LSS: Mentoring success

When the last students left my sixth grade classroom last week, my emotions were mixed. Surely, I was glad to see them go. But just as surely, my heart was full of melancholy.

Some were going to homes as full of joy as they were.

Others left going somewhere less certain – places many of us don’t know and can’t imagine.

These are the kids who come to school ill equipped to learn nouns and verbs and multiplication charts. They’ve got other more basic survival concerns.

Many teachers are up in arms about legislation that connects students test scores to teacher evaluations and pay. With additional pressure on teachers to improve standardized test scores, imagine the lengths some teachers, administrators and districts will take if their salaries are affected.

It won’t be pretty.

The bottom line is, will additional stress and pressure increase learning or improve test scores?

Some places have recognized other practices make a positive difference — not only in students’ academic performance but also in their lives in general.

Project AIM in Starkville, Mississippi, a college-town with demographics similar to Lafayette, matches students with community volunteer mentors.

“We provide some direct tutoring, but we ask our volunteers to spend 50 percent of their time building relationships with their students – playing games, putting together puzzles, talking about friends and family. Many students haven’t had many positive interactions with adults – at home and school. We want them to understand how to be a friend,” said Cathy Curtis, Project AIM’s coordinator.

Last year, Project AIM far exceeded original expectations.

“Between 35.8 and 45 percent of our mentees experienced improvement in grades in core academic subjects. Plus, seventy percent exhibited reduced tardiness and absenteeism, and 69 percent improved in their discipline referral records,” Curtis said.

Tracking what credit goes to academic help and what goes to the less tangible relationship building experience is “a hard rabbit to catch,” according to Curtis.

“You’ve got children who will say, ‘Nobody has ever expected me to do well, but my mentor is.’ And that alone can help pull up grades,” she said. “Those things are more difficult to measure, but certainly effective.”

Melinda Brakenberry, partnerships manager at Winning Futures, a student-mentoring program in the Detroit metropolitan area that has served 16,000 students since 1994, said her organization has seen similar results – and has the statistical evidence to back it up.

“We have seen students improve their academic grades consistently. We work with a lot of at-risk students. We work with many students who, traditionally, would not have considered themselves pursuing higher education,” Brakenberry said. “Academic goal-setting is a huge part of what we do. Regardless of whether students keep the goals they set in our program, understanding how to set goals is something they can use throughout their lives.”

Could some teachers improve? Yes.

Is it fair to evaluate a teacher on how a student performs on a standardized test when that same student may not have a caring adult in his or her life beyond that teacher? No.

Improving academic results of many struggling students has less to do with added standardized tests pressures for all involved and more to do with building relationships.

(Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Contact her at For more information about Winning Futures, go

School’s out for summer…woohoo

Life, in all forms, needs little breaks every now and then. Having worked in all sorts of fields from non-profits to newspapers and other big business, I will say that NOTHING is as exhausting and soul-sucking as teaching. Bar none. Being a journalist is tough, but teaching in a tough situation is tougher. Trust me.

LSS: Frozen concoction that helps me hang on

About this time every year, I start my quest to find the most perfect hot-weather treat. My afternoon searches may seem trivial to those have come to take life so seriously and have lost touch with one of childhood’s primary pleasures – the lowly snowcone.

If you’ve lived a snowcone-free adulthood, for $1 you should change that.

And I promise, if you’ll let yourself, as you wait in line to order the creation of your choice, you’ll feel it.

Feel what, you ask?

You’ll feel that unmistakable giddiness of, “I’m getting a snowcone.”

The feeling may not last long, and you may be hesitant to acknowledge it, but take it in. Appreciating life’s simpler pleasures is key to contentment.

If it’s been a while since you’ve been to snowcone heaven, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. However, there are things you should know.

No. 1: Snowcone ice has improved. Remember watered down big, chunky ice globs you used to get in paper cones that sagged and ripped? Those days are gone. You’ll appreciate the fine texture of snowcone ice these days.

No. 2: The flavorings are better – much better. You’ll be amazed at all the choices. Don’t, for one second, wait in line at the snowcone place and think, “Oh, I’ll just get grape.” Not that there’s anything wrong with grape, but try something you’ve never tried. Go for mango or guava or Bahama Mama. Breaking out of old choices is liberating – even if it’s just about snowcone flavors.

