Storytelling: There’s the good, the bad and the side that you choose to write.

As the 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, I was privileged to travel to Princeton, New Jersey last week to learn and grow with other State Teachers from around the U.S.

One of the sessions was focused around story telling and the power of our stories. I listened to Andy Goodman share his expert advice and tried to focus solely on my “teacher stories” and how they have shaped me and helped me to become the person that I am. However, the story that has been most critical in my life is the one that I share the least.

I pre-apologize…. but I need the world to hear this. (DISCLAIMER: I don’t open up about my feelings much so mark down the date.)

So here it goes………

There are two sides to every story:

 

SIDE ONE: Fostering is a beautiful thing!

The fact that there are so many children yearning for love, structure and some type of normalcy literally breaks my heart in half. I can’t even count how many times I wanted students to come stay with me so that I could protect and provide for them.

I always wanted to be a mother, but not just any mother. An incredible one! I was blessed to have one son. Actually, I was pregnant with twins but lost my second child in the first trimester and began bed rest to make sure that my son did fine in the womb considered the trauma at hand. Losing an unborn child is a type of pain that can’t be described. I rarely talk about it for exactly that reason. My gift was one amazing, gentle, healthy, kind, empathetic, little boy that brings so much joy to this mother’s heart. I’m not even quite sure how he turned out so amazing but I’m so glad that he did! However my soft heart for kids was still aching. Meanwhile, God was at work. I seemed to always have a student on my roll that was completely broken and I was able to speak life into and be that caring adult that they needed. Those students had no idea that I needed them just as much as they needed me if not more.

I wanted more kids! I had so much love to give. I wanted a kid that no one else wanted. At last in February of this year, I received a call about taking in a foster child. A little girl that was the same age as my son. I was so excited that I could barely breathe because you know what mends my heart? The fact that the daughter I never had will soon be mine once the adoption process is final of course. In just a short amount of time, she has grown into a child that feels safe and is surrounded by an abundance of love and structure. She is thriving and I can’t wait to see where her success story brings her. I’m just glad that God allowed me to help. Thank you Lord for giving me back my second child.

SIDE TWO: Fostering is an ugly thing!

When I was young, I was placed in foster care after losing my mother to the hands of a violent father at the crucial age of nine. I wanted to find a family that would take both myself and my little brother in. At the time, he was all that I felt I had left. Luckily for us, our social worker found us a placement. Things were looking good. Our foster parents seemed nice. They rushed us to call them “Mom and Dad” but I didn’t mind. I wanted parents. Initially, a few things were odd but I ignored it. Then things began to grow physical and neglectful. I’ll spare you the details but I still to this day can’t stand animal crackers because we were only allowed 10 animal crackers or pretzels as a snack per day. All the good snacks were in a refrigerator in the outside shop locked with a chain and padlock or locked in their bedroom closet. As much as I hated that they treated us like that, I wanted to be adopted more, so I remained silent. Unfortunately once we were adopted, things got worse. I found out about so many lies and things that were hidden from us (even our older half-siblings weren’t allowed to see us).

I was twelve when I was adopted but when I was seventeen,  I began to recognize all of the terrible things that were happening in that home. Turning seventeen was a vivid turning point for me, I rebelled and began to grow cold and disrespectful toward my adoptive parents. I learned that we were a paycheck. They had spent all our state funds and SSI money on themselves (Lord knows we never played sports or had nice things), therefore I moved out without a penny to my name (honest to God). So I lived on credit card debt and made it through college thanks to academic scholarships. I struggled everyday. I worked three jobs through most of my college career and my adoptive parents had written me off. I only moved 30 minutes away but they never even came to check on me. Sure it hurt, but pain was something I was used to. They weren’t the parents that everyone thought they were and apparently I wasn’t the kid they wanted.

Today, I turned thirty-four. I could let sorrow fill my heart because I don’t receive messages/calls/ presents from parents. Instead, I receive so much love and joy from those that do care for me that it’s quite overwhelming. The countless Facebook, Snapchat and text messages of people that took time out of their day to feed into me; to share the joy that I have brought to them. It’s powerful really! Words are powerful.

