Side-Yard Superhero (Book Review)

A memoir and anecdotal collection of teachable moments I am sure Rick has used to captivate students in his classroom for decades.

The tagline to this book’s title is “Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher.” It is a book by Rick D. Niece, known as a teacher, administrator, University president, and now author. The book is published by Five Star Publications. It is a memoir and anecdotal collection of teachable moments I am sure Rick has used to captivate students in his classroom for decades. He notes in the beginning that life stories may change when put into print and they can even become more true over time than they were when once lived in adolescent or other aged eyes. For that reason, he doesn’t label it non-fiction but the book is clearly a collection of autobiographical events.

The book starts with the backdrop of Rick’s paper route. Many of us can recall collecting along paper routes and the life wisdom we draw now from those innocent times. He visits a quadriplegic named Bernie and much of the wisdom shared in the book comes from him. Rick tries to share how important his times with Bernie were and still are. He gets his point across through richly descriptive prose of a small town and all its treasures. This is Americana through the eyes and pen of an educator. As most Americana novels do, he paints word pictures that bring us back to our youth and young adulthood. He intersperses some of his poetry as well that carries the same reverie of youth passed and wisdom gained. These are universal stories about the human condition.

I really enjoyed Rick’s slice of Americana and I agree we can gain wisdom from the most humble of places. Across our great nation there are many Bernie’s quietly offering just that sort of wisdom. Perhaps this sort of insight is what led Rick up the ladder of academia to become a principal and the president of a college. If you are looking for an inspiring and nostalgic read with humor and stories to use in your teaching or other job, buy Side-Yard Superhero. I think you will agree that anyone seeking to have an impact in this world would benefit by reading these stories.

The Band Plays On (Book Review)

The Band Plays On is filled with important ideas from reading Robert Frost poetry to playing in a band. I know as a teacher I need inspiration sometimes and this book supplies a truck-load.

I recently read The Band Plays On, (Going Home for a Music Man’s Encore) and found it inspiring and motivational. The author is Rick D. Niece, Ph.D and the book is published by Five Star Publications Inc. It is the second book in a series about Niece’s hometown. I have also reviewed Niece’s first book, Side-Yard Superhero here on my blog. This second installment, The Band Plays On, is filled with powerful memories from reading Robert Frost poetry to playing in the school band. Since I am always happy to recall such things, it was a first-class journey for me. I felt honored to be on it. The framework of the book is a tribute to his music-teaching father and that aspect is quite touching. I read many inspiring vignettes that made me want to continue teaching with gusto. Since I teach in the day and teach guitar after school, I am sometimes spent. It can get hard to see the larger vision. Rick Niece, Ph.D is a writer of Americana and teaching and his work helped center me while reading. His books also remind me of what’s important in just plain being human.

GOOD NEWS TO SHARE! In preparation for this review, I had the distinct pleasure of corresponding with the author himself. I did a QnA with him which I’ve pasted below. He provided some great insight to my questions and I thank him for the time he took to do so:

Damien Riley: Hello Dr. Niece, since I am a blogger, I truly appreciate the term you use in your book “automythography.” I think most bloggers struggle with the line between history and fiction. Your term is helpful to me in understanding what I do. How does this genre free you up to expand on your own perceptions and/or limit you to what really occurred?

Rick Niece: I thought that I created the term “automythography,” but then found out it has been around, primarily used in art and dance, since the 1980s. However, I have defined it for literature. An automythography is a work of non-fiction that looks reflectively at what we think we remember and how we think we remember it. It is an iridescent memory based upon the author’s truth and personal narrative.

Most of the autobiographies and memoirs I have read are presented as factual and accurate. I do not doubt their veracity, but I am leery when the author quotes dialogue and describes specific scenes from decades past. I do that as well, but with the caveat that they are how I remember what was said or is being described. Time alters our memories. My favorite part of the term automythography is the “myth,” but not in the sense of something being made up. Myths are also stories that are true and repeated from one generation to the next. Each telling and retelling is slightly different—and that is no doubt the case for me and my stories—but the tellings are based upon true and real incidents. The stories are not made up.

