Sunday, January 24, 2016

Care to Dance?

Middle school girls have a reputation for being mean, holding grudges, and building cliques like nobody's business.

A lot of times we can transcend this in the Newcomer Center, because they are brought together more than they are divided.  They are brought together because they are connected by the fact that they are all new to this language and this culture, and so they tend to bond.

This year, however, there has been a bit of a different dynamic in the air.  There have been more cliques down language lines and country lines and it's been a challenge.

Last week we saw a lovely breakthrough.  The girls came back from gym class- connecting across languages- laughing- arm in arm.  It turns out that they had Arabic music on during the class and were dancing to it.  The Spanish and Somali speakers were dancing  to Arabic music and this provided a small door to open.

Someone had to make the first move (pun intended, hee, hee  :))

It's not perfect and there is still more understanding and connection to build but there is a nice difference.  I'm seeing girls across cultures and languages working better together and I'm seeing them greet each other and say good-bye with hugs and kisses.

After gym class that morning, we were in class  writing sentence about things they have done recently- practicing the past tense.  One of the Spanish-speaking girls read her sentence aloud,  "This morning I danced to Arabic music."

The Arabic-speaking girls smiled and laughed in delight.

Music to my ears.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Please see me. Please know me.

We spend a ton of time in education improving our practices, trying new curriculum, integrating technology, and perfecting strategies to help our students learn and achieve. 

And, yet the single biggest truth about your classroom is still:  You have to build relationships with your students.  You have to have connection.  You have to see them.  You have to know them.  

Kids will do better when they know you care, when you learn about them, when you ask them questions about their lives.  They will work wonders for you if they genuinely believe that you've got their back and they are important to you.  They'll push themselves.  They'll take risks.  They'll soar.  

One of the first projects of the year that we do with our students is to have them create a simple PowerPoint about their country of origin.  It's a lot of pictures and simple text.  Then they present it to the class.  We learn about where they are from- the climate, food, religion, language, animals, and customs.  They get a chance to be smart and talk about something they are experts on.  All at a time when they are often feeling very unsure and maybe not so smart in this new country and culture. We see them.  We know them.

All human beings long to be seen and known. It is the human condition.  We were put here for connection.  

When I moved to my new city almost 10 years ago, I was so lonely at first.  I had left a city where I had many strong and deep friendships, some friends I had known since college. They really knew me.  They got me.  It felt daunting to start over from scratch.  And, I'm not a person who just wants superficial acquaintances.  I want deep friendships.  I want to talk about stuff that matters.  I want to be able to show you my light side and my dark side.  

I first turned to the running community to find my tribe.   I think during this first year I became a much better conversationalist.  After  a while I got tired of asking people about their jobs and I switched to asking them what they like to read, what movies they've seen, where they've traveled, other hobbies, etc.  The truth is it was SO fun.  I learned some fascinating things about people and I got turned on to new books, movies, place to see.  And, I realized that no matter the topic, if someone was really into what they were talking about and passionate about it, it was fun to listen to them.  I love seeing that sparkle in someone's eyes when they feel joy about something they're pursuing.  I might personally want to poke my eyes out when I consider your crafting project for myself, but I really do love to hear you talk about it.  

Once when I was training for a marathon, I was on a 20 mile run with a woman and she told me a very personal and profound story about her life.  Theere's something about running that loosens your tongue and your heart.  It's like sacred ground for getting to really know people.

Just last week I was at a meeting with a guy I don't know well before others arrived, and in a span of 10 minutes I discovered that his wife is expecting their 3rd child; he knows how to build beds and is building one for everyone in the family; he took his class snow-shoeing that day, and he was a pitcher on his college baseball team.  It was so great.

People are fascinating!   Cultivate the art of knowing them and seeing them and you will be richly rewarded.  

Sometimes teachers have a hard time seeing and knowing our students.  We see one thing and we make a judgement.  And, well, sometimes we're just really off- really wrong.  

For example,   our culture and our schools really value outgoing students who raise their hand a lot and participate.  So, if you come from a culture where quietness, respect, and humility are valued, this will not be a good fit for our culture.  Or if you are naturally shy, or if you prefer to write your thoughts.  

We have a student like this and she was judged to be "not really getting it".  The truth is, she does get it.  She just doesn't perform or show her knowledge in the way this teacher wants her to.  Does this student need to work on participating more and answering questions?  Of course.  Does the teacher need to work on offering other ways for this student to shine and show what she knows?  You bet.  Does this teacher need to focus on knowing this student and seeing her culture better?  A resounding yes.  

My closest colleague was a refugee years ago.  She had to learn a new language as a teenager and she didn't have any special services to help her with that.  One of the greatest gifts she has given me in this work is her perspective.  She has helped me see what might be going on with these kids and she has done it by revealing her own story.  

Sometimes I worry about new kids and she reminds me that they are in shock, overwhelmed, numb, exhausted.  Sometimes I fret that they're not speaking much and she reminds me that it is normal to have a silent period and that she herself had a really long one in her new country when she was first there.  She understands the heartache of leaving a country because it is no longer safe, giving up so much, and having to start over.  She tells the kids her story and then they are freer to tell theirs.  She lets me see her and know her and this helps me understand and help the kids better every day.  She is a gift to me and our students.

