Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Making Pancakes and Memories

We've been doing a unit on food this month and having some great conversations.  When you work with kids from around the globe, discussing food from their countries and cultures can be an endless topic of fascination.  They all get excited about it.  Everyone can relate. 

This week the word "crops" came up so we talked about what crops are grown in our state and then I asked them about crops that are grown in their countries.  A long discussion about the wonder and deliciousness of dates followed.....

Then, as a unified group, they began begging me to cook something with them. Luckily enough,  our center is in an old Family and Consumer Science room so we have a kitchen.  When we moved into this  space, I was a little unsure about how we were going to make it function as a regular classroom, but I was absolutely thrilled to see a kitchen.  

So, on Monday I got to combine two of my favorite things- teaching and cooking.  We made pancakes.    First I showed them how to make a batch of pancakes and I had two of my most talkative students be my assistants.  They learned new vocabulary- "ingredients, combine, batter, griddle, flip".  We talked about measuring tools- cups, tablespoons, teaspoons.  

Then we cooked them up- we had 3  groups of students working on their own batches- I had a volunteer that day who was with one group; our paraprofessional, was with another; and I had the third, although I have to admit one of my students kind of took over our station along with the spatula and he was excellent at it.  :)

 I was expecting some chaos but it was one of the best, smoothest,  and most language-rich lessons I have ever taught.  The students were so completely motivated and engaged.  They were speaking to each other in English, using new vocabulary, and working together amazingly well. 

We laid out the spread of pancakes including blueberries, strawberries, and syrup.  We put tablecloths on the tables.  I sent my two big talkers to the other room to invite my colleague and her group to eat with us.  It was a beautiful thing to see them all sit around chomping on pancakes together- many of them tasting pancakes and also blueberries for the first time.  

There was also a nice bowl full of dates on the table and when some of the students saw that they got so excited you would have thought I just gave them a puppy.  :)

Sometimes I wonder what my students will remember in the years to come about their time in our program.  Oh, I hope they remember ALL the lessons...but I think the ones they'll remember the most are the lessons connected to shared and meaningful experiences.  When they look back on this year, I imagine these things might come to mind:

- The rock climbing and fossil hunting trip we took in the fall
-Taking care of their caterpillars as they went through the cycle to a butterfly and then releasing those butterflies outside on a warm fall day
-Learning and playing the wonderful game of chess
-Watching my colleague and their teacher win an award in the community for being an excellent educator-and the party that followed
-Careening down the school's snowy hills on sleds and having hot chocolate afterwards in the classroom
-Painting their first country's flags during art class
- AND, making pancakes.

It's tough in today's busy and demanding classroom to find the time, energy, money, resources, and support to help create these experiences for your students.  But, it's well worth it if you can do it. They won't just learn important things for their brain during these activities, they'll learn things that will also leave an imprint on their hearts.

What did I learn on Monday?  What will I remember?  - When you do something like this, you make more than just pancakes, you make memories.  And, THAT is priceless.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Leaning into heartbreak

I talked with a friend recently about some pretty tough stuff she's going through.  About disappointment, suffering, heartbreak.  I couldn't fix it; I couldn't make the pain go away. All I could do was be there for her- be present for her-hold her hand.  She told me she's been trying to let herself go through those emotions and just lean into what's happening. Not to let it all overwhelm her, destroy her, but also not to run away from the pain.  The courage of that really struck me.  Did you ever think about leaning into suffering? Most of us want to anesthetize suffering as fast as possible.  

So, here's the thing I thought about all week- When you try to teach and live with an open heart, there will be great moments of joy available to you.  Your heart will fill with happiness. Sometimes it will physically feel like it might burst.  But.... when your heart is open, it will also be very sensitive to breaking and hurting.  You can't have one without the other.   It's the human condition- the yin and yang, the ups and downs, whatever you want to name it.  

I had some serious heartbreak at school this week. Really tough stuff.  At home, I said it was one of the worst experiences ever.  A nice guy-we'll call him Mr. Husband- suggested that maybe it was one of my better moments as a teacher because I handled it well- and with heart.  Hmmmmm.........

So how do you deal with heartbreak in the classroom and your life?  How do you deal with suffering?  We all suffer; we all have heartbreak.  We all don't talk about it a lot because we're a culture of,  "Hi. How are you? Fine".  We're too busy to talk about the tough stuff or too scared to talk about it.  We feel vulnerable and that's not comfortable.  Everyone likes happy people, right?

 Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, author, and nun,  writes some powerful words on this topic, 

"The next time you lose heart and you can't bear to experience what you're feeling, you might recall this instruction:  change the way you see it and lean in.  Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves.  This is priceless advice that addresses the true cause of suffering- yours, mine, and that of all living beings."

