Power Quotient

Not gonna lie: I started #AprilBlogaDay on a whim. I was at a conference with this guy, Brad Clark, who told me he thought I should check out the National Blog Collaborative, and that, oh- by-the-way they’re starting this thing in April and you should do it.

So I signed up. 

I had been trying for a couple of years to get my blogging off the ground, to find my voice, to find people to follow, and to find followers. In a way that I’m not sure I can articulate here, every one of those changes has happened for me over the last month. Plus- I switched platforms in the middle of the experience.

The part that helped me launch off the ground were the daily prompts that Chris Crouch (@the_explicator) sent out each day. If I didn’t know what to write, these questions would prod me to do the hardest part… To begin. Then once I started, the prompts became mine- I would own them through my reflection.

The amount of reflection of my practice the blog has allowed me to do has also been practice-altering. Each day after I work out while I’m waiting for my daughter finish her swim practice, I sit and write. I reflect on my day and attempt to make meaning from it. Mostly I write about education, although the Nepal Earthquake has clearly consumed my psyche the last few posts. This reflection each day makes me a better stronger teacher- and to hear other teachers share similar experiences helps me feel less isolated.

Feeling isolated is all too common in this profession, and blogging helps alleviate some of this. I can take my experiences and add a power quotient to them by virtue of the fact that I now have a nation- wide community that I can not only ask questions to support my practice, but who can tell me when I’m  not on track and push back to make me think. 

That is truly powerful.

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My Open Letter to Facebook

 

Facebook Nepal Earthquake Safety Check

 
Dear Facebook: 

Last Saturday morning I woke up to a text from a friend of mine that there had been a terrible earthquake in Nepal, the place I called home during my time in the Peace Corps in the mid1990s. I immediately thought of the people who are still there who are like family to my husband, my daughter, and me. My first instinct was to call them to make sure they were safe. 

But I also knew from news of past crises that blocking the phone can spell calamity for those in need of help. So I waited. I turned to Facebook for whatever updates I could see and then went about my business thinking it would be days or weeks before I would hear any news from most of my loved ones. 

I’ll be honest- I was seriously thinking about getting off of Facebook because posts sometimes make me feel bad I’m not invited to certain events, or veiled frustrations possibly directed to me are made so public…I just feel it’s not worth my negative energy or headspace.

But last weekend when I got the first alert from my friend that he was okay, you made good on your word to connect people. The list of people I know in Nepal who are connected to  Facebook was sent with their safety   status. It’s so simple and yet it had such a profound effect on my state of mind. 

As soon as I knew those I love are safe, I could rest my mind.

I want to personally and publicly say thank you. Thank you for using your tool that can so easily tear people down for something so profoundly good. 

What do you own?

I see it at every conference I have ever been to: “Raise test scores… Watch your students achieve…Get the results you want” … All you have to do is buy this program or purchase access to that site. Every publisher is guilty. Every teacher is prey.

Because what we want most is for our students to achieve. 

The problem is these programs forget the most important variable is that it is humans who teach and learn. No program is “teacher proof” and that if we think it is we are really fooling ourselves. 

While a program, like a formula for a struggling writer, can begin a process for a beginning teacher, it cannot replace the value of mentoring or of beginning teachers figuring out their style and their way. Teachers, if they are to be excellent, must reach out and beyond that which they can do by themselves. 

This means they must break out of programs that map everything out for them. Instead, take what works from one program, from that book, from that teacher you observed. Then take all these things and own them for yourself.

Transformational Classroom

Years ago I took a fabulous class offered here in Colorado called the Colorado Writing Project. It is two weeks long, and it introduces and immerses teachers into the writing workshop model a la Katie Wood Ray, Margaret Atwell, and Lucy Caulkins. The two weeks is life changing for teachers. We write and we conference and we read and we write and we write some more. Finally, we reflect on our experience and how we can bring this powerful learning to our students.

I was hooked after this two weeks and really wanted to bring authentic writing and conferencing to the seventh grade classroom I was teaching at the time. It was a scary proposition though, giving students choice of what they write about. Showing them how to pull off their goals, and letting them go from there. The scariest part though was giving up some control over what I guided students to do.If I was always the smartest person in the room, why would my students want to do authentic research or write about their interests?

Today I use a full writing workshop with my Writing Lab students, those who struggle with writing. They blog for a semester. I do mini lessons, but they can choose what they write about. While they control their topics, I comment on their writing, confer with them, and help them find mentor writers to follow. Giving up some control has helped my students understand that their education is actually in their control.

