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Education Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip

The Subversive Innovator

Last week I was able to meet with some teachers who are doing great things with technology in their classrooms. We had a meeting to talk about how tech can live in our schools, and part of the meeting was asking them to create a vision for what digital learning could look like in their school in three years. We had five minutes of silence as they typed their responses and read the responses of their colleagues. And then we discussed.

And the first comment was, “If only it could actually be like this.”

Which was followed by nods of agreement, and then several comments about why this could never work. I totally get this. I get the feeling, I get the sentiment, and I get the frustration.

It reminded me of a conversation I was part of several years ago, sitting in a room of mentor teachers, all with a student teacher from the University of Chicago in our classrooms. The mentor teachers were brought together for training, and to be told about the end of the year “project-based learning” unit that was required for our student teachers to complete. We all sat there, watching the implementation gap grow between what our student teachers were expected to do, and our school expectations.

After a series of comments, most of which were explaining why this project-based learning could never happen, one of the facilitators said, “I understand that there are challenges, and that this will live differently in each school setting. But I also believe that we have enough talent in this room to figure out how to be subversive within the system to bring what we know to be best practice into our classrooms.”

The subversive innovators.

You know, the ones who are doing really cool things, but maybe doing so on the down low, with little fanfare, largely uncelebrated, so as not to bring too much attention, so as not to make too many waves.

south chicago model
(The finished product of my student teacher’s project-based learning about our neighborhood)

It’s close to the end of the school year, so for today’s Teaching Tip, I wanted to give a few ideas of how to bring innovation, creativity, and fun into the classroom, even if time is limited and expectations are high.

1.) Find your squishy time

It’s different in every classroom, but there are moments within each day that are under-utilized. The time right after lunch, the time between lunch and specials class, the time right before the end of the day. I usually know when I’ve hit up against a teacher’s squishy time because when I ask to see their schedule, and I point to a specific spot, and they get really non-specific about what is happening during that time. Or they get defensive (often because they’ve already identified this time as squishy and are putting it to good use!) That’s the time do get creative. Even if it’s only 5-10 minutes. SO MUCH can be accomplished in 5-10 minutes.

There’s also squishy time within the content, like changing the end of unit assessment to a performance task, incorporating one center rotation focused on student choice or interests, or using the math drills at the beginning of the lesson to incorporate calisthenics, as one of my teachers does with her 4th graders.

2.) Get student input

When bullying got real in my class, I held a class meeting to explain the situation to my 3rd graders and ask for their input. Honestly, the biggest reason was that I realized that the problem was bigger than what I could solve on my own. Their ideas were pretty fantastic, including a system of bully tickets, kindness tickets, a bully poster campaign, and a bully prevention leadership team. It was so much better than I could ever imagine, and it was completely different than what I would have developed.

More importantly, it worked.

It can be helpful to start with a shared problem, and help students to come up with solutions. One teacher I work with is using the end of the year time to do a study on the elections because his students kept asking questions about a certain candidate and why he was doing so well in the polls. Another high school math teacher presented the problem that many buildings in their city were not accessible for wheelchairs, and the class used what they had learned about angles and measurement to build ramps for local businesses.

But the point is, if it isn’t clear where to start in innovation, ask the students. I guarantee that one of them will have a far better idea than anything I could blog about here.

3.) Follow Through

making rocket launchers(Making rocket launchers in science)

This one is the hardest for me. I am great with ideas. I have a million ideas a day. Seeing them through to their completion is always the hardest part. And it’s the same with innovation.

There are a few things I’ve seen help with this.

One, setting a deadline. Put an end date on it and do as much as possible to prepare for that deadline and keep it a fixed mark. Deadlines are great motivators.

Two, push for a product. It can be a letter, a drawing, a photograph, a robot, a recipe. It can be almost anything, but there should be something to show for the time that is given.

Three, carve out time to share. Yes, learning is fun in and of itself. But it is also super duper fun to get to talk about what you’re working on with other people, and show them what you’ve made and created. The first thing I do when I create something new is share it to social media to get feedback. Why should the classroom be different? If there isn’t time to do a show and tell in class, take a picture and create an instagram bulletin board, or twitter feed for comments.

The best part of the end of the school year is that usually there’s more squishy time available to do fun and engaging things in the classroom. And students are antsy to do high impact, high engagement activities. (AKA, everyone is squirrely and behavior can take a nosedive!) Why not try something new?

For ideas about some of the incredible things happening in classrooms around the country, check out this AMAZING TED talk from Stephen Ritz, about how he started a gardening program for his middle school students in the Bronx. (And if you can get through it without crying, I don’t believe you.) Then just go ahead and keep on watching this TED Talk Playlist of inspiring teachers.

And for the record, my innovating time started with right after lunch. I gave students five minutes of choice time to do any silent activity they wanted to do. And from there, we snowballed.

