Sunday, April 9, 2017

Beauty Shop, Cannonballs, Prank phone calls, Arabic breakfast......and a chess tournament

"To tell the truth, Miss, I'm most excited for the hotel."   So confessed one of my students a few days before our trip to the state chess tournament, which meant spending one night in a hotel.

I think most middle school kids get excited about a weekend away from their parents, staying in a hotel room with their friends, and going swimming in the hotel pool.

But, if you're a refugee to the country, your family fled a dangerous war, survived getting to another country, finally made it the U.S., and now lives a simple but happy life, this weekend is A REALLY BIG DEAL!


This is my second year chaperoning this group to the state chess tournament and I love that they get this opportunity.  We teach chess to all of our students.  Our paraprofessional and one of our long-time volunteers developed a system for teaching chess and every young refugee/immigrant who comes through our Newcomer Center learns the game.  They play for 20 minutes every day, and I think it's a brilliant part of what we do in our program.

It's an opportunity to learn a complicated and challenging game, and they feel smart at a time when they're struggling to adapt to a new country and culture and learn  English.  A small group of kids who really take to chess and show some potential and motivation get a chance to go to the state chess tournament.


Earlier in the week before the tournament, my teaching partner and I were each working with two students during our prep time.  They're deep into writing their autobiographies right now, a yearly activity we do in the center and turn into a class book.

It can be a tricky process as some students go deep and are really able to get into the tough stuff of their young lives.  We try to spend some time individually with all of the students to give them a chance to reflect and process.

I was working along with my two students, and I glanced over at my partner and realized she was crying.  The two girls she was working with were fussing over her, getting her tissues, and telling her it was okay.  I didn't interrupt because I knew that something big and deep was going on and the best thing to do was let it unfold.

I asked her about it later and she said she just got so overwhelmed by the some of the things they had written.

R. wrote about leaving her bombed out city and walking to the next country.  She said she remembered trying to sleep in the woods on their journey and being so, so cold.  Her father gave her his coat and when she worried that he would be cold, he said, "Don't worry; I'm strong."  And, then she was able to sleep.

S. told about how her father disappeared one day in their country and they still don't know what happened to him.  She said that her mom still holds hope that he may return to them one day.  When her mother brought S. to school on her first day, she was so nervous about leaving her, visibly trembling- no wonder.

My partner said that when she started crying, the two girls comforted her, saying things like, "It's okay, Miss.  We're here now.  We're safe, happy.".

Their strength, beauty, resilience move me to no end.


So, maybe you can see why it brings me a special pleasure and satisfaction to be with R. and S. and the other kids and watch them enjoy themselves at the tournament, but especially all their antics at the hotel.  

They're wild in the swimming pool, but I keep a close eye as they do cannonballs and jump in the water with glee.  

The boys and girls keep making prank phone calls to each other's rooms.  I don't understand anything they're saying to each other in Arabic, but the whole thing is hilarious.  

After swimming, The girls ask me if they can "fix my hair". 

 Ummmm, suuuuure?  I'm not sure what they want to do to it, but I sit down and they all start fussing over me.  First, one straightens it.  Then, they decide it will be better curly.  Then, they bring me into the bathroom and I let them put bright red lipstick on me.  

In the morning, they tell me we will have an Arabic breakfast.  They lay out little dishes of many kinds of food- a combination of things they brought from home and food from the hotel breakfast that they bring back to the room.  They make tea and invite me in.  They show me how to sit on the floor and give me a big piece of delicious pita-like bread that I can use to scoop up little bits of food. 

Sitting on that hotel room floor with those five strong girls-kids who have been through so much, yet still have so much capacity for joy- is a great and special moment.  

They're bummed to leave the hotel that morning and go back to the chess tournament.  I gently remind them this is why we came.   But they're supremely happy several hours later when they win 5th place as a team and a trophy.  


This week the chess group will be recognized at the local school board meeting.  They will be introduced to the superintendent and the board and applauded for their accomplishments at the state tournament.

I am supremely proud of what they did at that tournament.  Not only have they been playing chess for a year or less, but they have also recently learned English.  No way around it- it's a remarkable thing.  

But, "to tell the truth",  I'll  be thinking more about beauty shop, cannonballs, prank phone calls and Arabic breakfast. 

I'll be thinking about how all kids deserve to be kids, to feel safe and protected.  

To have opportunities and challenges, new experiences.  

To have fun and be carefree.  

To feel real joy and happiness.

It's what we all want for our own kids.

And, these kids so richly deserve it too.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Filling Buckets and Hearts

Friday morning was a series of unfortunate events for me, to put it mildly.

Our "adorable" cat woke me up with her incessant meowing at 3 AM as she has been doing several nights.  I couldn't get back to sleep so just surrendered and got up.  Starting out the day sleep deprived is not great.

Then there was some tension in the household in the morning.  Normal stuff, but still.

Next I accidentally backed into my son's car in the driveway due to sleep deprivation, anxiety, or maybe not looking over my shoulder (as Mr. Husband kindly suggested)  Just some nice bumper damage to the van, of course, not much damage to my son's beater car.