Finally, in my definition for automythography I use the word “iridescent.” I like that word and what it connotes. Soap bubbles are iridescent. As they float away from us, they change shapes and colors. But they are the same soap bubbles. That is true for memories as well. Over the years, as our memories float away from us, they change shapes and colors. But they are the same memories—they are our automythographies.

Damien Riley: My 3 kids attend a school where I teach 4th grade and guitar after school. My kids seem to enjoy having dad at school with them but I imagine they might prefer anonymity. Were there ever times you felt you couldn’t measure up?

Rick Niece: Oh my goodness, yes, there were times when I felt it was difficult to “measure up” on a variety of levels. In Side-Yard Superhero, Book 1 in my series, Fanfare for a Hometown, I describe how I was repeatedly warned not to embarrass my father in front of the superintendent and the other teachers. Although I thought I was a “typical” kid, it was difficult to remain typical when my father was the school’s only music teacher and the superintendent lived across the street from me and my family. There was no anonymity for me, and as a consequence, I was a relatively good kid and student.

My father was one of those teachers students could go to with their problems, big and small. He always had time for students before school, after school, and at home. Because of that, I sometimes felt that I had to wait in line. That is not a complaint, but simply my fact of life. I admired my father even more because of the respect students had for him and that he had for them. I was proud that my parents were a second set of parents for many students.

My father was an exceptional teacher, and because he was so good at what he did and how he did it, I was hesitant to go into education myself. In fact, I did not seek acceptance into Ohio State University’s education program until the end of my sophomore year. I was afraid that, as a teacher, it would be difficult for me to emerge from the long shadow of my father and his success.

Through it all, I felt special and was proud to be in the school where my father taught. I am certain that your children feel that same sense of pride—and pressure—with you being a teacher in the school they attend. In time, we all adjust.

Damien Riley: Do you think it is possible for children today to enjoy the same sort of upbringing as you? Why or why not?

Rick Niece: I hope that children growing up today enjoy the same type of upbringing I did. I do not want to sound too optimistic naively when I say that I think they are experiencing the same joys today that I did decades ago.

However, I also have to be realistic. When I was a boy, four environments provided a positive influence on children: home, school, church, and community. My fear is that far too many youngsters may actually experience none of those today. How sad is that?

Damien Riley: Whom do you think will most enjoy The Band Plays On? What makes it so appealing?

Rick Niece: I think the same readers who enjoyed Side-Yard Superhero will also like The Band Plays On. The writing is vivid and flows easily, and the characters are endearing, interesting, and quite unique. Within the humor and the life lessons, there is also a sad, poignant reality that comes through because of the deaths of close friends.

The books are universally appealing, I believe, because readers like a story with descriptive writing, strong narrative, and appealing characters. I think that readers also enjoy stepping back in time to an age they either lived themselves or wish they had experienced.

The Band Plays On, however, will definitely be enjoyed by anyone who has been a member of a marching band or who has played a musical instrument. We have a shared camaraderie that comes through loud and clear—and in tune—throughout the book.

My (Damien Riley) final word: Again, I thank Rick for his insightful and empathetic words. Educators and musical educators will be first in line to enjoy this masterpiece but all who enjoy great narrative Americana will be moved as well. I want to thank Rick for answering my questions for this review. I’m a bigger fan of his than ever. As of time of posting, I have been informed of something that makes this book yet even more cool please check it out below

Long term Dr. Rick Niece is supporting music education by donating $1 of every book copy of The Band Plays On sold to an organization called Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which donates new and refurbished instruments to school music programs lacking the resources to purchase them. It was inspired by the acclaimed motion picture Mr. Holland’s Opus (the story of the profound effect a dedicated music teacher had on generations of students).

Via this direct link you can read more about and/or purchase The Band Plays on.

A Teacher Should Strive to be Great Just as any Butcher, Baker, or Candlestick Maker

When the Secretary of Education, Jack O’Connell, visited our school, I was asked to do an EDI lesson. This is me teaching “cause and effect” with the board members, Sec. O’Connell, and other honored guests.