So, I went through the heartbreak.  I dealt with all aspects of it.  I didn't ignore it.  I talked about it.  I cried about it.  I felt it.  I leaned into it and I leaned on the people I count on. They were there for me.  That's the other beautiful thing- if you ask, people will be there to witness your heartbreak.  And, shared heartbreak is never ever as bad or painful as heartbreak you keep to yourself.

So, I'm moving through it.  

I want to be clear here that I'm not talking about dwelling on unhappiness or feeling sorry for yourself.  I'm not suggesting that you let something difficult overwhelm you to the point of paralysis.  More just allowing yourself to feel the sadness- so that you can get to the other side.  Allowing yourself that part of humanity.


I had joy this week too- real joy.  On the morning I was really down, I knew there was a good chance I would pass that gloom on to the children.  So, during our morning meeting, I had them write sentences about some of their favorite things.  Then they practiced their English with each other in a kind of musical chairs activity to the song "Happy".

As we danced around the room, I noticed how my heart felt.  Heartbreak and joy at the same time.....while dancing with middle schoolers from every part of the globe...Quite the feeling.

One more quote from Pema Chodron:

"When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless-that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless.  You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space."  

May our hearts be open.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Love Letter to Teachers

Dear Teachers,

Happy Valentine's Day.  If you're an elementary teacher, you likely made it through a party yesterday full of cards and sugar.  Congratulations.  If you're a high school teacher, maybe there was more awkward angst about love and hormones in the air than normal. You made it through.  If you're a middle school teacher, like me,maybe the day was somewhere in the middle of those two.  And anyway, just for being a middle school teacher- way to go.  :)

So, it's Saturday and it's a holiday about kindness and caring,  I want to direct some love and appreciation your way.  There are a lot of things that constitute a successful and healthy teacher.  I've been thinking about this a lot lately and here are the most important ones to me:

  • Keep your eyes on the true prize.
  • Lift other teachers up.
  • Love thyself.  

Keep your eyes on the true prize:  There's a lot of pressure right now in our society to measure teaching and learning with numbers from standardized tests and dots on charts.  Of course we need to look at data and testing has its place but we've become too singularly focused on these things as judgements on how well students and teachers are doing.  If only the story were that simple, but it's not even close.

I was at a meeting this week and we were looking at data and plotting dots on charts and a colleague was upset because her data wasn't that great.  I thought about those dots all night and how much I really didn't like reducing kids to dots.  I wrote her an e-mail early the next moring encouraging her to keep her perspective.  Those dots can give some information that can inform our teaching practice but they don't come even close to telling all there is to tell about a student.  They don't tell us the back story.  They'll never reflect all that child has learned.  And they don't even begin to reflect or predict who that child may become.  They also don't tell the whole story of a teacher and her strengths..  

We should have dots and graphs and charts to measure the whole child.  :)  Dots that measure kindness, humor, determination, resilience, inner beauty.  

Every day I go into my classroom wanting my students to be successful academically, but I want them to be successful and decent human beings even more.  I want them to be happy, have great relationships and connection with people in their lives, and find work that is meaningful and stimulating to them.  I want them to reach their potential, whatever that might look like. 
 This is what the true prize is when you're working with children.  It's easy to get distracted but keep your eye on it.

Lift other teachers up:  Teaching can really take it out of you so we need to be deliberate about supporting each other.  Everyone needs validation.  It's the human condition.  You might have great self-confidence and feel really good about what you're doing in the classroom, but it's really important to hear from colleagues that what you're doing matters.  I really try to compliment teachers when I see them being amazing.  It might be a stellar lesson and the kids are so engaged and excited that the class just flies by. It might be witnessing a teacher gently talking to a child about a problem in a way that doesn't shame but encourages that child to grow, learn, and get better.  It might be a teacher having the courage to stand in front of her colleagues and share an idea or a thought or a feeling about teaching and students.   Really- take a little time at least once a week and appreciate one of your colleagues.  We all need it.  I'm lucky that I have a colleague, my co-teacher, who is so lovely and so supportive, that I get this kind of lifting up all the time.  It keeps me going more than I can tell you.  Recently after a conference, she told me I get an A+ in how I've been dealing with one of our more difficult kids.  It made such a difference to me to hear that, because I had been feeling like I was banging my head against a wall with this child and I needed someone to point out that maybe I was making a difference.  So, go ahead.  Lift each other up.  