When I got to work, my teaching partner was at our printer and there was a huge stack of paper that had been printed.

I said, "What's going on there?"  I'm not proud to admit that I  was already prepared to blame another colleague for over-printing.

She told me kindly and gently that it appeared to be some copies of the article on helping refugee and immigrant families that I had been talking about.

No, no, no!!!!  I didn't meant to do that!  I was trying to print a single page of that 32 page document for a meeting.  Gaaaaaah!

If you're a teacher in my district or probably any district, you know that copies and paper are at a premium and I've already been in trouble more than once for over printing/copying.

If you work in some other field, you may be wondering what the heck is the big deal about printing some extra copies.  But if you're a teacher, you get it. (Please don't narc on me if you're in my building.)

I sat at my desk, looked at the clock, and realized that the students would be walking in any minute.  I closed my eyes and tried to take some deep breaths and ground myself.  But to be honest, I was a little worried about the damage I might do if I moved from my desk and continued my day.

Just then I noticed Mr. Husband had sent me a text saying, "Don't worry about the cars.  It isn't life or death.  Just enjoy your students and have a good day. "

Thank God for Mr Husband.  None of this was life and death.  I got my perspective back, took one more deep breath, and went out to greet the Newcomer students.

On Fridays, during our morning meeting we do an activity called "Fill the Bucket".  This activity is a combination of 2 things I've learned about as a teacher.

The first part  comes from the children's book "Have you filled a bucket today?"

It's all about being kind to each other and helping each other- bucket-fillers.

The second part comes from an activity called (I hope I'm remembering this right)  "Put-Ups"  (instead of put-downs)  This is an activity that a 4th grade teacher I know does in his classroom. He brings a kid up to the front and has the other kids take turns saying positive things to her/him.

The first time I saw this activity, he had a kid come up who was rather socially awkward, kind of always disheveled, a little out of it, but very sweet.  He seemed uncomfortable at first, but as the compliments kept coming, he visibly straightened up and his smile grew wider and wider.  When it was over, he said something like, "I didn't know you all thought I was so great!"

This activity was so genius to me.  So simple.  So I did what any good teacher does,and I stole it to use in my own classroom.

So we choose a different kid every Friday to have their bucket filled.  They sit in the teacher's chair (which they're all obsessed with) and students take turns telling them why they're wonderful.  We encourage them to say specific things and give examples.

It's beautiful and powerful, both for the student on the receiving end  and for the kids giving them. There are lots of smiles and laughter.  Often there are also tears.  I've seen many students start crying when they hear how others perceive them.  Our kids have gone thorough so much, are going through so much, that I think hearing that others care about them just breaks them open.

When we got to our Fill the Bucket time on Friday, my teaching partner said we were going to fill my bucket.  The kids all started clapping loudly and I sat down in the teacher's chair to receive their love.
I can't tell you how much I needed that on Friday, and it made all the annoyances and troubles of the morning wash away.

I was profoundly moved by the things they said to me.  Most teachers who really care about what they're doing (which characterizes nearly all the teachers I know) aspire to bring a certain presence to their classroom and create a certain climate.  

My deepest desire is to create a climate of safety, love, respect, fun, openness, happiness, joy, and calm.  My biggest wish is that my students know they matter, that I care for them, and that I believe in them.

And, many of the things they said to me on Friday, showed that they think I'm doing these things.  That I am creating the classroom for them and I'm there for them in the way I soooooooo want to be.
Nothing could be more important than that.  No test scores.  No grades.  Of course,  I want them to learn, to master material.  But, at the end of the day, the fact that these kids are telling me that they love my smile, that I help them feel calm, that they feel cared for, that I remind them to never give up...... well, my bucket is full to overflowing.

When my teaching partner had her turn after all the kids and gave me a tribute, I started crying. About 10 kids tried to bring me kleenex.

So powerful and so moving......

I thanked them and told them that my bucket was SO full.  That my  heart was full.  That teaching THEM is one of the great joys and honors of my life.  They cheered loudly.

We always remind them at the end of these sessions, that they don't need to wait for Friday to fill someone's bucket.  They can do it any time.

It's always worth taking the time to tell someone how awesome they are and how much they mean to you.

So, my questions to you today....

Have you "put someone up" today?  Have you filled someone's bucket lately?

Try it.  It's good for all of us.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why I Choose to Remain an Optimist in the Era of Trump

Before I get into the heart of this post, I want to just acknowledge that I always try to be conscious of not only my perspective but my privilege when I write.   In this piece, I'm going to show you why and how I am staying positive at this very difficult time in our country.  My deepest hope is that you find some grain of inspiration from my words and it resonates with you. That it uplifts and provides hope.

Of course, I can only write from my own experience of life.  I want to be clear that my intention  here is not to suggest that being optimistic is easy right now, and I know without a doubt that because of my privilege, it is  easier for me to be optimistic than it may be for many people.  The cost for me of what is happening in the era of Trump is not as great or as painful as for others and I want to put that out there honestly.  

