Saturday, January 28, 2017

One Hundred Visions and Revisions

This time of year can be difficult in the classroom.  It's challenging to muster energy and enthusiasm when so much of the day is shrouded in the gloom of winter and a week might pass without seeing the sun.  Maybe that's why I brought Prufrock into the classroom.  Though the poem is certainly cimmerian, somehow I feel moved, even uplifted, after reading it.  Despite the stilted and inconsistent rhyme and meter, the poem manages to lull and soothe.  Threads of it stick and swirl in a way that brings a sense of calm and clarity, and if not true clarity, perhaps the comfort that we're not alone in our uncertainty.

I knew my kids would be up for the challenge, but at this point in the year, I am a dealer in sticks and carrots.  If I simply put the poem in front of them, they'd look at the length and sigh, they'd look at the name and pass judgement, they'd look at the first few lines and see words they didn't know and phrases they didn't understand.  I'd lose them before we even began.  Hence, the carrot: playdoh.  I swear to you, if the seniors walk in and see playdoh, they will go to unimaginable lengths to use it. And the smell.  It's awfully difficult to acquiesce to overwhelm and feelings of inadequacy when the perfume of playdoh fills the room.  Prufrock and playdoh may not seem like natural companions, but with playdoh in hand, Prufrock suddenly becomes manageable. Playdoh offers possibility.

The playdoh rule is this: students can play with it as long as they're focused on what we're doing in class.  And they know they'll eventually have to demonstrate some level of analysis and understanding with a playdoh sculpture.  I gave an impassioned speech about how "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is my favorite poem of all time and that it would behoove them to lie to me if they didn't feel the same adoration.  With that -- passion and playdoh-- they were hooked.

We talked about the transition from the Romantics and Victorians to the Modern Era, emphasizing the shift from a sense of order and meaning and identity to a period of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion of identity.  We looked at Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and discussed the ways in which it mirrored the tenets of the Modern Era.
Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase

And with that, we moved into the poem.  I reminded the students that they should expect to be confused, but to zero in always on what they understand -- where they find meaning.  So we read and they were captivated.  They were in it, swept away with me.  We shared the palpability of the piece in a way that is such an enormous gift to the nerdy English teacher in me.  We were swayed and lulled, moved by the current of Eliot's words.  When we finished the poem, I asked them to make a playdoh sculpture of one thing that emerged for them in the poem that held significant meaning and to be prepared to explain it -- not that they needed to have it all figured out, but they needed to defend why they thought it was important.

The sculptures were as unique as the the students: an ominous black hand with long, thin fingers; a clock; an hourglass; a head upon a platter; replicas of trivial, everyday items -- tea cups and coffee spoons; mermaids; a skull.  And as students took turns sharing their sculptures with the class, we began to unpack the meaning.  The tone came seeping through. Their individual details compiled to aid understanding.

We went through some explication.  I gave them some hints that might deepen their connections.  We discussed Dante and John the Baptist and Hamlet.  Then I sent them home to grapple with it some more.  I finished the day with an enormous sense of joy.  I shared something I love with them, I gave them a window through which to see and understand not only the power of the poem, but me.  I encountered the poem when I was their age and it spoke to me in a deeply profound way -- I hoped it would do the same for them.  They trusted me. When they arrived to class next time, we'd move into Socratic Seminar with it.

This seminar was PHENOMENAL.  No exaggeration -- my eyes flooded with tears, I was so moved by these kids.  Teachers are often so busy talking that we don't allow students the opportunity to show us how brilliant and thoughtful and insightful they are.  There was a dramatic shift in both the way I saw my students and in the way they saw themselves.  I'd provided several with mugs of tea (many are battling illness), my favorite of which has the coffee spoons line on it (the irony wasn't lost).  As they sat there sipping tea discussing and extending and reflecting on the ideas in the poem, they transformed.  I saw them suddenly as wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful adults, not children.  I'm not being hyperbolic. It was magical.

I know the day likely won't be replicated anytime soon, if at all, but we shared something powerful yesterday.  It was something I remember experiencing with my own AP Literature teacher and some of my favorite college professors.  It was a sense of deep companionship and understanding and respect. We shared the moment when growth happened.  We witnessed it happen.  We experienced it together.  I certainly don't expect these kids to head off to college eager to be English majors because we read Prufrock and had a lovely experience, but words have the ability to isolate or to bind.  I am grateful to be bound to them and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have shared a piece of literature that moved and continues to move me.  I'm grateful to have paid witness.