Love Thyself:    What I mean is to take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually so that you can be the best version of yourself.  Because your students need and deserve the best version of you.  I gotta be honest, of my 3 bullet points today, this is the one I struggle with the most.  Often when I get busy and stressed at school, the first things that I drop are the things I most need to keep me nourished and balanced as a teacher.  I skip my morning run.  I stop eating as well as I should.  I don't find time to connect with my family and friends in meaningful ways.   I skip rest, relaxation, and renewal.  And, what always happens? What is the result every single, miserable time?   I get run-down, exhausted, and depleted. And, I always end up at the same place, realizing that  I'm no good to anyone if I'm not good to myself first. 

Yesterday I came across an essay written by Kris Carr, author of Crazy, Sexy Cancer.   The essay challenged me because it was about finding your purpose in life- but she didn't define purpose as your job or your goals or any of that.  She said that purpose is about examining your inner life and being gentle with yourself and letting your truest self emerge.  She posed  many questions that really made me think and here is one of my favorites:

·         What if your purpose is to take impeccable care of yourself so that you have the energy and joy to serve others?

Really, teachers- we need to take care of ourselves.  I'm telling myself this as much if not more than I'm telling you.  Let's try a little harder in this arena.  We've got little minds and hearts waiting for us on the other side of that classroom door.  Go ahead- Love thyself.  

One more thing before I sign off.  Here's a sweet picture from our Valentine's party yesterday.  Each student got one cookie to decorate and eat but many gave me their one and only cookie.  Here are a few I brought home.  Happy Valentine's day, everyone.

Love, Miss

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Parent's Love

We had parent-teacher conferences this week.  Every time we have these conferences, I learn so much more about our families.  I learn about their strengths, their heartbreaks, their hopes.  I am reminded of what parents all over the world have in common- our love for our children. With the help of our wonderful interpreters, they are able to tell us their stories.   Here are a few from this conference night:

The Bravest Mother:  She is a single mother.  They came here as refugees.  She works nights stocking shelves.  Her son is an adorable, affectionate boy- generous with his hugs and his smiles.  His speaking and listening skills in English are excellent but we're worried about his reading and writing.  We first talk to her about how wonderful he is and what a great mother she must be.  Then we talk to her gently about our concerns.  She tells us to do whatever we think is right and to please, please help him.   We ask some more questions about her family for a form we have to fill out. We discover she has a young daughter still living on another continent.  She is working to be able to bring her here.   She shows me pictures of the daughter and she is beautiful and looks just like her brother.  I look at this mother and think she is one of the most courageous people I have ever met.  I try to imagine myself in similar circumstances and I feel weak.  Really, these refugees are the bravest, most resilient people I know.  We assure her that her son has many strengths and we're going to figure this difficulty out.  He's going to be fine, we tell her.  She thanks us again and again.......

The Bouquet:   This was the first time in my teaching career of 20 years that I have received a bouquet of flowers from a parent on conference night.  It was a beautiful arrangement of deep red carnations.  I gotta tell ya- I deserve it for this kid :)  He is charming, so likeable, great speaking skills in English, funny, full of life, helpful, excited about things, and can entertain you with stories of his life all day.  The downside is that he never shuts up, disrupts the class all the time, does very little classwork or homework, constantly tries to leave the room (drinks, bathroom, nurse, pencils, so cold he needs a sweater from his locker, on and on), and has a temper that has gotten him into some pretty big trouble already.

You always tell the parents the good news first and then you get into the stuff that needs improvement.  Of course, she knows her son, and she already knows everything I am going to say.  We laugh a lot and I think she is impressed with how well I know him, how many specific things I know about him.  The thing is- he has improved in some areas-namely his temper.  She tells me how much he like us teachers and that he doesn't want us to be mad at him.  I tell her that I know this kid is going to be incredibly successful one day- He just needs to work on these things, find a little more discipline and focus (actually A LOT, but baby steps, right?)  She tells me how much she appreciates our hard work with him and that we are really helping him.

Then I tell her about a conversation that a volunteer and I had with him one day not long ago.  He was telling us that he wants to be a bodyguard for a profession- he has a family member who does this.  Our volunteer pointed out to him that bodyguards need to be really quiet and serious a lot of the time and maybe he should consider something where he gets to talk a lot- like an executive, a salesman or a politician.  I love this volunteer- I think she may have gotten him thinking......His mother laughs and laughs at this; she thinks it's hilarious.

When she left, she warmly shook my hand with both of her hands and kept saying thank you in her language over and over.  Finally, she looked at me one last time, and said in English, "Thank you, teacher."

Bridging the Divide:  As a teacher,  you head into some conferences with a little bit of dread- maybe the child is difficult; maybe the parent is difficult; maybe you have bad news.  Then there are others that you know are going to be a breeze.  You look forward to them, because there is not one single difficult thing you need to say about their child.  You are excited to tell them how great and amainzg their kid is.