For students who have been told for most of their lives they can’t write, they are learning to take control back over their skills. While it’s not perfect by any stretch, it is a beautiful class that transforms students to see themselves as the writers they once saw themselves as being.

Points of Privilege

This week I am presenting my racial autobiography to some colleagues at school who I have worked with on equity issues for the last seven years or so. I have presented it a few times, never to this group for some reason. In light of the happenings this weekend in Nepal, I have decided to change my focus from my racial identity to points of privilege, those times in my life when I have been most mindful of the privilege I have by virtue of my race.

The first time I remember awareness of my race is when I was in second grade. I was best buddies with a kid in my neighborhood, Nathan Lowe, who was mixed race. His mother was black and his father was white. He and I would play squirrels in the huge trees in our neighborhood in Missouri. We would spend the night at one another’s houses. We played violin together. We rode bikes around the neighborhood and even started a paper route together.

Then one day he asked me if his skin color bothered me. I had never thought about it before. I really didn’t comprehend what he meant at first, and he had to explain it. All of a sudden I began think about people in terms of color for the first time in my life. I noticed all of a sudden that my friend Ustin was much darker than Nathan, and Eddie was somewhere in between. Nathan had large curls in his hair, while Eddie had tight curls close to his head. Ustin wore her hair longer and always had the coolest colorful barrettes in her hair with those hair ties with the big balls that looked like marbles at the end. My friend Ally had blonde hair and she sunburned really easily at the lake in the summer. I never burned. My sister always burned and freckled like crazy. My brother never really burned either. Race was about skin tone for me at this point in my life.

It was my own privilege as a white girl that I never had to think about my skin color until this point.

Then in middle school, I noticed that at my inner city school most of the black and latino kids were in different classes than me. Middle school is when I first noticed the discrepancy of standards for my white friends and my friends of color. Diversity, in middle school, was equated to kids who struggle (kids of color) and kids who didn’t (white kids). I remBouzou and Didiember talking to my father about this because I didn’t feel it was right. “Why do they take lower classes? Why don’t they take foreign language?” It think I knew at some level that there was a grave injustice happening all around me, but I didn’t have the words or the racial understanding to put it into words.

Then I moved into the dark days of my own life, the time where I really couldn’t notice anything outside of myself because I was too focused on my own survival. I started to become aware again in college, but because of the death of three of my friends my freshman year, most of my realizations were more existential in nature.

Then…then I moved to Nepal. I lived in a tiny village in the Rukum district in the western part of the country. Never had I been so alone. Never had I been so cut off from anyone who was like me. Never had I thought about my birthright and what it meant to be a daughter of the world (a term my grandfather used), my responsibility to those who do not have the luck of my birthright.

To make a long story short, I felt anger over the fact that by the stroke of luck of being born in the United States, being born white, and being born a woman. I had the privilege of living in one of the most developed countries in the world. I did not have to worry about typhoid. I did not have to worry about clean drinking water. I did not have to wBuddhistorry about droughts knocking out my food supply for the next year. I could move around not only Nepal, but the world as I pleased. When a cholera epidemic hit my village one summer, I was able to leave to Kathmandu until things were stabilized. I was angry that the villagers encouraged me to leave when their own family members were falling ill.

It just wasn’t fair that I had certain privileges because of my birthright.

Assimilating back to the US was really difficult for me. I felt guilty for many of the luxuries we take for granted. And now, twenty years later, I still feel a certain amount of guilt. Some might call it white guilt…I’m not sure what I would call it. But what I will say is this, I know that for those of us who have been given much, much is expected. We must work and strive to make the world a better place.

The earthquakes this weekend have once again made me keenly aware of my privilege. The devastation is mind boggling. Everyone I know is safe, but those same feelings of privilege, of birthright, have flooded back to me. It is the question of my life: Why am I so lucky to live in a place with such privilege? Why am I so lucky to be a race that is afforded so much privilege?

And I don’t ask these questions to be arrogant. I ask because none of it really makes sense from a metaphysical perspective. Because of my privilege, I feel I owe so much: to the world, to my students, to my colleagues, and to my family.

The Gift of Gab

I had an awesome opportunity this weekend. I got to go up to the mountains, Estes Park, to stay at the Stanley Hotel (of The Shining fame) to collaborate with other teachers from the front range. 