I am white, an American citizen.  My ancestors immigrated here many generations ago.I have many advantages, including financial and social safety nets.  Here are some more examples of what I'm talking about:

1.  Refugees, Immigrants, and Muslims

I listened to the episode called "Things are working out very nicely"  on This American Life last week.  The show covered Trump's executive order and travel ban from multiple perspectives- an exploration of  the chaos and heartbreak that occurred.  Things are working out very nicely

The first story was told from a transit station in Kenya, the last stop for refugees before they board planes for America.   There was a group of about 40 Somalis there, the majority who had been refugees for at least two decades.

After the news of the executive order was delivered to them, and the reality started to sink in that they would be returning to the refugee camp, the people started to go back to their rooms.  Next was a chilling despair that settled in.  People didn't talk.  They got into bed and pulled the covers over their faces.  Many refused to take their medication or eat.  Extra security was brought in because the officials were very concerned about people hurting or killing themselves......

I cried when I listened to this and I'm crying now as I write this.  What happened to these human beings is horrific and cruel.

But as heartbroken as I am for these refugees, I cannot begin to understand the depths of their hopelessness in that moment.  I just can't.

2.  Being Muslim in America today

I have Muslim friends and colleagues.  I've learned a lot from them over the years, especially the women- fiercely strong, independent, intelligent women.  I am sickened  when I hear anti-Muslim comments.  I am furious when I hear that someone is threatened and insulted in front of her children. I am heartbroken that people are judging others in this way.

I am outraged by these injustices, and I can go to a rally and stand in solidarity with my Muslim neighbors, yet I will never really know how it is to operate as a Muslim in this country. 

3.  Immigrants without documentation

I understand why people cross the border without papers. Maybe some will find that controversial, but I actually think it makes perfect sense.  If you love your family, want your children to live, to survive,  and have a better future,  and your present circumstances are hopelessly bleak, you'd come too.

So, I feel a real anxiety for these families right now.

But, I will never know the depths of anxiety that a child has sitting in a classroom wondering if today is the day their mother might be picked up and deported. Not even close.


So, here is my perspective..........  I

Why I am choosing optimism:

1.  I have children.

If you have children, you really can't afford to give up on this world, eloquently expressed in this cartoon:

Also, ALSO,  I listen to my two teenagers and observe them.  I look at their friends.  And, I feel real hope.  This is an intelligent, savvy, compassionate, and tolerant generation and I am truly excited to see how they're going to shape our world.  Even if Trump and others mess it up royally, I think they're going to be leading the charge to put it back together-- and maybe in an even better, stronger way than we could ever imagine.

2.  My students need me.

And, they need me to be strong, and they need me to be relentlessly optimistic.  So many of them have already faced hardships I have never known and survived.  So many have shown incredible resilience and strength in their young lives.

But, they're still kids, and they need guidance, support, compassion, and lots of love.  All of them. Especially the ones who have been traumatized.

They need the best version of me, the strong teacher.  Someone who they can lean on for a while. Someone who will hold them up while they process, cry, rage, recover, and heal.

Consistently one of the things my students most frequently tell me that they like about me is my smile and my happy attitude.  If they value that, then I need to continue showing up for them every day so that they can one day become the best version of themselves.

3.  So many role models and heroes

Anne Frank,  Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel....  The list could go on and on.

The people above were persecuted, imprisoned, abused, almost killed, and in some cases, tragically murdered,  and yet what do they have in common?  They continued their work with a spirit of hope and joy, even in the face of danger and persecution.

And, this is just a list of some famous people.  There are people out there every day, being brave, not giving up, continuing to fight the good fight in spite of enormous obstacles and often at great personal risk.

If they can do it, how can I even consider not remaining hopeful and doing my small part??

What steps am I taking to hold on to my optimism?  Things I'm doing to keep the glass half-full.

1.  I'm doing my work.

I feel a renewed commitment and purpose in teaching my newcomer refugee and immigrant students. The more ugly lies and insults made about refugees and immigrants, the more determined I am in every way to help them succeed and be even better than they already are.

2.  I'm communicating with my elected officials.

I've sent more e-mails to my legislators since Trump was inaugurated than I have in a few years. Your voice does make a difference.  While you may just get an automated reply, your concern is still noted and tallied and it counts.  And, once in a while you may just get a real and personal response like I recently did from a thoughtful Republican representative.

3.  I'm sticking close to my community, and in that, also finding peace and strength.  

While I do think it is important right now to listen to all reasonable perspectives even if they are not my own, I also know there is tremendous value and comfort in spending time with people that have the same values and convictions as I do.

I was feeling really low the week the executive order travel ban was announced.  That Sunday I went to a rally in my town to stand in solidarity with our Muslim, refugee, and immigrant neighbors. There were similar rallies going on all over the country that weekend.

When I got in that crowd with my friend and my husband and saw all the people there, my spirit and energy lifted for the first time in days.  Yes, I can make a difference and collectively we can make an even bigger difference.

4.  I'm finding solace in words.

I turn to beautiful words when I need comfort a lot.  Books, articles, podcasts, blog posts.