My adult re-introduction to snowcones was courtesy of a long ago, far away neighbor. He was 11 at the time. (Now he’s a 26-year-old hotshot working on Wall Street.) But back then, he reminded me of the gift of life’s little joys – and I am grateful.

One day, he and I happened upon The Perfect Snowcone, which is rarely, if ever, a single flavor. The Perfect Snowcone needs flavor yin and yang. When my neighbor and I got to the window to order, I did the thing I do at restaurants that drives my husband cuckoo. I asked the server what he recommended. He told me to try peach and Tiger’s Blood — a flavor I’d never heard of and still have no idea of its name’s origins.

The combo was just sweet enough and just tart enough to be on the money.

Sadly, all snowcone flavorings are not created equal. Louisiana’s peach and Tiger’s Blood taste very different from those of West Texas. (I file that tidbit in my ever-growing cabinet of Things You Never Expected to Know.)

But alas and alack, finally I have come upon another spectacular flavor combination – this time through sheer perseverance and trial and error. I’m happy to share my research. Try a pineapple and pink lemonade snowcone. I wish the lemonade was a tad tarter, but on a hot day, it’s close to divine.

Some locals are devoted to particular snowcone stands. I don’t have a strong preference. I’ve found them all quite tasty.

See what you think — and I can’t wait to hear about your flavor recommendations.

LSS: Looking for neutral

Teaching sixth graders this year has been an education.
Likely, every adult generation has had certain thoughts about adolescents of the day. Keeping in mind the time-honored tradition of making less-than-generous observations about the young, I’ve tried to
stay objective about my students’ (and my sixth-grade daughter’s) strengths and weaknesses.
Access to media and technology has been a boon and a bust for many of my students – as well as for my own children. This generation of adolescents has grown up with their thumbs steadily
navigating the buttons of a Nintendo DS. The games are action-packed, fun, mind-numbing and make me think, “If I just try one more time, I’ll get it.” Eventually though, reality calls and I must tend to rice that’s boiling, clothes wrinkling or dust bunnies playing hopscotch under the sofa. Though I understand the
games’ powers, my Nintendo DS moments have been few and far between.
Yet, I know why the games are so effective. Super-thumbed twenty-something Mensas are sitting on easy chairs in Northern California and at desks in Tokyo perfecting each and every move possible. The games are faultlessly designed, and few in this generation of adolescents has ever taken a car trip or waited in a
doctor’s office without some techno-gadget to pacify their minds and keep them entertained.
Additionally, they’ve never known life without cell phones. Most of them thrive on the instant gratification of trading information wherever and whenever – through texts, photographs, videos and
conversation. For many, a cell phone is not a privilege or convenience, it’s a right.
In those brief instances when they’re not playing Nintendo or texting, there are plenty of computers and televisions around to keep them company.
Stay with me: If you consider the day/night ratio as the appropriate work/rest ratio, this generation of adolescents doesn’t rest nearly enough. During free time, they’ve got stimulation overload.
If you go further and you look at the amount of brain activity versus physical activity, the situation is even more distressing. There are exceptions, but most of this generation of adolescents uses loads of
brain energy in connection with some form of technology or communication, but there’s little physical activity to counter it. So their brains get tired, but their bodies are rarely used.
Take that combination of tired brains and restless bodies and fill a sixth grade classroom. Add one teacher who is no match to the video game action figures half the class took out seven times the evening
before. Add discussion of subject-verb agreement and teaching the writing of coherent paragraphs to the equation (paragraphs that will take a couple of days to get graded and returned)…and you’ve got a
recipe for a major disconnect.
Here are 27 12-year-olds desperately needing a chance to put their brains in neutral from the over-stimulation in their lives and put their bodies in overdrive from the lack of activity.
Houston, we have a problem – and I’m not sure a solution is anywhere on the horizon.

