Saturday, March 06, 2010

My Friend Debbie

Debbie Miller has been my eduhero for the last 5 years. I can not count the amount of times I've referred to her book, Reading With Meaning in my teaching. My personal copy is all marked up with notes, full of old student work, and has traveled to every continent that I have. I just don't leave home without it, and I certainly wouldn't think of teaching without it either. One time, a couple of years ago, a good friend and teacher said, 'Wendy, can I borrow your copy of it?' to which I replied, 'Sure, but Paul [my principal] has copies that you can check out for loan as well.' She responded, 'Yes, but I want your copy. That's where all the real information is!'

So, in my first year here, when Paul asked what kind of professional development we should have, or what it would take to keep me at NIS longer, I shot for the moon. 'Bring in Debbie Miller,' I said. He looked up and gave me the e-mail address of her publisher, asked me to write a letter in his name, and submit it. What did we have to lose? Why not?

Well, Debbie responded. For a few months, she and Paul went back and forth with price and date negotiations, and before we even had time for it to sink in, Debbie Miller was penned in to our 2010 calendar.

I was of course, very eager, to continue to be a part of planning and organizing this event, knowing full well it could lead me to a place where she and I could talk openly about standards in education, and that she was someone I'd love to have as an educational contact (well, duh!). So, I let Paul know that I would work with him until she arrived to make the visit wonderful for her, and for us. So he put the load of non-official, non-administrative responsibilty on my shoulders, a burden I gladly accepted.

The whole Debbie weekend turned out to be a collaboration between NIS (who had the original idea) and EARCOS (The East Asia Regional Council of Overseas Schools), whom we championed to help us fund it (and it worked - they footed part of the cost of the weekend in order to have their name be stamped all over the official documents). This also allowed us to offer the conference to other teachers in schools all over Asia, and we ended up hosting 25 of our teachers plus 45 others from around asia (as far as Bangkok and Taiwan for the workshop on Saturday and Sunday. She was also contracted to stay for two private days with just our staff, which happened on a Monday and Tuesday.

My responsibilities included:
- being a second contact for Debbie (along with Paul)
- setting up and organizing kids for the Saturday/Sunday conference demo lessons (which were my students, thank you very much),
- sorting a schedule for Debbie's two days at NIS (for observations and demonstration lessons),
- organizing my teaching materials for Debbie to use,
- procuring and time-tabling subs for the demo lessons and debriefs at our school on Monday and Tuesday,
- purchasing a parting gift,
- picking her up at the airport,
- coordinating one of two groups of visiting teachers to go out in Nagoya on Saturday night of the conference,
- negotiating with a local restaurant to host a 20-person closing dinner
- greeting visiting staff and accepting payments (a very minor job)
and, now that it's over,
- writing a published article for EARCOS's monthly magazine

For starters, Debbie and I were in e-mail and phone contact since October, which was really neat. At first, like with most 'celebrities', it made me really nervous, but as time went on, and we chatted more and more, it was very normal to talk back and forth with her, and that nervousness went away. Honestly, she's kinda like your mom, really, in that she is just so real and bubbly and happy and educated and stuff. And not pretentious at all, which was so refreshing.

As we finalized the plans, by bit, our time with Debbie drew closer, and e-mail contact became more frequent, leading up to her arrival on a Wednesday. Paul and I headed to the airport to pick her up, which I really enjoyed. I really enjoy my principal Paul, as, when you get him one on one (and we do have a really good working relationship), he's good for good conversation (and free dinner!). We chatted about our excitement over coffee, dinner, ice cream, and two train rides, all on the way to get Debbie. When she arrived, we recognized her immediately, as she looks just like in her picture on her book (which, coincidentally, she once used as identification to get into America from Canada when she lost her real ID, a story I found incredibly hilarious!). We fetched her and her husband, and headed back on the train.

On Thursday morning she came to school to go over logistics for the weekend, including stage set up, lesson plans, and venue information (walking around and checking everything out). I left my kids (unattended) in the classroom for a good 40 minutes (they were angels!) while we went to the stage and discussed the lesson, which was to be with my kids. She had a vision, and I supported her on it, and for about 15 minutes we went back and forth collaborating on how the lesson would go (I about died! Me! Collaborating one on one with Debbie Miller!). At the end of our conversation, she looked at me and exclaimed, 'This is going to be so much fun!', followed by a generous hug. Sigh...

