Thursday, August 3, 2017

Adventures in Kindergarten

This summer I had the pleasure of volunteering with my daughter in the newcomer kindergarten room during summer school.  It's the classroom of my lovely friend and colleague, RJ.

In my now 20+ years of teaching, I've taught nearly all ages.   I have taught middle school, high school, and adults.  I taught at an elementary school for 5 years, mostly focused on 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  I taught 1st grade there for a year and almost died.  :)  Even now, when I think back on that class, I get a bit of a stomach ache and nervous feeling.

I know some of you might be thinking, "But, you handle middle- schoolers!  How could 1st graders scare you?"  I don't know.  We just all have our own mountains to climb and things that intimidate us.

I was so unprepared to handle a group of 1st graders.  I didn't know how to get them to do what I wanted them to do.  I didn't know how to manage them at all.  It was a disaster, until about the 3rd day, when my very kind and seasoned paraprofessional asked me kindly, "Honey, would you like some advice?"  "Yes, Please!!!"  And, then she took me by the hand and showed me some really solid tools and helped me implement them for the rest of the year.  I survived and so did the kids.

So, that's the closest I ever got to kindergarten.  I've always regarded them with with a mix of interest, amusement, and caution.  But, I dove in, and I learned so much in those three short weeks.  Here are 5 big takeaways.

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1.  Enthusiasm is contagious and beautiful. 

The kids in kindergarten this summer liked me, but they REALLY liked my daughter.  There were a few kids who especially attached themselves to her.

One boy would get so excited when we arrived.  He would come up to my daughter and ask excitedly, "Are you coming?! Are you coming?"  She'd respond, "Yes, I'm coming!  I'm here!"

He'd also repeat over and over about my daughter, "I like it my Abby.  I like it my Abby." Grammatically incorrect, but, oh, so adorable.

And, when we were going to do an activity that he really liked, he'd raise his hands in the air and shake his fists and exclaim about it.

It really made me reflect on how fun and joyful it is to be around people who are enthusiastic and excited about life.  It's so beautiful and SO contagious.

2.  Kids will rise to your expectations of them.

One boy started to have some really difficult behavior in the time we were there this summer.  Not listening, not following directions, being aggressive with other kids.  RJ said it was new behavior for him and was a bit mystified about it.  She handled it well.  She was firm and kind, followed behavior plans that kids were familiar with, and set limits as necessary.

I found myself starting to feel a bit negatively towards him and like I had to watch him carefully. Therefore, not surprisingly, I was catching him doing a lot of inappropriate things and correcting him a lot.  And, it really wasn't making him much better.  I could feel a slight negative dynamic building even in my short time with him.

On our last day there, he seemed to be in a better place and he surprised me by participating and even being a leader in a little group activity I led.  I started building him up during this activity, praising him on his ideas, really connecting with him.  I told him that I knew he could do it and I was so proud of him.

And, you know what????  He rose and kept rising to my expectations that morning.    As teachers and parents, you can never forget how powerful your expectations of kids are.  Kids will read you like a book and they will sense and feel what you think of them.  And, they can rise or fall on that.

3.  You can teach mindfulness to kindergartners.

I've been practicing mindfulness in my own life for a while now, both a formal practice and trying to integrate it into my personal and professional life.   Last summer, I took a course so I could teach it to my students and last year I taught my middle schoolers the curriculum all year long, and it was great.  I don't believe there are any silver  bullets in education, but for me, this is the best thing I have ever brought into the classroom.  (That will be a longer blog post at some point.)

So, I asked RJ if I could teach some mindfulness to the kinders and she said yes.  I really considered my audience when planning the lessons, so kept them short, active, and visual.  We did belly breathing and the volcano breath.  We did mindful movement.  We listened to my singing bowl and I let them take turns ringing it.  And, it captured their attention and they got very quiet while the sound vibrated.  And, finally, we made calm-down glitter bottles.  I explained that when it's all shaken up, that's what their brain is like when they're mad or upset.  I told them that they could hold it and watch the glitter settle, breathe, and calm down.

The most brilliant part of mindfulness is that kids learn they have agency over their actions and that they have the power and strength to learn how to manage strong emotions.  And, I could see the beginnings of that in our lessons.



4.  Being with an excellent teacher in her classroom will always be the best staff development.

I like staff development, trainings, workshops, and classes. I can almost always find some value in whatever I attend.  However,  spending three weeks, with RJ reinforced something that I've long believed in.  The best staff development you can get is to go and spend some time in a really good teacher's classroom.  You will get so much bang for your buck.  All teachers should do more of this.  