A Note about my Approach to Socratic Seminar

Over the years, my approach to Socratic Seminar has evolved.  I pair students and they take turns "coaching" the other.  The coach completes a tally sheet for the participant.  Each student sets an individual and measurable goal for the seminar and shares it with his/her coach.  Students arrive to class having generated their own questions and initial responses.  For each participant, there are two rounds,  generally 5 to 8 minutes in length.  Between the rounds, they pop out to see their coach and lead the conversation -- this is how I think the discussion is going, here's where I'm at in reaching my goal, I'm so pumped I shared something that generated meaningful discussion, etc.  The coach has tallied the ways in which his/her partner has participated (eye contact, deepening discussion by tying to a specific line in the text, inviting another student into the fray, etc.) and shares observations. After the coaching break, they high five or fist bump or simply offer encouraging words and send the participant back to the discussion.  Discussion after the coaching break is always stronger than the first half and it allows the student who isn't participating in discussion to fulfill an important role. After the second round of discussion, the coach and participant swap roles.

Friday, January 20, 2017


I haven't slept through the night in weeks.  This week has been particularly bad; I'm averaging about 3 hours a night.  My mind won't turn off.  My fears don't abate.  The quiet never arrives.  I'm unraveling. It isn't pretty.

I've certainly experienced elections that didn't go the way I'd hoped.  They were disappointing, but life went on.  We could utter encouraging platitudes to one another.  We'd get 'em next time.  This is different.  This isn't merely disappointment.  This time I'm wracked with fear and am utterly consumed with loss.  And I'm allowing it to transform me into someone I don't like.

I remember feeling proud of myself after the election.  I didn't lash out.  I wasn't angry.  I was deeply saddened.  I was confused.  I think I told myself I was handling it well -- I'd moved directly to acceptance on the grief spectrum.  I read and shared articles striving to come to a place of understanding.  I thought I was going to be okay.  In reality, I temporarily cauterized the emotional bleed.  Only in recent days have I finally told myself the truth.  I've been in denial.  But now it's here and I'm free-falling in oceans of anxiety and fear. I'm submerged.  I flailed for awhile.  I sought distraction.  I feigned confidence and composure.  But now.  I'm lost.  I feel utterly, paralyzingly lost.

I've never been a wallower.  Raised on the the bedrock of pull-yourself-together-dammit, I always have.  When shitty things happened, I've allowed myself to sob, to feel sorry for myself, but it didn't take long before my father's booming, deliberate voice barged into my thoughts: "Jesus Christ!  Shit happens.  What are you going to do about it?"  And I did something.  I pulled myself together. I took action.  I can't this time. I can't muster the energy when it's needed most.

Last night I was having a pleasant enough conversation with a stranger while I waited for a friend. When the realization was made that one of us was grieving while the other was celebrating, I turned ugly.  Some things have tempered with age.  My tongue isn't one of them.  I am well-versed in the art of delivering burning, cutting, hurtful remarks with ease and heaping apologies afterward.  So last night felt unfortunately familiar.  He wouldn't hear any apologies or explanations.  There was no concession to agree to disagree.  There were no condolences.  There was a wall.  Trump didn't build that one.  I did.  I was exactly who he wanted me to be.  I fulfilled the narrative.  I reaffirmed his beliefs.

I want to believe we can understand one another.  But I'm beginning to worry we can't.  I'm not so foolish or arrogant or disconnected to believe that what happens in government won't affect me and those I love.  I asked him what he thought about Betsy DeVos.  He'd never heard of her.  I tried to explain how terrifying a prospect she is for public education, the one thing that can hope to provide equal footing for all people.  He didn't care.  He scoffed that he didn't have kids so it really didn't affect him.  We should give everyone a fair chance, he said.

I'm a teacher.  I normally tout those words.  I preach the need for acceptance, understanding, and compromise.  We celebrate stories and diverse experiences.  I'm a hypocrite; I can't this time.  The fallout of this election is an assault on everything that is important to me, everything I value.  I know I need to find a way forward, but I'm not there yet.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday I took a walk through the woods.  In January, there should be snow.  There wasn't, but I encountered plenty of things that were reminiscent of the winter hikes I took with my father when I was young.

As a child, I played a game called Princess of the Wilderness.  Yes, this was an entirely made up game that was mine alone. Essentially, the forest was my kingdom.  I'd seek out trees with low-hanging heavy boughs and I'd climb under, watching the sunlight stream through my secret enclave. I'd notice a tree that had fallen, top first, folding in on itself almost, and envision curtains and sheets draped around it, providing shelter.  I found stones embedded in the rich soil, covered in moss, that made for a chair. A vibrant patch of bluebells made for a bed.  I've always been at peace in the woods.  In everything there was a story.  I don't remember being taught this, I just absorbed it.  Each season told a different tale.

There should be snow on the ground.  When I was little the snow was up to my thighs from November through February.  Things are remembered differently in a child's memory.  But it's the middle of January and we don't have snow.  As I wandered through the woods yesterday, I was reminded that there is a different kind of beauty to every season.  When the investitures of spring, summer, and fall are shed, the trees reveal themselves in their intricate grace.  Bare of leaves, their contours are made visible.  Despite the absence of snow, my January hike called to memory a hike I took with my father when I was about 10.