The last book I read in 2016 was The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.  My mind was blown by the way these two men can still work joyfully for their people and the world even after enduring so much pain and suffering.  I highly recommend reading this right now.  It's the perfect time.

I could go on and on with other books and writings,  but the important thing is to find what resonates with you, what challenges you to go deeper, what awakens your joy and purpose.

5.  I am taking time for rest and renewal.

I'm spending time with people I love.  Reading, meditating, running, getting outside.....

Even the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have days of rest and time every day for meditation, prayer, contemplation, and renewal.

We all deserve all need that.

6.  I am laughing and crying.

I'm watching SNL clips.  I'm laughing with my family, friends, colleagues, and students.  Sometimes it is still the best medicine.

Crying feels good too, and it's healthy.  I'm sensitive, and I've always cried easily.  I don't try to hold the tears back when I hear a heartbreaking story.  I let them flow and I let myself experience the emotion.

7.  I am trying to strike a healthy balance of engagement and escapism.

I'm a bit of a political and news junkie.  Yet, I see no value in listening to the same news story over and over.  Deep analysis of an issue from different perspectives?  Yes.  The same video clips of insanity and outrage?  No.

So, I stay engaged and knowledgeable without falling into a deep abyss.

And, when I need to escape, I put myself into what my son likes to call "my alternate reality".  I am re-watching one of my all-time favorite TV shows, The West Wing and living in the world of a Josiah Bartlett presidency for a while with all of its wit, nuance, intelligent dialogue, complexity, and heart.

8.  And, of course, I am focusing on the positive.

I suppose that's what this whole piece comes down to.  There are real problems in our country right now.  Things feel fragile, even dangerous, and the stakes are really high.  As long as Mr. Trump is in office, it's going to be a challenging time.

But, for every outrageous tweet, harsh word, lie, and hurtful decision, there are amazing deeds going on.  People speaking up, examples of kindness, and goodness.  People who are hurting coming together to build community and to organize for the world we want to live in.

If I am continually angry and terrified,  I can't do my work.  I need a balance of being informed and then acting on my convictions from a place of calm, understanding, compassion, and even joy.

Arianna Huffington wrote  a recent article called, " How to get out of the cycle of outrage in a Trump world:  If we live in a perpetual state of outrage, Trump wins"   link to article

Here is an excerpt:

The goal of any true resistance is to affect outcomes, not just to vent. And the only way to affect outcomes and thrive in our lives, is to find the eye in the hurricane, and act from that place of inner strength.

It’s the centered place Archimedes described when he said “give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.” It’s the place from which I imagine Judge James Robart issued his historic order to reverse Trump’s executive order on refugees. And it’s the place from which Viktor Frankl, who lost his pregnant wife, parents and brother in the Holocaust and spent 3 years in concentration camps, could write, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom."

Sunday, January 29, 2017

6 Things I have to say about Refugees, Including Why I miss George W. Bush Sometimes (Updated)

The first week of Trump’s presidency has been even worse than he promised it would be.  I feel myself go cold inside as I listen to the news and I realize this is a uniquely different feeling I am experiencing.  Different than other times I’ve disagreed with a political leader.  Much different. 

It’s no longer about politics and simple difference of opinion with an administration.  It’s about so much more.  Truth over bold-faced lies.  Openness and inclusivity over isolationism and walls.  Helping the most vulnerable among us over persecuting them.  Dignity over disgrace.  Love over hate. 

Where to start?  What to say?  What to do?

I looked back on my own posts and I decided to update this one.   I wrote it when Republicans were still deciding who their nominee would be.  It was during a week when some of them were competing over who could make the vilest pronouncements about refugees and Muslims. 

Looking back now, it seems so naive.  My worries only a hint of things to come.  Here is that blog post with my more updated comments in bold. 

I continue to stand with and for my refugee, immigrant, and Muslim friends, colleagues, students and families.  I will advocate for you and speak out for you.  This is not the America I want for you or for me and my family. 

My work revolves around teaching and supporting refugee and immigrant children and their families. 

 I'm used to defending them and explaining why they're here and why we should help them. I've done it many times in many different settings, including family reunions.  

One of the reasons I write this blog is so people can read the stories of refugees and immigrants and see how very much alike we all are. To diminish the idea of "the other." To see that we all struggle, and we all have hopes and dreams.  At the end of the day, we all want to live in safety and peace and make sure our children are cared for and happy.

I believe I can probably best show this human connection through the stories I tell here.  But, with all the events of the past weeks, I feel a pull to do a post in its entirety about refugees.  So, today I am going to post more explicitly on these topics-what I have learned from all the reading and study I have done over the years. All my experiences.   And, even more importantly, what I have learned from many, many conversations with refugees and their families- real-live people who have shared their stories with me and taught me so much.

Here is what I have to say:

1.  You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.

A certain person who enjoys national attention says that we need to keep Syrian refugees out because they are a danger to our national security.  To support this, he makes the claim that thousands of Arabs were cheering after 911 in Jersey City.  The mayor, the police and the governors of New York and New Jersey say it never happened. There are no documented reports that this happened.

