Thursday, November 10, 2016

And so we learn to appreciate each other...

A colleague was absent today. She is a favorite among the students and class seemed difficult without her - or so I heard.

Our sub was not accustomed to our school culture. She was strict - which is fair when you have to be the sub. But her strictness felt like meanness to some of my students.

I stopped in to check in with a student about an entirely different matter and was met with furious whispering. "What should we do?" "She is so mean!"

My advice was simple. "You got this. Stay calm. Do your work. Be kind and remember that the sub is new."

About five minutes later, I got some emails.

"There is a problem. Please come back," one student wrote.

"I just got yelled at and it wasn't my fault," wrote another.

My reply remained the same: "Stay calm. Be kind. Remember she in new here."

The reply from KP was the best: "I will stay calm." For her, this is real growth.

After the period was over, they all came to my class. "She didn't know our names! I want to be called by MY name not 'young lady!' I'm gonna tell Ms. Martin when she comes back!"

For all of us, this was a great opportunity to appreciate each other.

For all of us, we appreciate the awesome work that Ms. Martin does and we keenly felt her absence today.

For me, I appreciated my students for asking for my help and my advice - and for accepting it. Each of the frustrated students came back ready to process and move on. The irony is that a month and a half ago, they thought I was overly strict and did not see me as a means of help or solutions. Today, that changed a little.

For the students, they appreciated their school. We are not an overly "schooly" place. We care about each other. We help. We are allowed to be a little bit messy. When those parts of who were are were missing, we noticed just how much we rely on them each day.

I am not sure if the sub will come back. She indicated to another colleague that "the jury was still out" on whether or not we were a good school. I sincerely hope that she does come back. I'd like my students to have the opportunity to try again to face a new situation - this time with more tools and greater understanding. And I like for her to see the students as I saw them today - as people who care about their thinking, care about how they are treated and care about their school.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Make Sense of Problems & Persevere in Solving Them

I have a problem and it is math. Common Core standards indicate that, as a proficient student, I should be able to explain the problem and look for entry points into it's solution.

The problem is a loud one and I have heard it from students, from parents and from colleagues. The problem comes daily in the form of questions.
  • "Can we do division today?" 
  • "Can you send home some math problems so that my son can practice operations with fractions?"
  • "How can we teach math in a project based, inquiry driven setting?"
While I am not certain that I have entirely explained the problem - even to myself - I do believe that the more I grapple with the problem, the more clear it becomes.

Solving the problem has become somewhat of an obsession. My first entry point was the Internet. Extensive searches did not yield the results I had hoped. I was able to see curricula from all over the nation & from all types of schools, but I didn't feel much closer to a solution.

It wasn't until I voiced my problem to a mentor that I started to make progress. She suggested I visit with some math teachers who are doing what we hope to accomplish. Armed with questions, my phone for taking pictures and a notebook, I visited SLA Center City. I sat in classes, spoke with students, asked questions and observed teachers. It was an exciting use of a rainy afternoon and I returned to school with ideas for solutions and for what to do next.

That evening, I sat down to write a unit plan, but didn't make much progress. I made a few decisions, but I was disappointed in myself for not finishing the job. I had a meeting scheduled the next day with the principal and he was expecting to see a draft of my plan.

With trepidation, I showed up at the meeting, which was also attended by our special education teacher and our school counselor. Feeling vulnerable, I shared with the group my struggle, what steps I had taken to solve my problem and my ideas for going forward. I expected some shame, but was met with encouragement, ideas for refinement and offers of help. Wow.

It would be dishonest for me to say that this problem is solved, but I have made some significant progress in the now. More importantly, I have learned a great deal about what it means to be inquiry driven and project based - for myself and for my students.

  • Inquiry is personal. One of the motivations for my math obsession is my son. He is 15 and loves math. We talk about math, we look for ways to apply math, we grapple with math. OK, he does more of that than I do, but he has made me more aware of students to whom math matters more than anything. I chose this mission - for this and many other reasons. And it matters to me. Deeply. 
  • Inquiry is collaborative. I spent a ton of time dealing with this issue alone, but it wasn't until I took my problem to a community of different thinkers that I got results.
  • Research is hands-on. I had to go somewhere, talk to others & ask questions. Sitting at my computer was not enough.
  • Answers lead to more questions. While I am getting closer to my goal, I have a long way to go. I have some answers, but I also have better questions. 
  • Perseverance can be fun. I am excited about my progress, realistic about the work that still needs to be done, but excited and energized for the journey ahead.
Going forward, I need to find ways to publicly model my own inquiry for students. I need to allow them to engage in collaborative questioning. I need to build in opportunities for hand-on research that lead to more and better questions. And I need to help all of us recognize that perseverance can be fun.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"You Despair"

My kids are out of town and I miss them. This has been a crazy summer for us - we've been apart a great deal, which isn't our normal. My kids are teenagers, so this is "age appropriate" - but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel weird.

