Category Archives: About SBSD

Learning to Breath

I have been working for the better part of a quarter century to learn to meditate.

I came to a curiosity about Zen Buddhism while in high school as I had the opportunity to travel to Japan one summer, and though I had never really left my rural upbringing in Vermont, I entered a Buddhist temple for the first time during that summer and found a sense of peace and feeling of being truly at home I had not yet experienced.

I have this memory rooted in my hippocampus after returning home to Vermont and picking up a book that gave instruction on meditation in the Buddhist tradition.

In this memory, I can still hear the rain falling as I sit in my Ford Granada stuck off the side of a dirt road between Hinesburg and Charlotte, Vermont. Unable to drive any further because of downed trees and washed out roads. While I waited for a rescue, I decided that now of all moments would be the best time to try meditating.

I found myself alone doing nothing curious about Zen and with a book about Buddhist practice in my backpack. I opened the book and began to reread a passage on meditation. I sat. I tried a chant. I worked on an open posture. I crossed my legs. I began to breath.

I was puzzled. I did not understand how to breath in this way.

That memory sits with me now 25 years later as I have come to finally understand what clarity feels like when you sit breath listen.

Many experiences in that time have added guidance and purpose to that earnest kernel of curiosity and drive that came with my first visit to Japan. What has allowed me today to actually find a consistent practice with breath and meditation is an app. I use it on my iPad and my android devices. Insight Timer.

There is a beautiful intro course on the app that is open to all learners. I also find deep commitment and connection to a daily meditation course for mothers. I found the app through a course listing free for teens to learn to manage stress and emotions through meditation.

I was compelled to pen this post because as fundamental as breathing is to life, it is hard to learn to breath with confidence, calm, and insight. I am hopeful that sharing a sense of struggle and purpose will light the way for others to explore opportunities for sitting in stillness and learning to breath.

Book Talk: One Year to an Organized Life

I found this book under the Christmas tree this year, already unwrapped with it’s shiny blue cover beckoning.

My mother had asked for this book for Christmas, but seeing as she had to go right back to work after Christmas I seeing as I had been snowed into Vermont for 4 days longer than I had expected to be, her new-found Christmas treasure and I became very well acquainted in the week after Christmas.

So the idea is super gimmicky. I love it! Every month you focus on a new organizational skill and a different room in your house or area of your life. January’s skill is time management and January’s focus area is the kitchen. Before I say more about how this book has become the Brita system for my life’s proverbial water, I’ll tell you one more thing about the set-up of the book. Each week, Leeds assigns you a task that is part reflective and part action-oriented; on average the week’s task takes 1-2 hours.

I am proud to say that yesterday, one day before the month’s end, I finished the tasks of Chapter One (January), and the kitchen in my house is now in much better shape. I can’t say it’s exactly how I want it, but then again, imposing order on an entire kitchen’s worth of stuff is more than a month’s worth of organizing and thinking. I can say that my bags of chips now have a happy home in a Muji storage unit fit for the task, and my cupboards are no longer bursting at the seams with oil, vinegars, and chipped coffee mugs.

One interesting byproduct of the month’s “work” is my relationship to time management. I’m generally an organized and goal-oriented person, but the exercises in the book were helpful in identifying where I was spending time that had nothing to do with my life’s goals. Interestingly, I hadn’t been thinking lately about what my goals were, and I found that having a chance to write them down pushed me think about them really productive ways.

Here’s one last plug for the author and book: I’m getting my financial act together at the same time as I’m getting my house in order. The day after Christmas while I was reading my mom’s copy of the book, I said I’ve got to have this for myself! I went to book store with my cousins and sister in tow, and alas, the store didn’t have a copy of the book. To my good fortune though, they did have One Year to an Organized Financial Life. Not usually my thing, but I thumbed through it and decided maybe it was time to invest. Bought the book, and guess what? I like it even more than the Organized Life book! I even redid my entire filing system in my house and organized all my tax information from 2010 and have started the paperwork to start my own small business. Pretty cool! Definitely worth poaching from a friend or loved one who may have left their copy momentarily under the tree ūüôā

A bottom-up view of policy I can get behind, Part 1

One of the most satisfying parts of being in a doctoral program is having access to great research and ideas. Recently I have been able to make time for reading research related to the areas I would like to study while in my graduate program at Teachers College: inequality, educational policy, access to high quality teaching, race, and English language learners.

