Friday, December 20, 2013

The "My Friend Mike" Project

Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone in their life like my friend Mike. (I'm not fully convinced that he's not just an angel in human form.) Whenever I need a pick-me-up, he seems to magically know and will text me or a package will just happen to arrive. His random acts of kindness extend well beyond his social circle as I know he inspires me to do things for others too. I can only hope to improve the lives of others the way he consistently improves mine. Just knowing he exists in this world gives me hope... faith in humanity. So, not everyone may be lucky enough to have a friend like Mike today, but if we all start trying to be that friend then maybe we can change that.

This post is my effort to do something in his name to improve the world like he does every day. So, do something nice for someone. It could be someone you know who's been having a rough time. It could be a random stranger: a smile and a genuine "how are you?". It could be someone you haven't talked to in awhile. It could be paying for someone's groceries or coffee. You never know the impact of the smallest gesture or its grandest reach.

So, this holiday season and going into the new year will you make a commitment to better the lives of the people around you? Post in the comments what you do, have done, or plan to do! Post pictures, write descriptions, maybe what someone has done for you, whatever floats your boat. Then share this post and see how much good we can do in the world!

All my love and blessings and a big thank you to my friend, Mike.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Tower

The Tower

Piece by colorful piece
the child builds her tower.
Blue crossed over red
supported by yellow,
adjacent to green.
Sometimes the colors are thought out-
patterns established.
Sometimes the fervor of building takes over
and they are haphazard:
three blues, a yellow, two reds, and two greens
crowding close together.
Each time she aims for just one more piece-
the precipice, the finishing touch.
But the last block, no matter the color or shape
or how carefully it's placed,
no matter how hard she bites her tongue
or how long she holds her breath,
the last block placed topples the tower.

Back to the foundation she begins again,
tension mounting in her stomach.
Torn between frustration- the impulse to knock it down or walk away,
and hope- carefully placing each piece, gently, delicately-
hope that one day the last block with stay.
That for one moment, her breath held,
air still, tongue caught between teeth,
with faith the last block will hold.
Maybe not forever. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Kid Gloves

DISCLAIMER- the following is somewhere between an intellectual post and a rant. I apologize.

After a recent event at work, I feel compelled to voice some thoughts about the way that things are being handled with out current generation of kids. I know each generation has at least one major fault, so this is nothing new... my generation can't handle conflict for example. However, I feel like this takes inability to handle conflict a step further: pretending that nothing bad is happening at all. I feel like Portland as a whole does a good job with this one, my friends and I have playfully dubbed it "the city where we like to pretend nothing bad ever happens." I feel like we are playing that game with an entire generation of kids right now.

Why is it a problem to say that an answer is incorrect if the answer is actually incorrect? What good are we doing these kids by hemming and hawing and trying to find what's right about it when it's really just wrong?

This is spurred by an email I recently received from a parent telling me that my students feel belittled. My initial reaction was horror. Anyone that knows me, even only a little bit, knows that there are few things that matter to me as much as my students. I love them to a fault. After almost an entire of day of feeling like I was going to vomit from shame and angst over the way my students are apparently perceiving me, I came to. The reality of it? I am incredibly caring; I ask about their days, we start every class with gratitude, I end every class with "I love you all, have a great afternoon," I smile at them and chat with them in the halls, I never pass up an opportunity to compliment them, and never turn a student away when they come to my door. Clearly, there was something else at play here.

I read and re-read the email. Most of the things that I was quoted as saying were twisted and tweaked and taken well out of context and that's when it hit me. The things I was saying were valid (my reality), but the things my students were hearing were different (their reality). When I was expressing displeasure at their lack of effort or un-reached potential, they were hearing "you're dumb and I hate you." Their reality is no less real than my own, but clearly something is being lost in translation. This brings me to the conversation I had with my coworker about it. Kids aren't used to criticism- constructive or otherwise. Their parents are afraid to say no to anything and when their kid hands them a rock they found and put a dot of paint on, they expound for hours about how it's the greatest piece of art they've ever seen. Parents and teachers are afraid of telling kids that something is wrong for fear of crushing creativity or spirit. I get that. Especially at a young age. But there is a limit! There comes a point where teachers take off the kid gloves and start treating kids the way the world will treat them: honestly. This, happily enough for me, usually happens in middle school.

