Saturday, January 13, 2018

"Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?" An Answer to your Question, Mr. Trump

It's been widely reported that in a meeting on immigration reform, Trump asked at one point, "Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?" in reference to Haiti and African countries.

I'm not very shocked that he said this as it reflects what I believe he really thinks.  He simply lacks the restraint a lot of politicians possess, so he says what first comes to mind without considering if it's true, helpful, or wise to make such a statement.  Calling other countries "shitholes" is vulgar, offensive, and cruel.

But, equally as worrisome or maybe even more so, is that Trump and many other people still do not understand why people from other countries come here and why it's an asset to our community and not a deficit.  And, also why it's the right thing to do.

Father James Martin tweeted:

Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?

1.  They are our brothers and sisters in need.
2.  They are often fleeing war, violence, or famine.
3.  There are children among them.
4.  It's the right thing to do.
5.  That's who we are.

From the UNHCR:

65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes.

Among these are 22.5 million refugees.  A refugee is a someone who fled his or her own country because of persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Over  half of refugees are children under the age of 18.

Less than 1/2 of 1% of refugees are ever resettled to third countries like the US.

A lot of the world's refugees and displaced people have simply been forgotten.  I saw a documentary called "Warehoused" this summer about Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world- in Kenya.  Part of our world reality now is that we are literally "warehousing" human beings in camps.  People are living in these conditions for decades--simply forgotten by the world. 
Watch the trailer here:  Warehoused

I know how motivated and hard-working the families of my students are.  Even with the terror, trauma, and difficult times they have endured, they are happy to be here.  They are committed to making a good life for their families and contributing to our society. They enrich our schools, our communities, our economy, our country, and our lives.  

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.

We must not forget our common humanity.  We are connected.  We are in this together.  

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

We can do better than this.  We can be better than this.  I can't rely on Mr. Trump.  But, I know there are many people with good hearts in this country who understand why refugees and immigrants come to this country.  

We have to keep advocating for them.  

It's the right thing to do.  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Why I want to quit every fall but end up staying

Every fall my teaching partner and I have a conversation that goes more or less like this:

Me:  I can't believe how exhausting this job is.  There are just too many demands and expectations.  How can we do everything we need to do for these kids?  My head feels like it's going to explode:

Partner:  I know; it's just too much.  I don't how how much longer I can keep doing this.

Me:  Well, if you seriously decide to leave, let me know, because I'm right behind you.

Partner:  Right, there's no way I'm doing this job without you.


And, then, somehow we dig in and keep working.  We work hard.  We put in long hours.

We keep at it. 

The begining of the year is rough for a lot of teachers, but I have found the Newcomer Center to be particularly challenging.  The kids are SO new, and have so much to learn- both language and our systems and routines.

And, behavior!  Kids come from situations where they had to be physically aggressive to survive and it takes time and patience to teach them a new way of interacting.

We have endless discussions about how to make things better.  We change things.  We tweak systems and routines.  We talk to them, encourage them, get firm with them.

We analyze different students and come up with strategies and things to say to them that we think might help.  We reflect on our successes and our failures.

We cry some days and we laugh every day.  We take turns being discouraged and burned out.

We keep at it. 

And, then little by little, things start to get better.  They get used to routines.  They start to respond better.  They learn some English, which helps.  They start to feel comfortable and safe, which helps even more.  They see that we are on their side, which helps the most.

And, our little community of the Newcomer Center starts to gel.  And, we look at each other cautiously and say, "I think it's getting better.  Maybe I won't quit this year."

Oh, make no mistake, it's far from perfect, and there are still some pretty difficult days.  But there are more good days than bad days.  And, we remember that difficult and challenging is not the same as "bad".

We keep at it.

And, then miraculously there are these magical moments with the kids where they are so incredible and so beautiful, I wonder if I'll ever be able to leave this job.......

1.  Surprise birthday party.

Like at the end of October when the whole class throws me a surprise belated birthday party.  My birthday is in August, just for the record.  Last year they gave my partner a big party in the spring for her birthday.  When it was over, they asked me when my birthday is and were disappointed when I told them that it was in the summer and we wouldn't be together.

Some of the girls from last year started plotting this fall about a "belated" party and soon they were planning and scheming.  They went to a lot of trouble with decorations, food, and  heart-felt cards.They made speeches to me about what I mean to them that left me in tears. 

Much to my dismay, they also gave me a lot of presents, which I felt equally moved and humbled by. The majority of these families don't have much and the thought that their parents spent some of their limited resources on a gift for me leaves me speechless. 

Also, I was not surprised at all.  They were not good at keeping it a secret-at all. 

2.  Seeing their wonder, joy, and excitement in learning. 

One of the reasons I love working with these kids is that most of them are really open and excited about learning.  They are still experiencing a sense of joy about new things.  Maybe because many fled war and spent time in refugee camps, they have a deep appreciation for education.  If you go without something for a while, you don't take it for granted.  Many of these kids complain when the weekend comes and whine a lot when there's a longer break.  They simply love school.  They can't get enough.

We went to the local nature center on Tuesday for a field trip and a lesson about birds.  They got to trap, study, and release birds. I spent most of my time watching them watch birds.    I loved seeing their unbridled, unashamed enthusiasm.  They were so excited, so engaged, so alive with curiousity and awe!   Those are the teaching moments I live for, and they really do sustain me.

3.  Applause for walking into the room

Last week, my partner and I had an early morning meeting so we weren't in our room to greet the kids as they arrived for the day.  Our paraprofessional was there to supervise them and let them know that we were in the school, just at a meeting, and would be back in time for class.

We walked into class, maybe 2 mintues late.

They started to clap.  I am not kidding.  They broke out into spontaneous applause - I guess so happy to see us.

Who does that?


And, so, for all of these reasons and more, we decide to stay.  Not to quit any time soon. 

There are still plenty of challenges and many difficult days, but there has been a shift in the right direction.

And the shift is lovely and important. 

It's important to note that this shift just didn't come out of nowhere. 

It came from two teachers putting everything into these kids, refusing to give up, and keeping our hearts open.

We keep at it.  

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.


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.


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.
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. 

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. 

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. 

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!


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."