When you go, be intentional in your observations:

- Notice the physical environment.  How are things arranged in the classroom?  What are different areas for?  What's on the walls?  How is student work displayed?  Are there guidelines for behavior posted?  Take photos if you want to remember some things you really like.  

-Really observe the teacher.  Watch how she leads, talks, interacts with  kids, deals with positive and negative behaviors.  How does she handle transitions?  What about variety in the school day?  

-Observe the kids.  Notice how they interact with each other and handle themselves.  Observe their relationships with the teacher.  

I felt really lucky to be a part of RJ's classroom for a few days this summer.  She's a masterful teacher.  I saw someone with great expertise of her subject matter but also someone with humor, warmth, flexibility, compassion, and great love and joy for children.  It was invaluable.  

I'm in a particularly lucky position with my job, because I co-teach every day.  So, I get to interact with and observe an amazing teacher on a regular basis, and it has made me so much better than if I was just left to own devices.  It helps me raise my teaching game.

This year, pick a teacher you respect and admire, and go spend a day with her/him.  

5.  All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.

To be honest, I've always kind of thought this poem by Robert Fulghum was kind of corny, but it's true.

I watched those kinders this summer and I realized that so much of what they're learning every day- how to listen, how to share, how to cooperate, how to deal with difficult emotions, how to pay attention- are really the core lessons of life.

I think about all the divisiveness, hatred, and misunderstanding in our nation and world right now, and I would just advise all of us to go back and review this poem and reflect on some of the essential nature of what it means to be human.  Think about how we want to treat our fellow human beings.

We could all stand to go back and review our lessons from kindergarten.

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All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten

by Robert Fulghum
Most of what I really need
To know about how to live
And what to do and how to be
I learned in kindergarten.
Wisdom was not at the top
Of the graduate school mountain,
But there in the sandpile at Sunday school.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Flush.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.




Sunday, June 25, 2017

What I want you to know.

My teaching partner and I were completing checklists on our students, reviewing their writing samples, and filling in test scores.  All part of the finishing-up process at the end of the school year. 

I felt a tightness in my chest and an anxiety in my stomach, and I said to her, “You know, this information we’re passing on to their next teachers is not remotely adequate.  It tells only a small, small part of their story and who they are as a student and, more importantly, a human being.”

We then discussed how some of the best “data” we ever received on students was from S.C., a teacher who would transfer her 5th grade Newcomer students to us for middle school if they still needed more time in our setting.  She sent all the required data but then at the top of each file, there was a 1-2 page narrative on each child.  She told us their back story and detailed their strengths and struggles.  I read each and every one.   They were golden, and since I remember stories better than numbers or levels, this is the data that stayed with me and I kept in the back of my head when I met the student face to face. 

I want to find a way to replicate this data sharing, because it’s so important.  I think about my students moving on to mainstream classes next year, and I worry.

I worry, because I know how far they’ve come, yet they are still below grade level academically. 

I worry that teachers won’t use best practices for teaching English learners, strategies like building background, pre-teaching vocabulary, adapting text, and scaffolding. 

I worry that they’ll be lost, but unnoticed, because they’re quiet, good, and eager to please.

I worry that they’ll be lost, but noticed, because they’re acting out and being disruptive, which is their coping mechanism when they don’t understand the material.   

But, I can’t hold on to them forever and there are many excellent teachers who are more than capable of teaching them, so I let them go. 

If I wrote a story about every student, here are some examples of what I’d share.

What you see...

An aggressive, impulsive boy who still uses his fists when he gets angry and has a hard time with focus and being still. 

What I want you to know…

He spent nearly his whole life in a refugee camp, where you need to be tough and physical in order to survive.  Where you get water and food by pushing to the front of the line.  Where you had no real school.

I met with his dad and talked about what a great kid he is but about how important it is that he continue to learn about the school culture and rules here.  His dad gave a speech to his son during that conference that was interpreted to me. 

He said, “Son, there are two houses on the path.  One is very, very dark and one is full of light.  You can walk down the path and go into whichever house you want.  The dark one will bring you nothing but trouble.  The house of light is where your teacher lives.  Open that door and live in that house.” 

My throat constricted and my eyes watered as I shook this father’s hand and told him that I believed in his son, and I would continue to work hard to help him. 

What you can do for this student...

Hold him accountable, but keep this understanding of his background at the front of your mind.  Give him specific alternatives for what to do when he gets mad.  Make your lessons engaging and active, and allow for lots of movement.  Let him stand up and fidget while he does his work as long as he’s not bugging anyone.  Remind him that he can do this and remind him that he wants to live in the light-filled house. 
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What you hear...