There is much being said about this article where a Judge in California has deemed teacher tenure “unconstitutional.” A few people have been kind enough to ask me what I think. I thought I’d blog my response to all that here rather than in a confining comment box on social media. Here is the news article I am responding to if you haven’t read it. Below is my reaction to the article:

Teacher tenure has been a popular issue in the media for about ten years. Unfortunately, most the people writing, talking, and making movies about it are jumping to conclusions and setting up a straw man fallacy. Like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger did, I believe in unions. In the 1950’s that may have pigeon-holed me as a communist. When I think of unions I think of the part of the constitution that reads basically this: “Each individual in endowed with … inalienable rights … the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I have seen teacher’s unions help people keep those rights. If we are to destroy unions, we destroy something good for humanity.

Please know that I feel, to become and stay a teacher, you must have a deep care for the development of young people. Those young people, namely students, should be the reason you teach. Because the profession has a “human” product and not a monetary one, I think there should be a way to get rid of bad teachers who under-perform consistently and don’t care about the human side. The first 2 years a teacher is evaluated and observed 3 times a year. After that, every other year once a year. If the teacher gets a substandard evaluation, they are re-evaluated the following year. In addition, a tenured teacher is not immune from discipline, at least not in the schools I have worked at.

I feel a teacher should strive to be great just as any butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Next year will be my 16th year in teaching and I have never viewed tenure as a “protection” for me to under-perform. I am always working hard to be the best teacher I can be for my students. Sure, there are under-performing teachers out there but there are also under-performing butchers, bakers and … well you get it. How we weed them out of teaching is a very good question.

Anyway, non-union people may disagree but that’s what I think. I think we should make working with kids a more attractive profession so there is more competition. Then, the best will be hired. As a teacher I don’t feel as if my profession is as respected as it once was in society. Some stuff I read these days, mostly from conservatives, is downright hateful and ignorant about teaching. Sometimes I think the confusion about what teachers do leads to hateful monolgues that wrongly vilify unions. Who knows what the future of teaching will hold. I know one thing for sure, society will always need teachers in one way or another with or without tenure. Don’t believe the hype, believe in our need for great teachers.

On Teaching Without Paper, or Less Anyway

copierUsing effective teaching methods often requires all your wit and candor every day. When the copy machine takes more than you have, it kind of wrecks you. Since I started teaching in 1997, I have had a love/hate relationship with copiers and printers. It can be so cool when you have a crisp, stapled presentation ready for 30 kids stacked flush on your desk ready to deliver. It’s even better when the print actually enhances the learning transaction and the standard is internalized as a result.

More often than that though paper is a hassle.

Eight times out of ten when I get my stuff to the copy room, there is a jammed sign on it. Other times it is out of paper in which case I have to use my valuable prep time getting cut on the box and opening reams to load in the machine. Even more frustrating are the times when there is a line of 3 or more of my colleagues all holding their holy grails of lessons in their arms waiting impatiently for the one in front to gather her/his business out of the way. Let me assure you, youll wish you were in hell if YOU are the one who jams the machine with those lines watching over your shoulder. I know there is a longing out there among teachers for more paperless teaching materials.

I’ve often avoided the copier issues by printing the stuff at my computer. We have Brother laser printers and they often work well. It’s never mattered how many trees I massacred as long as the ink was dark and flowed freely, which up to now it always has.

Alas, printers like people, get old I’m afraid. They need routine operations and recently, two in needed to be taken to a nearby cliff (if we had one in the desert) and put out of their misery. I’m speaking of one-half printing. Sound familiar? Lines streaking? Drum light flashing Morse code?

At one point a couple years back, I had all these wonderful road-blocks to getting my lessons taught. You know what I decided? I decided instead of cursing the printing darkness, to light a candle. I declared power over paper.

It would no longer control me! Time for green school ideas.

I set down a what-if scenario for every paper event I can fathom. I decided that the wool had been pulled over my eyes long enough . . . paper and teaching . . . I saw clearly for the first time: I JUST DON’T NEED IT! I am going to learn how to save paper and still be a highly effective teacher. A teaching career can exist with less paper. I believe in that.