I picked up an issue of Educational Researcher (the AERA’s official journal) and began flipping through the articles yesterday. Like most education journals, the trouble with me is narrowing down the articles to read because so much is related to the question of how to transform American schools so that they promote equity rather than continue to reproduce the social order and larger inequitable political forces at work in our city governments, schools, and American life more generally. I started with the first piece, and I am still lingering over it now:

Raudenbush, S. W. (2009) “The Brown legacy and O’Connor challenge: Transforming schools in the images of children’s potential.” Educational Researcher, 38(3), 169-181.

So the idea here is that since Brown v. Board of Education, we have been making gains in reducing inequality (generally and in schools). Something happened though in the 1990s (and that something is pretty concisely summarized in 8 paragraphs of the article) where we began to see that there was a “cumulative effect of the concentration of disadvantage among those living in the poorest neighborhoods” (171). While the application of the term “disadvantage” still creeps me out when it appears in research pertaining to actual people, communities, and cultures who even in concentrated poverty have many “advantages,” I do think that Raudenbush has it right that trends in physical and economic segregation over the 70s and 80s resulted in our present American reality that race all too often correlates to educational (and hence economic) disadvantage.

In this article Roudenbush posits that we can transform the “amount, quality, and organization of schooling” to make good on the “O’Connor Challenge” of our post-secondary institutions no longer needing affirmative action policies because our schools would “be producing enough strong minority applicants by then to achieve diverse student bodies at prestigious universities without the aid of affirmative action policies” (170). His hypothesis is that policy can mobilize schools to take on the awesome challenge of providing and ambitious instruction capable of changing the game for those students traditionally locked out of our educational system. Instead of the overarching, top-down educational reform policies of our past, he argues that we should increase the amount, quality, and organization of our schools through “a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration” (178).

There is a lot in the this article to chew on, and that will come in Part 2 of this post once I have another go-round with reading it. I will though leave with an excerpt from the summary that inspires me to dig in to the ideas it presents:

In sum, the shared assumption is that college success is a natural outcome of continuous engagement in ambitious intellectual work from early preschool through secondary school. The central premise is that nearly all children will thrive intellectually if exposed to ambitious instruction carefully tailored to frequent, objective assessments of student progress throughout the schooling years. Such instruction requires that the privatized, idiosyncratic notion of teaching that characterizes U.S. schools give way to a shared, systematic approach that emphasizes teacher accountability and schoolwide collaboration. In such a system, teacher expertise in using the system will vary, and schools will e organized to motivate and support advances in expertise. This conception of the effective school has broad implications for school leadership, parent engagement, social services, and teacher preparation. Clarifying how such an approach can be conceived, implemented, tested, and broadly shared requires a novel sense of how practitioners and researchers should interact, with implications for how universities should best organize themselves to support powerful urban schooling.

Gifts from the universe

3fish2The treasures hidden from plain view are within reach. Here in New York, they seem to be placed carefully and rather blatantly along the path I tread. The universe in my experience usually is not so kind with its placement of said wisdom and treasures. Still I wait for time and age to bring me more of these gifts, but for the few I have now, I thank the cosmic forces that make them available to me.

A friend sees the world at present through the lens of David Foster Wallace who shares the story of two young fish swimming through the water. An older fish swims by, and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” and they reply in the affirmative. After the older fish passes, the young fish turn to one another and ask: “What the hell is water?” The cosmic, aquatic punchline being that in front of us the jewels of wisdom abound. They have been place secretly within our grasp, and in our youth, we pass them by unable to see what is in plain view.