This guy is the one who is dangerous and reckless, because right now he has a national/world platform for his hateful messages and he lies.  Call a spade a spade and a liar a liar.  He just admitted in an interview that he doesn't check his facts because he doesn't have time.  Enough said.

I didn’t even want to say Trump’s name here.  I never imagined at this time that he would become president or that so many lies about refugees, immigrants, and Muslims would follow. 
Do not be persuaded for a minute that he is trying to keep America safe through this action.  Executive Order  This is religious discrimination and a heartless decision that affects some of the most vulnerable people in the world.  Here is another good article.  Faith and History demand better of us

2.  Why does the discussion have to be so vile? And Why I missed George W. Bush this week

There is so much hatred and vileness being spewed on the issue of refugees and whether they should be allowed to come to our country.  I am astounded at the level of hostility and fear in things people are saying and writing.

The issue of refugees is the current topic that my son is debating with his high school debate team.  Last week I watched and judged four 1-hour debates on this topic.  They were reasonable.  They were professional.  They were courteous.  Nobody dehumanized a refugee. If 14-18 year-olds can talk about differences on this topic respectfully, can't we do a little better?

When the Paris attacks happened, I cringed for many reasons.  I cringed because of all the people who lost their lives and the fear and uncertainty inflicted on us all by terrorism.  I also cringed because events like this invariably lead to prejudice and retaliation against Muslims.

I am going to now post a video of George W. Bush giving a speech called "Islam is Peace." He made this speech shortly after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment was running high.  Full disclosure:  I never voted for him.    I protested against the war in Iraq.  I disagreed with him on so many, many things. I think he had many disastrous policies that still reverberate today.   But this was a fine moment for him.  I love this speech,   and I wish we had more people of his party speaking out like this today.  I never expected to compliment George W. Bush on this blog, but for this 4 minutes and 17 seconds of his presidency, he got something very, very right.

3.  Be consistent.

I was raised Catholic.  Although I no longer practice this religion, I have deep respect for what I consider the best and holiest parts of this faith:  love, compassion, forgiveness, service, and social justice.

However, I see a lot of inconsistency in what some Christian politicians, leaders, and others are saying.  I don't understand going to church on Sundays and professing love for God and Jesus Christ and then taking a stand against refugees on Monday at the office.    Religion should not be theoretical; it should be put into loving and bold action.

I am not a biblical scholar but my friend Cathy knows a little something about the Bible.  She says that "there are over 100 passages that mandate we welcome the stranger into our midst.  And, close to 2000 passages that encourage us to care for the widows, orphans, and poor."

Also, here is a quote from Hubert Humphrey. It's a message that I would like to give to the governors that want to deny entry to refugees and to the legislators who passed the House bill restricting them:

"It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

Friday at the anti-abortion rally in Washington D.C., Vice President Pence said, “I believe a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable. The aged. The infirm. The disabled. And the unborn.”  

Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

Refugees are running out of homes that are being bombed to stay alive. They are taking enormous risks to flee a country they love in order to save their lives and the lives of their families.  They are being persecuted by the people Trump says he wants to protect us from.  I would be hard pressed to think of a more vulnerable group of human beings.  Be consistent. 

4.  Listen to a refugee's story.

It's easy to think of people as "other" until you are face to face with them and you listen to their story.  I think the best advice I have for anyone struggling to understand the refugee experience is to spend some time with a refugee listening to their story.

These are some of the stories I have listened to over the years:

"We had an upper class lifestyle in our country. We had friends, a community, and a life.  We went to restaurants. But, things changed.  And, finally, we had to come here to give our family a better life.  We don't have much here.  We've lived in shelters. We don't know anyone. It's hard to get used to."  (from a mother)

"My father was killed in our country."  (from a 13 year old)

"There were bombs falling all  the time.  Our family left our house and  country with nothing- not even a backpack." (from a 12 year old)

How can you not be stirred by these stories?

Ilhan Omar, a Minneapolis Democrat and the first Somali-American lawmaker elected in the nation, invited Trump to spend a day with her.  “The irony in this is that this country, too, is being one of tyranny, is becoming one of dictatorship and is becoming one that is turning its face against the values that it is supposed to stand for,” she said.   Broken Dreams: Trump's actions on refugees dismay local Somalis and officials
5.  Love will conquer fear.

“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”

I am so impressed with the open letter that some of Minnesota's legislators wrote to Syrian refugees, welcoming them.  Those who had courage during these times and acted out of love instead of fear will be remembered.  

I really do believe that these hateful policies will be the eventual unraveling of this administration.  This is not what I want America to stand for.  Take action if you are moved to do so. 

-Go to marches and stand in solidarity with your refugee, immigrant, and Muslim neighbors.

-Write and call your elected representatives.  Let them know how you feel, and encourage them to fight for justice.  

-Donate, volunteer for, and support organizations that help refugees.

-Educate yourself so you can challenge misperceptions and lies when you hear them. 