They have traveled with classmates and been to camp. I have traveled for my new and terribly exciting job. Even so, we are managing - thanks to technology - to stay connected and aware of eachother's goings on. Thank goodness.

Because we are rarely home all together, our routines are disrupted. In some ways, this is a good thing. We appreciate eachother more and connect more deeply when we are together. But in other ways, we are missing out on the things we love. Most notably - Oreland Pizza.

I am not really proud of the amount of time and money that we spend there, but over the years, I have come to rely heavily on OP for a fast, healthy, affordable dinner that is always served with a smile. Oreland Pizza is a constant in our lives - not just because we love their food, but because of the relationships we have been so fortunate to build with the staff. When my son's scooter was stolen from outside the shop, every employee searched the neighborhood. When my sister died last summer, they didn't judge when I watched Braveheart on their TV and cried all afternoon. When I was in a car accident, the manager reached out to see if we were all ok.

Oreland Pizza is a big part of who we are as a family. So I wasn't surprised when Milton, the manager, texted me yesterday to ask how I was holding up without the boys. "Missing you," it read. "You despair."

The thing you need to know about Milton is that English is not his first language. He was born in Guatemala and has a fantastic story about how he came to live in America. While he doesn't always get the right word in English, Milton is always spot on when it comes to the concept. He was trying to say - he told me later - that we "disappeared." It had been a while since any of us had been in the shop.

But Milton was right in that I do despair - or at least I was in the moment that I read his text. I missed the boys deeply and missed the community that collectively share in the neighborhood AND at Oreland Pizza.

Despair is a really strong word, I know. And not one to throw around lightly. But being without one's community is hard - even when you know they will be back on Wednesday.

The word "despair" is Latin and the literal translation is "down from" (de) "hope" (sperare). As a student of Latin, I latch on to the word HOPE in this word - even though most others just see the despair. I do despair (a little) that the boys are away and that we aren't having much time to be together. But I also hope. I hope that our time apart is helping us to be a little kinder to eachother and the people with whom we interact. I hope that we are all learning a lot. I hope that these experiences will make it easier for all of us when the moment comes for us to live apart all the time. I hope that the experience we are having will make us better people. And I really hope that when the boys come home from their mid-west sojourn on Wednesday that we will all have dinner at Oreland Pizza while we share our stories of growth and learning with eachother and with Milton.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

What Should Happen..

My son is coming home tonight from a week-long school trip to Vancouver, B.C. Technically, this was an international trip for him, so I warned him ahead of time not to call or text. But we set up accounts with WhatsApp so that we could - um - communicate.

My son is on the autism spectrum, but more significantly, I am a mother. As a mom, I worry. Did he eat enough? Is he cold? Because some of his pictures on Facebook show snow.. Has he run out of money? Should I be concerned?

The other significant fact is that my son is almost 17. When he was diagnosed at the age of two, I worried that he would never talk. Or read. Or write. Or listen. Or love learning. Or be "normal."

So in spite of all my motherly angst about the sleeping and the layers, I am so very proud of my boy for NOT communicating. How much more normal can you get than a teenager NOT telling his mom what he is doing?!

Recognizing that I am "living the dream" of parents of children with autism, I decided that if he was cold, he was smart enough to wear a hoodie. If he ran out of money, I would have heard about it. He is in the care of gifted teachers and in the company of friends. Thanks to social media, I have seen countless selfies of a smiling adventurer, pictures of whales and mountains and even a banana slug - all proof that he is not merely surviving the trip - but thriving on the trip.

Am I counting the minutes until I can drive to the airport and pick him up? Yes. Will I keep him up all night with questions? Probably. But I am thrilled that he is behaving like a teenager should behave? Oh my goodness, yes. This is exactly what SHOULD happen.