It doesn’t take a lot, it just takes a step.

-Rachel

Assessment Education Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip

Choice in the Classroom: 4 Ways to Give Students Agency

I recently was able to attend an incredible conference in Berwyn IL school district 100. Their iEngage conference featured a site visit to classrooms full of student-centered learning. And it also featured one of my favorite tech speakers, Jennie Magiera. Jennie spent one of her sessions talking about the need to incorporate Play and Choice into our teaching. You can see a great Sketch Note of this session here.

Recently I’ve been in a reading desert, but when I do read, it’s been in the pop sociology/psychology genre, making my sociology teachers from college proud, I hope. (I know I’m not the only one still paying back all those students loans after graduating college with a sociology degree.)

One of my favorites in this genre is Daniel Pink’s DRIVE. The book is all about what motivates us to act. And Jennie’s words reminded me that one of the key motivators that Pink talks about is choice. In his book, Pink gives four ways that you can give choice, and he does it alliteratively, so I thought I’d share those with you, with examples of teachers have used each one.

1.) A Choice of Task

This one can be tricky, if you’re trying to make sure everyone is learning the same ideas. However, there are some great strategies to make it happen. In one class I recently visited, the teacher gave the students a list of fifteen math problems. The students got to choose two problems to solve. They were then able to choose their technique for solving the problem (#4).

Within an ELA classroom, the choice of task could be as easy as choosing which book to read. Or as involved as choosing a social issue, researching it, and coming up with a project to influence change, as was done in another classroom I visited. Some students chose to write letters to politicians. Another chose to do a poster campaign to stop bullying within the school.

At another conference I went to, two teachers presented about giving students 20% time like Google does. This incorporates a lot of the 4 T’s, but the basic gist is that for an hour every week students are able to choose the project they’d like to work on. One student learned how to code and designed their own website. Check out this video about Genius Hour. (And maybe you only can have Genius 5 minutes, but how great will those 5 minutes be?!?!)

(Whew, I can’t watch this video without getting teary and excited.)

2.) A Choice of Time

How much time will the project take? When is the project due? Several teachers I work with let students set the due date for their projects (within reason). They can create the timeline for when certain components will be completed. For big projects, one teacher posts a calendar in her room and students sign up for the day they’d like to present or the day their project will be complete.

If you have technology in your classroom, creating a shared calendar between you and your students can help facilitate this.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 1.44.45 PM

For tasks like cleaning up or organization, asking students how long they think it will take and giving them the autonomy to decide how much time they have can change whining and complaining and stomping feet (just me??) into a game. how long will it take

3.) A Choice of Team

look you give friend

This one is easy–give students a chance to choose which people they get to work alongside, or if they want to work alone. I saw one teacher have a “mix and mingle” and students got to walk around until they’d found their team. Another teacher used a shared google doc with two columns, and students could sign up and someone else could sign up to be their partner.

Or maybe your students are more like me, preferring to work solo if that is an option.

If you want some more ideas about grouping students, check out this great article from Genia Connell about ways she helps students get into groups. One of her ideas is to put different students on speed dial! Then she can say, “Go to your speed-dial 1 partners” and students pair up with the person they chose in space 1.

speed dial 1

4.) A Choice of Technique

The last is to give students a choice of how they complete their work. I think there are so many ways that this can be done, but I’ll name a few. When I observed the student I talked about above complete his math problems that he chose, the second part of the assignment was to explain how he solved it. He was able to choose how he explained his answer to his teacher. He chose to make a video with Photo Booth, but other students made a slide show, one student was using Explain Everything to do a screencast, and still other students were writing out their thinking. The key was that each student was able to chose themselves how they wanted to do the work.

student photobooth

Other ways to include choice of technique is by incorporating choice boards. Kasey Bell of Shake Up Learning has some great resources for differentiating based on learning menus and tic-tac-toe boards. She even provides templates! Teachers design the boards so that the students have to make tic-tac-toe, but no matter which way they do it, they will be getting a chance to get some content input, and then given a chance to demonstrate content mastery. Not only can the student choose how to make tic-tac-toe, but they are also able to have choice about how they want to show they’ve understood the concept. (Seriously, check out her site, it’s full of great stuff.)

When I think about it, a lot of jobs are easier if I get to choose the technique I want to use. Cleaning isn’t my favorite thing, but if I get to use really nice cleaning cloth and good smelling spray, suddenly I’m willing to wash windows! I know one teacher lets her students choose the kind of writing utensils they use. It does mean she gets some work turned in completed in highlighter, but the students were excited to do the work!

It’s not surprising that CHOICE is such a powerful tool for teaching, and it’s not hard to make small changes to make sure students (or teachers) are able to have agency and voice in the learning process.

Comment below with any pictures or ideas you’ve used or seen used in classrooms! (If you want more info about Drive and Daniel Pink, check out this great RSA Animations video of the key ideas in the book. So worth the time!)