Another friend and recently acquired mentor says she listens intently and accepts the wisdom of the gifts the universe bestows upon her–whether they initially present themselves as such.

Without full wisdom, we experience almost entirely the pain, sadness, frustration, and agony of the beautiful struggles the universe showers upon us. How can we be fully open to these struggles before the wisdom of each decade makes itself available to us? I so often crave the wisdom that I know will come with more days and years making meaning of the experiences here on this earth. And yet in the recent bounty of realization upon realization born through the beauty and agony of struggle, I am grateful.

And the other gifts beyond struggle? They are present, too. Forgiveness, acceptance, and appreciation. Every day we are capable of giving these to ourselves and to others. I feel so grateful to have a husband and to have close friends who have given me these gifts. The best things in life are free–hard-fought and not without struggle but free to give and receive.

The ever present discussion

As a white person, I lag behind my peers in my understanding of my own cultural and racial identity. In working as an educator in city schools, I have begun to build cultural competencies that I didn’t develop growing up in rural, white Vermont. I am deeply humbled by what I do not know about myself in relation to my own racial identity even as I consciously and constantly endeavor in my public and private lives to communicate effectively and empathetically across difference.

A friend directed me to¬†a post this morning, and the author’s questions, dispositions, and background in many ways mapped directly onto my own. In the quote below she tries to reconcile her anti-racist values and activism with her skin color:

How do I utilize my White body, my White voice, my White privilege? No, but REALLY? Oppressed people did not choose to be oppressed. I choose to go against Whiteness in the ways that I know how and I am still learning, but it will never be enough. Ever. No matter how much I ‚Äúchoose‚ÄĚ. Every second of my life I will continue to benefit and no matter how much I try to push up against my Whiteness it will just laugh at me.

I read this passage several times as well as the comments others posted in response. The writing elicited an intensely emotional albeit intellectual response. When it comes to white people and race it is always a choice. Born in this skin, I get to choose when to acknowledge that the rules of the game are fixed in my favor. It was my choice to leave Vermont and live in cities and work with non-white students and colleagues. Working for social justice is my choice, on my terms, whenever I feel inspired or compelled, I choose to engage in anti-racist activities. This is a privilege exclusive to white folks, and I am one of those white folks. No matter how often I choose to engage in anti-racist work, it is still a privileged choice.

It is hard to put the resulting grief of this realization into words. My choices have been just that: choices–active decisions to do something and in this case social justice and anti-racist teaching and advocacy. Those conscious choices are as much foundational to my identity as the food, language, values, and experiences I had growing up white and “country” in Vermont. To complete the thought, the realization of just how white and privileged I am, especially in the way that I engage in social justice or anti-racist work, is devastating. Going back to the blog post referenced above as the author talks about white guilt and white grief:

I also think that grief is a great word to use when talking about Whites relation to our past, present and future. How can we not feel at some level, grief? We have failed so many children in the school system, imprisoned so many men and women, infiltrated drugs into communities tearing apart family structures. On a deeper level I think people DO feel grief although I think others would argue that that isn’t possible since our actions persist. But,grief isn’t a comfortable feeling to sit with or examine either.

AND

I Googled images of slavery to put at top because the root of our guilt comes from slavery, although we should not forget about Native American genocide either. I was surprised how few of the pictures had White people in them, very few illustrated White participation. That struck me. How detached we are from our past. Who lynched Black men? Who tore families apart? Who allowed and at times facilitated their husbands rape of Black women? We did. When we learn/teach about slavery how do we fail to emphasis that? Slavery was not just an event in time. The actions of White people established a foundation that has influenced our past, present and future. It is okay to talk about that. It is okay to be ashamed of that. Vulnerability might be our only option and most valuable tool to destroy what we built.

I can tell you vulnerability is the word of the day for me. Remaining open to this discussion is painful, and while it feels right, it also feels futile. This has to be an ever present discussion (I lifted that phrase from the blog as well; it has profound significance for me today). It seems that I don’t understand the goals or the nature of my work and my life after all, maybe all I can hold on to is the commitment and desire to make this discussion and development ever-present everyday.