6.  Life is arbitrary and unpredictable.

In a grand and cosmic sense, I'm not sure why I was born in the United States to a family who had the resources and love to raise me and give me a great life.  I feel lucky.  I have so many choices, so many freedoms.  But, you never really know what life holds for you.  Or what you might need to do to go on.

The eloquent poet, Warsan Shire, reminds us:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

If something happens here one day and I need to leave or flee this country, I hope that another land and another people might open their door to me and say....

I'm so sorry you had to endure that.  Come in.  

You'll need some extra help for a while.  Come in.

We see you with compassion.  Come in.  

You are part of our human family.  Come in.  

Come in.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How to be Heroic

Early Wednesday morning, when the results of the election were obvious, I felt a real fear and dread wash over me.  Mr. Husband spent a long time talking me off the ledge.  He is really good in emergency situations.

Then, when I was able to breathe again, we started talking about my students.  And, he helped me find words for what I knew would be difficult conversations when I got to school a few hours later.

When I walked in the building, a mother and her daughter were coming down to meet with us before class began.  They told us that she was going to have to leave and go back to her country for several months to do some testing that is important in their educational system.

The mom told us what an amazing experience her daughter had with us for the two months she was here- how much she learned and grew.  My partner and I (easy criers, but even more so this morning with our nerves frayed) both burst into tears.  We talked about how talented, smart, kind, and beautiful her daughter is and how much we love having students from all over the world- that we treasure them.

Her mom said one more thing to us before she left, as if to offer comfort, even though we never talked about the election.  She looked at us both, "You make America bright."


Then the real brightness  arrived for the day- the girls and boys, refugees and immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Syrians, Somalis, and more.  Our students.  Our beloved students.  

There was a lot of anxiety, worry, and stress that morning.  One child even burst into tears.  We let them get it out.  We reassured them.  We explained some things to them about democracy and how decisions get made and carried out.  

My partner said, "You need to write.  You need to process this.  What is it you want to say?"

We kept talking.  The theme that kept emerging was the deep desire to be understood, for America to know them.  

And, I knew immediately that this was brilliant.  This was how to be heroic.  This was the hero and heroine's response to despair.  Knowing.  Understanding.  Friendship.  Community.  Connection.  

Father Greg Boyle says that it's hard to demonize people you know.  

I'll go a step further.  I contend that when you know these students, these beautiful refugees and immigrants, you will love them.  To know them is to love them.  

So, they wrote.  They processed.  They helped each other with language, interpreting when necessary. We listened. we recorded.  They wrote about 4 main themes:

Who are we?    Why are we here?    What are our hopes and dreams?   What is our message?

And, this is just a sample of what they said........


Who are we?

We come from 16 different countries.  We speak 9 different languages plus English.  Some of us know three or more languages.  We're excellent chess players.  We're hard workers.  We're smart. We're kind. 

Why are we here?  

For safety.  Because my country had a war.  To have a better life.  To be with my mom who I hadn't seen for 10 years.  So,my dad can get medical treatment.  To learn English while my parents work here for a year.  To have a good life and be in a place where I can go to school and get an education. To be free.

What are our hopes and dreams?

I want to be a doctor for children.  I want to be a DJ and share music with people.  I want to be a soccer player.  A teacher.  A police officer.  A singer, an artist, an engineer, a video game developer....

What is our message?

I'm  the same as you.  I want to learn and have a good life.  I'm not here just for fun; I'm here because I had to leave my country that was at war.  I've had struggles but now I'm stronger.  I'm wise because of what I've gone through. I want to be happy.  


Like so many times before, my students were heroes to me as we discussed and wrote and discussed some more.  

Being heroic means being scared or even terrified, yet writing about your hopes and dreams.  

Being heroic means feeling misunderstood and even persecuted, yet reaching out your hand in friendship.  

Being heroic means walking to another country while your home burns in the background.  And then walking into a new country with your head held high.

Being heroic means crowding out the negativity and focusing instead on joy, peace, community, and friendship.  

These kids show me how to be heroic every day and in so many ways.  


A writer I love, Cheryl Strayed, talks about the advice her mom gave her whenever she was down or distressed:

"There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and it's up to you to be choose to be there for it.  Put yourself in the way of beauty."

So, today, I choose to put myself in the way of beauty.  

I choose to take a deep breath and look at my beautiful students and get back to work.  

I choose to show up for the sunrises and sunsets.

I choose to follow their example and be as heroic as I can possibly be.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Best 8 Things Said in Our Class and Lessons Learned

One of the reasons I started this blog was to record some of the amazing things my students say.  When kids are learning English, what comes out is often hilarious, touching, and simple yet profound.  I remember their words and I feel joy, pain, pride.  My teaching partner and I often quote things to each other that our students have said to us over the years. 

So, here are 8 of the best things heard in our classrooms and the lesson learned from each one. 

1.  Last week, one student made fun of another student’s language by mimicking it with exaggeration. I saw the student who was being made fun of and his face fell.   I grabbed on to the teachable moment and talked right then and there to them about it.  I pointed out the sad face and told the other student that maybe he thinks it’s funny, but it hurts.  I asked him to consider how he might feel if the other student made fun of his language.  I think he got it- at least somewhat- and he apologized. 