Education Teaching

Teaching Is Like…(My Top 9 Analogies)

Tomorrow teachers across Chicago will pick up their picket signs and march through the city in a “Day of Action” to demand equal funding for Chicago schools and a fair contract for CPS teachers. I support CPS teachers for the hard work they do each day. In solidarity, I offer you this (hopefully funny) look at the job of a teacher.

Teaching Is Like (My Top 9 Analogies)

1. Teaching is like being at the grocery store with your child while they throw a tantrum. But instead of strangers walking by, your boss is standing next to you, watching. Also, she is scoring you for how you de-escalate the situation. That score will be 25% of your 360 evaluation.

2. Teaching is like being told by your boss that you have to give a huge presentation to the company’s most important clients. The presentation is all day, so you will not have paid work time to prepare for the presentation. Also, you eat breakfast and lunch with the clients. 

3. Taking a sick day while teaching is like working a double shift so that you can get a shift off the next day.

4. Teaching is like winning an incredible case for your law firm, and as a bonus for your hard work, getting a pizza lunch.

5. Teaching is like getting hired at a new job, only to find out that you are responsible for providing your materials, writing your own work manual, and becoming an expert in your field. Also, while you’re doing that can you keep an eye on thirty 7-year-olds?

6. Teaching is like showing up to work in your professional attire to inspire…then finding yourself an hour later on hands and knees, cleaning up someone else’s vomit.

7. Teaching is like being hired for your expertise in biology, but finding out that part of your evaluation will be based on your interior decorating of your laboratory. Extra points for good handwriting.

8. Teaching is like only working ten months a year. Unless you count the two months you spend planning for those ten months.

9. Teaching is like doing the most important job, every day.

Chicago teachers, I support you tomorrow and I support you every other day, too. Thank you for taking a stand not only for the teaching profession, but also for our students, our schools, and our city.

P.S. If you’d like to join me, feel free to share you own #teachingislike in the comments below or on twitter. Tag me @teachreadmom

friendship Teaching

Don’t miss the party! (And other cleaning tips)

I’m messy.

This is my car:

car

This is my bedroom:

bedroom

And they are a mess.

I’m not cherry picking photos, either, to find the worst one to make my point. These were all taken today.

At a party with some friends a few months ago, I told my college roommates that I am finally coming to terms with the fact that I am messy.

My roommates felt vindicated. They had often bemoaned the fact that despite indicating on the freshman roommate preference cards they would like to room with someone neat, they instead got to room with me. I had also indicated that I would like to room with someone neat. Because I would. It’s not like I revel in filth. I just enjoy a lot of other things more than I enjoy tidying.

how i clean

I have spent a lot of time trying to make up for being messy. I go on clean/messy binges, I act really nicely toward my roommates when they look at me with disapproval, I’ve read self-help books about the whole messiness thing. (KonMari anyone?)

Therefore it was typical, but ill-advised, when I clicked on the video that promised a strategy for how to clean your bedroom in 30 minutes. But who can even blame me? It promised a free printable check list.

Watching the video sent me into a tailspin of inadequacy and shame, one of my typical responses. Another typical response is to go to Target and buy as many cleaning supplies as I can, returning home too exhausted to clean. Because shopping is a lot of work.

Let me pause here to say that I don’t dislike neat people. Well, maybe I resent them a little. But only because of my own deficiencies, not because of their amazingness. I look at their seemingly effortless systems of boxes and organization and sigh and fantasize…

About hiring a cleaning person. Because seriously, I don’t want to do it.

Anyway, as I was cleaning for a party or maybe just cleaning my car (turns out I do actually clean, it just never comes together all at once in a way that gives the appearance of “togetherness”), I remembered a story from another party, one that happened shortly after I graduated from college, a time when my life was messy in about every conceivable way.

The party was for my college bff and her husband, who were headed to West Africa to join the Peace Corps. In all the laughing and talking and joy and sorrow of saying goodbye, at some point someone asked if they could get a ride back to their apartment at the end of the party.

For all you neat people reading this, I’m sure there is nothing about this request that seems concerning. I’m sure your car has all of its seat and trunk space open and available for such requests.

But as I’m sure you can imagine, such was not the case for messy-ole-me.

Almost immediately I took to the street and started pulling a year’s worth of teaching stuff out of the trunk of my car. There I stood on a pristine suburban street, surrounded by paper, bins, books, markers, crafts, pillows, blankets, and other debris from the life of a first year teacher, frantically trying to get them into some semblance of organization.

After forty minutes one of my friends came out to find me.

They lovingly helped me put all my things away into the car, and guided me back inside.

Because the truth was that there was room for someone to ride with me. But my shame over my messiness filled the entire car.

And embracing that shame meant I almost missed the party.

