Thursday, October 23, 2008

Remembering My Dear Friend, Ellen...

October is a month for so many memories...... In a previous post this month, I wrote that it didn't seem like six years since my mom's death. And it doesn't seem like five years on October 23, that my very dear friend, Ellen Widmer, died. This was the first time that I had a very good friend die and it was very difficult.

Let me write and tell about my friend, Ellen. I first met her in August of 1980 at Patterson Elementary. I had been teaching there and Ellen was just hired. My daughter, Kerri, was to be in her first grade class. I loved Ellen from the day that I met her and our friendship lasted until the day that she died.

Ellen went through a lot in her life. She was divorced and had three sons to raise. Her son, Troy, fell off of Camelback Mountain in May, 1981 and things were never the same for Ellen and her family. Ellen's loyalty to her family was an inspiration to everyone. She always had a smile on her face and absolutely loved teaching and all children. She was a remarkable human being!

When she found out that her illness was terminal, her greatest fear was that she would have to quit teaching. However, we were so fortunate at our school to have a position where she could teach reading every day. Even though she did not have a classroom of her own children, she was able to teach what she loved most, which was reading. Everyone benefited from this as Ellen was able to continue teaching and many children benefited from her wonderful expertise in the teaching of reading. She continued to always have a smile on her face and a kind word for everyone.

She started out the following year, but had a fall in the classroom at the beginning of the year. Because of her illness, her bones were brittle. She was hospitalized for some time, and was never able to go back to teaching. She still continued her wonderfully positive attitude.

I still remember the day that she called me at school and asked me if I would deliver her eulogy at her funeral. Of course, I was so honored, but I was also so sad. I didn't want to think about my life without my friend, Ellen!!

I remember going to see her on the Monday before she died on Thursday. She was in the hospital and was so weak and so sick. I was able to tell her good-bye and how much our friendship had meant to me. I am so glad that I had that opportunity.

Her memorial service was filled with so many people whose lives she touched. Getting up to deliver her eulogy was probably one of the very hardest things that I have ever had to do in my life. But I was so honored to be able to speak about this wonderful woman, teacher, and friend!!

I am putting the eulogy on this post because I think it tells so much about Ellen.

There is an old Indian proverb that says, "When you are born, you cry and the world rejoices. May you live your life so that when you die, the world cries, and you rejoice. Ellen's life certainly reflects this proverb. That is exemplified by seeing all of you here.

I'm Sheila Rogers, Ellen's friend and colleague at Gilbert Elementary. And I am honored that Ellen asked me to say a few words at her memorial service. I have so many wonderful memories about Ellen, both professionally and personally. It is hard to know where to start talking about my dear friend, Ellen Widmer.

I first met Ellen at Patterson Elementary School when she came to Gilbert in 1980. I was teaching third grade and she was teaching first. She was my daughter, Kerri's, first grade teacher and later became my son, Patrick's, fourth grade teacher. Kerri loved that year with her. It was the same year that Troy fell from Camelback Mountain. I will never forget the love and dedication that she showed to Troy during this crisis. Her sons, Mark, Troy, and Steven, meant the world to her and she would do whatever was necessary to insure their happiness, even if it meant making great personal sacrifices. I know that her sons returned that love. Steven did such a wonderful job of caring for his mother this past year. I will always remember with admiration Ellen's devotion to her children.

This same devotion was apparent in her profession. Ellen loved children and loved to teach. She loved every aspect of her job. After I became principal of Gilbert Elementary, Ellen transferred to Gilbert El. I was so pleased and honored that she chose to work with me at Gilbert El because I knew Ellen would bring so much to our children, our families, and to our staff.

In preparing these words about Ellen, I had an opportunity to look at her Gilbert personnel file. In the file was her original application for a job in the District. It was very touching to read what she wrote about her philosophy of education and I quote, "Each child is unique and my philosophy is to create an environment where learning in not depersonalized, where each individual is reached so he can grow academically, socially, and emotionally. My best quality is my caring. I genuinely care about each child, and it is a joy to see their growth." Those of you who had Mrs. Widmer for a teacher can certainly attest to this. She was exactly the kind of teacher that she said she would be in her application.

Ellen particularly loved to teach reading. She imparted her love of literature and language to all. One of my favorite children's books is 'The Last Dance' by Carmen Agra Deedy. In this book, the grandfather tells his grandchildren that every human being has the right to three things in life:







There are so many stories that Ellen has left behind. As people learned of Ellen's illness, so many have come to me with memories and stories all of which illustrate how many lives she has touched and how she will be remembered. Last week, after the news of her death spread, I received an email from a dad who had two children in her room. One of the children is in college and the other in high school. It said, "Ellen loved my children. I think of them as shining examples of her influence and support."