Van Gogh said art is done within limitation, not without. I indeed have to get creative at times in order to keep my one-day-at-a-time commitment. My students already have a mother lode of printed material in their texts and their consumable books. I see no reason why I can’t continue this until I retire. My mission is to find alternatives to paper.

The Party

imageWe teachers work harder than most people and certainly harder than most people will ever recognize. For that reason, we need a party now and then. I’ve mentioned a few times recently here that my district is going through negotiations currently. I’ve chosen to be very involved with organizing and it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve gotten to hang out with some cool people I don’t normally see but it’s also been a lot of thankless work for people who don’t really care if I live or die. We had a party last week and it really helped motivate me. Continue reading “The Party”

Questioning Authority Trend

pencilsAs an educator of 10 year olds, I have noticed a trend in recent years that is half good and half not. There seems to be a defiance of authority more than ever before of varying degrees. Of course with children, rules are often broken and then reviewed individually or with the class. This is normal but it seems many kids of today live to break the rules. Have parents forgotten the importance of teaching allegiance to teachers and schools? It sure seems that way. It may even be because parents themselves have lost trust in our system. I find that sad. I work everyday to prove myself worth of family trust. In my life, teachers were the most trusted people I knew, even more than the local news. So now that I know this exists, how can I handle it as a teacher. I have a hard time teaching kids to pay blind allegiance to anything, even the teacher. In this manner, you can see their questioning of authority as a positive. Unfortunately, they are too young to be doing this much. I guess that’s where I’d like to see more respect. Not blindly following a teacher’s rules but paying respect to the position of leader that the teacher holds in society. Follow rules, even when they may seem silly.

An example: when my class walks somewhere in a line, I have them all put their hands behind their backs. I do it because it choreographs them in a certain sense. It gets them flying in formation in at least that one small way. Other expectations follow suit but the hands behind the back is something I have chosen as my signature “Riley line” feature. This also keeps their hands to their selves which is an added bonus. Still, after weeks and months, some kids still refuse to do it without me telling them. When I remind them, they do it right away. This is the sort of questioning authority I am talking about. If my teacher asked me to do this in elementary school, I would do it without question. Maybe there is a little too much questioning of authority for our own good in elementary schools these days.

Smart Approaches to Smartphones in the Classroom

The ongoing debacle of the 21st century has been the introduction of portable electronics into our everyday lives. In many ways, they have benefited us – making communication easier than ever. In other ways, they have posed concerns regarding appropriate context and usage. The presence of smartphones in the classroom has perhaps become the largest argument for finding the “right place, right time” for electronic devices.

Laptops have become a permanent fixture in many undergraduate classrooms, but are making their way into primary and secondary schools as well. Furthermore, students of all ages have become accustomed to carrying their smartphones with them everywhere they go, and checking these devices during class time.

While smartphones offer peace-of-mind for many parents who insist their kids keep their phones on them at all times, they can also be a tempting distraction for students, constantly pulling their attention away during your lessons. Whether technology is the ally or the enemy will remain an inconclusive argument, but there is a way to deal with its presence in your classroom.

Embrace It

One way to deal with electronics in the classroom is to welcome them. This may sound counter-intuitive, but electronics can actually be used productively. Electronics can contribute to the creation of an interactive classroom, with students using their smartphones to keep in touch regarding projects and lessons plans. Furthermore, smartphones can be actively incorporated into lessons to make them more interesting.

Through the use of apps like Kahoot!, educators can administer in-class multiple choice quizzes and surveys. These can be displayed via browser on a projector, and students can buzz in their answers through the app on their smartphones. Responses are monitored in real time, and the results are shown after each question for students to see how the rest of the class responded and what percentage got the answer right/wrong.

Not only is this an excellent way for educators to measure their students’ progress, but it allows students to build discussions around the questions and use their smartphones to enhance their learning. This is an ideal example of productive electronic use in the classroom. Furthermore, when students are actively using their smartphones for this purpose, they’re less likely to get distracted by text messages, social media, and other communications.