I went to visit those same friends a few weeks ago. They have long since returned from the Peace Corps. As we exchanged texts to arrange details of our get together, my friend warned me, “Just so you know, my apartment is a mess.”

It was a relief, and it was a gift, because I got to see the mess from the other side. And from the other side, when it is my friend’s mess, it isn’t a big deal at all.

Maybe it’s not worth missing out on parties, be they real or metaphorical, because I’m so busy trying to hide my flaws. Maybe sometimes what my friends really need is to hear me say, “I’m a mess.”

And maybe by living our messy lives together, we give each other one of the greatest gifts that friendship can offer: permission to be our honest and true selves, without apology.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n Rachel

P.S. If you ARE a person who likes all things neat and tidy, check out my friend Brigit’s blog, Meaningfully Organized. She even offers free printables!!

 

friendship PARENTING

Sometimes I don’t want to be your friend

True confessions: Facebook rants fascinate me. Like, I definitely get why they are problematic, but sometimes I just want to pull out the popcorn and read some comments. Kardashians step aside, my friends have your drama BEAT!

So a few months ago I was joyfully scrolling when I landed on a rant from one of my FB friends. I’m not close enough with him that I knew the context of his frustrations, only that he was annoyed with his friends for exclusionary behavior.

Here was his comment:

ross

And ever since, I’ve had a hard time getting his words out of my head. “You should never make anyone work hard to be your friend.”

Being a parent is a pretty great free pass. A get out of jail card I’ve used endlessly. For example, I haven’t been on time to anything in the past two years. When I give you an ETA, it’s really more of a window, a casual suggestion.

It also works really well as an excuse why I can’t participate in activities and events. For good or bad, a sick kid is the perfect answer to how to avoid the social event I’ve been dreading.

In addition, since I have been sick over the last year, I have had an even better excuse. I am a sick mom of a toddler boy (and I work full time). Sometimes I want to just tattoo that sentence to my forehead by way of explanation.

tattoo on forehead

And it gets really easy to operate out of this sense of scarcity. Because I truly don’t have a lot of free time. And saying yes to one thing usually means saying no to something else and if I’m not careful I can over commit and the whole assembly line shuts down completely.

Not to mention that right now it is tax season and my husband is a tax accountant, so we’re busy.

Which is why when my husband and I got an email recently from the pastor at our church, asking if anyone in the church would be willing to make treats for the time between our two church services, I deleted it.

But over dinner that night my husband said he was thinking we should sign up to bring brownies. So I said, “Why, we already do a lot for church. Let someone who isn’t doing anything sign up.”

My husband baked brownies anyway, and I was grumpy about it all weekend.

brownies

(Though maybe a little less grumpy once I actually got to eat the brownies.)

But it gives me pause. Because I think there are seasons of scarcity. But I can’t help but look around, at the incredible life I have full of friends and community, and see not scarcity, but abundance.

And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, there are times when I keep everyone around me at the fringe and margin of my life because, well, it’s just easier. I wonder if there are times when I hold all that abundance closely to myself, hoping that none of it gets away.

I wonder if there are times when I make it hard for people to be my friend.

So I’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to say yes. To live with a little less fear. To trust there is going to be enough for me, even if I share a little with my neighbor. To take a moment to stop dwelling on my own forehead tattoo, and glance up to read the tattoos of the people around me.

To bake a few extra brownies, just in case.

A few weeks ago I met a woman at the library. She was there with her husband and two sons. While watching our boys play together at the train table, with occasional commiseration about the typical mom challenges, she asked if I knew of anyone who was a good babysitter. I asked if she knew about the local mom group in the area. I found out that she didn’t, that in fact, she just moved to the United States six months ago and is still learning the ins and outs of our shared neighborhood.

And I almost left it right there.

But before scooting out of the room to chase my son, we exchanged numbers.

When I got home later that night, I sent a text:

text for blog

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure if the playdate is going to happen. And there’s still a part of me that worries I don’t have time for another friend, or that saying yes to her would mean saying no to someone else.

And I think that’s probably true.

But then again, why not? It would be a good excuse to bake some more brownies.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week: The Most Unsexy Jobs of All

You can smell Jakari from eight feet away. The combination of unwashed clothes and hair, shoes that have seen an extra winter of wet and dry feet. As if that didn’t already put her in the shallow end of the popularity pool, she weighs in at least forty pounds above the average fifth grader.

There is something so incredibly unsexy about any profession that gets an appreciation week. Teacher appreciation week shows up at the same time each year as nurses week, and quite honestly, both professions boil down to dealing with other people’s feces, literally and physically. Is it any wonder that Mother’s Day is only five days away? The role of mother falls solidly in the “dealing with feces” category.