Last year when she was the American Legion Elementary Teacher of the Year, I asked some students to tell me about Mrs. Widmer. Here is what a few had to say:

"Mrs. Widmer made learning fun. She never put anyone down because she was too busy giving them compliments. She is a great teacher and an even better friend."

"Mrs. Widmer didn't just help us with school problems, but with family and social problems too. We could always talk to her about anything. She is kind, caring, and loving to all of her students. She will always hold a special place in our hearts!"

The best part about having Mrs. Widmer for a teacher was that you got to have her for two years. My most memorable moments from Mrs. Widmer's class are the ones I had during Friday Free Time. We had fun during free time, but we also learned many valuable life lessons that I use today like how to build friendships."

In the course of our education, we all have many teachers, but it is those teachers who care about us personally and about our learning and who we are as a person are the ones who become models for how we want to conduct or lives as adults. In the words of Carmen Deedy, those we love are nver really gone as long as their stories are told. Ellen's stories will live on with the children whose lives she has touched. People die, but relationships live on. Memories last a life time and can never be taken away.

Because I am of Irish heritage, I find comfort in Irish Blessings. And so my dear friend, Ellen,

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

To this day, I miss our dinners together, our talks and our laughter over so many things. Ellen Widmer was truly a wonderful human being and I am so glad that I had her in my life. I know many other people feel the same way. Our world is a better place because of teachers like Ellen Widmer!!!

The song on this blog is a song that Ellen wanted for her memorial service. It was sung at the service by one of our wonderful teachers, Peggy, who did a beautiful job!

The picture below is of Ellen's first grade class her first year in Gilbert. Kerri is in the front row on the right hand side in the red dress.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Celebrating Success and Much Hard Work!!

In a previous posting, I wrote about the difficult year that our school had last year because of not making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) which was determined by No Child Left Behind which is from the federal government. At the same time, our school was labeled as "Highly Performing" which was determined by a law passed several years ago in Arizona. So last year our school was both "failing" and "highly performing." How on earth do you try to explain this to people who aren't familiar with education and for many people who are????????

The reasons for this are complicated and difficult to try to explain in a post that wouldn't use up all of the cyberspace allotted to me by this blog! Basically what it meant for us is that we gave accommodations to our special education students when they were tested and so they were not counted as being tested by No Child Left Behind standards. As a result, we were considered "failing" even though our test scores were quite good.

In early August, I found out that our school had made AYP and that we are considered to be Highly Performing by Arizona Standards. However, this was "embargoed" so I was not able to share it with my staff. I was fairly sure that we would make AYP because we did what was required and gave all of our special education students the AIMS test on grade level with none of the accommodations that would have caused them to not be counted. I truly believe that this is wrong to do to special ed kiddos, but we had no choice. Because all of the scores would now be counted, I was thinking that we might go down a bit on our state label. But we didn't!!!

Then came the "roller coaster ride." Due to some problems at the Arizona Department of Education, scores were not always correct on their website. When I went in to look at our information, there was a little red stop sign by our AYP designation. This meant that we didn't make AYP. I was assured by our district testing director that this was not accurate. She showed me all of the information and it truly looked like it was a mistake and the people at the Department of Education were saying there were problems. But I did not rest easy until Sept. 3 when everything was to be fixed.

September 3 came and it was fixed, but I still couldn't tell anyone. This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do because I knew how thrilled (and relieved) our staff would be. The Highly Performing label is a true testament to the incredible teachers and staff that we have at our school!!!
I was "allowed to announce" this on the 1st of October as that was when the media would know.

Our monthly faculty meeting was that morning. I couldn't think of a better way to thank everyone than to have a celebration breakfast instead of a meeting. As everyone walked in to the song "Celebration" we had tables set up and juice and breakfast burritos for everyone. It was a great way to say thanks to everyone for their hard work. We are planning to do something for the students because they certainly did a lot of hard work and took all of this so seriously! I am hoping to do something special for them within the next month or so!!

I could not be prouder of the teachers, staff, and students at my school! I am fortunate to work at such a great school with such great teachers, staff, and students!!

I hope you enjoy the two cartoons that I found relating to testing!! You can click on this bottom one to make it bigger to read it!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It Doesn't Seem Like It Has Been Six Years........

This week is filled with so many memories for me. My mom died on October 6, 2002. Her birthday was October 8, 1917. She would have been 91 years old today.

The years have passed quickly and there is never a day that goes by that I don't think about her. So many times something funny will happen and I want to pick up the phone and call her to tell her about it. Or an issue will occur and it is something that I would like to discuss with her and get her incredible perspective on things. It is almost an automatic response because that was how it was for 53 years of my life.