Acknowledge It

Many educators try to nip the problem of electronics in the classroom by instilling fear in their students. While this may be effective for some, it certainly should not be a go-to solution. Forbidding electronics entirely and threatening punishment can cause some students to feel demotivated and carry this fear into their studies, which will hinder their learning abilities.

Alternatively, make it known to your students that you’re aware of electronics usage. Discourage its use subliminally by instilling a random calling system in your classroom. This will keep your students consistently engaged due to the prospect of being called on at any time, and will ensure they keep their eyes peeled away from their phones.

To avoid making some of your students feel targeted or singled out, you can implement a randomizing method. Either fill a hat with strips of paper containing your student’s names, or install a name generation app that randomly selects who to call on next. Respond civilly and kindly to students who may not know the answers, but certainly don’t doubt that this method will keep them on their toes – and off their phones.

Prevent It

As a teacher, you are in charge of your classroom environment. Naturally, you don’t want to cause your students discomfort. Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing for students is being called out in front of the class for being on their smartphones or getting their phones confiscated. To avoid an embarrassing display like this one, be proactive.

Ask your students to place their smartphones face down in the top corner of their desks upon entering the classroom. This allows you to carefully monitor their smartphone usage during your lesson, while satisfying their need to keep their phones close by. This method is civil yet direct, showing them that you would like to ensure they are paying attention while simultaneously not infringing upon their personal property and space.

Additionally, students won’t want to risk getting caught reaching over for their phone, and won’t be able to come up with flimsy excuses for glancing down periodically if their phone is not on their desk.

Coming to Terms with the Electronic Era

It’s important to accept the abundance of electronics – whether it be smartphones, laptops, or tablets. Using these as tools to supplement your teaching is extremely effective, but may not be feasible. In which case, it’s important you find the right method for dealing with their growing presence.

Deal with electronic usage in your classroom in the way that is most complementary to your teaching style, and remember that your students will respond best to being addressed as equals and not being patronized. Educators who berate their students for electronic usage frequently find it becomes even more of a problem. Rather, make your students aware of the consequences of electronics on their learning experience and allow them to feel as though they are making the choice to put the smartphones down themselves.

Not only do the aforementioned strategies increase your students’ attention span and interest in learning, but it allows them to feel empowered and respected in the process.


Ellie Batchiyska is a writer for Every USB, a custom flash drive manufacturer used frequently by schools, universities, and organizations across the country for branding and material distribution.

Incentives: Watch What They Sit Up Straight For

 Do you have powerful incentives in your classroom? I’m not talking about classroom monitors or extra PE. Those are great too but you will find that, especially with a difficult class, the more powerful the incentives, the more power you have to control behavior. These will vary teacher to teacher/class to class. When kids want something, and I mean really want it, they will adapt their behavior to get it. Here’s a few thoughts on devloping your own powerful incentives.

Watch what they sit up straight for. For me in my class this year, they really love their time in the computer lab. They would rathet do this than just about anything. I have learned then to use it as an incentive for good behavior. You may not have computer time or your kids may not care about it as much as mine this year so watch for what they sit up straight for.

Make periodic reward events like parties. Most kids in California use Accelerated Reader. This is a wonderful program where kids read books they choose at their own pace and then take tests to earn points. I have been scheduling a 1-2 month block of time where there is a points goal for reading and a party for those who meet that goal. I pick up pizza at the local Pizza Loca. The lages there are $5 so it’s incredibly cheap. My students are more likely to get into AR and have experiences in novels if I shedule these reward events.

People of all ages don’t care if you take away something they don’t like to begin with. Your incentives must be crucial to the kids. They must be willing to give things up to get them, otherwise it’s useless trying to threaten. Threatening just makes people standoffish.  Identifying what they love, and you can do that by simply watching what they respond to, will have the greatest impact at fostering better behavior. Now I’ve only given two tips. I’d love to read yours in the comments. Go for it, helps some teachers out!

My Comment on Today’s Senseless School Shootings

I was completely and utterly broken when I heard the news about the school shooting today. This is what I wrote on Facebook:

I elaborate  here. My heart is with the families that lost their babies today, especially the dads. To you I say be strong.