Friday, May 20, 2016

When Life Tells You No... Stay Ready

Setbacks are a part of life. And will all go through those stretches when setbacks are a BIG part of life. Many people I know are in the midst of one of those stretches when the hits just keep on coming. One friend is in the midst of a frustrating job search. A student I know is trying to psych herself up to start school at her second choice college.

As a generally positive person, I find that I can cope with a moderate level of setbacks. Most people can, but it is when the level of setbacks rises, that I struggle to remain positive, hopeful and optimistic about the future. At least, that is how I've been feeling for the last two weeks.

But then I had some advice from Russell Wilson. In his commencement speech last Saturday at the University of Wisconsin, Wilson spoke of his own setbacks and gave some advice on moving beyond the frustrations of life telling you no.

The truth is, we hear no a lot throughout our entire lives. For children, it can be an hourly occurrence. For teens, an even more regular event. Young adults get denied loans or jobs consistently and yet once we hit a certain age, we tend to feel as though life should be saying yes all the time. But life just doesn't cooperate.

Wilson reminds us that when (not if) life tells us no, we need to stay ready. I've thought about that all week, looking for practical ways to apply that idea. How do we stay ready? What does that look like? My thinking led to the development of some steps in what I call The Stay Ready Process.

1. Read. Reading is therapeutic and instructive. When life tells us no, we can escape into a story, learn from someone else's story or inform ourselves with a new idea or new knowledge. Ideally, we should do all three.

2. Talk. It helps to say - out loud - what is going on and how we feel about it. This can help to clarify our thinking and prioritize next steps.

3. Listen. I was at the barber with my son earlier this week and listened to the barber's story about the ways life was telling him no. It gave me perspective about my own situation, insight into the way humans think and grow and, most importantly, empathy.

4. Work. We all have goals and need to be continually working towards them. When life says no, it is easy to translate that into a referendum of our goals. In most cases, it isn't. It's just a setback on the way towards the goal.

5. Review. Because setbacks are so unpleasant, it is easy to avoid thinking about them. Don't. When we review the setback - what happened? why? what does this mean for me? - it helps us to imagine what's next.

6. React. For most of us, the initial shock of the setback causes our brains to say "this is the worst thing ever!" Usually, that isn't the case. After we read, talk, think, listen, work and review, we should have a clearer picture of the setback and it's context in our lives. Only then should we react. Reacting can take many forms - re-evaluation of the goals, brushing off the dirt and getting back in the ring, working harder than we did before - but it should always be constructive and positive. This is, without a doubt, the hardest step in the Stay Ready Process, but the most important.

Staying ready is hard work. And it isn't really fun, either. But it is necessary for our own survival and it is essential that we have these conversations with students. After all... "if we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation for every disappointment." ~Henry David Thoreau.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Anxious About Toads and Other Things

I never did like toads. I remember going to the local park with my family as a child and being anxious that I would see one. Or one might touch me.

My father always said, the toad is more afraid of you than you are of it. I always doubted that, but he said it all the time.

My anxiety was not exclusive to toads, however. Boys, radiators, public speaking, and crossing the street by the library were all things that I worried about throughout childhood. It was hard to do somethings, but I always found a way. Except for when toads were involved.

Last Friday, I attended a workshop about anxiety in schools. I learned what anxiety is and how we as educators can support students who struggle.

All people experience anxiety and it serves an evolutional purpose, as it helps us to perform better. Anxiety become a problem when it gets in the way of our "joyful development" into the people that we are. Take my toad example: How many fun games did I miss out on because they took place near the pond and I was afraid of running into a toad? More than I care to know about.

While severe anxiety is a serious mental health concern which needs professional attention and intervention, I learned on Friday that there are things educators can do to support students with anxiety. The solution is to help the student (or yourself) learn to normalize the anxiety by coping with it.

Anxiety is cool in that is shows us what is important to us. When students are worried about a test, it is because they care about their grades. When they are anxious about social interactions, it means they want to like and be liked by their peers.

The trick is to have students learn that there are specific skills to managing anxiety that must be developed and practiced - it's not a magical process. Students (and all people) can learn to manage their anxiety by asking three important questions:

1. What is the worst that could happen? The toad could attack me and I will die of either toad-phobia or toad-infection.
Notice how fantastical my answer is here - anxiety is often about unnamed fear and helping students articulate the fear is an important first step.

