A Life Well Lived: Celebrating Lorraine Carmen Emily Perala Olsen

lifesaverMy uncle made me cry last week. My sister Tawnia helped him. Before you ask for names and addresses to send thank you notes, let me explain. My 91 year old aunt Lorraine passed away. Lorraine was famous for repeating her mother’s, my Grandma Lempi’s, line: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”.

My uncle Paul made me cry when he shared that Lorraine graduated high school, took a short course at a “normal school” on how to be a teacher, and a few weeks later, found herself in a one room school house, serving grades first through eighth. Lorraine was the teacher, principal, special education coordinator, English language provider, playground supervisor, physical education teacher, custodian, cook, and maintenance person. She arrived early to put wood or coal in the stove. In that one room school house, it was just Lorraine and a room full of kids. Outside it was miles to the closest farmstead.

The footings of today’s education was poured in Lorraine’s era. Classrooms in schools functioned, for some time, as one room school houses. Over time, expectations rose and resources were added. Why? Back when Lorraine taught, students were invited to learn. Today, all student are expected to achieve. The focus has changed from teaching to learning. And that is a huge change which requires a bit of magic.

What is the magic? In part, professional learning communities, where the big questions are asked and answered: what do all students need to know and be able to do? (standards, expressed to students in “I can’s”). How will we know if they know it and can do it? (assessments: formal and large scale, formative and common across the grades, or simply teacher observation). What will we do when students do not know and cannot do? In the old days, students received a D or F and the teacher moved on. In a learning-focused organization, PLCs help work interventions so each child becomes more skilled, in spite of ugly roadblocks children face. And finally, what will we do when students already can do and already do know? How do we accelerate learning for them? Quality learning experiences designed around projects provide one good answer. PBL’s have no lid. Acceleration happens in a good PBL.

I wanted to say two things in closing: one, as little as five years ago, people were bewildered at spending time in a PLC meeting; there was no extra time to waste! Today, PLCs are valuable enough that most staff now crave PLC time. This change is a sign BPS is more learning-focused as opposed to teaching-focused. And two, was it bad we were a teaching-focused organization? Not at all. That’s what students needed in Lorraine’s era through the very beginning of my teaching. Now students need to be skilled problem solvers. Teachers build toward a learning-focused organization every day. You rely on other professionals from custodians to bus drivers to cooks to specialists to support the learning of the child. I am deeply glad BPS kids have you.

When my Uncle Paul shared the enormity of my Aunt Lorraine’s first teaching job, he made me cry. To see how my sister made me cry is a whole ‘nuther story. Tawnia shared a conversation she had with her Godmother, Lorraine, which you can read here if you wish. You will want to bring both a red Lifesaver and a tissue.

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