My mother was quite a woman! She loved this time of year and the presidential elections. She would have watched all of the debates and would have definitely had an opinion. Knowing her, I think she would probably have been for Hillary, but she was a Democrat to the core and would have supported Obama and Biden.

Whenever I would get a card for her birthday or for Mother's Day, it was always difficult to find the right card. She was never the kind of mother who made cookies or did any of the things that so many cards stereotype a mother to be and do.

Her love was unconditional. She was a role model for how a woman can be strong and self-sufficient. She was always for the underdog. I attribute so much of what I have done in my life to her.

Her sense of humor was second to none. She always found the humor in life and I thank her for passing that gift to me. She was feisty and would stand up for what she believed in no matter what.

She also believed in giving back to your community. After she retired from Phelps Dodge at 65, she ran for the city council in Douglas and served until she was almost 80. Her first election was in the mid 1980's when I was still teaching. I took personal time and took my kids down for the election. She was running against an incumbent and she beat him four to one. On election day, we made phone calls, took older people to the polls, made sure that people who said they were voting for her actually got to the polls, and were busy all day. That evening, there was a party at 858 to celebrate her victory. She ran for two more terms serving 12 years. For several years, she was the vice mayor of Douglas. She served on many boards and always rang the bells at Christmas time for the Salvation Army. She even did this in December before she died after she had been so sick for those few years. She worked at the thrift shop for St. Vincent de Paul into her 80's. She was a member of the Cochise County Fair Board until the day she died. She was also very active in her church, St. Luke's.

I remember her telling me that even though we went to a Catholic school, it was very important to vote for every school bond election and every school board election. She said that public education was what made this country what it is today and that it must be supported no matter whether you have children in school or not!

She also loved sports, especially ASU and Notre Dame. She watched games on television all of the time, even reruns!! She would have loved HD and our big screen television!!

She loved my kids, but she was always strict with them. The best thing that ever happened to her was Cameron. Did she love that little boy!! He could do absolutely no wrong in her eyes and she made no bones about making sure that everyone knew that, including his mother. When he turned three, he wanted to go to Douglas for his birthday to be with Great and Tia. He called my mom "Great" which certainly didn't hurt him in her eyes. He couldn't say Teresa and so he called her Tia, which is so appropriate!!

She had a stroke on May 5, 2002. That was the beginning of the end. She was unable to walk and she worked so hard with the physical therapist trying to regain the ability to walk. When she had the aneurysm a few years before, she had to go through therapy. When the physical therapist told her to do something, she would retort, "If you think it is so great, why don't you do it?" Needless to say, all of the therapists and nurses loved her and her wit. She went to a private home after getting out of the hospital for the 24 hour care that she needed. That was so hard because she wanted so much to go back to Douglas. I will always be so grateful to Judy for taking her home to her house for that last month and taking such wonderful care of her, along with hospice. Kerri and Patrick were also wonderful with her. Kerri would help Judy with any of the tasks that needed to be done and Patrick took her to appointments or wherever she needed to go by lifting her into and out of the car.

In the words of my favorite children's author, Carmen Agra Deedy, "Those we love are never really gone as long as their stories are told...."

Margaret Scott Shannon
Oct. 8, 1917 - Oct. 6, 2002

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Congratulations to Maggie and Mike!!

Last night we went to a celebration to congratulate Maggie and Mike on their engagement. It was held in Phoenix at Monica's and Derik's house. Maggie's parents, Marion and Ron, came in from Turlock and Mike's parents from Mississippi along with Mike's younger brother. Maggie's brother Scott, his wife April, and their three children traveled from San Diego to be a part of this celebration. Her Aunt Teresa and Uncle Don also came from Turlock, as well as their daughter, Kate, from San Diego. Of course, our family was there and they alone make for a big party!!! Our Aunt Teresa from Douglas stayed up here so that she wouldn't miss this party!! Many of Mike's and Maggie's friends were also there.

At any family gathering no matter what it is, there are always plenty of children. It is so great to see how well the young cousins get along and truly like each other. We had to leave a bit early as Kerri wasn't feeling well and Cameron was so disappointed to have to leave.

Mike and Maggie are both wonderful young people. Maggie is always so thoughtful in so many ways. I have so enjoyed getting to know her as an adult since she moved to Arizona a few years ago. Mike is one of the genuine nice guys of the world. I know that they will have many wonderful years together. They are planning their wedding for September, 2009.

So Maggie and Mike, here is an Irish Blessing for you:

May the blessing of light be with you always,

light without and light within,

and may the sun shine upon you and warm your heart,

until it grows like a great fire
so that others may feel
 the warmth of your love for one another.