Monday, April 27, 2015

To Be Enthusiastic....#sol15

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was one of the nominees to attend the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership Retreat (HOBY).  Several of us were nominated and we were interviewed by our principal and teachers.  I remember nervously waiting outside the conference room for my interview, pretty shocked that I was a candidate.  7 students were nominated and I remember the others bantering about who they thought would ultimately be selected.  No one thought it would be me.  I think I was the most surprised when it was announced that I was selected to attend the HOBY Leadership Retreat at Marymount College.  

At 15, I was not someone who left home often, never did the sleep away camp thing and didn't really go to sleepovers either.  This was a weekend away at a college with complete strangers.  I was petrified but also exhilarated that I had been selected and that my high school teachers saw so much leadership potential in me.  Even then, I tried to learn the lesson that Eleanor Roosevelt said:"You must do the things that you think you cannot do."  I was frightened, but knew I should push through and attend the weekend.  

It was an awesome experience.  20 years later, I don't remember everything about HOBY but certain things live strongly in my memory.  The atmosphere was electric and joyful and something emphasized again and again through chants and cheers was, "To be enthusiastic, you must act enthusiastic."  

Recently I reread Dave Burgess' book, Teach Like a Pirate,  for a book discussion with my LIWP friends. The HOBY experience came to mind as Burgess describes how "mediocrity doesn't motivate."  He writes, "Mediocrity is incapable of motivating. You just can't be on fire about mediocrity. There's no energy, no juice, and no fuel to ignite action.  How could anyone be fired up about creating a lukewarm classroom environment..."  Burgess further states, "You have to be on fire with passion and enthusiasm." To be enthusiastic, you must act enthusiastic.  

Being enthusiastic isn't always popular.  It can be more socially acceptable to dread Monday than to be happy about coming to work.  For a long time, I worried that seeming too enthusiastic or excited about teaching would make me seem different, not part of the group. Becoming a more "connected" educator has helped me gain confidence and find community with other teachers who are filled with passion and enthusiasm.  It's given me more confidence to be willing to share my ideas with others and display my enthusiasm for being a teacher. 

As I typed this, serendipity happened.  A new Twitter friend and fellow third grade teacher, Aliza Werner sent me an email.  Earlier in the day, I had sent her a message, asking for some book recommendations for an order I need to place. Her reading workshop sounds so engaging and incredible and we've been communicating about reading strategies.  Aliza is one of those teachers who is passionate and enthusiastic about reading and learning and also completely generous.  She has already sent me files and documents and tonight, she wrote, "It really is empowering to find like-minded educators who try their best with their students.  It's one of those professions where you feel like you are always aspiring to do better and more, so you never really feel like an expert...Nice to have a community to lean on and share with in this crazy teaching world!"  Her next lines made me laugh- "Honestly, I think I should shoot a video to walk you through my Reader's Notebook.  It would help to tie everything together."  

THAT is enthusiasm and shared enthusiasm.  A teacher who would video her reader's notebook to be able to explain it all and a teacher, me, who can't wait to see that! This passion and enthusiasm hurts no one but helps many.  Aliza is inspiring me and helping me learn.  Her passion and enthusiasm will now make me a wiser, more skilled teacher, benefiting my students and my school.  

To be enthusiastic, you must act enthusiastic.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Scenes from the Bus Stop and Beyond #sol

That's me on the left.  In the quite tight and short shorts (seriously, Mom, what WERE you thinking?), the only one not looking at the camera.  Instead, I'm beaming at my big sister,in her crisp maroon and gray plaid uniform, second from the right.  She was going off to school with all the "big kids" from the neighborhood, and man, did I want to go, too.  

When you are the younger sister, you are always waiting for your turn, watching your older sister get to do it all before you.  Always a step behind.  When you are the younger sister and your older sister is naturally gifted, can put together a puzzle of the United States in under a minute at age 6, can name all the capitals of all the states, is good at drawing and fits into all the cute clothes you are too big to squish can be rather hard.  When she wins trophies and contests and full scholarships, you can see your work is cut out for you.  When she qualifies for the gifted program and your scores say you don't, it can feel deflating, devastating.  You can feel like you are less than, not good enough, no matter what loving family members say to reassure you.  

So what is the chubby, curly-haired un-gifted sister to do? Work hard.  Be a hard worker.  And even though your scores say you aren't "gifted", you rack up those hundreds on tests because you try. so. hard.  It isn't effortless but the bar has been set and you try to reach it, even though you never quite get there. That big sister always does it better, always ranks higher.  

In time, you see that while you may not be as "gifted", you still do have gifts and they are uniquely your own.  And you stop chasing the legend and start creating your own path with your own distinct goals and achievements.    

But let's be honest- you are still in awe of her.  Her intelligence, her vocabulary, her memory, her wardrobe, her ability to wear heels, the silky straightness of her hair, her slimness, the way she can prepare delicious foods you can't even pronounce.  Her ability to make friends wherever she goes, her confidence.  30 years might have gone by, but you will always look at her like that, because she is your amazing sister. 