2. What is most likely to happen? I might scream and feel a little grossed out, but the toad is going to hop away from me and hide.
See the difference? My anxiety told me one thing, but reality will show me another.

3. What is your plan? What can you say to yourself or do to help yourself? I could remind myself that my dad was right and the toad really is more afraid of me than I am of it. I could remind myself that that toad is not a danger to me - only kinda gross. I could scare the toad away.
Notice that I am taking responsibility for my thoughts and actions. And that I am not removing myself from the discomfort.

I have already found this sequence of questions to be very practical and useful. A student I know was worried about making a cold call to a college admissions office. We went through the steps together, laughing about the fantastical things the admissions officer might have said and then focusing on the plan - what questions he should ask and what to do if he didn't know what to do. He asked me to leave the room when he made the call. Later, he reported that it went well and he got even more information than he had hoped.

I was proud of the kid and he was proud of himself. He took an anxiety provoking experience and turned it into a moment of success and joyful development.

In terms of my joyful development, I was walking with my son a few nights ago and we happened upon a toad hanging out in a neighbor's drive way. My son is almost 6 feet tall, so I admit that I was tempted to scream and jump onto his back. But then I remembered to ask myself the three questions - with an emphasis on the third. Instead of screaming, I planned to be curious about the toad. What was he doing here? Can I get a good picture of him? Is is a boy or a girl?

My questions helped me to stay within the anxious moment and turn it into joyful development. You might argue that the picture I took was not all that good. But my dad sure was proud of me when I texted it to him!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kindness is Not a Random Act

Kind words from the thespian troupe.
My son is a freshman in high school. For me, being a freshman was a difficult journey, but he carries the mantle more graciously than I ever did.

Being a freshman means finding your way. It's about deciding who you will be, what you will do, how you will spend your time and why you will get out of bed in the morning.

If you are lucky, you will find people to help you on your way - friends, teachers, teammates, people with similar interests. If you are really lucky, these people will not only provide companionship, but also guidance, support and encouragement.

My son is an actor and just yesterday, his troupe finished their run of Damn Yankees. The production was fantastic - the singing, the dancing, the set, the sound were all student led and all remarkable in their own way. At the final performance, the students had the opportunity to buy a carnation and attach a note for their peers. It was really great to see how many of the students chose to send good wishes to their friends. I should know, because I foolishly volunteered to tie the notes to the the carnations.

This was his third show with the troupe and my son has grown to trust and respect his fellow actors - especially some senior boys who are funny, gifted, hardworking and kind.

To have your teenager look up to kind, funny people is enough of a gift. But yesterday, these senior boys all sent him a carnation with an encouraging message. "Keep it up," they said. "You've got talent and I can't wait to see what the future will bring."

I'll admit to reading the notes more than once. And to crying every time. I remain deeply grateful. These students went out of their way to encourage my kid. Their kindness was palpable.

People often talk about "random acts of kindness." Those are cool - my dad used to carry quarters in his pocket and when he walked around downtown, he would feed the meters for others. We will never know how many parking tickets he prevented.

But I believe that best acts of kindness are intentional and not at all random. These senior boys were intentional in their kindness. They went out of their way to do something for my kid - and probably other people's kids, as well. And the school provided an avenue that enabled them to be intentional.

People need intentional kindness. And I was grateful to these boys, their parents and their school for fostering their ability to be kind.

What are some ways that you can promote, support and encourage kindness in your students and children? How can you provide opportunities for them to show kindness to others? How can you help them be intentional with their kindness?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Value of Volunteers

I vividly remember rolling my eyes when the assistant principal announced that I would be getting a classroom volunteer. "Oh, great," I thought, "more work for me."

The volunteer in question turned out to be great. She was engaging, funny, proactive and the students loved her. I was sad when the moved on.

But my initial reaction stuck with me for a long time. Whenever the subject of parent volunteers came up, I was skeptical. What does this mean for me? Will this be worth it? What are their motives? Don't they have jobs? Super snooty, right?

Recently, I have become more enlightened on the matter, as I have been doing some volunteering myself. I know that the teachers probably roll their eyes when they see me coming, but I really don't care. I volunteer because I am grateful for the opportunity my kid has to do cool things. If I can help behind the scenes with the play by printing programs, hanging up posters, organizing other volunteers or being a cheerleader, I will. For me, being part of the drama troupe parent group feels great.