The student who had been made fun of, looked at me and declared, “Miss!!!  You are SO cute!!” 

Lesson Learned:  This students uses “cute” as a compliment for everything right now.  I interpreted it as, “Thanks for sticking up for me.  You’re so kind.”  We have to teach kids how to treat each other, and we do it by being vigilant and watching and taking advantage of those teachable moments.

2.  We have a pretty intense student this year who seems to be missing some social and emotional skills and does not have much of a filter.  He’s really bright but can also be kind of in your face. 

At the end of a day recently, he came up to me and was about 1 inch from my face and loudly said, “HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK! HOMEWORK!"

I took a deep breath and a step back and said, “Can you ask for that in a nicer way?” 

He thought for a minute, took a step back toward me (yah, personal space does not exist for him) and said in a quieter and calmer voice, “May I have homework, Madame?”

Lesson learned:  You have to teach social and emotional skills just as much as content.  And, where do they come up with these things???!!! 

3.  I remember the winter day in December when one of our Muslim students arrived in the morning and with sparkling eyes declared, “Miss!  I looooove Christmas!  Lights! Pretty!” 

Lesson learned:  Appreciate the simple things.  Notice what is going on around you.  Find beauty in the world. Discover the miracle in something that is very different from what you know.

4.  Every year we watch a short video on Halloween and describe the holiday and show pictures to our students so they understand what is happening when they see people walking around in costumes and trick or treating.  We had done that the previous day. 

Today we were watching a district video on the drug-sniffing dogs that would be coming in to the building soon and sniffing around the lockers for problems.  We didn’t want our students to be alarmed so we watched the video and tried to explain it.  We needed someone to interpret to some of the kids who didn’t understand. 

Often we rely on more proficient students to help other students.  One of our newer students raised his hand enthusiastically and asked if he could interpret.  My partner and I exchanged glances but decided to give him a try. 

When he was done explaining, one of the students who spoke the language very well started waving his hands and yelling, “Miss! All wrong!  All wrong, Miss!” 

It turns out that he had conflated the Halloween story with the dog story and said something about the dogs sniffing for candy in lockers and you getting in big trouble if you had candy in there- succeeding in terrifying and confusing all the students.

So, now, when something happens that we really don’t like or someone is totally wrong about something in our opinion, my partner and I will look at each other and say, “All wrong, Miss.  All wrong!”

Lesson learned:  Be careful who you trust as an expert. Some people will be really confident about something they know nothing about.   But, it’s really fun to pull out that phrase from time to time.

5.  A student was accused of calling another student a very bad word. Please note that English is the 2nd language.  Here’s how the conversation went:
Accused Student: Miss, I no say mutter f...r. I no know what mutter f..r means. Miss! I no call him mutter f....r!
Me: Please, please! Stop saying mutter f...r!
Lesson learned:  Swear words really don’t sound bad to your ears until you know a language well.  And, the one thing that all kids in the world have in common is the deep desire to learn swear words in as many languages as possible.  And, also, it’s not easy to keep a straight face when kids are throwing around the word mutter f…r!

6.  We get new students throughout the school year.  When they come, we have them introduce themselves and tell the class what country they are from and what language they speak. 
Then we turn to the class and say, “What can we say?”
And the whole class yells brightly, “Welcome!”
Lesson learned:  Job #1 is to help new refugee and immigrant students and their families feel welcome, safe, and supported.  And, that is where we start with each and every student. 

7.  Evolved teachers like me don’t yell at students or use demeaning words when they are driving us crazy.  Rather, we say things like, “I’m really sad that you’re not doing your work.  I’m really sad that you’re choosing to do that.” 
Last week, a student was experiencing a consequence as a result of his bad behavior. He didn’t get to play chess that afternoon.  First he had to do some cleaning and then he was doing some time in detention.   He was shooting me killer looks.  And, finally he said, “You making me so sad, Miss.”
Lesson learned:  Be prepared for kids to use your own carefully chosen words against you.  So, be careful of Every. Single. Thing. You. Ever. Say.  J

8.  The end of the school year with these kids is always rather gut-wrenching.  We get so close to them and see them come so far.  It’s so difficult to say goodbye.  This is an entry from a post I wrote a few years ago: 
How do you say goodbye to the 15 year old, 6 foot tall young man whom you and your colleague call the peacemaker?  This student speaks the two most common languages in our program and so helped us resolve conflicts between countless kids.  It wasn't just the fact that he knew these languages. It was the leadership, humor, and warm spirit he brought to these interactions that made the difference.  
The moment this boy hugged me tight, started crying, and whispered, "Thank you for everything, Miss. I'll never forget you." is the moment I lost it and just began weeping openly.  Then he pulled this beautiful stuffed camel out and pressed it into my hands and said it came from his country and it was for me. 
Lesson learned:  No matter how hard this job is, I will always have moments like thisNo matter if I feel burned out and stressed out, I can find comfort and solace in remembering these times.  No matter how often I feel like I can’t go on, there will always be these momentsThe relationships I build with young people as a teacher are more important than anything.  If they know that someone cared for them and believed in them and fought for them and championed them, then I have done my job.  And, that is everything.  