For many, I think winter is a season of hunkering down.  But I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a town full of Norwegians, so winter simply meant that the landscape changed, not the activities. As a result, a snow hike wasn't out of the norm. The memory that stands out most prominently involved a childhood friend and her dad -- one of my dad's Hoser Boy friends, a gang of friends from college with a bit of a wild streak, as far as I can tell, whose friendships have stayed the test of time.  We hiked at Malanaphy Springs just outside my hometown. That hike offered many lessons, none of them planned.

In the spring, summer, and fall, there was a wall of hand-stacked rock.  It never faltered; it was always visible and I clambered along it.  In the winter, I was reminded it was still there.  I had to search a bit -- it took on a different appearance -- but it was there, nonetheless.

My dad made a fire and Hannah and I scampered through the snow to collect kindling.  It sounds stupid now, but I remember being surprised.  I didn't know that a fire could be built in the snow.

When we came to the spring itself, a tall wall of limestone shaped by the hand of the glaciers centuries earlier, we felt compelled to shout a hello.  Our voices echoed and reverberated.  That was the most prominent difference for me.  While the snow may disguise the landscape, the landscape never alters.  But the sound of the woods do.  There is a silence, a muffling, a weight that happens in winter.  It's easy to believe it's because of dormancy, but the earth is never truly dormant.  There is always growth, turning, and life.  We just can't see it.  The snow offers a silence that allows us to hear our own voices in a way that we never do otherwise.  We sound strong and powerful.  We are a force in the silence of snow.

Each season offers a different window through which to understand ourselves.  For me, winter offers a very unique window.  Winter gives me voice and allows me to hear my own echo.  With each footfall that crunches in the snow and each footprint left behind, I'm reminded that I exist.  I create a path.  I have the capacity to make noise, a footstep or a howl.

For me, winter isn't a time of dormancy.  It's a reminder.  I can look back and see I forge a path.  My footprints are evidence.  My echo reassures me of the power of my voice.  These are things I need to carry with me when the days are short and the darkness comes early.

It is a tremendous gift that my father took me to the woods when I was young, that I can return to them years later and be reminded of the same lessons, and that I can pass those eternal lessons to my children.  And to pull another from the archives of my childhood memory, from the Byrds: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose."  I'm grateful I was taught the lesson early.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Gift of Reconciliation

I grew up with deep Catholic roots.  For me, the concept of reconciliation will forever be linked to the confession of sins.  My oldest son recently made his first reconciliation and they encouraged parents to model the importance of reconciliation by confessing themselves.  I'll admit, I've participated in confession (the religious kind, anyway) a whopping 4 times in my life: prior to my First Communion, prior to my Confirmation, the day before I got married (Epic sidebar, but I can't just gloss over this.  The priest, who I'd never met because he was brand new to the church-- like week-old new-- just sat there in silence.  He literally didn't say ANYTHING! So I just KEPT talking.  For a really, really long time.  I remember distinctly starting with the easy stuff -- uh, I'm mean to my brother, I haven't respected my father and mother.  At 24 years old, I confessed that I'm mean to my brother, which is probably the same confession I made in 2nd grade. Crickets. Then I heard myself say, "And then I went to college..." Talk about a doozy! Meanwhile, poor Matt's just WAITING for me in the church.  As we crossed paths for him to have his turn, he said, wide-eyed, "What did you SAY?! You were in there for 45 minutes!), and this most recent experience. The act of Reconciliation truly does feel like a weight is lifted.  We carry our burdens with us, rarely finding the opportunity or invitation to set down the load.  And then we're forgiven, wiped clean, and given the gift of trying to live a little better.

In that regard, reconciliation seems so completely positive.  But in the school system, the act of reconciliation doesn't come nearly as easily.  The challenge comes, I suppose, in that there is no promise that the load will be lightened, the burden removed.  Sometimes the district's decisions do not mirror my beliefs.  How can that be reconciled?  Sometimes the team or a colleague sees something in an entirely different light and commits to forge a path I can't get behind.  How can that be reconciled?  Reconciliation becomes much more complicated.  How can I hope to reach a state of harmony when ideologies are so at odds with one another?

School systems are so deeply committed to buy-in and team structures, but rarely is there discussion about one's own values and passions.  At times, it feels like the philosophies and backgrounds teachers bring to the profession are muted, replaced for team norms, vision statements, collaborative planning, and common assessments.  To be clear, I think those elements can be enormously beneficial.  But how do we respond when a real issue of philosophy -- of belief-- is at odds with the group/district?  When an argument is made -- a well-supported, researched, passionate argument--  is in direct contrast to the stance of the majority, how do we reconcile that?  Do we set aside our beliefs for the good of collegiality and toil silently in bitterness?  Do we raise Hell and refuse to back down, making for an ugly, polarized group dynamic?  Do we nod in agreement, then retreat back to the sanctuary of our classrooms and do what we believe, in spite of the group's decisions?  Here, reconciliation is decidedly harder and the attempt often creates a heavier burden, not a lighter one.

So I'm grappling.  I'm trying to reconcile how the teacher can be true to her philosophies, even when the system in which (or colleagues with whom) she works harbor beliefs in contrast to hers.  How can the teacher be a strong contributor and member of a team without sacrificing herself and her values about education?

As I do whenever a problem feels beyond me, I turn to the lessons around me for guidance.  President Obama's Farewell Address couldn't have come at a better time.  He was speaking about America, but, really he was simply speaking about people.  He opened, "Whether we’ve seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people ...  are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired, and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man."  If I'm being honest, this is true of the school system, if I let it be.  It can make me better.  I can learn from others, rather than discrediting their views simply because they are contrary to my own.  Just as dissension made him a better President, so too can it make me a better teacher.  Leading with this in mind will allow me reconcile with some of the elements I've interpreted to be divisive.

Perhaps most moving to me was his message about solidarity.  Solidarity does not require uniformity.  It does require us to recognize that all of us-- each with unique perspectives and values-- are in this together.  I need to remind myself that we have a very important shared belief: we believe in the power of education to better the lives of our students.  He talks about healthy debate: "We’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point ... we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible."  I need to learn to frame discussion with a focus on those elements which unite us, not those which divide.  I do believe that we are greater together than alone.

If I can celebrate the ideas and values of democracy in government, I should be able to do the same in education.  I can set my ego aside.  I can strive, uneven as it may be, to reconcile, eyes fixed on what matters most -- the students who wait before us -- alongside those who may hold very different viewpoints, but who believe as strongly as I do in the importance of doing our best for kids.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A New Year: The Gift of Opportunity

The new year provides a welcome gift: opportunity.  I've never liked the concept of beginning the new year with a list of goals, largely because they often feel like burdens.  When the novelty of the new beginning wears off, I'm often left in much the same place I was at the start of the year.  New Year's Resolutions can feel oppressive, unsustainable.  So I didn't set New Year's Resolutions, but I've made a commitment to trying to center and balance with a monthly actionable step, all rooted in one thing: writing.

I kept a journal, faithfully, for the bulk of my adolescence and into young adulthood.  It was a cornerstone for understanding myself.  As I began my career, got married, and began a family, written reflection is something that's fallen away. Perhaps part of it is because of the accessibility of digital formats.  Through Facebook, I often feel like I'm writing and reflecting, but it's not the same as a sustained piece. So I'm committing to more paper and pen.  I need that grounding.  I need a path to return to.

I've bought in -- hook, line, and sinker -- to the world of bullet journaling.  I'll share some pages along the way, I'm sure.  I'm hoping it will help me keep record of things that matter to me, that it will be a source for brainstorming that will develop into longer (digital) pieces, and that it will help to build the habit of daily writing and reflection.  As I mentioned, I've chosen a monthly focus.  January's focus is on centering (quieting the noise, being mindful of breath, reflection, and finding calm).  I'm sure I'll have much to say about that. So part of centering is clearing distraction, finding quiet, and writing.  This quote is scrawled across my January page: "There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you... only in the winter... can you have longer quiet stretches where you can savor belonging to yourself" (Ruth Stout).  That is what January will be for me -- a turning inward, a time of reflection, of centering.  I'm making a concerted effort to do so.

I'm striving, too, to write more for a broader audience. I need that accountability.  I'd be lying if I said it didn't scare me a little bit.  I'm out of practice, so the words don't come terribly easily, they often falter and fall flat.  The message is dull. But I know that the writing will improve with practice. The reflection, too.  I am not a naturally confident person, so putting words out into the void can make me feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed.  I'm putting my thoughts out into the world, hoping something I say resonates with someone -- that someone hears me.

Much of the writing I read is digital. We are in the habit of consuming material, rather than communicating about it.  I have to be okay with knowing that my readership may not feel compelled to respond about what they've read.  If feedback is important to me, I need to cultivate communities that will provide it. I'm working to build communities of writers who will provide me with the kind of feedback I need to both grow as a writer and to feel valued as a writer.  Digital formats are likely not going to provide that.  Why am I writing to share?  How will I react if that writing doesn't garner response?  These are the questions I must ask myself.

I've made some commitments to something I know is healthy for me.  Writing helps me know what I believe.  It offers clarity.  Most importantly, it feels manageable. I am grateful for the opportunity to use it to settle in, center, reflect, and grow.