Tag Archives: Inspiration

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.

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.

When you leave teaching…

City Championship NMHSWhen you leave teaching, beware. You are more powerful, capable, and resourceful than you could have ever imagined possible. Though we endeavor every day as teachers to be the super human beings who sacrifice sleep, sustenance, and hydration, hurtling ourselves at the massive challenges facing our schools and students, we doubt our own efficacy. Suspended in the motion of moments too intense and important to be anything other than 100% present, we accept the mere feat of making it through each day, each year with dignity, poise, and humor as a tremendous accomplishment. Few of us work in schools or districts organized and run effectively, and we know that every day we are fighting a battle against inequity, racism, classism, otherism–a battle that leaves the students and families we love most vulnerable to the whims and fancies of policy makers and the torrents of the global economy. We love our students, and if we are lucky, we love our colleagues and the communities that support and sustain our schools. We trust somehow, somewhere we are making a difference that will be felt more tangibly than we experience each day in schools. Kalvin & Bakari

One of the things I realized when I stopped teaching was that the relationships I had with “these kids”–the ones I left behind in June–would be “my kids”–the ones whose graduations and weddings I attend, the ones who call me when they need help or are alone.

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours calling some of “these kids,” a select group of my kids: my debate team as well as a group of rising 10th graders I recruited for the debate team for the upcoming school year. My phone call was completely out of the blue on their end. For me, it was a scheduled chunk of emotional and physical energy to call and check in on them, make sure they are committed to attending debate camp at the end of the month, and set up a time and place to see them before I leave while introducing them to their new debate coach. I make these type of calls as part of my work as a teacher. No big deal once I actually set myself up to do it and start calling.

Tournament 5 DebateBut I’ve left teaching. Consciously. On purpose. These phone calls are not part of the work of doctoral students, not part of my move to New York, not part of my job and internship search. But these kids are part of my life, and their belief and trust in me a tremendous source of pride and affirmation. Our identity as teachers is wrapped up in persisting despite encouragement, status, or recognition. Even though we believe we are powerful and teaching is valuable, we are barely able to utter or type the words and sentences that claim that power. We catch glimpses of it in our work with students and colleagues, but as teachers we are so engaged in problem-solving and creation that we can’t see ourselves or our work in their entirety.

We are powerful beyond measure and well beyond the glaring shortcomings of our schools and districts. I left teaching because I felt powerless. I am a doctoral student because I want to study power. I want to be more effective at changing our broken educational system. I want to see that my intelligence and my efforts amount to something measurable and substantial. And it took me leaving teaching to see that they already had.Tournament 3 Debate

In my first years of teaching, I knew I was a good person. Over time, I evolved and knew I was a good teacher. This afternoon, I realized that good people evolving into good teachers say the right thing at the right time more often than not. In doing so, they become the most powerful and positive forces of change imaginable. I am in awe of myself and my profession. I am so proud to be a teacher. I may have left teaching for now, but I can’t help myself. I will always be a teacher, and I realized this afternoon that I will always be blessed with the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time to the students I adore.

Funny that we seem to need to step away from things to see them clearly. I’m appreciating profoundly the new closeness and understanding that distance affords.

Turtle Metaphor

I wonder on days like today just how much capacity human beings have. I think we see ourselves, our abilities, and our output as substantially fixed. Afterall, we all have seen our own limits. We need a certain number of hours sleep, companionship, food, the newspaper, some form of media and entertainment to sustain us as we move forward in this life. In our relationships and in our work, we push boundaries, but ultimately we accept that there are boundaries up against which we continue to push.

Consider these human limits and perceived (and tangible) boundaries as the turtle’s shell. The shell confines almost the entirety of the turtle’s body. For the most part, the turtle is defined by this physical shell and by the perceived and tangible dangers outside the shell. This is natural.
This morning as I was passing through Morningside Park on my walk to school, I noticed this turtle sitting triumphantly on this pond rock boldly sunning himself in the middle of the city. All extremities exposed to the world, the turtle confidently and easily sat atop this city rock in this city park. I had to stop and take notice. This was out of the ordinary. In fact I took a picture to capture the moment.
This afternoon during our final sessions in our School Law Institute, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the words of one of our speakers that I had to leave my seat. In fact I left the building. A complete stranger came up to me on the street and asked if I was alright and was so concerned she was very reluctant to leave me in such a state to return to her life. I was struck by the intensity of a series of moments where a professor who had dedicated his life’s work to the fight for equity in schools fought through the physical tremors of Parkinson’s to communicate to a group of 70 Teachers College students that it was our moment to take up this work. He could no longer continue. He spoke with humor and through a quivering, weak voice that betrayed the wit and sharpness of his intellect and richness of his experience. He struggled there before us, perched on the uncertain and steep decline of the human condition, and he was so utterly present in that moment, in each of 60 moments that he shared his wisdom and wit with us. He struggled with every inch of his body to reach us, and the intensity of that vulnerability and the tenderness of sharing that with 70 strangers reached deep inside of me. In a month of transformation and intense learning, he took this experience to an entirely new depth.
No one in that room left the same. I am sure of this. I am still struggling to understand the capacity of someone so willing and able to live so much in the present moment even as the simplest functions retreat from the brain’s command. How do you persist and persist with grace and good humor and with purpose even as you reach your most vulnerable state of life? I admire the willingness, the presence of mind, the sense of purpose, and the unyielding commitment to actualizing justice and equity for the most marginalized of people living among us. It is the fight for what is right alongside the fight for the simplest functions of life. I would be so lucky to live as much in this life the amount this professor lived in the 60 minutes he spent with us this

afternoon.
As I walked home tonight through Morningside park, I saw the turtle again. He was out on the same rock. He was there in the sun, hundreds of people about in the park: playing ball, sitting on benches, skateboarding, walking, running, walking dogs. He was still out, head and legs and tail all stretched outside the confines of his shell. I couldn’t help but think of Tom, and think about the audacity to live beyond the confines of the human experience. The shell protects, defines, humanizes the turtle, but the insistence on basking in the sun outside that shell speaks to the kind of human being I hope to become. I can only hope to live so fully.