I love Rafe Esquith

teachThis book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, should be on every teacher induction and teacher preparation booklist. I love this book. I love Rafe Esquith as a teacher and as a writer. So many of us thrive in life because of our sense of humor and because of our gut instincts to trust and nurture other human beings–and I don’t just mean teachers. I love the candor and the schtick and the passion:

It is 2:00 P.M. on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. NO, not thumbscrews and the rack–worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are… Like many other teachers, I have adopted various measures to ease the pain. My fellow teachers and I have mastered the art of seeming to pay attention while some administrator out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth announces the current misinformation. One day, I almost broke down and had a seizure… You see, the children at our school do not read well. They do not like to read. As of this writing, 78 percent of the Latino children on our campus are not proficient at reading, according to our state’s standardized tests. This means one of tho things: Either we have the stupidest kids on the planet, or we are failing these children. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of our students are perfectly capable of learning to read. No one wants to admit it, but a systemic conspiracy of mediocrity keeps these children on the treadmill of illiteracy (29-30).

Page after page, I’m there with him, slapping my knee at the corny, self-depricating jokes and knowingly nodding with the jabs aimed at hapless malice practiced by educators throughout our educational system. It as if with each page, I learn more about my own passion and practice as an educator. I am learning and remembering at the same time Rafe tells ¬†his own story and passes along his own messages about how to teach truly, ruthlessly bucking at convention and futility.

I’m about a fifth of the way through the book, so I expect to write several more times about this topic before I finish and move onto his second book, but I did want to share a collection of powerful tips I learned in the first few chapters.

First, Rafe raves about the success of working toward teaching your kids to notice and practice a personal code of behavior (or ethics) to follow. He discusses just how difficult it is to explicitly teach. Modeling is one thing, but to get kids to really notice it in others, he had to start actively looking. Here is the list he shares:

  1. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, he names Phineas as a role model for living by a code.separatepeace
  2. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, he names Bernard as a role model.
  3. In High Noon by Gary Cooper, he names Sheriff Will Kane.high_noon
  4. In the film, Shawshank Redemption, he names Red played by Morgan Freeman as role model for living by a code.

I would, of course, add Omar from the television show The Wire.

omarlittleRafe also talks about the power of the right voices reading the right stories to kids, citing CDs of actor Joe Morton reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and actress Winona Ryder reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

And the last tip I’ll share is a website he discusses for great (and affordable!) supplemental resources for literature.

Both parents and teachers can go to a Web site called www.learninglinks.com. this company offers a series of study guides called Novel-ties, which I find to be excellent supplements to reading… As a parent and teacher, my time is incredibly limited. Given my schedule, I cannot possibly prepared dozens of comprehension questions for each chapter I read with students. Novel-ties solve the problem. They are well organized and, most important of all, reach for the highest levels of understanding. They never ‘dumb down’ the material. By using the workbooks, my students become better readers, writers, and thinkers (41).

As if you did need motivating on this point, but I love this quote about how and why adults are such powerful rolemodels when it come to literacy and young people. I love Rafe Esquith!

Children–even very bright ones–need guidance. Whether they are selecting food or literature, kids need our leadership to help them find the right path. I’m not smarter than my students. But I know more than they do because I am older than they are. I know about fabulous books that they might not yet have come across. It is my job as their mentor to put these books in their hands. Because the ¬†kids trust me, they re more likely to try a book I suggest. If one of my students is a Harry Potter fan, it’s easy to introduce him to other wonderful fantasy books. The joy of hearing one of the children laugh out loud while reading The Phantom Tollbooth or ask if she can boor the next installment of The Chronicles of Narnia remains a thrill for me. I get chills watching their minds try to comprehend the layers upon layers of Alice in Wonderland. Sharing the joy of great literature can be a cornerstone of a relationship between an adult and a child. It is through literature that young people first begin to look at the world differently, to open their minds to new ideas, to journey down an avenue of excellence (34-35).