Mr. Widget’s Factory in History Class!

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Once upon a time, I received a request to teach US History from the Civil War to the 1960s. The class was to be taught in summer school to those 8th graders who had failed the subject and needed it for 9th grade.  Since one of my three certifications was also in History, I agreed to teach the class and looked forward to a new challenge. I had ideas from years of teaching German and French.

The Principal in charge advised me not to bore them with worksheets. Not a problem. I simply resorted to my foreign language teaching skills.  The class met daily for two hours and another social studies teacher was next door and was familiar with the course work.  I set up a colorful bulletin board with big stars and photographed each student.  The bulletin board then had my 30 “stars” in U.S. History.  They deserved the very best, and I was determined to give them that.


How could I teach US History differently than during the school year? No problem.  I harnessed my creativity and sewing skills.  I would teach the class in costume from different time periods.  I gathered my ideas and costumes from local thrift shops after class each day.  I included props and music when I could.  I would put vocabulary or history facts on the board for them to write on index cards.

My star pupils did not do homework so I was determined to have them read aloud from our book. It was then I discovered that some could not read aloud and understand what they had read.


Next came the questions about me. Had I taught here before? Yes.  A couple days later, the next question was what school in our district had I taught in before?  The high school, junior high school and middle school.  By the end of two weeks, a voice from the back of the room proudly declared that she knew I was a German teacher at the high school.

At some point and after our first test, the students suddenly began writing on the index cards. What was the magic solution to get them to write on the index cards? I allowed the students to use the cards on the test.  Why not?  It was a great learning tool.

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Oh, did I mention that I came to class each day in costume? With props?  With a different voice?  Our security guard saw me walk by the first day in a costume and bustle from the 1860s.  He inquired:  what period is that?  I thought he meant what class period of the morning.  No, he asked once more and when I said the 1860s.  He told me I was authentic.  Now I thought there’s more to him than meets the eye. He proceeded to tell me that he and his wife did Civil War Reenactments so I asked if they would visit.  With the heat of summer upon them, he wore a wool army suit, and she had on a dress with bustle and a parasol.  I allowed students to browse and interact with the presenters.

Did I mention that is difficult to wear a seatbelt and a bustle at the same time? My bustle consisted of  wrapped roll of toilet paper on a rope tied around my waist and worn under my 1860s dress.  The effect was good,  but I soon learned to wear a costume which also fit in the car.

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Soon the summer school teachers caught on to how much fun the class was. I certainly had the class’s  attention which was part of the battle.  One day I was a cowgirl with braids, boots, bandana around my neck and a fringed vest.  The Twenties found me wearing an appropriate Charleston dress. With combined classes, we were taught how to dance the Charleston by a former student of mine.  Some students preferred to watch us.  Most danced along since the teacher was close to their age.

One day I clomped down the school hallways in my husband’s size 12 shoes, sporting the best felt moustache I had fashioned and attached with masking tape. Suspenders held my  husband’s too-big-for-me pair of pants.  I was the factory owner of the Widget Factory. A secretary popped out of her office and declared she thought she had seen a man.  I greeted her and gave her my business card.  Mr. Widget at your service. I had become the talk of summer school so I began to arrive a tad early to show what my attire was for the day.


We were making widgets using the assembly line process in a factory versus the individual craftsman. The folks at UPS gave me a huge trash bag filled with packing peanuts.  The widgets required packing peanuts and toothpicks.  I allowed the class to form in two groups:  the assembly line folks and those who wanted to work alone as the master craftsman.  I gave them directions how to make the widgets and thus started a loud, boisterous class clamoring for more peanuts and more toothpicks.  We then wrapped up with a discussion of the factory assembly line versus the individual and what that means.  We counted our widgets.


That summer I had numerous volunteers teach part of a class. Hula hoops for one of our classes.  Poodle skirt with a self-created poodle attached using rick rack.  The saddle shoes were made with white sneakers and cut-outs hole punched and glued to the shoes. One of the culminating activities was to combine all the social studies classes and English classes to hear a special lady who escaped the former Czechoslovakia where she had been a teacher.  She addressed all the students and stressed the importance of working hard and doing their best.  You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as she spoke of their escape from Czechoslovakia..  The homework assignment for all the students was to write a thank you letter to this former teacher and to mention what they had learned.

It never ceases to amaze me in life that all these students can be successful in life and just need a second chance sometimes. I was charged not to bore them with worksheets.  Instead I mustered my creative side and wore costumes appropriate to the historical period.