On Friday afternoon we set up the stage in the commons with my materials. My original intention was to share my easel, chair, lamp, and plant (the basics of what she might need), but Paul suggested that I hang some of my anchor charts up as well (for decoration, as well as to make it as close to a real literate environment as possible). So, I went all out, adding another easel full of anchor charts, a couple of book baskets, and four anchor charts hanging from the stage curtains in the back. (In the picture above, you'll see my classroom materials right behind her!).

On Saturday morning, everyone arrived for the conference. teachers started poking their way in and out of classrooms and taking pictures of all of our stuff, as well as what was on the stage (I imagine they figured they were Debbie's anchor charts!). I greeted Debbie and we went over last-minute details about the lesson we'd be doing with the kids (Yes! I said 'we.' Holy shit! I get to teach with Debbie Miller!), as well as the stage set-up. when the conference started, she started by thanking Paul, Rob (the headmaster), and me, for all of our work to get organized. To be honest, I wanted to die of embarrassment (well, secretly, I was like, 'Hells yes!', but on the outside I tried to be very humble and pretend I wanted to crawl under the table).

The conference was amazing. I took more than 14 pages of notes for those two days alone. Everything she said was so smart, and made me rethink everything I do in my classroom, not as though I am doing it wrong, but in the ways I could be doing it so much better. The lesson we did with my kids was spot on, both days, and i enjoyed being on stage with her. I also found that between sessions, she would come over to chat (which was to be her way for the next two days as well). I think she felt comfortable with me, having met me first, and knowing how much work Paul and I had put into it. In the end, she even gifted book from her lesson with my kids to us, with a nice inscription on the inside cover. Incredible.

What you find out early as an international school teahcer is that the networking that happens with conferences, the meeting and getting to know other teachers from other schools, is usually just as good as the conference itself. I was responsible for taking a group of willing teachers out for a night on the town in Nagoya, which ended up being legendary. Going out on this Saturday night put a chain of events into place that turned into one of the best 5 nights of my life in Japan. I am not kidding, the group of 8 i was with (all American/Canadian teachers from Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong) laughed so hard that it was almost embarrassing. Needless to say, we had a lot to (quietly) laugh about at the conference the next day as well.

Back to Debbie - during her two days at NIS, she observed different classrooms, as well as did demo lessons and debriefs with all of us. On those days, I took 9 more pages of notes on every word she said, each interaction she had with kids, and everything I could get out of her. We chatted often, she answered my questions, and whenever she had a free moment, she'd pop into my room and say, 'I'm in the library - come and chat!' And each time I would. She even wrote an inscription on the front cover of my Reading With Meaning book, which would be like having my Bible signed by God.

i honestly think Debbie will be one of those people I stay in touch with forever. She was so easy to talk to, and mentioned to me in various ways (notes, e-mails, inscriptions) that she wanted to stay in touch, 'for real'. In fact, the morning after she left, we e-mailed three or four times back and forth about some questions she was answering for me about the conference (for aforementioned EARCOS article). I've attached some of the snippets right here!


"HI Wendy,
Yes! I'd be happy to answer your questions, either on the plane or once we get home.

AND GUESS WHAT??? At about 10 PM last night our son, Chad, texted us that he and Rachel were on their way to the hospital! We got texts throughout the night, and Baby Finley should be born within the next hour
or so. Now that's a nice homecoming present!

Have a great day at school today and tell everyone hi for me--I feel like I made new friends in Nagoya! Especially you. Talk to you soon. Debbie"


"...I'm not sure what people/students picked up--you might have to ask them that-- but many did thank me personally. I did think it was the sweetest thing when someone said, "I was nicer to my kids today." I loved that.

We had a wonderful time in Japan, and I am going to write up my little cab reflections. I'll send them on when I do! Wendy--thank you so much for all you did to make us feel so welcome--you are a thoughtful and reflective teacher and person, all at 28! I can't wait to see what you do next! Love, Debbie

PS Finley is officially here!"


Tera said...

What a wonderful event, both personally and professionally! I think that one day, you'll write a book or two and be in Debbie's position. Then a young, inspired, and motivated teacher will contact you to speak at her school and life will come full circle and she will take notes on everything you say! :)

Brooke said...

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH! I can finally stop frantically checking your blog to find out about the conference. I was nearly in tears by the end of your post. I hope we keep in touch "for real" so that I can invite you to my school one day when you're famous :)

mary said...

Wow! I am so going to get her book and read it!

Mom said...

Tera stole my thunder - I was thinking the same exact thing while I was reading this post. Wendy, you continue to amaze me and make me so proud.