That's the other thing- share yourself with your students.  They'll love it.  When I tell them stories about my family, or my pets, or about when I was a child, they just eat it up.  It shows you're human, too.  It's a bridge to connection.  

Yesterday in class we did an exercise that had them practice asking questions.  I asked them a lot of questions and, of course, they loved talking about themselves.  But then, I told them they could ask ME questions and they just went crazy.  The hands would not go down.  

How old are you?  What is your dog's name?  What does your cat do during the day?  What are the names of your kids?  Are you married?  What is your husband's job?  Connection. Relationships.  Seeing. Knowing.  

There was a story in the news recently that caught my attention and sort of made my heart explode with the bravery and openness demonstrated. A Muslim woman and her husband in Cambridge, MA set up a stand and offered free coffee and doughnuts. They displayed a sign that said, "Talk to a Muslim."

She said that she was prepared to answer tough questions about her faith but mostly she just received a ton of support.   “We just wanted to talk to people and we didn’t see any harm in doing that,” said Haydar. “We are just normal people. There is definitely fear [in America], and I want to talk about it, because it’s actually misplaced and misguided — I am really nice!” This woman put herself out there in the biggest way in order to be seen and known.

I have found that when I put myself out there to be seen and known, people appreciate it. When I am open and vulnerable, people respond in the most amazing way.  None of us is perfect and it's a relief when we let others see our challenges and struggles.  It's a comfort to know that we're all out there doing the best we can.

It's interesting what you discover when you lower your guard and share your true self, warts and all.    I find that people really want to talk and connect.  I discovered that people still liked me despite my many mistakes and imperfections.  I really feel like people are dying for authenticity and connection and closeness.  Sometimes the vulnerability is terrifying, but, in the end,  you'll feel seen and known and it will be pretty amazing.  

Let's go out there tomorrow and try a little harder to really see our students.  To really know them.  And, while we're at it, let's try to see and know our colleagues, family, friends, neighbors and strangers, too.  I'll close with a quote from one of the greats:

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why I Teach at the Newcomer Center

When I got the job at the Newcomer Center 3 years ago, I knew I had landed somewhere special.  I was kind of surprised I got it.  In our district, jobs are posted internally first and whoever has the most seniority gets the transfer.  I didn't have a lot of seniority and I figured a lot of teachers would want it. I was overjoyed when I got it.

Here are some of the things I have discovered about this job that I didn't know when I first took it:

1.  I work longer hours than I ever have in my career.
2.  I am not just a teacher.  I am a caseworker, social worker, and advocate.  And, all of that takes a lot of time, energy, and persistence.
3.  This job requires tremendous emotional energy and strength.  It can really break your heart open.
4.  I have to continue to work on taking care of my own spirit and my body in order to be at my very best for these children.
5.  All of the above is worth it, because I have never in a job felt as challenged, inspired, moved, rewarded, and appreciated as much as a I do in this job.  Never.

One of the best books I read in 2016 was recommended by my dear friend Holly, who lives a very big and a very brave life:  The Great Work of Your Life:  A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling  by Stephen Cope.  He writes about humans who have done great work and discovered their own unique genius:  people like Harriet Tubman, Beethoven, Susan B. Anthony, and Gandhi.  He describes their rocky paths and their struggles and shows how they overcame doubt, fears, and other real obstacles in discovering their purpose in life and living it out.

I'm not comparing myself to Gandhi, but I believe we each have something that we can contribute in this world and when you figure it out, you'll know it.

 I do feel I have found the great work of my life in my teaching job right now.  I'm not sure it's what I'll do forever but I feel I have been led to this job.  It has been shaping me and expanding me in ways I could not imagine.  I'm not perfect at it.  I'm still learning.  There are days I am still massively humbled about what I don't know.

Tomorrow, I am back to work after a long break.  I'm rested and refreshed and can't wait to see the students.  I missed them.

We'll get 3 new students this week.  One is an 11 year old girl, a refugee, from a war-torn area.  She has not been to school in the last 3 years.  Think about everything children in America learn between the ages of 8-11.  Imagine the trauma she may have been through, the uncertainty, the violence she may have seen.  Now, she's here in her new country.  She needs to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture and climate, and make up for a lot of lost time with her schooling.

This girl and her family are behind the Great Work of My Life.  They are the living, breathing reasons I am happy and inspired to go to work.  When I meet her family this week, I'll welcome them to America and tell them how happy I am that they are here.  I'll reassure them that we'll take care of their little girl and that she'll learn English and lots of other things.

I'll welcome the girl and even if we can't communicate much, I hope she'll see in my smile that I care about her and that she's safe, and that I'm going to be her biggest cheerleader.

I'll close with a few quotes from Cope's book:

"If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. Yes. But this saving is not just for you. It is for the common good.” 

"Am I living fully right now? Am I bringing forth everything I can bring forth? Am I digging down into that ineffable inner treasure-house that I know is in there? That trove of genius? Am I living my life’s calling? Am I willing to go to any lengths to offer my genius to the world?”