I am embarrassed that it took my own volunteer experience for me to realize the value of volunteers. For moms, dads, grandparents and community members volunteering is a way of saying "thank you for supporting my kid." It's a way to give back a little something and to be part of something bigger. Volunteers get a lot out of volunteering.

But so do schools. Schools get extra hands on deck, enthusiastic people to do boring work, cheap labor and sometimes gifts in kind. But more importantly, schools benefit because the community is broader. Volunteers add value, richness and diversity to school communities.

I know that volunteering is complex endeavor in the modern age. Parents can't just show up anymore. We need documentation and clearances. In spite of these barriers, schools must provide volunteer opportunities often. The benefits are overwhelming. Consider a few scenarios.

My kid is called into the office for a minor problem. I volunteer at school and know the principal and teachers. Because of this, I'm less likely to freak out and blame someone else and so our meeting goes smoothly. I still want justice and/or consequences for my kid, but I am more likely to approach the situation in a calm and productive way. I'm part of a community and I want to keep it that way, without alienating anyone.

My kid's friend had a death in family. The school wanted to help by providing meals. Because I volunteer, I feel part of this community, even though I don't know the family. The impact that the school can have on the response to this tragedy is huge because so many parents felt like valued members of the community through acts of volunteerism. Weeks after the death, the family is still receiving meals.

The examples are endless and the message is clear. Volunteers matter and schools must value their contributions. The happiest people are those who are giving more - and don't we want our schools filled with happy people?

Friday, February 19, 2016

On Getting Accepted to Grad School.. Again

So I was accepted to graduate school. Again.

Earlier this academic year, I'd looked into some doctoral programs. The idea really excited me, but being the mom of two teenagers is an expensive proposition - especially on an educator's salary. So I figured I'd scale back. That dream can wait a little longer...

I finished my Masters' when my youngest was one. He' about to turn 15, so that was a while ago. And now I shall get another one.

Yes, I learn all day. Yes, I actively seek new knowledge from colleagues, students, parents, mentors, conferences and Twitter. I read all the time. Ask questions. Wonder. Ponder. Think. It's a good life.

But I would be lying if the schoolgirl within - who always dreamed of being a teacher and loved being a student - isn't jumping up and down today. She knows the value of being in class, of asking questions, stretching her thinking and muscling through required readings. It was for her that I decided to do this. And so, today, we both are glad.

Friday, February 12, 2016

I Have Something to Say

My oldest son is on the autism spectrum. For the first several years of his life, he had no language. We communicated through signs, pictures, pointing, crying and codes. It was hard and there was a lot of guessing on my part. But as frustrating as it was for me, I am certain that it was torture for him. He had something to say - always - and no opportunity to say it.

This post, however, is not about my family's journey through the delights of autism. Whether or not we are verbal or non-verbal, we all have something to say. Sometimes our somethings are funny. Sometimes they communicate need. Often, we have something to say that lets other know what and how we are thinking. Having watched my boy struggle to say his somethings has taught me the value of voice. Whether our something is insightful, ridiculous, mundane or meaningful, we all must have the opportunity to say it.

Last night, I was at a parent meeting hosted by the school district that my younger son attends. It was very informative and shared with parents the importance of allowing our children to make mistakes and fail. The meeting was mostly leader directed, with a few opportunities for sharing and discussion. After the content and research were covered, the leader opened the floor up for questions. Nearly every hand went up because we all had something to say. I had hoped to be home by 8pm, but the discussion kept us there for much longer - so long, in fact, that I wondered why more sharing time had not been built into the agenda.

As educators, we know that value of providing students the opportunity to say something. While there are still students in many classrooms who lack the opportunity to speak and discuss their ideas, our basic models of education are moving in better directions to allow individuals to say something.

As a teacher and facilitator of adult learning, I know the risk of allowing people to say something. People make off-topic comments, they try to change the subject, they don't always take the opportunity to listen to other because they are too busy formulating their next comment - I get it. There are pitfalls to an open forum.

Even so, last night I was struck by the powerful need of parents to ask questions, make connections and share experiences. These are the ultimate goals for saying something: to connect with others and to have your voice be heard.

