behind the wall waiting for him to leave, a new group of miscreants comes around the other corner pushing a frail looking sixth grader in front of them. I fold my arms across my chest, make my face impassive, and take one, then two, then three slow measured steps towards them. One of the pack is a wild card, a new transfer student from the DR – we get a lot of these. He is tall with a wild mane of black shiny hair swept up into a fauxhawk making him seem even taller. He sneers as he steps forward in my direction, but I hear a whispered murmur from a familiar face and the words, “karate teacher” and they turn back the way they came leaving the skinny kid they were taunting to me. I sigh at the reference as Karate is one of the few martial arts I have never studied, but I since am built more like Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid than Bruce Lee, I accept the honorific. Besides, it gets the gang moving away from me and my new little friend.
The kid is a sixth grader, a good student who is not in one of my math classes so I don’t know his name. He is visibly shaking and making groaning noises that he doesn’t seem to be aware of. I put my hand lightly on the kids’ shoulder. “Are you ok?” I ask, concerned.
“No,” he says with equal parts relief and anger.
I find it in me to laugh gently and pat his shoulder gingerly, removing my hand quickly as he glares at me. “I mean are you hurt? Do you need to go to the nurse?”
Getting it now, he rewards me with a half-smile. “No,” he repeats, “I’m fine.” But there is something in his eyes that makes me keep talking to him.
“You don’t have to take that you know,” I say. “Nobody should have to come to school scared. We have rules against bullying. You should talk to one of the guidance counselors. I could come with you if you like.”
“No,” he says again but he seems to be thinking about it. He starts moving his head back and forth and I can almost hear his inner dialogue as he weighs his desire for revenge against the real or implied threat of being branded a snitch against whatever pseudo-mini-gang those boys belong to. His mouth starts working and then stops and I know what he’s going to say before he says it. “No,” he says with finality. Then, more warmly, “Thank you Mr. E.” I may not know him but it seems he knows me. The bell rings and he hurries off to class, not wanting to be marked tardy.
“That’s the bell,” I say in my loud, strict teacher voice to the far too many kids who could care less about being marked tardy that are still in the hall. “Go to class.” I stop in front of the dark grey door to my homeroom and an image of a huge maw, like a whale comes unbidden to my brain. This place is eating at my soul. I can’t even count how many of my former colleagues it has already taken from me and I don’t know how long I can hold it off. The door seems cold and forbidding before me like it will swallow me up if I enter, and I will lose myself forever in the deepening quagmire that is our school. It is overwhelming me with so many state tests to grade and prepare for, ever changing lesson plan formats, 504s, IEPs, and more and more until it feels like an ocean of quicksand from which there is no escape.
As I swallow my feelings and step into my room I scan the faces for a trace of a smile to help lift me up, but I do not find it. I feel lost and alone, but I try to mean it as I loudly give voice to what’s left of my optimism, say “Good morning” to my homeroom class, and steel myself for the rest of the day.