But you see, seventeen years ago I altered the course of my life.

I broke the chains of my past and I chose to be victorious and not a victim.

I chose to be brave and not broken.

I chose to be impactful and not impacted.

I chose to be independent and not dependent.

I chose to be loved and not lost.

My past is not my crutch.

I chose to be the BEST version of me and write my own side to the story.

I invite you to think about your story, (the good and the bad) and I challenge you to write your own story. Pick up the pen, set your goals and take control of your own life. #MakeItLast

P.S. To all my incredible friends, I urge you to consider fostering. To my friends in education, teachers make wonderful foster/adoptive parents. Just my opinion 🙂 #Fosteryourheartout

Colin & Marilyn (blog post)

Advertisements

‘Twas the Night before School

‘Twas the night before school, when all thro’ the house,

Not a student was stirring, not even a mouse.

The backpacks were hung by the front door with care,

In hopes that the school bus would soon be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of science labs danc’d in their heads.

And Mama in her nightgown and I in my robe,

We prayed for our children and sat out their wardrobe.

Then, the alarm clock rang and made my heart flutter,

I sang in the kitchen while spreading the toast with butter.

Away to the kid’s room, I flew like a flash;

Dressed them in uniforms and to the bus we dashed.

The dawn on the horizon of the new fallen dew,

Gave a sparkle to the yellow paint that made it look new.

When what to my wondering eyes would appear,

But more small children ready to start the new school year.

To a little schoolhouse, so lively and warm.

The children arrived and were eager to perform

More rapid than cheetahs, the children flew

To the recess grounds to make friends anew.

The teachers smiled and called the children by name:

“Now Tommy, now Colin, now Marilyn, now Cain,

Follow Mrs. Smith down the hall to the end,

and wait for her instruction and help that she’ll lend.

The students were excited to learn and fly

When their teacher said,  “the only limit is the sky.”

So up to the charts their growth was praised

And the students took pride in the success that they made.

Then in a twinkling the school bell rang,

The students loaded the buses and together they sang…

“School is my favorite place to be,

Because the teachers care about silly ol’ me.”IMG_6765

The Oscars of (Louisiana) Education

Wow! I remember this day last year for me. I was headed to the Cecil J. Picard Gala to be recognized as a teacher finalists for the state of Louisiana. I had no idea what that night held for me. Proud was understatement.

First, I walked in completely impressed at the elegance of the room. The attention to detail was quite evident. Once again Dream Teachers, went above and beyond and the room looked as if it was the Oscars for Educators. Dream+Teachers+2016

As the evening progressed, the moment arrived to name the top 3 finalists for their respective grade bands and then the overall State Teacher of the Year. I was beyond nervous. It was my prayer that may the best person for the role shine through, even if it wasn’t me. I actually had already decided on who I thought was going to win the title and when that person’s name was called for a grade level award my heart dropped. I thought…wait…could it be me?  No…there’s just no way. I’m in a very large room surrounded by dynamic educators from all corners of the state. How could I possibly be chosen over them?

The moment arrives. My stomach is in my throat and I’m experiencing heart palpitations. I even thought to myself, how am I going to stand and walk onto the stage if they call my name? Both John Pastorek and Joni Lacy’s

vsnpoices slowly start to say. “The 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year is….(insert the longest pause of my life where seconds felt like hours………… JONI SMITH! Wait, that’s me!!! Oh my goodness!!!! OH MY GOODNESS!!!

I still get butterflies recalling this moment. I was overjoyed and so proud at the same time. I was recalling all of the people that have fed into me, helping me polish my craft. I walked on that stage, completely in shock, but so proud to be noticed for my hard work. I was ready to start a fire in education and bring my young scientists to the forefront of each Edpolicy conversation.

My only regret was wishing that my parent’s could have been there. I know that my mother would not have stopped yelling for me. She may have been kicked out for her level of excessive celebration.  However, they were both with me in spirit.