This one was the latter.  I got to tell her father these things about his daughter:  She is sweet, kind, listens attentively, helps everyone,and has many friends because she is such a wonderful girl.  I also got to tell him that she's making rapid academic progress; she works hard, does everything I ask her to and then some.  She's a teacher's dream.

He listened to everything my colleague and I had to say quietly and intently, nodding, but not really smiling a lot.  He was a pretty serious-looking guy and I wasn't really getting much information about what he was thinking or feeling from his non-verbals.  Then he told us that he appreciated everything we said and now he wanted to make some comments to us.  Then he paused for 2 seconds, but it felt like 10 minutes.

During this pause, I got a twinge of nervousness, wondering if he was upset about something.  I knew they were a very religious, conservative family and it's possible something we said rubbed him the wrong way or he had an issue with something at the school.  I kind of braced myself and glanced over at my colleague.  She looked pretty serene so I tried to put a matching serene look on my face.

This is what he said, "I haven't called or come by to check on my daughter since we arrived, because when I met you teachers on her first day, I felt comfortable right away.  I could tell that I could trust you and that you would take care of her."  He went on to say a lot of other lovely things and asked us to continue keeping a close eye on her and watching over her.

I really felt like bursting into tears, because that is the most meaningful thing a teacher can hear from a parent.  I kept it in check, though.

I'm sure that on paper there are more differences than similarities between this father and me.  But it didn't matter on conference night.  We sat at a table together and talked about something really important we had in common and both cared about deeply- his child.  We bonded over her and there was an understanding created and what could have been a divide was a bridge.....  a very solid bridge.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Watching a child blossom

Yesterday had some pretty big stresses at school but a habit I'm intentionally trying to develop is to dwell on the positive instead of the negative.  I'm asking myself questions on the way home, like, "What was good today?"  "What was funny, moving, important?"  You know what?  There's always at least one small nugget of light and sweetness.

Yesterday I decided to focus on how one particular student is blossoming.  He started at the beginning of the year and came from a country that has experienced some particularly enormous problems and horrors.  We noticed right away that he was sensitive and so we've always tried to be especially gentle with him.

We had a practice for a lockdown in the fall and we explained what we were doing to the students; we told them it was practice;we told them they were safe.  Yet, he began to tremble and quietly cry when it happened.  He covered his face with a notebook so the other kids couldn't see.  I sat close to him and patted his back and kept saying, "It's okay; we're safe" over and over.  I'm not sure what nightmares he was reliving, but they must have been pretty awful.

Then, we had the Pakistan project- when we wrote the letters to fellow students in Pakistan after the tragedy at the school in their country.   Sometimes talking about something difficult that has happened to someone else helps a child share their pain.  He got very quiet and very sad when he heard about this tragedy.  My colleague gently asked him if something bad happened in his country.   He told her yes and that someone in his family who he loved had been killed there.  She put her arm around him and told him how sorry she was, how hard that must be, but reminded him that he was safe now.  He wrote one of the most touching, beautiful, and heartfelt letters.

In between these moments, there have been a lot of happier moments, though.  He loves school, works with a ferocious zeal, smiles a lot, has made a lot of friends, helps everyone.  Everyone adores him- he is a joy!

We got a new student recently, not from the same country, but shares one of the same languages.  They are the only 2  who have this language. The newest student speaks almost 0 English so we have relied on the first to help us communicate with him.  When we ask him to interpret something, he gets really close to the other student and ever so gently explains what needs saying.  There's something so sweet and kind about the way he does it.  When my colleague and I talk about it, she says, "There's something really special about that boy."  I agree.

Lately, I've been noticing how happy he is- not too many dark moments, really thriving.  His English is quite good by now and he understands almost everything I say- including my dumb jokes and light teasing :)  Yesterday he joked with me, teased ME actually, and it made me so ridiculously happy to see that kind of lightness in him.

 The office had just finished making some announcements over the speakers and he called me over to him and said seriously, "Miss, Miss! Did you hear that?  They just said that there will be no homework- no homework for one week!  Did you hear that, Miss??!!!"

"Really??!!", I said playing along, "Well, that is just amazing! ".  Then he started to giggle like crazy and there was a ripple effect.   All the kids around him started to laugh and it was just so absolutely wonderful to see, I got a  lump in my throat.

Is his journey  through the darkness of his past over?  No, I know it's not. Probably not even close.

But, is he moving on, turning a corner, blossoming?

Yes, yes, he is.  And, I am lucky enough to witness it........