Did I make a difference in the lives of these students and did they learn some history in the process? Yes, some did. Perhaps they used index cards in other classes.  I learned that they loved hands-on projects like making widgets.  I learned never to wear a bustle while driving a car and using the seatbelt.  I loved this class!  Humor in the classroom will catch them every time.

Bob & M A


Posted in A different approach to teach 8th grade US History, Civil War to present day US History, guest speaker from Czechoslovakia, index cards, Teaching US History, teaching US History in costume | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Where Did the Time Go?

1987 big brother, little sister 3.5 yrs., 2 mos.0001

How does time fly by so quickly?
I blinked. Now they are grown and gone.
Friends and family are frozen in time.
They just married. How can their children

1995 Tom, Emily in Spreewald Fulbright year0001

be grown adults? I remember them as
toddlers. Where did the time go?
I blinked. Now they are grown and gone.
Moved to a different state now too.

Gasthof Hirsch Schweindorf0001

How did I fly to Heidelberg and study
three years there? How too did I
complete five degrees in German?
I blinked. And another fifty years.


It seems another lifetime when
I began teaching and still another
when I retired. Where did the time go?
My former students remain frozen in time.


I blinked. Now they have graduated
and moved on to their lives. Married.
Living in other states too. Another
reunion now? I blinked and life went on.


We stay in touch. So many details and
memories. Heard from another former
student today. Nostalgia. I was the
consummate professional with high standards.

2007 J & M A0001 (2)

I blinked. Now they are grown and gone.
It is well for the future when I recall with
fondness those former students who
left me full of hope for the future.


They accomplished greatness.
I blinked and life went on.
I blinked and smiled with satisfaction.
I blinked now. A job well done.




Posted in German teacher, Heidelberg, I blinked, Nostalgia, time flies | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

A Respite at the Lake


As I sit on the dock bench
stretched out over the lake,
an inner peace envelops
me.  Worries cease.

Boats pass leaving waves
and ripples. A distant highway.
Surrounded by nature’s
embrace, I feel calm.


Life assumes new meaning.
Birds circle above; fishermen
cast their reels. Tiny fish
swim helter-skelter below.


A boat resembling a tug passes
the dock; men wearing high waders
anchor a net near shore. Why, I muse?
Probably monitoring fish.

Peace interrupted once more by
a child, dog and mother who leave
just as quickly as they had come.
A train whistle beckons me.


Silent prayers float across the lake
to friends and loved ones.
Peace renewed, the respite at
the lake has refreshed.



Posted in a summer escape, dock bench, fishermen, Onondaga Lake | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Sage Advice from an Elder

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My mother succinctly declared one day when
I was a teen that she found it difficult to fathom
why an adult child would declare a family elder as
incapable of living alone after a spouse passes.

A church friend who had reared her children
and run a household was told by her male
offspring that it was time for her to sell her
home and move into his house with his family.


Horrified at the idea that a son would tell
his mother she was no longer capable of
living independently, my mother added:
what is so wrong about dying in my own home?


I could think of no reason. As I mull over her question,
I too find it hard to comprehend having to move in
with adult children and their families. Yes, I love them
dearly and enough to let go and let them live their own lives.

Unless incapacitated or declared incompetent, I see
no particular reason to move in with family.
I laud those who downsize and move to a sunny
state and live in senior living or on their own.

Where is it written that we become unfit and
incapable of living on our own because of the
death of a loved one? While I realize each circumstance
is different, I relish my independence.


We have a lifetime of friends in our lives who stay
in contact and know what is going on. As a creative
artist, I value my own private spaces to meditate and
to create. I would not want to relinquish those

private moments to reflect, write, make music, read, travel
and the other myriad of activities I enjoy. Years later,
I have the answer to my mother’s question: there is
nothing wrong with living alone and dying in my own home.

Mom & Dad Niemczura CO 19860001


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Posted in advice, downsizing, independent living, senior living | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Comforting Those Who Mourn


Flowers carried in and placed on the altar.

The casket was draped in white. Music began.

Choir sang.  Comfort offered to those mourning.

Last words by a family member. Tears.


Off to the cemetery with prayers graveside. Sometimes

music is the only medicine the heart and soul require.

My journey as a music minister began in my teens in

Colorado when I often did not understand the sadness.


Only years later when both my parents departed

their earthly life did I fully comprehend life’s meaning.