While I could not be there yesterday when they were at Rockyountain National Park, I arrived last night and got to hear their stories about their tour with David from the Nature Conservancy. David, apparently, is the first cousin of the Lorax and had amazing stories to tell about the park. 

This morning we met and discussed how to bring students from being “tourists” to thinking if the world and their surroundings as “academics.” One woman talked about the symbols in The Great Gatsby and how irrelevant it feels when you’re the student listening to the teacher share what they think the green in the book stands for. 

How much cooler is it when students are given a purpose and create meaning on their own from reading for a purpose?

I am always amazed when I get to sit in  a room with brilliant teachers… Listening to them speak and figure out ideas is truly a gift. 

A Few of my Favorite Things…

I really love the school where I teach. It is big, and it has its problems like every school.

What I love most about the school where I teach is the staff I get to work with is brilliant. They are super smart and push my thinking every day. I get pushed professionally and as a practitioner each and every day. For instance, I was struggling in the writing lab course I teach because I felt like I had to grade EVERY blog my students wrote on every part of the rubric we use. My colleague pointed out to me that I actually didn’t want to overwhelm struggling writers with all of that feedback. She pointed out that I actually might have better results if they set one goal from the rubric per blog post. It has been dreamy and my students are making tremendous progress.

I also love our school community and how inclusive our students are. They make certain they include and are super sweet to students with special needs. A couple of years ago, our students made a special needs student homecoming king. This is awesome it itself, but what truly struck me is the fact that it didn’t seem like a big deal to the students, they acted like it was just part of the natural order of things.

Deprivatizing the Vessel

I have been talking to people. I have been talking to National Writing Project people, teaching people, professional development people, data people, and administrators.

The thing they all agree on? The notion of deprivatizing education. Deprivatizing with our colleagues. Deprivatizing with our parents. Deprivatizing with our communities.

I am at the baby beginnings of my understanding of this concept, so please correct me if I’m wrong…here goes. My understanding of this concept at the school level, teacher level, is that we cannot become better practitioners of our craft unless we share with one another what we are doing in the classroom. This means that we must share assignments, student work, and all the trappings in between.

If we do this and we can create collegial conversations about what is working and what is not, maybe we can tap into what Carina Wong at the Gates Foundation, calls the Group Genius mindset. That notion that through the strengths of one another, we can get better. That through problem solving and getting honest about our struggles we can become stronger teachers. That if we come to the sentiment that we are all in this boat together and must survive the storm and learn how to thrive in this vessel, we can create a strong community where our kids thrive.

Love-Hate: or Don’t Let the Haters Rain on Your Parade

Not gonna lie: I have a live-hate relationship with this time of year. It is Prom Week at my school (today was workout Wednesday-

Workout Wednesday

 “Let’s get physical, physical…), and next week is our big testing week- the PARCC and the ACT, and the week after that the AP testing starts.

Yesterday one of my students broke out crying in the middle of class. Her group of “friends” told her they didn’t want to hang out with her any more, that they one befriended her for the rides she gives them. Who does that?

But here’s the thing. This student has grown since she first started in my class. She may still struggle with writing, but she can better handle her emotions than she could at the beginning of the year. Before she would have lashed out, but yesterday she asked to go to her counselor and she is figuring out healthy ways to work through her anger and frustration.

That’s the love part of this time of year: the growth my students have had becomes readily apparent. And I believe in this stressful time that is what I must remind them. 

An AP student came in today to look over a couple of essays she wrote earlier in the semester. I had her read them and then tell me what she needed to do on the exam. This girl who did not know at the beginning of the year what makes good writing, could now fully articulate not only what she was missing in her essays, but what she is doing differently now, and what she still needs help with. 

See what I mean? Love- hate. 

But I wouldn’t change it.

100 Years Can Make a Big Difference

When our forefathers created and drafted their plan for our government, they planned for events that happened outside of their realm of understanding. They created documents general enough they would be relevant to many situations there was no way they could foresee, and yet also specific enough to afford is great freedoms.

Many of these freedoms and concepts are still argued today. Due to the great foresight the architects of our country had, we rest assured that our basic freedoms will stay in tact. 

If those of us who are in education can think ahead in much the same way, maybe just maybe we will have a future in our country that is viable. I do believe that education is the greatest symbol of our democracy. I believe that the very idea that we educate everyone in this country makes our landscape as Americans visceral. 

We must protect one of the greatest legacies our country holds. Who knows- maybe 100 years from now the kids will still have the luxury of feeling entitled to an education, rather than clambering to get one as many countries do.