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Even A Small Star Shines in the Darkness"

This week I cried at work and got two chocolate treats out of it and more.

What made me cry wasn't even that big of a deal.  It was just that it was only Wednesday and it was about the 37th similar problem we'd had that week.  

And, suddenly, the tears overwhelmed me.  You know how when you start to cry, and you really don't want to cry, but the more you try to stop it, the more the tears flow?  Yep, it was that.  

Luckily, I was with two colleagues I trust, and they were so kind and compassionate to me. They listened as I held my head in my hands and said things like:

There are just too many kids.

I don't even have time to build relationships with them.  

They're showing their worst sides to the rest of the building and it looks like they're out of control. 

I'm working so hard, but I'm so overwhelmed.

Maybe I should drop by the coffee shop across the street and apply for that barista job.

Stress and frustration for me gets turned mostly inward.  I blame myself for things not going well.  I hear things in my head like, "You are not up to this.  You're not tough enough. You must not be the one for this job."   I make mountains out of molehills.

I really didn't feel like crying at that moment, and I tried to hold it in, but I felt so good after crying.  

From Psychology Today by Judith Orloff, M.D.:  

"Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.”

So, the next time someone is about to cry in your presence and you can tell they're trying to stuff it down, encourage them to let it out.  Tell them they'll feel better.  And, then simply hold space for them.  

After I finished crying, my teaching partner walked into the room, and took one look at me and asked what was wrong.  Then, the tears started flowing all over again.  I guess I wasn't done.  

I really do believe that the Universe conspires to lift you out of your darkness when you most need it.  Here's what happened over the next 3 days:  

1.  That day we were having a half-day of staff development.  In the morning we were explaining to the Newcomers why they were going home early. We said we had to go to school and that we are always studying to be better teachers.

One of the more fluent students said, "Why would you need to go to school? You're already so good!" 

2.  That same day, one of our students was leaving to head back to her country.  She is such an exuberant girl, full of life.  In the short time we knew her, we adored her.  She gave me a tight hug and said loudly, "I love you, Miss!"

3.  Then we had our staff development meeting.  I was exhausted from all the crying. I just wanted to melt into the background, but it was the kind of meeting that required full participation.  I knuckled my way through most of it, forcing a smile. 

But, in spite of my morose mood, I started to feel better and enjoy the meeting.  It was about building a positive culture and community in your school and being there for each other- everything I believe in.  

I started to come back to myself.  And, then we did an exercise where some staff were acknowledged for the good work they do in the school and my partner and I were brought up to the front and many lovely things were said.   And, the tears came again.  

4.  And, then the chocolate.  My partner gave me a bar of dark chocolate the next morning with a note that said, "Don't worry, be happy" on it, which was the favorite saying of one of our darlings from last year.

And, the day after that, more chocolate and a card from another thoughtful colleague.  


The other week Donald Trump Jr.  referred to Syrian refugees as Skittles.  He wrote, "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

A man who owns a restaurant in Lonsdale, Minnesota put up a sign that said, "Get out Muslims".

That's a lot of darkness.  That's a lot of blaming a whole group of people for the actions of a few.

But, then there are the small shining stars that come to the rescue, like the little New York boy named Alex, who wrote to President Obama after he saw the photos of a traumatized and shell-shocked 5 year old Syrian refugee in Aleppo.  He asked Obama to go get him so he could join his family.

"We will give him a family and he will be our brother," Alex wrote. "Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together."

President Obama related the story of Alex's letter in a speech, "Those are the words of a six-year-old boy — a young child who has not learned to be cynical or suspicious or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray. We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were. Imagine the suffering we could ease and the lives we could save."

And, for me, the callous Skittles comment and the hateful sign about Muslims are pushed into the back by the brightness of Alex's light.  


That same week, one of our students gave a presentation on her country of Syria.  Towards the end of her talk she showed pictures of before and after the war.  It's shocking, devastating.  If you've never looked at the photos, you should, because then you'll understand why there are so many refugees fleeing for their lives.  

One of the boys in the class raised his hand and said, "I'm so sorry for what happened in your country."

Another said, "We're all the same.  No one wants war.  We all want peace."  

So young and yet so wise.  So much light amidst so much darkness.  


We had a long conversation with one of our students recently after school.  She was really upset about some things and we were trying to comfort her and her friend was there with us too.  She was also trying hard to hold back tears and it didn't work for her either.  

At one point, her friend ran to her locker and retrieved her notebook.  She flipped to a page with many sentences and quotes she had translated and pointed excitedly to one and showed her friend.  

She had to look closely since her eyes were clouded with tears, but she smiled and laughed when she read it.  

"Even a small star shines in the darkness."

Sometimes on really dark and cloudy nights, you have to search and search for a single star, but if you are patient, you'll find at least one.  

Sometimes you have to squint through your tears to find the small shining star.  

And, that is the Universe telling you not to give up.