Next to last part of chapter 1

Posted on April 22, 2015 at 5:42 PM Comments comments (2)
The variations continue with the kids’ footwear. Boys whose shirts look like they haven’t been washed in a week sport brand new $300 Jordans, or one of dozens of other sneakers, often in ludicrous color combinations. The girls are mostly wearing brand name boots like Uggs or Frye or some knock off designer thigh high monstrosities. The style for socks this year seems to be that, if they can be seen, they mustn’t match any other article of the wearer’s clothing. I must confess that even I am caught up in the wild sock trend and I am wearing a pair of brightly colored, tribally patterned knee highs under my stretchy khaki slacks.
A moving mountain of a boy holds out his hand to me as he passes. Almost sixteen years old in the eighth grade, Juan Carlos is a full head taller than me and easily as broad. The thick, still growing muscles of his upper body bulge from beneath an old blue polo shirt at least two sizes too small for him. The bottom of his shirt flaps about six inches from the top of his beltless oversize pants that hang down so low that it is impossible for him to walk without bowing his knees out past his already impressive girth. Walking next to him is a tiny slip of a girl that only makes him look bigger by comparison. Maria is Juan Carlos’ thirteen year old little sister who is also in the eighth grade. One day when we were talking alone, Juan Carlos shed a few tears when he confided to me that he is embarrassed to be in the same grade as his little sister. I slide my palm across his until out fingers link and curl around each other ending in a kind of shake – the latest preferred greeting for most of the Latino kids.
Behind him, impossibly taller still, but much slimmer and so dark skinned that his face shines midnight blue under the harsh fluorescent light, Treybon says to one of the two girls under his gangly arms, “That’s my favorite teacher.” Unlike Juan Carlos, Treybon’s clothes are new and neat and well-tailored and he takes pride in looking good. I met Trey’s mom when he was in my class so I know where his fashion sense comes from. Usually I don’t take well to fur coats but she made it look good. She spent our entire twelve minutes together at parent teacher conference night telling me how Trey’s dad is some semi-famous sports figure who takes good care of them though he divorced her many years ago. As she left she took both my hands, rubbed my forearms suggestively and gave me a leopard spotted card with her personal cell number that I should call “anytime, day or night.”. As she at least mentioned Trey’s name once during her 10 minutes, so I checked the box for “concerned parent” on the Parent Contact form we have to fill out. Trey stretches one arm out past one of the girls’ shoulders and holds out his fist. I bump knuckles with him gently so as not to disturb the girl.
“Good morning Trey, girls,” I say with an exaggerated politeness, bowing my head slightly. Despite his almost daily fights due to his complete lack of temper control, with his good looks and ever present bright smile, it’s hard not to like Treybon and seeing him happy and carefree like this is almost enough to cut through the heaviness in my soul. Almost, but not quite and I’m sure my eyes are dead and unfocused again as I turn my head away from Trey and scan the crowd.
“Of course,” I mutter sarcastically aloud as my feet start to move. Two doors down, something is up in front of the English teacher’s doorway. She is absent today and her sub still hasn’t arrived. I spot what looks like a small, square mylar balloon on the ground and adjust my pace. Just as Jesus’ foot is coming down on it I bend and snatch up the stink bomb, leaving him to stomp on nothing but tile.
“You crazy Mr. E,” says my former student Carlos with a big smile. “That thing gonna blow up in your hand.”
Idon’t smile back. “Oh well,” I say with more calm than I feel, “that’s life. Guess I might not smell too good.” Carlos probably does not hear that last sentence as I am already through the double door to the staircase as I speak, moving quickly but steadily down the two flights of stairs to the back door. I spin as I hit the bar to open the heavy door with my butt, make a 180 and toss the stink bomb to the asphalt, then turn it into a 360 degree spin as I head back up the stairs and the door slams shut behind me.

Book chapter 1 continues

Posted on April 22, 2015 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (1)
As I looked back at my blog posts I noticed that I never finished posting chapter 1 of my one-day-to-be-published book. Ironic that it was about a year ago that I last posted a piece of it.