LSS: Mothers bringing out the best in us

Memories of my mother’s mothering shame me.
Throughout my childhood, she got up an hour before the rest of us and made homemade biscuits. She usually made one iron skillet of fluffy ones for my brother and another skillet of thin crunchy ones for me.
She buttered them all, called us and we would then drag our sorry selves to the table.
These days, I’m still waiting for what I thought was an adult-onset instinct to get up early each morning. Maybe my difficulty with mornings is part of why I so appreciate what she did. Both my kids get
up before me almost every morning. I don’t even make toast. They eat yogurt, fruit or a breakfast bar and are out the door.
I am not proud of this.
When I think of the good stuff my mother did – the stuff that made me a better person, there is much to choose from, but the first place my mind goes is to those breakfasts. Along the way, she gave me a whole
lot more than biscuits, but memories of eating at her early-morning table represent the essence of goodness to me.
Reflecting on my mother made me wonder what my friends’ mothers did, beyond loving them unconditionally, that made them better people. Here are a few insightful responses:
“Mom allowed me, as a teenager, to think that I was making my own decisions. She told me once what time I had to be home in high school. Then she would only say, ‘You know when to be back.’ She would say
this in a very nice way. She made me think I had some freedom and because of this, I almost always came home on time.”
– Stacey Scarce, Lafayette
“My mom instilled in me a love for baseball.” – Steve Busser, El Paso, Texas
“The dying and the death of my mother was the time I got the greatest gifts from her. That sounds yuck, but being witness to someone’s death allows you to differentiate yourself from them and yet binds you
forever together. Caring for sick parents is the most horrible thing I ever did, and it was the most important one too. It throws the pieces of your life up in the air and allows you to see yourself anew.” –
Kathleen O’Day, Lafayette
“My mom taught me how to never take life too seriously. I still remember how proud she was one day when we were looking for a red Rudolph nose and I said, ‘Oh, I have one in my purse!’ At that point, I could tell she felt she had done something right!” – Ramona Bourgeois, Bristow, Virginia
“Anytime I ever asked her what something meant, Mom made me look it up. At a very early age, she taught me how to use the set of encyclopedias and giant dictionaries. That made me a constant learner.” – Patricia Parks Thompson, Lafayette
“My mother taught me that if you see an injustice and you don’t do anything about it, then you are just as guilty as the person causing the injustice.” – Molly Stauffer, Lafayette
May each of you take a moment to bask in the love, present or past, of your mother today.

LSS: Dreaming of a freighter cruise…

Seventeen years ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do in life. When I look at that list now, I smile.

It was a simple list. I’ve marked the items off one by one.

Thankfully, my list was not complete. I would like to add, “Take a freighter cruise.”

Yes, I’m talking about getting on a giant ship holding massive quantities of containers filled with everything from nuts and bolts to electronics to fishing poles or yarn.

A few of those colossal crafts also have room for passengers interested in seeing the world from a different perspective. The passengers eat with the crew and stay in modest cabins.

There are no organized activities or excursions. No Julie Cruise Director. No Bingo on the Lido deck. No lavish buffets. The ships spend three or so days in port to unload and reload, giving passengers opportunity to get a taste of a place and see a few sights.

Freighter cruises go from three weeks to much longer. Since I’m dreaming, I want to take one of those monster cruises — 125 days around the world. I can see it: my family on a giant freighter leaving the likes of Houston and New Orleans headed for Hamburg, Antwerp, Genoa, transit the Suez Canal, possibly Jeddah or Dubai, Jakarta, one or two ports in Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, cross the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, a likely call in Central America and back to Houston.

My freighter-cruise dreams won’t be realized this year. In contrast, these days I prefer to stay home with the ones I love most. On the surface it seems that my longing to take a 125-day freighter cruise around the world runs pell-mell to a hunger to be still.

However, there’s gypsy in us all, and I can’t get away from my freighter cruise wandering notions. Like flotsam and jetsam in my brain’s tide, during the last decade, wanderlust thoughts surface every three months or so — usually coinciding with some degree of commotion in the world where I operate on a daily basis.

This time, there’s no real tumult — just a growing desire not to participate in the rat race around me. I realized a few years back that the cheese is momentarily satisfying, but finding one’s way out of the maze is tricky.

Researching freighter cruises has been my antidote to chaos.

Operating with a small crew, freighter cruises usually have room for eight or so passengers. I’m sure my family would be grateful for extra folks providing a perspective beyond our own. Trading books with someone is always nice. My daughters and I would appreciate being able to sit and play cards or put together puzzles with a small group of adventurers.

I’m not sure how much of the cards, puzzles or books my husband would enjoy. Likely, he would be glad to sit and watch the world go by…literally.

I’d like to sit there beside him.