As I finished my speech and walked off that stage with a tight grip on the keys to the Mercedes, I couldn’t help but thank the Lord for His grace and guidance in my life. I am soft-hearted and strong-headed and I haven’t always had it easy. But the one thing I am certain of is my purpose. I am a light to my students and they are my fuel. I have found my calling in teaching and I plan to continue to elevate the profession I love most!

TOY 5

Tonight, as we honor the new 2018 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, let me express my respect for you and my thankfulness to have educators just like yourself in the great state of Louisiana. You, along with the other educator finalists, have made us all so proud of the work that you are doing and the dynamic impact that have made. You are valued beyond measure and I would like to thank you for your commitment to excellence!

From Pain to Progress

“One day, Joni Smith, you are going to do great things.” I never heard those words as a child but the thing is I never needed to hear them….I wanted to hear them but I didn’t really need them because I have this great thing called faith. My faith in Christ has always been the foundation on which I plot my course and the drive which lies within me to encourage and enrich the lives of the students that I am blessed to call my own. I am reminded that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). I know this to be true because I am living proof of this phenomena.

In my youth, I wanted to break the mold and defy the statistics. I didn’t want my traumatic past to determine the steps of my future. I have suffered through so much pain and it took most of my childhood to recognize that with God’s help, and the help of the family and friends that He has provided, I have been able to overcome the odds that were seemingly stacked against me.

Like me, many of our students face overwhelming odds, and we as educators, mentors and advocates are responsible for encouraging and nurturing these young minds. Our babies need someone to tell them that they are capable of doing amazing things and that they are worthwhile and valuable; I wish someone had spoken these words to me. It wasn’t until years later that I developed the faith necessary to trust God and finally believe that I CAN DO ALL THINGS.

Smithkids4hour

The adversity I faced early in life definitely generated a tremendous growth in my character. It’s difficult to believe that I would one day become a successful science teacher, when as a third grader at Northside Elementary I was coping with becoming an orphan and struggling in school daily. No one could have predicted that an emotionally lost 6th grader at Denham Springs Junior High that was being neglected in foster care would go on to be recognized as the Louisiana State Teacher of the Year. Who could have known that a quiet 10th grader at Live Oak High School that was depressed and yearning for parental love and support would one day stand in the oval office and be commended by the President of the United States.

Oval office

It’s been said that teachers have superpowers. Well my superpower is helping students carve their own path no matter how difficult their childhood may have been. We learn from our pasts, our mistakes and move forward not allowing any label to adhere. We learn to trust and believe in ourselves to grow and be successful.

 

 

 

 

Honoring schools that defy the odds: Spotlighting Marie Riviere Elementary

I once had an administrator tell me that in school buildings there are 3 types of educators: walkers, joggers and runners. Walkers are those that do the bare minimum to get by and are quite content with not seeing many results. Joggers are those that work well but not well enough to truly make a change. Runners are those that work hard for change, chasing results and willing to grow.

I was honored to join Mallory Padgett and Keith Leger with Stand for Children, BESE member Jim Garvey and many other State leaders on a school visit to Marie Riveria Elementary School. We were welcomed on campus by the principal. Mr. John Starr.Principal

Immediately we could feel his passion and could detect the positive growth mindset that he had with a focus on continuing of improvement. As he began sharing his school’s story of success, we couldn’t help but notice his flexible approach to meet the diverse array of student needs based off of his school’s demographics serving approximately 500 students in grades Pre-K through 5. Due to their students’ growth, they earned the recognition of a Top Gains School along with an “A” on their school report card. You see, the school is classified as high poverty, high performing with over 75 % of their students on free or reduced lunch and 39% of their students classified as English Language Learners (ELL). Poverty is a strong predictor of lack of academic success in reading, and schools serving high-poverty populations are more likely to show weak performance in high-stakes tests. Despite their obstacles, the students continue to defy the odds and thrive in a positive climate with high standards.