 In fact, you owe her.  If she wasn't so awesome, you might not have gotten that fire inside you that pushed you to work hard and keep striving.  While you never quite caught up, you built your endurance.  When the path curved and you stopped chasing her, and started finding your own way, you were better for having done the chasing.  

To the little curly-haired chubby sister on the left, keep smiling.  It's hard to be in the shadows but you'll find your sunshine soon enough. That sister of yours is forever on your side and will be your best friend for life. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

If You Want to Be a Teacher...

Tomorrow is "Poem In Your Pocket" Day at our school! This is the poem I am putting in my pocket.  It is an excerpt from Random Thoughts: The Humanity of Teaching by Louis Schmier.  My favorite lines:
"If you want to be a teacher, you have to be inspired and inspire."
"If you want to be a teacher, you have to fall in love each day."

If You Want to Be a Teacher
By Louis Schmier
If you want to be a teacher, you first have to learn how to play hopscotch
And hide-and-seek,
Learn how to watch a snail crawl, blow bubbles,
Read Yertle the Turtle.

If you want to be a teacher, listen to a distant train,
Wiggle your toes in the mud and let it ooze through them,
Stomp in rain puddles,
And be humbled by the majesty of a mountain.

If you want to be a teacher, you have to be inspired and inspire.

If you want to be a teacher, you have to bring joy into everything,
Watch in awe a sunset or sunrise,
Ride on a swing,
And respect even a cockroach as a miracle of life.

If you want to be a teacher, you have to think silly thoughts,
Swirl a Tootsie Pop in your mouth.

If you want to be a teacher, you have to fall in love each day.

If you want to be a teacher, you have to put aside your formal theories,
Intellectual constructs, axioms, statistics, and charts,
When you reach out to touch that miracle called

The individual human being. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Metamorphosis & Transformation

Driving home from school, I asked my 4 year old son Alex about the caterpillars in his classroom.  
"Are they butterflies yet? Did they go into their cocoon?" I ask.

"Nope, still caterpillars.  It's going to take days and days," Alex says as he looks out his window. 

And it got me thinking about caterpillars and butterflies, bare tree branches one day that are blooming buds the next, mothers 9 months pregnant one moment and holding a real live crying baby minutes later.  

I've always loved the song "The Rose" and the image at the end, where the seed is under the snow, invisible to all. In the midst of a frigid and bleak winter, it is near impossible to envision that a rose is there, just waiting to bloom.  Spring brings renewal and transformation- plain and dare I say creepy looking caterpillars become spectacular butterflies. Amazing! Buried seeds blossom into exquisite blooming flowers.  From the barren and harsh winter, beauty emerges and life transforms before us. 

This external scene of transformation makes me think of my internal transformation as a teacher.  I feel like I'm growing and changing, expanding, seeking out ways to transform myself.  While I have always loved teaching, last year was my winter, my most challenging moments where I felt the joy slipping away and a weariness taking hold.  I didn't feel excited or enthusiastic; I felt bitter and anxious and resentful and tired. When an opportunity came to switch grade levels and move to third grade, a voice inside me said, "Leap and don't look back." And so I did, and I haven't looked back once.  It was the right move for me in so many ways.  

This year, I've felt myself stretching like the caterpillar, changing, becoming a new version of myself.  I'm searching for opportunities to learn and try new things and I feel a passion and excitement for teaching again.  Perhaps it takes a winter of sorts in your soul to make ready for the transformation that comes when you are ready to bloom in a new way.  Professionally, I am taking leaps and risks and jumping in and daring myself to learn.  After coming dangerously close to burning out, it feels exhilarating to have a burning passion again. 

Alex is right.  Caterpillars don't become butterflies all at once. It takes days and days but one day, they do change.  Kind of like us.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Relaxing" Spring Break? #sol

It's Spring Break.  You would think I would feel relaxed, easy-breezy, soaking in the days without the usual hustle and bustle routine.  I'm NOT.  I am more stressed than if I was at work.  It's like working creates blinders where I can only see what is in front of me: the essential things that need to get done that day in preparation for the next. I'm too busy to notice the desk drawers cluttered with mystery papers, the closet in the office about to burst with a mish-mosh of school supplies, the toy rooms with crayons, markers, stickers, games, books, and little toy figures tossed all over the place.  The car with the crumbs in it.  The bathroom closet in disarray. The drawers filled with winter clothes that need to be put away in favor of lighter spring outfits, and the shopping that needs to get done since I was a size smaller last spring.  But now that off from work, all I notice is all I have to do and the frustration of not being able to get to any of it. With a four year old and a two year old home, there is very little time to do anything I want to do or need to do and it's really starting to frustrate me.  And then I feel guilty for being frustrated.

Here is a list of the things I need to do and hope to do over this spring break.