In my house, our lives changed for the better when we ALL could say something. Instead of pointing, crying or guessing, our voices were heard. No, we don't always say wise, kind or meaningful things. Sometimes we repeat ourselves or change the subject. But always we have the opportunity to say something and have it be heard.

Is it possible to give more people in the school community greater opportunities to share and be heard? Without question. The challenge is for us to relinquish our control and offer chances for others to speak, lead and be heard.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Intuition or Unconscious Bias?

About 18 months ago I overheard an idea at a work event. Without going into the gory details of the comment, the idea surrounded the sustainability of the school at which I was working. I found the idea terribly uncomfortable and couldn't wrap my head around it. My intuition led me to believe that the speaker's slant or bias was coloring her comments.

Unsure of how to process this info, I consulted with some folks - our head of school, a donor, some colleagues and a few students (disguising the idea as a hypothetical situation, of course). I received a variety of different ideas and opinions, but was still fairly stuck in my own thinking. Despite what I gleaned from others, I was pretty sure this idea was a bad one.

Recently, I had a reversal in my thinking. In the process of changing my mind, I realized something important: Even though I was going through the motions of evaluating the idea, I was clinging dearly to my own opinion. Call it arrogance, stubbornness, close-mindedness or a combination of all three.

This was a good lesson for me. I have always claimed to be fairly open minded and willing to consider diverse ideas, but in this case - and perhaps many others - I was seeking information, but adhering to my own ideas and relying on my "intuition."

This raises a few questions:

  • How often do we think we are relying on intuition when we are actually letting our bias get in the way of clarity? 
  • What is the connection between intuition and bias? 
  • And if we rely too heavily on our own "intuition," how are we expanding our own thinking?
As we maneuver decision making and progress, it is essential that we evaluate the ideas of others while at the same time we are being honest and reflective about our own thinking. Are we holding fast to our ideas because they are valid or because our we are thinking narrowly? Do we allow our "intuition" to be influenced by our unconscious bias? And - most importantly - how to be minimize the connection between intuition and bias?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Keep Your Focus on Your Growth

I had a bad week. Everything frustrated me - other people, circumstances, the weather, work and even my hair. It was bad.

I vented to a friend. He's a good friend, so I was hoping for a little sympathy and maybe an "oh, poor you."

I got neither. Turns out, sympathy was not was I needed. The problem with sympathy (in situations like these) is that it makes feeling crummy and wallowing in self pity acceptable. It validates an unwillingness to change something about how we think and operate.

Instead of coming to my pity party, my friend took off my party hat and said "the party's over." He reminded me that there are always opportunities to learn - even in bad situations. He reminded me to focus on the things that I can see and control and capitalize on those to buoy me through difficulties. The best part of the advice was this: keep your focus on your growth and everything else will fall into place.

Remaining focused on growth means I can take charge of how I shape my day. Am I concentrating on the right things? Connecting with people who can support my growth? Reflecting on my actions, thoughts and behaviors? Evaluating my output?

The problem with the pity party is that it leads to inertia and stagnation. Focusing on growth, empowers me to take charge of the things I can control, be grateful for the opportunities I have to learn (even the hard ones) and, well, grow!

Friday, January 15, 2016

(A Story) can change the world

"Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music,  or a book can make a difference. It can change the world." ~ Alan Rickman

Years ago I fell in love with Alan Rickman. I was in college and home for winter break and my mom forced all of her teenaged & young adult children to watch Truly, Madly, Deeply. I was hooked. A few years later, my brother and I would chronically watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves realizing it was a terrible film but relishing in Rickman's wit and talent. He went on to play Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility - my favorite of Jane Austen's impressive body of work. And while I was a fan long before Alan Rickman became Professor Snape, his role as Snape appealed to my inner nerdy teacher. Professor Snape was demanding and exacting, but he really knew his stuff.

I love what Alan Rickman had to say about the power of storytelling to create change. Looking back at his body of work, both the sublime and the ridiculous, I can identify things within each story that helped me to see things in a new light or adjust my thinking in some way.

As educators, we seek to change the world. We have many avenues through which we try to accomplish this change. Some of our "interventions" are "data-driven" or "researched based." But it is important to keep in mind the truth in Rickman's statement. Stories and the people who tell them, can change the world.  And we must let them. We must create opportunities for students to hear stories and to tell them. To act in theater and to watch. To perform music and to hear it be performed. To read books and to write them.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Process is the Goal

Only recently have my sons allowed me to take them to the barbershop. "It is a manly place, mom," they would say. "You won't like it."