This week is full of small gestures of thanks. Cups filled with chocolate, vases filled with flowers, boxes filled with jewelry. My cynical self can start to wonder if these appreciation weeks and days are lip service, a compulsory nod, the thank you we throw over our shoulder at the cashier as we take our receipt. As if that could possibly match the contributions our mothers and teachers have made to our lives.

IMG_4170

This past two weeks my sweet little toddler has learned that he can have an opinion, and that it is most exciting when that opinion goes in direct opposition to mine. I can’t blame him. That’s his job, to figure out the boundary lines of mommy and baby, to test the limits of my patience, to experiment with the rules until he learns them all, and then to experiment some more to make sure I wasn’t kidding.

But last Sunday morning was tough. It started with screaming and didn’t stop for almost three hours until he collapsed asleep in a pile, just in time for us to pack him in a car to head to church. He woke up, of course, right when we walked into church fifteen minutes late (also of course). The sermon had started and I knew his dazed cuddling was a ticking clock, no way it would last. Sure enough, the angry fish flopping started as soon as I told him he couldn’t run around in the pew.

I took the elevator up to our church’s nursery, my son upset, again, because he didn’t get to push the “up” button. I pushed into that deep inner resolve, the one I channel when I need to stay calm in trying situations. And maybe there was a little bit of self-pity. You know, the “I deserve a break” or the “somebody should be helping me right now” feelings. The “I deserve a holiday to celebrate my massive contributions to my son and society” feelings.

And at that moment, right as the elevator doors chimed and opened, my son turned to me, put his tiny, perfect, chubby hands on my cheeks, grinned with his lovely twelve teeth and his tiny dimple, and said, “Mama.”

He spoke the words with the awe and wonder that I so often feel for him. This incredible realization that we are part of one another, that our lives are forever entwined with cords stronger than DNA; that we are sewn together with love.

I had surgery recently, and I was desperate for help during the recovery that the doctor had misled me to believe would only last a few days and has instead continued for six weeks. Within a few days of the surgery my mom caught wind that I was struggling, rearranged her schedule and drove down to spend a week caring for me, cleaning my house, cooking my meals, and most notably: waking up with my son to spend the mornings with him. (Is there any greater gift than this?)

I often turn to my husband, when my mom is at our house and caring for our every need, or when his parents have extended some truly incredible gift of generosity, and ask how we could ever repay our parents for all they have done for us. We are disgustingly fortunate to have such loving and supportive parents. And he often will say, “We can never repay them. We can only pay it forward.”

And that’s what I keep thinking as I watch Jakari’s teacher sit down next to her and teach her to read, inviting her after school, allowing her to keep her siblings in the room during homework help, since Jakari is their primary caretaker. Jakari is still so often ornery in class, still bullies other students, still talks back. And yet her teacher comes back each day with a deeper resolve to help Jakari learn to read and write. Could Jakari ever pay her back for this?

That’s what I think when my mom works tirelessly to make sure that I am healthy, being willing to exhaust herself so that I can rest. That’s what I think when she insists I go to bed instead of helping her do the dishes or wash stains from our clothing. Is the card we send her, with someone else’s words printed inside a joke?

Maybe Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day (and Nurse’s Week) help us to remember that there is no way that we can ever repay the people who have loved us, who have parented us, who have shown grace to us. No chocolates or flowers, stuffed animals or crayon-scribbled cards could ever repay the mothers, biological or otherwise, who have nurtured us.

But maybe those sentiments are a statement, a reminder that there is enough grace to go around, that we are all better when someone loves us more than we deserve, more than we could ever repay.

And maybe these appreciation weeks and days are a chance for us to turn around with awe in our eyes and acknowledge those people who have loved us well. Not because we can pay them back, but because their love has allowed us to pay it forward.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education Teaching

Minding Your Own Business

u1007771_sm

For my third year of teaching, along with switching schools for the third time, I also started teaching third grade. Previously I had identified as a middle school teacher, ending the day reeking of sixth and seventh grade hormone dust, much to the chagrin of my roommates. The transition to becoming a third grade teacher was, let’s just say, tearful. For everyone involved.

For starters, third graders are tattle-tales. The neighborhood rubbernecker has nothing on a third grade student. They are relentless in their scrutiny of their peers, and itch for the moment to tell on anyone who falls out of line. This can be tiresome. Multiply it by thirty students and it is downright exhausting.

The result: I coined my first third grade teacher catch phrase. After intentional instruction and “family meetings” with my students on the rug, the mantra we created and reiterated was, “If, for the rest of your life you only worry about yourself, that will be enough.”

This provided plenty of humor when students would come up to me and say, “I know I’m supposed to be worrying about myself, but Anaya just ate the eraser on her pencil.” But oddly enough, making this part of the daily rhetoric helped calm down the tattling, and helped steer the conversation toward self-reflection, a skill that has recently been difficult for me.