If you ask S. about her family, she will tell you she lives with her mom and two brothers and that her dad is dead. 

What I want you to know…

When I first had this conversation with S., she used the words, “My dad was lost in the war in Iraq”, which I interpreted as he lost his life.  Later I discovered what she really meant. 

She wrote in her life story, “My dad went to Baghdad one day and never came back.  We looked for him, but we did not find him.  Some people told us to leave, and if we did not leave, something bad will happen, so we went to Jordan.” 

My teaching partner started to cry when she read this.  She was working on the life story with S.  S. comforted her, got her a tissue, and gave her a hug.  She tried to reassure her that she was really okay now. 

Words don’t lie, though, and I find it interesting and heartbreaking that every few paragraphs in her life story, she circles back to her father.

“The worst thing in my life was when my mom got sick and my dad was gone.  This made me really sad.”

“Four years ago, my father was lost in the war.  My father was like my best friend. He was always telling me stories and funny stories.  He played with me with dolls and toys. I miss him a lot.”

“The best thing for me is to meet my father again, but that is impossible.  I have no hope of meeting with my dad, because it is almost five years.”

In spite of all this heaviness, S. is one of the most vibrant, sweet, joyful, and hopeful kids I have ever known.  She wants to be a movie star and an engineer.  She plans to work a lot so she has a lot of money, so she can take her mom to beautiful places like Hawaii. 

What you can do…

Remember that not everyone has intact families and some kids have experienced great trauma around family.  Give her a chance to share all this on her own terms, in her own way, and in pieces. 

Writing is a great outlet for S., and many other kids.  Listen closely to what she says and what she doesn’t say.  Build her up, give her affection, and be ready to talk when she wants to. 
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What you might see….

A girl who gets upset, frustrated, even angry when she doesn’t understand something, especially with math.  She’s deeply insecure but it might come out as anger at you. 

What I want you to know….

R. is so much better than she used to be.  When she was first in our center, I spent a lot of time with her in the hall, trying to talk her down.  She yelled; she raged.  She was sarcastic and incredibly difficult. 

Then, she grew.  She changed.  She learned and matured.  Watching R’s transformation has made me confident of the fact that change and learning is possible.  She’s softer now, more mature, slower to freaking out, but it still happens occasionally.  

On the last day, she gave me a thank you letter, and several times in the note, she thanked me for teaching her how to calm down and handle her feelings.   

When she hugged me on the last day, she had tears in her eyes, and she said, “I’m nervous about high school.  I just don’t know if I can do it.”  I reminded her of her resilience, all the things she’s survived, how much she’s learned and grown.  I told her in a steady voice that I knew she could do it.  She has endured so much already in her young life. 

From her story:

“When there was a war in my country, I was very afraid.  Then we moved to Jordan, but we did not travel by airplane.  Some of the time we walked, but that was so hard and I was so tired.  There were a lot of thorns that hurt my feet, but when we were close to Jordan, we rode a bus.  We slept for one day on the bus, and the weather was so cold, and there were not enough blankets.  My dad gave me his jacket and said that his body was stronger than mine.  After that, I was finally able to sleep.” 

What you can do…

See beyond her frustration when she’s lashing out and saying she can’t do something.  Demand respect but also hang in there with her.  Learn about trauma and how it manifests in teenagers.  Acknowledge her resilience and remind her to be patient with herself and not give up.  Her motivation and ability to work hard is incredible and she is going to grace the world with her gifts.  I have glimpsed something great and special in her and if it’s nurtured, it will bloom and amaze.   She dreams of being a writer. 
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I could write one of these entries about each student I have.  One of the privileges of my job is that I get to spend all day with the students, so I really get to know them well.

I am witness to a miraculous unfolding.  I get to see them at the very beginning when they’re scared and can’t speak a word of English.  I get to see them as they struggle, grapple with a new culture, language.  I see the highs, and I see the lows.  And, I see transformation.  I see not only English emerge, but confidence.  I get to see their personalities shine, their uniqueness emerge. 

It’s so terribly difficult to watch them move on.  I’m so proud of how much they’ve accomplished, yet I know only too well, how far they still have to go.  Part of me wants to protect them and shelter them, but I would never do that. 

So, I watch them move on… to other teachers, to other schools, to other challenges.  And, I wonder, “Did I do enough for her/him?” 

And, I conclude that I just have to trust that I have done the important things.  I’ve let them know that they matter, that they’re worthy, and that they are capable of great things. 

At the end of the day, that is the greatest gift I can offer my students.  May it be enough. 


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!

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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. 
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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.