Category Archives: Inspiration

My own writing about sustaining belief: In finding my public blogging voice, I have realized that much of what I write about is centered on sustaining belief: mine as well as others. It is my contribution to easing the suffering around me and fighting for justice and equity.

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 🙂

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 “choose”. 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).

A conversation between two teachers (IM)

Teacher 1: hey Teacher 2!

Teacher 2: hey!

Teacher 1: teaching my first class in 2 hours. Got any advice?

Teacher 2: wow!

don’t forget the bring the syllabus!

🙂

what kind of class is it

Teacher 1: lol thanks!

11:45 AM

Teacher 2: small, big? intro? advanced?

Teacher 1: [advanced college class] Kinda my dream class. about 10 juniors and seniors

Teacher 2: how long is the class?

meets once a week?

Teacher 1: just shy of 2 hrs

twice a week

Teacher 2: two hours twice a week?

or one hour each session?

Teacher 1: 4 hours total

Teacher 2: wow

Teacher 1: yeah!

11:46 AM

Teacher 2: what students need more than anything is three things. you ready?

Teacher 1: yes

Teacher 2: one: set high expectations for everyone in the class. tell them they are high standards, tell them why you are expecting so much for them

11:47 AM

two: tell them that you know every single student is capable of that work. then in the next week, make sure you touch base with each student and tell them knowingly that you know they individually can do the work.

Teacher 1: ok!

Teacher 2: three: then work your ass off to scaffold their learning (we love this term.. it just means think about each step of the process for doing a complex task and teach students how to do it)

11:48 AM

make sure that each student gets the extra help and practice they need to make up for their deficits

above all else: students want a teacher who believes they are capable of great things and they want to trust that you will support them to get there

11:49 AM

Teacher 1: awesome – i’m gonna copy/paste that!

Teacher 2: and then of course you don’t have to worry about the other things because you’re a natural… things like humor, interesting ideas, etc.

Teacher 1: (it’s been a long time since intro to ed!)

Teacher 2: they’ll go along with you because you’ll treat them right

11:50 AM

and bring them things that are worthy of study

that’s my three-minute speal

11:51 AM

Teacher 1: awesome!

you’ve done more to prepare me than any of the new faculty orientation stuff!

(it’s kind of trial by fire here)

Teacher 2: well, happy to help

11:52 AM

and happy you asked 🙂

your students will be great, and you’ll be great today. it will be a lot of fun!

Teacher 1: thanks!

Differentiating the high school classroom teacher: My own individualized learning plan of sorts

Photo 19This is me giving myself that look: “Really?”

Blogging again when you have two other concrete “actual” things to accomplish in the next 30 minutes?

And like the patient students who had to endure the same slightly perturbed gaze, I heartily reply: “Yeah.” I’ve got some interesting things on my mind. I was on the subway (in Boston) two hours ago realizing how deeply grateful I am for the experiences I have had thus far in my professional career. All of the difficulties I have had as a teacher working in urban schools, experiences that for so long felt like the shackles that held my students, my colleagues, and my own work suspended in the mediocrity endemic to segregated, low-income communities in America, abruptly shifted from chains to cherished blessings. No joke.

Photo 21I was reading a book a friend and colleague, José, introduced to me while we were teaching together last year: Differentiating the high school classroom: Solution strategies for 18 common obstacles. Kathie Nunley, the author, reveals  in the introduction (after listing some of the most common problems teachers face on a daily basis; she starts with 25 but acknowledges there are plenty more) just how creative and intelligent teachers are by virtue of the obstacles we face:

“Teachers are creative people. The tougher the problem, the more creative we must be. When teachers share with me the various difficult situations they are in, I respond, ‘Rejoice–you’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to show your ingenuity and creative genius.’ Struggles build character and intelligence.”

I realized in those moments of processing the sentiment of those words and what I have found to be true this summer and early fall thinking deeply about my practice and about the possible pathways forward just how truly blessed I have been to have encountered so much ridiculosity (I know, not really a word) in my teaching career. All of the blights of the American educational enterprise as we know them and as I in particular have experienced them have made me stronger, smarter, and more direct, agile, creative, and open as both a person and a practitioner. It is in those most confounding of restraints that we create our best work and true, deep learning for ourselves and for those around us. Nunley’s introduction was meant to set the stage for a wonderful, explosively powerful frame for understanding the awesome task of reforming schools, teaching, and learning by understanding the simple yet daunting reality that each learner is unique and that as teachers we must be ready for the spectacular challenge of differentiating instruction for all learners. The work is challenging and it may not call to us all, but damn, for those of us moths drawn to its flame, does it make us intelligent, resourceful, and potent human beings.

A man of character

Kennedy Civil Rights Act

Loss, sadness, grief even. Those feelings engulfed me yesterday morning, spurred by the news my iPhone sent through my earbuds and into my internal receptors. Passing the morning din of Manhattan on my stroll sola toward coffee, bagels, and pharmacy whatnot, I first heard the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing. Even typing that sentence now I surrender to the need to pause, breath deeply, and hold back the emotion welling behind my eyes.

I never met Ted Kennedy, but inexplicably his life touched mine more deeply than I had realized before his death.

In the papers, on the radio, online–everyone has stopped to note his passing and to reflect on his life. The attention of most focuses pointedly on the legacy of Kennedy’s fight for healthcare and on microscopic assessment of his character. Compared to most, I don’t know much about the Kennedys. I came to Massachusetts already an adult, so I didn’t grow up with the Massachusetts family who early and often assumed a custodial role in the Commonwealth. I don’t have anything to offer to the debate on how to remember Kennedy, how to assess the gaffs and failings. Much of his life was public which is why someone like me might have such an intense reaction to his passing and why others have such intense reactions to his past mistakes.

What I know of Ted Kennedy’s character is that he fought. He fought for things I believe in and did it more passionately, more completely, more vigorously, and longer than any public figure. As a young person, I made a choice to dedicate much of my life to fighting for social justice in an unequal world. The problems are numerous, vast, entrenched. The best solutions chip away at the core injustices in our communities, and rarely do we feel that the fight yields us a victory complete. Whether it’s assessed by others as strength of character or defect of character, Ted Kennedy’s willingness to commit the better part of his life to fighting for and serving others so passionately and completely garners my respect, gratitude, and empathy.