I’m generally a reflective person. Probably an overly reflective person. I’m the person who reflects on my reflecting. I have full conversations play out in my head and have, on more than one occasion, been known to make hand motions or facial expressions in fitting with my rehashing of an event. I promise I’m not crazy. Well, not too crazy.

But lately there’s been some stuff going on. Lots of big life changes. Family members are moving to other countries. I’m missing my parents, who live 400 miles away. The routines of my job are not automatic, so the mental requirement is taxing, and I’m examining every movement under a microscope. Reflecting on my reflecting, if you will.

While this has been going on, I’ve noticed a trend. The more stuff going on in my personal life, the more pissed off I get at the news. Mind you, there is always plenty in the news to get worked up about. It never disappoints. But a lot of the time I can still find that inner calm and resolve, keep chipping away at my piece of work to do, my part in creating the world I want to see. Or something like that.

Not lately. Lately I’ve been seeing Facebook status updates and having twenty minute rants to my husband, or my friends, or the check out person at the grocery store. No seriously. Lately I’ve been seeking out information from friends that will allow me to get opinionated and ornery. Lately I want to get out my measuring stick and start whacking knuckles to keep everyone in line.

There’s this rush I get when I am angry. It’s heady and powerful. There’s something so satisfying about identifying as righteous and holding myself a full two feet (two hundred feet) above everyone else.

So anyway, I go to church, at least a couple of Sundays a month, and one of the things that we talk about in church is when Jesus says to look at the log in your own eye before being concerned about the fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. And I think it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to see those small flecks in everyone else’s eyes, and how hard it is to notice the log in my own, weighing me down day after day.

Put another way, by my favorite Ani Difranco, “I’ve got something to prove, as long as I’ve got something that needs improvement.”

Maybe part of it is that it is so much easier to feel powerful than to feel powerless. It’s so much easier to look at Facebook and the world news and pronounce myself the arbitrator of right and wrong, and hypothesize whether or not our country should go to war than it is to do the pile of dishes that has migrated its way into our living room.

IMG_2779

It’s so much easier to look at my friend’s financial decisions and raise my eyebrows and shake my head than it is to reflect on whether or not we should be eating out for the fourth day this week.

It’s so much easier to look out than to look in.

This past week I have been coaching first year teachers. There have been so many surprises, so many ways in which the teachers have already surpassed my expectations of what it means to teach for a first year (my expectations being set, of course, at the most basic, fall on your face level of my first year). There has been one refrain I’ve heard over and over.

“They are (fill in number here) graders. They should know how to act by now!”

My response has stayed the same. Maybe they should know how to do this by now. But let’s say that they don’t. Let’s say that they don’t know how to do this. How are you going to teach them?

Because, after all, there’s a lot of things I should know by now.

I should probably know by now how to worry about myself. I should know how to spend time in quiet and reflection. I should know how to cry when I am sad and how to laugh when I’m happy and how to hold other people in love and kindness. And sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good teachers in my life, ones who have assumed that regardless of what I should know, sometimes I need to be taught again.

I have teachers who remind me what it is to be the person I am, the person I want to be. Like my husband gently reminding me that the first week of the school year is always impossible. Or Karen reminding me that it never hurts to go out for a walk. And Lenora telling me that maybe it’s time to lay off of Facebook for a little while, at least until a little balance returns to my life. My teachers step in and tell me it’s time to put down the measuring stick, all the knuckles are broken.

In short, they remind me that If, for the rest of my life I only worry about myself, that will be enough.

log

I’m going to a bonfire tonight.  And I certainly have some firewood to contribute, at least metaphorically speaking.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

Teaching

Never Ready: #TeacherConfessions #FirstDayofSchool

“No one is ever ready!” My father barks (1)

Today is the first day of school for millions of kids, parents and teachers across the country.  And for weeks, everyone has been getting ready.

Kids and their parents have been getting ready for weeks, tracking down items on the school supply list, watching carefully for those awesome sales at Staples, Target and Office Max. Last night, backpacks and lunch boxes were painstakingly loaded and uniforms were carefully laid out, ready for that early morning alarm and new school day schedule.

Teachers have been getting ready since the final day of school last June (yes, really). They have spent the summer recharging and planning for the year ahead – new units, fresh classroom management plans, and innovative strategies they learned at professional development over the summer (No, teachers do not get the summer off); they’ve carefully set up their classrooms and have worked to incorporate the expectations of the school administration that has never left the building over the summer. School custodians have cleaned the building from top to bottom (those floors are waxed!) and are ready to see their handiwork scuffed and fingerprinted by noon the first day.

Excitement fills the air. The first day is filled with great expectations. Everyone seems ready for the first day of school.

Except me. I was never ready. Not as a kid. Not as a parent. Not as a teacher. Try as I might, I was the teacher who was never ready for the first day of school. Not even at midnight the night before.