 Behind the fading whistling comes the staccato drum of alternating light and heavy, running footsteps. “First!” yells Damarcus, a skinny, light-skinned and light-hearted black kid who punctuates it with a joyous whack of his bony knuckles against his locker.
“You cheated,” puffs Jose, a short, heavy Dominican kid who is a little too out of breath for a twelve year old who has just run up only one flight of stairs. Damarcus most likely did not have to cheat.
Without realizing I am doing it, I shift my stance a little, taking my weight back just enough to go from combat ready to merely alert. I know the routine so well by now I do most of it unconsciously, sometimes with my eyes closed. Day after day, one hundred and eighty times a year, things rarely vary from the predictable. This is a good thing as around here the unpredictable is hardly ever something warm and welcome, like the principal skipping down the hall in a pink party gown giving us all bonuses for our hard work. The next ones up are always the good kids and my head starts to nod. “Yes,” I say softly but aloud, maybe to convince myself that it is true, “there are some good kids”. I smile my first genuine smile of the day and make sure to make eye contact with the far too few kids that always help to make the day worthwhile as I sincerely say, “Good Morning”.
The respite is short lived and I feel it like an unblocked punch in my gut as I hear the squeak of rubber on the tile floor. It is not the quick, high pitched normal squeak of sneakers on tile but somehow more like a keening wail that cuts through me making me wince. This auditory trick is accomplished by taking every step by slowly turning your whole foot in a wide arc across the floor, preferably while encased in new or wet rubber soled sneakers. I snap back to combat ready as a reflex, but the loud ones are never the violent ones. Even at the tender age of twelve the hardcore kids have already learned the value of silence.
I don’t know why I am suddenly hyperventilating, deep breaths in through my nose and forced out quickly through my mouth, but I am. I try to control it physically by closing my mouth and forcing myself to breathe out slowly through my nose but that just makes it sound like a more nasally sigh. I am so frustrated by everything about this school that I can feel it making me ill. Twenty-five years ago when I first started, I felt like I was making a difference. Now I cannot justify what I do that way. It’s as if everything about this place is against me. I hate that they are forcing me to get my children to pass meaningless tests instead of teaching them how to think. Through a supreme effort of will I barely control my urge to vomit at my own sense of inadequacy.
The truth is that I feel I am losing the battle. It’s hard to watch it get worse every year and not be affected by it. I started teaching in 1989 in the middle of South Central L.A. In 1992 I was teaching middle school science at Chester Nimitz Jr. High. In what I still call the Rodney King riots, the pizza joint that delivered to my one room apartment, my bank teller machine, and the family-owned Mexican restaurant I loved were all burned down. When school reopened that Monday morning, May 4, some of my students offered me a car stereo saying they had more than they needed, which they actually followed with a heartfelt though misplaced in May, “Happy Hannukah!”. The sad truth is that those kids were much better behaved in class, more respectful and thankful towards good teachers, and had more concerned parents than my current students.
And we don't have time to teach them. The walls seem to close in on me and I can't breathe as I do the math. This year we have to give the kids the new week long PARCC test, a pre and post test used to measure the children's growth and evaluate teachers and five separate one day state tests in addition to the minimum of two major assessment tests every marking period that is mandated to give the children their report card grades. That means that out of the 180 days that I will see these kids I have to spend 1/9 of our time administering tests. Even if we only spend two hours preparing the students for every one hour test, this is another 2/9 of our short time together. Add them up and we will spend at least 1/3 of our time, or a full 60 out of 180 days preparing for and administering tests.Help!
Finally breathing slow and steady again I look around and see that, while I was freaking out, the hallway has filled up. Where there were empty hallways what seemed a moment ago there was now an ironically preppy flag of moving blue, white and khaki. Since the implementation of our uniform policy two years ago, most of the kids now dress alike with khaki or dark blue pants and light blue or white polo shirts. That fact aside there is a plethora of uniqueness to be seen. The variation in hair alone is staggering. The boys run the gamut from almost bald fades to the tallest afros to long flowing locks either freefalling or pulled into ponytails. There are no natural blonds or redheads in our student population but all shades of brown and black are well represented by these boys. Thanks mostly to hair dye and ribbons, hair ties, and even rubber bands, the girls fly all the colors of the rainbow. Yellow, purple, red, blue and green show up as streaks or waves or even spots against a mostly darker palate of largely long flowing tresses. This plus the decidedly different anti-uniform of jeans and wild t shirts of the openly defiant kids makes for an eye catching spectacle.
The two girls who are closest to me both have simply dark brown hair, but they make up for the lack of color with their makeup. It is bold and thick and it strikes me as too dark, all blues and purples and long black lashes with extra black brows. A pair of seventh grade girls, they both have the same zombified blank seen-too-much-at-too-young-an-age stares. Their arms are linked defiantly together daring anyone to get in their way as they strut towards their lockers, swinging their hips like Lady Gaga on stage. As they pass they coo at me. “Hey Mr. E,” they say in almost perfect unison.
I bow at the waist. “Good morning ladies,” I say in what I hope is a chipper tone. Truth be told I am still shaking a my head a little wishing for the good old days teaching in the war zone that was South Central LA, but sometimes just putting on a mask of happiness leads to a change of mood, so I carry on.

Race for Presents part 2 - The Point System

Posted on November 22, 2014 at 2:38 PM Comments comments (1)
My basic point system works in multiples of 5, making tallying point totals easy even for the mathematically challenged. Small tasks and demonstrating positive behavior are worth the minimum 5 points. Bonus tasks and something you want to recognize as especially good are worth 10 points. Group completion of large assignments and homework starts at 25 points and goes up from there, but nothing is ever worth more than 100 points and there should be very few 100s. At the end of every class, the group points are tallied and the totals written in sharpie on the scoreboard in the back of the room.

There are two ways to earn points. The first way is by completing assignments and the second way is by demonstrating positive cooperative behavior and good social skills. Both are equally important.

Little things like walking into class on time and immediately beginning to work on the Do Now assignment on the board will earn a group five points. I usually find at least one group doing whose members are all getting the Do Now done and I loudly say, “Group two is getting five points because ALL of them are working nicely. Good job group two.”