The truth is, I love going to the barbershop with them. Even though I don't smoke cigars or ride a motorcycle, I enjoy reading magazines about them. I am prone to ask questions of the barbers themselves and I suspect THIS is the reason why my sons had previously banned me from the barbershop. Everything there is so foreign to me, so I seek to understand and create meaning.

On a recent visit right before Christmas, I was asking the barber about his holiday plans. He told me about a fishing trip he'd planned to take after the new year. He planned to fly to Florida and fish for 2 weeks.

"Do you try to catch anything in particular?," I asked.


"Do you eat what you catch?"

"I throw it back. To me, fishing is more about the process and less about the end result," he said.

Over the last two weeks, this statement really stuck with me - and the more I thought about it, the more I recognized the truth of the statement.

As educators, we tend to focus on goals for ourselves and our students. These goals often take the form of an outcome. "By June, so-and-so will be able to do such-and-such with 90% accuracy." That would be great for so-and-so, but the problem with goals stated in this way is that while the outcome is "measurable," the process gets the short shrift. Likewise, we make "transition plans" for students as they approach certain milestones to help them segue from one phase to another.

If you think about it, these practices overlook an important reality of living and learning - humans are always in transition. Just when we become comfortable with an idea, we are confronted with a challenging one. Just when we master a skill, we are required by circumstance to develop a new one.

Thinking back on my own year of transition, I can identify several events that were not "goals" of mine, nor were they situations one could "master with 90% accuracy." Losing my sister, leaving a job that I loved, being rejected for several new opportunities but finally starting a new position within an excting organization, recovering from pneumonia, supporting my kids as they find their separate ways in this world - these aren't the things for which you plan, and yet they are the things which all humans face.

Perhaps it is time to change the conversation and the language we use when thinking about "goals." Certainly, we must encourage students and colleagues to set goals, but it is time we focus more on the process. How do we maneuver life's challenges and not be swept underneath them? Are we giving students the tools with which to do this? In thinking about my barber/fisherman friend, I think there are lessons to be learned from his approach.

Keep you eyes open for what comes, not just for what you want. Often, we set specific goals and our hyper-focus on them prevents us from seeing other opportunities that might be lurking. In other words, don't just fish for one kind of fish, but for whatever you happen to catch.

Devote time to looking. (or fishing). New growth takes time. That might be a two week fishing trip, a brisk walk every morning to clear our thoughts, time spent blogging or journaling - whatever it looks like, we must help students (and ourselves) to make time to notice and reflect on what is out there.

Develop a rhythm. In fishing, haircutting, dishwashing, thinking and any other process you can name, each person has her own rhythm and pace. Practice helps us develop this, but once the rhythm is set, it enables us to go through the motions when we really don't want to. Think about a time when you have struggled with grief or depression. Daily living was hard, but the rhythm of the processes you must engage with helped you function, until you recovered enough to want to care again.

Be alone sometimes. This is harder for some than for others, but it is important to be able to reflect upon our process and opportunities without the opinions of others. This helps us know our own thoughts on the matter.

But seek the counsel of others. Knowing our thoughts and feelings is helpful, but sometimes we need to strategize with someone smarter, more knowledgable or more experienced.

Get used to disappointment. Setbacks are part of living. All of us need to learn to face them with dignity, take them in stride and learn something new from each disappointment.

Celebrate small milestones. On most days, we don't get the perfect job, ace the test or get accepted into out first choice college. However, on most days, we can find something to celebrate. The math problem was less confusing today, I didn't lose my temper with that annoying student, my boss complimented a project I had worked on - these are never earth shattering events, but they are worth recognizing and help us focus more on the process and less on the "outcome."

Feel. Laugh, cry, get mad, be grateful, experience confusion. These are all part of the process.

Be determined. I almost left this one off the list. Determination can look a lot like single-minded drive towards a goal. But that is not the best kind of determination. Think about the time you have been afraid, but squared your shoulders and moved ahead anyway. That is the kind of determination we need to teach students and ourselves to embrace. No matter how long you stand there and don't catch a fish, you keep casting your line anyway.