Due to their students’ growth, they earned the recognition of a ‘Top Gains’ School along with an “A” on their school report card. Additionally there is a strong sense of teamwork across all grade bands. The teachers enjoy their jobs and are actively involved in high levels of collaboration and communication with one another.Principal and teachers

During their collaborations, they identify problems and work on a set of solutions. The teachers recognize that there are significant barriers for the students however, they also recognize that all students can learn and meet rigorous standards.

After observing a day of work at Marie Riviere Elementary School, it’s quite evident that the educators in that building are runners by nature. When walking through their classrooms, I saw a diverse set of learners all engaged in the lesson while the teacher was applying his/her skills of differentiated instruction that was aligned to the standards.principal and school

The students are encouraged to make good choices with the knowledge of knowing that their choices define who they will become. Their focus is achieving a shared vision and understanding their role of achieving that vision. As I observed their little minds engaged in learning, I couldn’t help but think of how narrow the achievement gap would be if all schools would model this type of mindset. Their strategies are effective and their data speaks for itself. Thank you to the hard working educators at Marie Riviere Elementary School for your dynamic work. You are empowering our state’s most precious resource…our students.

 

 

Teachers: Let your Voice be Heard

As I sat in the Board  of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meeting on March 7th, my heart was pounding and there was a rather large lump in my throat. I was nervous because the results of this meeting were going to have a direct effect on the science students of Louisiana and in particularly MY young scientists.  The meeting was in reference to adopting the newly proposed science standards. I expected controversy and push back from outside stakeholders but I wasn’t going to join the debate with a negative approach. I wanted to speak from my heart and keep the best interest of my students as my focal point.

When I was called to the front, my perspective was clear and concise. I made a suggestion to the esteemed members of the board to consider attaching the verbiage of the Science Education Act of 2008 along with the new updated science standards . There are so many strong points to the new standards with a personal favorite of mine – incorporating engineering practices. However, most science educators are not aware of the flexibility they are given by the law. I am hoping by having the documents applied as an addendum to the standards, teachers will become aware of said law and all that it entails in relationship to the most controversial issues when teaching science.

bese1

A motion was based by a board member and was voted 7-2. Joy filled my soul and this 7th grade Science teacher was smiling from ear to ear. I am so thankful that this teacher voice of mine was heard.

Science educators are no longer applying a mile wide, inch deep approach to teaching science. In fact, it is now just the opposite. I am pleased to tell you that under the new standards, there are fewer per grade level with more opportunities for students to dig deeper into the subject matter. For example, in 3rd grade science there are currently 62 grade level expectations (GLEs), also known as standards, however under the new and improved science standards there are now a total of 15 standards in 3rd grade science. Imagine the depth of knowledge that can be reached in science classrooms across our state.

The updated standards can be viewed and printed at Louisiana Student Standards Review. The most significant change can be seen at the middle school level, grades (6-8). Those respective grade levels will be using an ‘integrated approach’ so that the students learning is scaffold as they progress from grade level to grade level. According to research gathered by Kevin C. Costley, students reported that after being exposed to an integrated curriculum, they were able to make connections between content knowledge and real life experiences. Their way of thinking transformed, and they began linking knowledge from their lessons with their personal lives. The students also recognized that integrating the curriculum unified each discipline into a whole. It actively engages students in lessons and extends their critical thinking skills while diminishing achievement gaps.

bese 2

Pictured above from left to right: Karen Parrino, Joni Smith, Kathy Edmonston, Krystal Swain and Michelle Savoy

The Louisiana Department of Education is already making efforts to provide teacher training to familiarize and facilitate science educators as they move into a transitional school year during 2017/2018. Other stakeholders such as A+pel, local school districts, LSU Cain Center and other universities are planning to provide trainings and webinars to better equip the science teachers of our state.

 

It’s an exciting time in education for the state of Louisiana and especially for science teachers and students. I commend the Science Standards Work groups for their tireless efforts in making sure that standards were rigorous yet attainable and that vertical alignment existed between all grade levels. As a state, we aim to ensure that all students are on a path for college and/or career readiness and the new science standards are doing just that.

BESE

Joni Smith, 2017 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, advocating for the new science standards along with making a few suggestions to the members of the BESE board.