We are born and we die. We remember in prayer those

who have gone before us. Life’s journey is now complete.


We gather and celebrate the life of the deceased

loved one. My turn will also come.  I hope I

can say that I did my best to love and to serve others.

Music is the comforting medicine I offered today.



Posted in funerals, life's meaning, music as healing medicine, offering comfort, prayers | Tagged , , , , , | 26 Comments

Why Taking a Break Matters


Vacation time allows us to recalibrate.

We gain a fresh perspective on our lives.

Traveling and exploring new places and

meeting new people in other countries

always affords a new outlook on life.


Vacations allow us to spend more time

with family and other loved ones. We

de-stress, enrich our bonds. Life is short,

so it is necessary to set aside time

to connect with yourself and others.


Taking vacations keep us young! Chronic

stress accelerates the aging process. Even

mini-vacations restore and renew. We

create an inner peace of mind and relax.

Spend a week at the beach to see routines change.


As a retired educator, I find it is still necessary

to set aside regular time for that walk at the

lake or to sit on front porch and enjoy nature

right in front of my eyes. Rest serves the family

as well. Teaching was not only hard work,


it was also “heart” work. Being a music minister

can be taxing on many levels since singers

use their entire bodies. Most professions

involve multiple levels: mental, emotional, relational

and spiritual. So be courageous and rest.


We were crafted with bodily needs such as

air, water, food and rest; we learn to care for

ourselves by taking breaks from time to time;

we empower ourselves and become more

effective and creative. So, rest,  refresh and renew!




Posted in creativity and empowerment, taking a break, vacations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Keep On Singing!

The appointed hour had arrived. More than 100 choristers from around the world converged in Baltimore at Goucher College for one week of rehearsals and classes.  It was as if I had returned to college when I opened my dorm room which was  home for the week.  A typical day started at 6 AM with breakfast from 7-8:15 AM.  From 8:30-10:15 AM we either had a rehearsal or sectional rehearsal.  Classes followed from 10:45-11:30 AM.  Lunch was at 11:45 and time to study, have private lessons or rehearse privately.  5:15-5:45 there were information sessions, a conductor interview or faculty entertainment.  Dinner was usually from 6:00-7:00 PM followed by the second rehearsal of the day from 7:15-9:30 PM.  Over the course of three days, we had a choice of three classes each day.  I opted for a private voice lesson with the soprano section leader.

At first glance it appeared a grueling schedule for the one week. We were expected to have learned the music prior to our arrival, and from the sound of what I heard, the choristers lived up to expectations.  Most of us had anticipated hot, humid weather and were surprised that the first two days were rainy and only in the 60s F.  I quickly learned my way about campus and which buildings to move to during the day.  For me, it was a brisk 15 min. walk.

Each time before we sang, there were warm-ups and sometimes the faculty or apprentices completed that task. How great it was to have so much expertise in one place.  This was my first experience singing with BCI.  Some have been doing this more than 30 years.  At the outset of our week living on the Goucher College campus, I was awestruck by so much talent in one place!  I remained on cloud nine during the jam-packed week of singing almost 5 hours daily.  I learned to pace myself and to sing lightly until the dress rehearsal and final performance.  At all times, our conductor and other leaders were cognizant of having us care for ourselves and our vocal mechanisms.  As singers, we know that our instrument is our entire body.

How thrilling it was to sing with such spirited individuals from around the world. I had many wonderful conversations with choristers from Singapore, the UK, Canada, Hawaii, California, Idaho, Colorado and many other states in the US.  We were a unique group in that we knew we would never sing together again, but our love for music was evident as we interpreted Haydn’s The Seasons which we sang in English for the most part.  Betsy Burleigh was our conductor, and her passion for Haydn was self evident.  Her Ph.D. dissertation was on Haydn.  Our score contained English and German words so I was excited to learn that we would sing certain passages in German.

Time stood still when we sang and worked on various passages. The days flew by and then Saturday morning arrived and dress rehearsal with the orchestra.  Our performance on stage at Kraushaar Auditorium was 7:30-9:30 PM followed by an after the concert party.  The entire week, snippets of words, melodies and passages go through my mind.  I still find myself singing Haydn all the time.  This special time was now over as quickly as it had begun.  I plan to return next summer for another BCI session.


Posted in Baltimore, Berkshire Choral International, Conductor Betsy Burleigh, Goucher College, singing, The Bay City Symphony, The Seasons by Haydn | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments