Peeling Back the Layers

I spent A LOT of time just trying to be noticed as a child. I am the youngest kid in my family by 6 years – and the only child of my parents’ union. I was chubby, athletic, and obnoxious in my quest for attention, my quest for acceptance, my quest to feel loved.

This summer I sat with my dad for days while he transitioned to his “next adventure” in a beautiful hospice facility called Marley House. In the time he slept, I went through box after box of files from the last 50 years of his life. Most of the boxes contained the basic old financial statements, or funny clips I’m sure he thought he would come upon one day for another chuckle.

Every so often, I came across a nugget – some glimpse into my father’s life that revealed a new layer about him. There were the papers that he saved from the divorce where my parents fought over custody for me, and then how much he would have to pay. There were the papers the same year as the divorce showing he took three months off of work to convalesce because of his depression.

Each paper revealed another layer of my father’s love for me. Each paper revealed how much he fought himself to stay healthy. Each paper revealed to me how hard life became for my dad after his divorce – how he worked to redeem himself not only in his eyes, but in mine as well.

While I spent my childhood days trying to get noticed by him, by my siblings, by anyone who would pay attention, my dad struggled. I thought I had to be more: louder, more funny, more athletic, more intellectual, more beautiful, more skinny…more.

As an adult with my own child and family, I work to get off the carnival ride of more. And what I realized sitting next to his bed at Marley House is that I was ALWAYS enough in his eyes – I didn’t need to be more. Although I could not see it, I was deeply loved. I was loved unconditionally – it was all right there the whole time – I just thought it looked differently than it does in my family.

My dad did his best to love me, to nurture me…to notice.


What if I get grounded?

I have asked my students to hold a Civil Conversation with someone over this Thanksgiving holiday. I was going to assign it later, but on my way to school last Tuesday I thought my students need to do it this weekend while families are in town, while they have an opportunity to sit down and have conversation with someone they disagree with, someone they also care about.

We are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and exploring how his experiences shaped his worldview through each of his transformations. Students have also written about their own worldview, and while they struggled to write about how their experiences have shaped their worldview, they were able to discuss it in general terms.

My hope in working on this project with my students is twofold: 1. that students will create spaces to disagree with others respectfully, 2. that students will understand how a person’s experiences shape their viewpoints on issues.

When I introduced the civil conversations project where students will film a 3-5 minute conversation with someone with whom they disagree, they got really excited. Nervous. Yes. But excited. They even stated, “I love it when we do cool stuff in here…” Students knew when they left the class with whom they would talk, what they might talk about, and had a plan to figure out how to ask questions to bring out the experiences that develop the other person’s point of view.

Their task? Not to “win,” but to come to an understanding. To understand the other person’s point of view and how their experiences support their view.

At one point, one of my students asked, “What if I get grounded?” I told her that she would stop before her discussion moved to an emotional point, and I gave her some tips. We role played in class, and they were off.


I listened. I did. I promise. And what I heard did not feel good. What I heard helped me find my way, a very small calling. What I heard shifted ever so slightly the way I engage with my world.

I filmed myself teaching last week. I filmed myself and then I put it up in front of my colleagues – colleagues I see and work with every day – and asked them to look for when kids looked engaged using the sentence stems “I see…” and “I hear…” to objectively point it out.

Granted, the video was not perfect. I was trying out some new technology and mostly got the tops of kids’ heads, and I just filmed my teaching, no dog and pony, just filming.

The discussion began as planned. Then one person pointed out DISengagement and the people who followed from that point on couldn’t helped but follow. One of the kids looked like he had a fight spinner, he didn’t know/ understand what you were doing…

A simple protocol, point out examples of engagement. Simple… and yet we could not do it. And I don’t say this as I condemnation – I would like to be extremely clear about this. I place no blame, I place no judgement- rather I offer this observation/ experience as a symptom of a much larger problem in academia.

We teachers are so trained to analyze behaviors, academic works, the learning of our students (or lack thereof), that we have a difficult time noticing when our students do it well. In fact, this experience has shown me that we have a hard time doing it for EACH OTHER as professionals.

If we can’t watch one another teach to point out where it’s going well, how are we going to build the trust to work together when it’s not?

Let’s face it – I can take any lesson I’ve taught and tear it apart. I can point out in any liven lesson who’s not getting it. What I can’t do by myself is to notice, analyze, and leverage what I do well.

After all, it is my faults I notice the most. It is what I don’t do well that I craft and hone to become better. What if we helped one another, as colleagues, become stronger by first noticing our strengths, the ways kids are engaging in our teaching so that we could grow those practices?



As I decide on a word for this school year, I originally thought that connection would win out. But as I think about those places in my life for connection, I am beginning to think that intersection might be a better word.

When we create a connection, we intersect with whatever it is. Think about the spokes on the wheel of a bike and how they come together to connect and create strength. Without the spokes coming together, the wheel would become weak; it would collapse.

Intersection involves not merely connection, but the idea that once we meet one another and intersect, we begin to take in the other. That the other becomes a piece of us is the essence of intersection. Connection, to me, implies that we come together, but it may or may not mean anything beyond that.

Once we intersect we become stronger like the wheel. When we take time to listen, to really listen, to those we connect with is when we begin to take in those we listen to. Without really hearing each other we don’t necessarily intersect, we don’t become stronger together.

When I think about all of the roles I play, they all come together. They come together to make me a stronger and better human moving my way clumsily around this planet. I can take my experiences from travel, from skiing, from cycling, from teaching English, from working closely with teachers, from coaching colleagues, from teaching yoga, from being a yoga student, from being a mother, from being a wife, from being a sister…and use all of these things to keep me firmly planted, rooted in the strength of all of these things coming together at the center of my being.


Experience is the Golden Nugget

I have a yoga teacher, Amy Baker, who asks us to get curious with ourselves at the beginning of each and every class she teaches. Get curious with what’s happening in our bodies. Get curious with the tape that is running through our minds. Ask questions. Get inquisitive.

I never leave her classes the same person I was when I walked through the door.

Each time I’m in her class, I learn something new about my body, about my alignment, about the tapes in my head space, about what feels good and what doesn’t. Each time I’m with her I learn through the experience she provides.

Talking about Culturally Responsive Education today, Dr. Yemi Stembridge presented to a group of Cherry Creek teachers, and asked us to do exactly what Amy does so naturally in her yoga classes: create experiences for our students that allow them to shift, to change, to get curious. It is the experiences we design for our students that allow them to learn, allow them to invest in their learning, and ultimately give them a reason to continue to learn.

When we approach our teaching with curiosity, and design experiences to allow our students to also get curious about themselves, their surroundings, their history, and the world, that is when shifts happen for our students.

What experiences do you ask your students to have?

What feelings do your students walk away with?

What shifts do you expect your students to have?

Coming Out of the Forest

Not gonna lie. This year was hard. I am really glad to be done with it. It wasn’t hard because of school; we just had a lot happen in our family: death, floods, and struggle.

As I slowly move into the rhythms of summer, I have become quiet: reflective. This year was so focused on surrender and survival, I lost sight of who I am, what I stand for. While I am proud that I was able to surrender much of what happened to the universe, the survival of it all made me move into a space that was still untethering. Much of what I experienced emotionally this year was unknown to me.

While I have lost people very close to me in the past, I have not sat in space with a person I love so fiercely struggling to find and figure out themselves in the proximity I have this year. It has been difficult for me to create space between my daughter’s search and my own, or even what I believe she needs. It has been the greatest struggle to allow her space to figure out her place in the world.

But yesterday, we hiked. We hiked Segment 3 on the Colorado Trail…12 miles in one day. We talked. We laughed. We reentered together. We grounded ourselves in the forest.

While all this year I worked at surrendering events to the universe, it took the forest to break something free in her vision of herself. I knew this intuitively. Last March in a bout of extreme frustration I turned to my husband and said, “She needs the forest. She needs to go into the woods to figure herself out, to get away from all the tools she uses to distract herself. To get quiet enough to listen.” And that is just what we have begun to do.

While I know that one day in the forest will not work miracles, we will continue to go. Backpacking and hiking. Getting quiet. Receiving grounding.



Oh! The Things You Can Learn

I stood in the middle of the room. In awe. I watched as I sent commands to the group of 40 teachers. I they pressed and pulled their bodies into different shapes. I watched as they lay quietly on their mats through the living kindness meditation.

I witnessed the teachers’ stillness even through a long-winded announcement — clearly not ready to come back out to the world, to our school.

This week our school got a milestone. Not only did we bring wellness and yoga to teachers– we created a place where our teachers learn from one another. 
Six years ago when my friend and I told our administration that the way they did Professional Development was not working anymore and we were told to take it over- we envisioned a collaborative space where teachers listen to the wisdom and learning that each person possesses.

This week we organized a mini conference for teachers in our school. We had teachers fill out a survey for what they wanted to learn, and then we had teachers volunteer to present based on their expertise. Teachers got to choose the sessions they attended. We had a total of 24 sessions with multiple people presenting in most of them.

The feedback afterwards was phenomenal. People loved the choice of which sessions they attended. People loved the opportunity to share their expertise. And most of all… teachers realized the incredible amount of expertise in our building. 

If you have never experienced the power of teachers teaching one another, go ahead, sit down with a colleague and see what’s hiding underneath. 

Post in the comments what you learn.

The Strength Behind the Mighty Republic

When I was in my first round of grad school studying how to teach students whose first language is not English, my advisor challenged my thinking about the role of teacher in public life.

She taught that being a teacher is a political act.

Think about this a moment: those of us who have chosen teaching as our professions have chosen to dedicate our lives in a political act.

I know, right?

When I first began to grapple with my understanding of this reality it frightened me. I had done a very good job of keeping a veil between myself and my students, thank you very much. I did not need them to know that I felt strongly about the power of education to fight poverty- I would just go out and do it.

Boy- she was completely right. Today, as I see it, the act of teaching, and teaching in a public school, is the greatest testament to the belief in democracy that I know.

I walk into my classroom each day because I believe that every child has a right to a world-class education. I believe my lowest performing students have a shot to reach their fullest potential. I believe that my students who don’t speak English as a first language have every bit the same right to education as the students sitting next to them whose families have been here since the beginning of our country’s inception.

I have taught in countries where this was not the belief. Countries where education is only thought to be valuable to a certain class or a certain gender of people. It is the notion n that we educate EVERYONE that creates the democratic voice and keeps our republic alive.

Please, friends, let’s not forget that.

Why are you awesome?

They are standing in a circle. It’s their choice. After I tell my story, they say, “Okay, what’s the point?”

I tell them that once their first essays hit the grade book, they are going to need to remember their answer to the question, “Why are you awesome?” That when times get tough in my class, when they don’t feel awesome, they need to keep this fact in mind, the answer to that question:

“Because I am.”

The fact that each of those faces looking at me is awesome because of their very being – THAT is what I want them to tap into in the year they spend with me.

So they’re standing there. I finish my story, and they look so awkward: standing, not quite sure where to look, what to do with their arms, just…well…just awkward. Then a girl says, “This is so dumb Robbins.”

I reply,”It actually feels good. How do you know it’s dumb until you try it? How can you say it’s dumb if you haven’t experienced it?”

And then I say to her…”Why are you awesome?”

She throws up her arms and shouts, “Because! I! AM!”and begins laughing.

I ask the next student, “Why are you awesome?” She automatically responds, “Because I am.” She puts her chin down in response to answering and not fully believing it. Then a student in class says, “C’mon, do it. Really do it.”

That’s the turning point. From that moment on, my students will now randomly ask one another, “Why are you awesome?”

I now see my students in the hallway during passing periods…they will shout across the hallway, “Robbins, why are you awesome?”

This one small thing has changed the tenor of my class. It has created a place where whether students are struggling or they are excelling, the answer is never different, so they will hopefully develop the belief that it just doesn’t matter, they are awesome no matter what.

This belief that they are awesome by their very virtue of being, of living in this world, will carry them through grades they are not proud to have, through heartbreak they think they’ll avoid, and through disappointments they don’t see coming. It is this belief that will bring them to the other side.

The Learning Collaborative

We have officially launched our Learning Collaborative, that’s what we are calling our Teacher Leadership Initiative. We changed the name because we want to emphasize that we are all learning together: students, teachers, administrators. We are in this boat together and we will leave port together and we will set sail…together. Or not at all.

Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “Start with Why,” inspired our kickoff. Our thinking is that when we begin a huge initiative like this one, it is important to begin with why we’ve signed up to do it. When our Lead Learners team talked about this, it became really apparent that our reasons for continuing to come back to teaching year after year are closely tied to our belief that the Learning Collaborative can do great things in our school.

Our why for the Learning Collaborative? Inspired teachers empower students.

If teachers are given the time and the space to take risks to be inspired, this energy of inspiration will empower our students to do deep learning and to take their own academic risks. This is what creates powerful education.

This why will carry us through the mandates and the tough times. It will set the framework by which our school will create Powerful Learning Communities. When our Teacher Leaders first learned about the SLO goals the state and district wants teachers to complete, there were rumblings at first. But then as we processed together as a group we realized that the way we will implement them feeds directly into our why: Innovative teachers empower students. The notion that teachers are able to create their own goals from what they know about their students is innovative and empowering. We are no longer tied to how our students have performed in the past – we look at our students as they are here and now.