Create a resume needed for a summer position.  Reread Teach Like a Pirate in preparation for an upcoming LIWP book discussion.  Read the Truth About Twinkie Pie to be ready for Authorpalooza on April 19th. Make 6 sets of 21 candy bags to give to students for state testing when we return to school.  Reschedule the eye appointment I should have gone to in December.  Make an appointment to have my daughter's hip brace resized.  Collaborate with my friend and LIWP colleague on how Twitter can enhance your professional development.  Clean out my desk and office closet.  Reorganize the toy rooms and get the outdoor toys ready for use.  Shop for new spring clothes and shoes.  Put away the winter clothes.  Work on a poetry unit and read the upcoming units of study for reading and writing.  Read through the next math module and plan a review for the state test.  Read through the materials to learn more about Google as I work to become a certified Google educator. Read something on my TBR list. Grocery shop and be more strategic about the foods my kids eat.  Make family member picture cards associated with letters of the alphabet for my son who is having a hard time learning letters.  Buy a birthday gift for an upcoming kids party. Do the piles of laundry waiting for me and put away the baskets of clean laundry that have been sitting there for...a while. 

I think I need a spring break from my spring break. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

When Laws Are Unfair

"I think they're both kind of wrong," one of my brightest students says as we discuss the the book Sit Down: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.  She goes on to explain that the people are wrong for shouting things and throwing things at the kids who are simply sitting at the lunch counter, waiting to be served, but the kids are wrong, she feels, because they are breaking a law. 

Hmmm. I remember the stages of moral development and my third graders are squarely in that stage where you follow the rules because authority says to do that.  But I need to help them see, now more than ever, that unfair, mean, restrictive rules should be challenged. Like Rosa Parks did.  Like Ruby Bridges did. Like Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes did.  Like the Opt-Out movement to stop the over-reliance on high-stakes testing, the ranking and punishment of teachers and schools based on faulty science, the efforts to privatize and put profits ahead of free public education where all are welcome to come and learn.  

I can't and don't discuss this Opt Out movement in the classroom.  Instead, I try to challenge them to see how the kids who were part of the sit-in respectfully and nonviolently challenged a law that made no sense and was inherently unfair.  I tried to help them see how they would feel if they had to sit in the back of a bus, use a different water fountain, not be able to eat in a restaurant of their choosing.  How could something like that ever happen in a country that celebrates freedom? We know it is part of our history as well as other unfair laws and policies that make separate rules for you based on your gender, your sexual orientation, your age, your race.  Things historically have only changed when brave and courageous citizens said, "Enough" and put themselves on the line. 

For the last couple of months, I have believed in democracy and citizens speaking out to their elected representatives.  I helped plan a campaign for my local teacher's union to write letters, call our representatives, and spread positive stories of teachers who've made a difference. I signed petitions. I brought petitions to State Senator Michael Venditto's office and spoke with one of his aides about my fears and concerns for Governor Cuomo's budget.  I wore red for public ed.  When a proposed law is unfair, I believe we have an obligation to speak out. And I wanted to believe that citizens speaking out would make a difference. 

But it didn't.  "With heavy hearts" the budget was passed with all the dead-wrong reforms to education along with it.  Testing and punishment, unfunded ridiculous mandates, tenure gone. I don't know how anyone can believe that innovative and joyful learning can happen when we all feel like an ax is hanging over our heads. Who does this hurt when teachers are afraid and feel they need to stick to the joyless test prep curriculum? How will students come to love learning when we all feel afraid to veer off the scripted, soul-less curriculum?

 Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo has suggested that all of us teachers with bad test scores should seek a career at McDonald's.  What will happen to the middle class when that occurs? When those of us who went to college, then graduate school, and invested time and money in becoming a certified teacher are out of a job? With Long Island being as expensive at it is, two incomes are mostly needed for a family to survive.  When test scores deem us ineffective and we lose our jobs, how will this help our New York economy? When our houses foreclose and we can't afford to live and work in our communities?  I guess Arroyo's comment just means we are, in her eyes and our government's eyes, unimportant, dismissable, inconsequential.  

Many of us have been speaking about believing democracy to be dead. Mark Naison wrote a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece about watching it die as the Assembly voted for the budget.  But I just can't believe that this wrong won't be righted.  Anne Lamott has said, "Don't ever give up, no matter how bad things look or how long it all takes.  Grace bats last."  I want so much to believe that she is right.

And so I'll teach, because that is my job and that is who I am deep down in my soul- a teacher.  Not perfect by any means, plenty of room for growth and improvement.  But a teacher, nonetheless, who believes in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words- that intelligence and character are the true goals of education. When my student proclaimed both groups wrong- the group throwing milkshakes and spitting and screaming and the calm group of teenagers just sitting at a counter, waiting to be served while making a silent statement that unfair laws can't stand, well that was my teachable moment. 

"I don't know if I agree that they were both wrong. If a law is unfair and mean and hurts people, is that a law we have to follow? We've had unfair laws in our country and they only changed when people stood up and said, 'No-I'm not following this terrible law.'  I think those students were really brave for trying to change a really mean and unfair law." 

In our disappointment, disgust, and disillusionment, may we know that bravery and keep trying to right these wrongs.