Here’s how this reporter accidentally stumbled into a seminar with a bunch of teachers and Roy Peter Clark

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Let me tell you a story about how I found myself spending an evening hanging out with a bunch of teachers, the great Dr. Roy Peter Clark, and what I think was his Ukulele.

There was a really cool book talk at the University of South Florida St. Pete library Thursday night. At least I think it was pretty cool. It was all about a book called St. Petersburg Through Time, part of a series of books commissioned by Barnes and Noble about cities across America. At least I think that’s what the talk was about.

It was probably fairly well-attended because St. Pete natives love them some ‘burg history lessons, but I don’t really know that. They may have served tea and cookies. Or they may not have. I don’t really know. That’s because I wasn’t at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Pete for the local history lesson that (probably) was the evening’s book talk.

Nope. Instead, I was across the street at the Poynter Institute. Get it? They both contain “Poynter.” Whoops.

Both events started at the same time, see, so when I went to the wrong place and there were other people there, alarm bells didn’t ring. They didn’t ring when I asked about the format because a social hour before the main event seemed reasonable enough. I didn’t bat an eye when someone said, “welcome back.” No flags were raised when I heard something about teachers and nothing about St. Pete history or a book. Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Then the handouts started coming.

“Summer Language Arts Institute Testimonial: How did your experience last summer prepare you for this year of teaching?”

Huh?!!!

I turned, red-faced and confused, to the two women sitting behind me who clearly knew one another and asked, rather bashfully, why they were here. They were very nice when they explained it was a reunion of sorts for teachers who had attended a Poynter seminar that summer. It was super sweet that they didn’t call me an idiot or laugh and point.

It was also super sweet when one of my biggest literary heroes, Dr. Roy Peter Clark, didn’t shoo me out of this clearly exclusive teacher’s club – I’m not being sarcastic, teachers deserve a room with free cocktails and fancy finger foods and all the Swedish massages their little backs can handle! Instead Dr. Clark, in all his wit and love thy neighbor charm, invited me to stay.

“You might find a story,” he said.

Indeed I did. Not a news story, certainly not. Nothing controversial happened. There’s no scoop to report. But it was a fun time and I learned a lot and I want to share it. After all, I goofed on the story I was supposed to report. So, here’s my lemonade.

According to a memo written by Clark, the Poynter Institute got a message from a group of language arts supervisors earlier this year who all thought Poynter may be able to help teachers figure out how to adapt to Florida’s new teaching standards known as Common Core. Clark and the powers that be at Poynter accepted the challenge and hosted a three-day summer “institute” in July. About 25 of those teachers came back Thursday night for a bit of a refresher and a dash of fun.

My daughter recently performed in a thespian competition at which we were constantly reminded to use “happy hands, not clappy hands” for noise-free celebration. These teachers did something similar to express their contentment for their peers by all snapping their fingers at once. I even got a round of snaps when Clark called me out for being the stranger in the room.

These women (they were all women except for Clark and another organizer) had come from a full day of work. As a mother of three daughters ranging in age from 7 to nearly 14, I know that means they spent their work day dealing with any number of kid-related dramas – girlfriend/boyfriend breakups, flicked boogers or stolen pencils and general chaos. When I get done with a stressful day that doesn’t include screaming and sometimes-obstinate children, I come home and pour a glass of wine. This group went to a seminar to cram more information into their brains with Diet Coke instead of wine. Kudos ladies, kudos.

They looked at ways to better teach the kids who often take them for granted to better them for the parents who are too-often ungrateful. They did this all for no additional pay even though the pay they make is probably abysmal and a gross insult to the role they’re playing in our future.

They spoke in foreign languages saying things like “textual evidence” and “x-ray reading.” They read short stories their students might see on any one of a number of standardized tests and they put on their Fourth Grade goggles to see what those students might see.

“What was life like for boys in 1880-1930 who had to work at jobs adults do today? Use evidence from all sources.”

Those sources were a picture, a data table and a four-paragraph narrative discussing child labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Neighbors pleasantly chatted with one another about how the two boys in the photo looked disheveled and unhappy, out of place even. The teachers openly discussed how a fourth-grade student might conclude the photo was old simply because it was in black and white. They rifled through the three sources for any “evidence” a child may use to write about what they’ve seen. They talked about how children should sort through and prioritize that information to turn it into an essay.

Just when I thought for sure I had been time-warped back to grade school Clark tied it all together. His own writing follows “a grown-up version” of that same process. In his office he rotates books on his bookshelf to be relevant to whatever project he’s currently undertaking. He takes notes on note cards and eventually catalogues and prioritizes his research before eventually getting down to the nitty-gritty task of actually writing.

Holy $h!t Dr. Clark. What started out as an “oh crap” moment with an expectation of a “sorry boss” email, the brain fart of all brain farts turned into a really freaking cool night.

Sure, I could have learned an awful lot about St. Pete’s history, but I can do that anytime. Barnes and Noble has St. Petersburg Through Time available for purchase in store and online – perhaps I’ll read it and give you the lowdown. Accidentally stumbling into a room full of teachers for a rare insiders-only glimpse into how much they care, sacrifice and do for our children – well, that doesn’t just happen.

Sorry for f-ing up boss, but I’m going to chalk this one up to a pretty cool oops.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.