Most assignment related points are only earned by all members of a group completing the assignment. A good example of this is the next thing I usually do, collect homework. I have every group put their homework into a pile in the middle of their desks. As I collect them I check only for completeness and that all group members have done the work. Later on, when I grade the homework, I check for correctness. If all group members have the assignment complete their group gets 25 points. If even one is missing or incomplete, their group gets nothing. To assure individual accountability, classwork assignments are usually accompanied by my choosing one group member “at random” to explain how to solve a similar problem. The group sinks or swims based on every member’s performance. This all or nothing policy ties the group mates fates together and allows me to tap into the power of positive peer pressure.

This brings us to the second way the groups can earn points. The number one rule in my classroom is “Always Be Positive”. Whenever I catch any student using positive encouragement I reward that group with five points. This is not about Johnny telling Jimmy that he will smack him if he doesn’t do his work. This is about Johnny asking Jimmy if he can help him complete the next assignment. And this is about Johnny explaining the current work in a nice and positive manner. By focusing on rewarding positivity you get your message across loudly and clearly. This is the behavior I expect and I will not accept anything less.

Grace Murray Hopper once said, “You manage things, you lead people.” Your goal is to get your class to exert positive peer pressure on each other. To do this you must lead by example. Resist all urges to comment on the negative and instead find ways to praise the positive and reward positive behavior with points. If everyone except one child walks in late to class, do not yell at the majority. Instead, praise and reward the one student who arrived on time.I only give 5 or 10 points for each instance of positive behavior, but I give them loudly.

Always be mindful of your phrasing. As an example, I sometimes give an assignment that has the children doing 10 math problems with a time limit of 20 minutes. I tell them that every group in which everyone correctly answers all questions before the time is up will receive 30 points. Then, when a group finishes, I give them those points and tell them that they have earned a bonus. The “bonus” is that they get to do an extra set of 3-5 problems for 10 more points. By phrasing it this way I am able to get the group to finish their work ahead of schedule for a reward of more problems. Sometimes I secretly smile at how well this works.

This last example also illustrates how I deal with success. Too often we are prepared only to deal with failure. A math teacher will plan to review the correct way to solve the problems if the students cannot yet do so on their own, but give little thought to what to do if some students succeed in their task. I always have a “bonus” task ready for those who are successful. I hardly ever give more than ten points for these bonus tasks, but the high performing groups that finish early eat them up like candy. I love that I am also able to get some of my students to think more deeply about their math by varying my bonus problems.

To be continued

Book continued

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 3:36 PM Comments comments (1)

The absent-minded science teacher, an old woman long past her usefulness that we are unable to be rid of due to the influence of the teacher’s union, shuffles up to me, begging for my key for the third time this week. Once again I graciously open her door for her and as I stand there with a frozen smile waiting for her to realize that she can go in now, I look around me. Above my head broken or missing ceiling tiles make a checkerboard pattern, and I mentally plug the face of the kid who broke each tile into the proper hole. Diagonally across from me is an empty space where Male, pronounced Mal-A, Jones ripped out the long broken water fountain that once taunted thirsty kids from that spot. Since I only count three scurrying roaches, I decide the floor has been recently swept.

I hear the whistling before I see him. Like a mother sparrow singing to its young, he is calling out to his fellow gang members and aurally marking his territory. Three short bursts of something just to the right of a middle C note followed by a longer bleat of something approximating a D flat, the tune is always the same and the repetition grates on my nerves, but my slow steady breathing and casual unfocused stare betray none of it as he passes. “Good morning Andy,” I say with a forced smile that does not quite reach my eyes.

The whistling stops for a few breaths. “Morning Mister,” says Andy. The whistling starts again.



The First Paragraph of the Book

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 3:30 PM Comments comments (4)
I am dancing to the music as I step in a semi-circle to the left and punch my opponent’s face with my right hand, turning my heel and rotating my hip in unison as I strike to impart more force. I pause and center my weight so I use my body more than my arms to throw my limp opponent away. Then as the lovely Ms. Lopez sings the end, “Until it beats no more,” I step to the right and slowly raise my center of gravity, feeling my body expand with my inner energy. My imaginary opponents dispatched and the Tai Chi short form done, three quick, measured steps and a tap of my finger stops the music. I tuck in my pants, straighten my tie, and do one last visual sweep of the room. Satisfied that everything is as good as it is going to get, I slowly, determinedly take the six steps that move me into the hallway, and take up my position just to the left of the heavy, grey steel door. Without conscious thought, my arms fold across my chest, my face becomes impassive, and I center my weight so I am in full combat ready posture. It is 8:00 and the children are coming.

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