 I spent much of the summer honing my craft: reading, learning, going to professional development, creating units, gathering materials, and re-designing my classroom.  Oh, and constantly thinking and talking about my classroom (to my friends and family, I apologize).  The amount of planning and preparation I undertook, the amount of time I spent setting up my classroom, putting together my classroom library, writing letters to my students – it made no difference.

I was never ready.

I am talking about not just the first day of my first year in the classroom but each and every first day up to and including my last year in the classroom.

The more you teach, the more you know that Murphy’s Law applies with an unrelenting vengeance to classroom instruction: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” And, as the poet above points out, the “shoelaces” will ultimately wear out and break and you may have to make do with a “belt” that is not your best.

I tried so hard to be ready for that first day of school. But, alas, within 10 minutes, I discover that what I thought was the perfect morning meeting classroom rug shed like crazy, covering my students’ freshly ironed uniform pants with a layer of fuzz (yes, the one I paid $89 for at Crate & Barrel – we vacuumed that sucker every day, but still, it kept on shedding). By noon, there weren’t enough desks in my room, as I hadn’t planned for the steady flow of students sent from the school office who weren’t listed on my roster because they hadn’t registered until the first day of school (always forgetting that the classroom size limit in the union contract has no real meaning the first 20 days of school).

But somehow, despite the fuzz and lack of desks, despite not being ready for everything (including my sweet new student from West Africa who spoke no English except for “Hello” and “Thank You”), we are off to our “life-or-death destination”: another year of teaching and learning.

And somewhere in the middle of that first day chaos, I remember that I will never be ready for everything that happens – on the first day of school or each day that follows.

I won’t be ready for the moment when Quavonte, Joe and Conwanis bring me the Reader’s Theatre translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and request to use the original or “real” language in their fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, because, “like you said, Mrs. Dempsey, there’s nothing like iambic pentameter. Shakespeare just sounds better. He’s got the beats.” I won’t be ready for the January that every student turns in their “winter break” reading and writing packet because it was “kind of fun to write poetry and stuff.” Be still my heart.

I also won’t be ready for the moment when a student, in a flash of temper, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs another (minor flesh wounds, thank God). Or the morning my gifted writer and rapper shows up to school drunk out of his mind, having poured his mother’s cognac into a bottle of sunny delight (and still carrying the evidence with him into the classroom).

Despite Breathless Preparation, I

The first day of school preparations that leave us all breathless remind me that despite the fuzz, the wounds or the spiked sunny delight, my students and I will continue to learn as I teach. Preparation is critical. But so is bobbing and weaving, and incorporating and appreciating the unexpected.

And so, at the end of the first day, I have arrived. I finagle extra desks from the kind custodian, add and cross-off names in my no longer pristine gradebook, and I stop at the Dollar Store on my way home to buy multiple lint removers, so that we can be ready for the fuzz tomorrow after morning meeting.  And then I remind myself that no one, including me, is ever ready.

 –261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

Education PARENTING Teaching

You’re Doing It Right (At Least Some Of It)

The worst part of the first year of teaching is failing. Not failing once, or twice. No, failing hundreds of times, again and again.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Nothing I was doing was right. From the first day, not know how to respond when Tiara told me I had a nice ass, to the day before Christmas vacation when, in a moment of bonding I “walked it out” to Unk and Royal told me “I didn’t ever be needing to be doing that again,” I grasped desperately for each inch of progress, and mostly felt the rocks give way on my climb toward improvement.

Dramatic? Maybe. But that first year was dramatic.

I’m coaching new teachers and it is the week before school starts. Tensions are high, and the consensus amongst everyone is that everything is overwhelming. Some are masking it more than others, some are grasping at the progress like I did my first year, others have let go of the cliffside altogether and are bracing for the crash at the bottom.

This summer I had two months of professional development about how to be a coach. There was a lot to learn. One of the components we were taught was to view coaching from a “strengths-based approach”. Amongst the other “learnings” of the summer, that one seemed a little unnecessary. Why was it worth mentioning that we believe in celebrating strengths? Duh. I am familiar with the compliment sandwich: start with a positive, then say what you really want to say, end with a positive.

Truthfully, I’ve always preferred the “Atkins-diet approach”. Give it to me straight. Tell me how I’m failing. Rip off the bandaid and stop the sugar coating. Leave off the bread.

I know, don’t you wish I was your coach?

But the importance of “strength-based coaching” was been reiterated to me this week in my professional and private life.

While I’ve been busy meeting teachers and helping set up classrooms, my son has been busy learning how to walk. He isn’t there yet, but he’s gotten very creative in finding props to use as walkers so he can move around the room. His favorite is the coffee table.

He’s been pulling himself up onto furniture for awhile now, but the newest development is to pull himself up, rock slightly forward and backward, and then let go of the table. For increasingly longer increments of time he has started to stand and then either puts his hands back on the table or falls on his butt.

The first time this happened he had such an incredible look of concentration, which was immediately broken by my exclamation of “YOU’RE STANDING! YOU’RE STANDING!!!” Grabbing back onto me, he grinned, sat down, and started clapping for himself.

And that, my friends, is the strengths-based model. Seeing something someone is doing well, and naming it for them so they know to keep doing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. How my idea of only thinking about the bad stuff so I can be better assumes that I know when I’m doing things well. And a lot of times I don’t. A lot of times I feel like there’s nothing but bad stuff. A lot of times I’m afraid to believe in the good stuff, because it makes me vulnerable to disappointment when something happens that shatters the image or calls my confidence into question.

When I watch my son let go of his grip and stand there proudly on his own, my first thought isn’t, “Well, there you go again, not able to stand up.” My first thought is jubilation. My first thought is fondness and pride and love. The same fondness and pride and love that I deny myself, because I’m so busy tearing myself down.

compliment sandwich

What if instead I was willing to eat the bread? Instead of ignoring my husband when he says I’m beautiful, what if I let his opinion sink in, let his vote actually count? Lately I’ve been running an election and it hasn’t been a democracy. What if instead of barely listening to the good stuff from my boss because I’m so busy bracing myself for all the mistakes, I allowed myself to consider how those good things happened and take some time to think through how to continue to make them happen. What if I took a deep breath and said, “YOU’RE STANDING!” I’m still a beginner at this coaching and parenting thing, and sometimes standing is it’s own miracle.

As cynical as I am about the compliment sandwich and the strengths-based approach, is it worse than my inner critic?

As I walk through the halls of the school next Tuesday, I have no idea what I will see. I imagine it possible that more than one of my teachers will, like I did my first day, look at the clock at 10:00am and realize they are in for one of the longest, worst rides of their lives. Regardless, I want to be the person who can see the good in what they are doing it, name it, and encourage them to continue on (possibly after having a good cry and a glass of wine).

And then, when I come home, I want to think back on the day and not just cringe at the bad stuff, but smile at the good stuff, too. And then maybe I’ll have some wine, or maybe a sandwich, including the bread.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

P.S. The sandwich in the picture is from Little Goat restaurant here in Chicago, and was (I’m ashamed to admit) the picture I took to brag about my meal on Facebook. Regardless your feelings of this post or compliment sandwiches, let me highly recommend this pulled pork sandwich of deliciousness.

Education fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

The Death of A Child

Five years ago, on the Saturday morning of my first day of winter vacation, I was woken up by a phone call from one of my best teacher friends, Erica. Sobbing into the phone, I could barely make out her words.

“He’s dead. Ashton is dead.”

Ashton, a sixth grade student in our school, had been shot and killed the night before while sitting in an idling car with his father. The spray from the shotgun hit him directly, killing him while critically injuring his father.

Returning to my third grade class two weeks later I knew that I had to provide my students opportunities to grieve their schoolmate and friend, though I had barely processed it myself. I spent most of my two weeks of vacation sitting in a numb hollowness, repeating Erica’s words over and over.

What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot.

On the day of the memorial for Ashton our class gathered together to share memories of Ashton. During one of our conversations the students talked about their fears, and how Ashton’s death had made them afraid for their own lives. Then Kelton said, “Why do they keep killing us kids?”

Without hesitating Miles replied, “Yeah, because I wanna know how tall I’m gonna be.”

I can’t tell this story without crying. I can’t type this story without crying.

The meaning and poignancy of Miles words hit home in a new way one year ago when I gave birth to my own son. With his birth I joined the ranks of women all over the world who watch their hearts walk around outside their body.

Becoming a mom took gasoline to the flame of love in my heart.

quotescover-JPG-12

When news of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri hit my newsfeed, I knew what I was supposed to do. An unarmed black teenager shot by the police. I’m supposed to shake my head and think, “What a shame.” I’m supposed to like the status updates of my liberal friends who post articles that shed light on the racial tensions present in our country, acted out in the riots that have broken out since Michael’s death. I’m supposed to be outraged.

And then I’m supposed to let it go. Because people don’t want to see that shit in their newsfeeds.

But I can’t let it go.

Because of Ashton. Because of Miles. Because of Michael.

How tall would Michael have become? Where would the aging lines have formed on his face and around his eyes? What songs would he have sung to his children?

I can’t stop thinking about Michael’s mother and the gasoline flame of love she has for her son. The same love that burns in my heart.

What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police.

And I think about all the people for whom this news never goes away. I think about all the mothers who aren’t given the option of deciding whether or not to “let it go”. I think about all the children who grow up scared.

“Why do they keep killing us kids?”

I still don’t know how to answer Kelton.

Shouldn’t every child get to see how tall they will be? Doesn’t every mother grieve for her lost child? Isn’t it time we stop killing kids?

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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