So now, I have a classroom of kids who have never been told anything but how wonderful they are. And they ARE wonderful, don't get me wrong; I am blessed to have an incredibly intelligent, creative, and funny group of 7th and 8th graders. I honestly adore them all. I am a firm believer in the powers of positive energy, thought, and praise, but I am not a liar. If a student turns in a test that they clearly haven't studied for, I'm going to tell them so. If a kid brings me a project that I saw them scribbling in the hallway 5 minutes before class, I'm going to call it out. My question is, how is this seen by parents as a bad thing? I get that kids (especially at this age) are incredibly sensitive, but if I went home with a bad grade my parents didn't ask me why my teacher was so mean, they asked me if I'd studied hard enough. So, when a kid goes home and tells their parents that their teacher told the class that they clearly hadn't used their brains on the last test, why am I getting yelled at? Let's break that sentence down: they have a brain (intelligence), they chose not to use it (potential). So, this would be me telling them: "I know you're smarter than these test grades show me." This would be when parents SHOULD ask, "well, did you use your brain?" And if the answer is yes and the child did well on the test, then clearly I wasn't addressing that child! And if the answer is no, then they should acknowledge and own their own failure and learn from it. Failure is not the nasty thing we have made it out to be. Failures spawn great achievements!!! However, this is not how this event generally transpires. It usually goes a little more like this:

1. Kid gets a bad grade on test OR teacher makes a blanket statement about how students didn't study for the test
2. Kid goes home and vents to parent about how awful their day was
3. Parent believes every dramatized word their child says and sends an incensed email to the teacher (or joyfully, even better, the principal)
End Result: Teacher gets yelled at for being too mean

Hopefully, you see where this little scenario goes amiss. Middle school students need to vent. They have bad days, their hormones are crazy! But we don't need to take their rantings as gospel truth! We need to take it all with a grain of salt and preferably ask questions BEFORE making accusations because at the end of the day, I think we all just want what's best for the kids. Even me ;)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Building a Wall

   I don't know about you, but for me it has been well established that I am responsible for my own happiness. Perhaps this is a concept that you too have faced or perhaps not, either way it poses some interesting questions. 
   On a purely intellectual level, it seems valid and sound. "If I determine to make myself happy, then I will be." I do believe this to be true on some level and since taking on that responsibility, I am markedly cheerier. However, how do you factor other people into that? None of us lives a life of a complete solitude. (At least none of us reading this blog.) People filter in and out of our lives on a daily basis: friends, family, co-workers, strangers... If we ignore them completely and rely solely on ourselves, it might be possible to be happy but it sounds awfully dull to me. Thus, we let people into our lives. Theoretically, we let people in because they make us happy. But wait! Aren't we responsible for our own happiness? Problem... 
   So, let's say that we allow them to add to our happiness but we don't allow them to make us sad. That allows our statement to remain true. This is significantly easier said than done. What happens when someone dies? Or just stops being our friend for whatever reason? Is it not right to be sad about that? It is their influence that causes the sadness and thus without them, we would be happier. Then of course, we think, "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," right? I agree, I believe that I would rather get hurt in order to have the fun and memories that accompany a relationship than to go without both. 
   Now, we've addressed the extremes. These seem easier to handle. If we lose someone, at least we had the time with them. If we never talked to anyone ever, life would suck. We can hold these statements as truth (for the most part anyway). What about the little stuff in the middle? 
   What happens when someone is still around, but not as much. They don't support you or hang out as much as they used to. They've got other priorities, new friends, or life is just in the way. You call or text regularly to invite them to things, let them know that you miss them. Maybe they say they miss you too, maybe they don't. Either way, you don't have them in your life like you used to. You even go so far as to tell them that you are feeling neglected, but nothing changes. Now what do you do? You are responsible for your happiness, so you should move on, right? But if you stop calling and inviting them to things, then the decline in your relationship is just as much your fault. But each time they turn you down, you feel worse. So how do you build up the protective wall of not caring about their response without becoming cold? If you truly didn't care about whether or not they spent time with you, then they're no longer a friend. If you do care about the response, then you are consistently hurt. 
   This is a lesson in the yogic concept of "non-grasping." Let things be as they are and don't hold onto things or people for the only constant in life is change. I have always struggled with this concept the most. So I'm left with this thought: How do you put a few bricks in place, without walling yourself off completely? 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Saying Goodbye

"Saying goodbye is not something you can just do. It's something you learn."

This is a line taken from one of my students' narratives. The simple phrasing of such a complex concept struck me and I felt the need to share. Perhaps it will enlighten you as it has me. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Attitude of Gratitude

gratitude |ˈgratəˌt(y)oōd|
the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

When I began my journey into the world of education, I expected many things.  I expected poverty and privilege, difficulty turning in homework and students who felt it was too easy, poor behavior and stars, and the like.  However, the last thing I expected to find (particularly on the economically devastated, rural coast of Oahu) was a pervasive sense of entitlement.  I have found over the last few years in the classroom (in Texas, Hawaii, and Oregon) that many of my students have a deep feeling of privilege in some sense.  They feel that they are owed certain things.  They refuse books that are in poor condition and throw out papers that have folded corners or a small scribble of ink.  They end up wasting much because of this sentiment.  They feel they are owed grades rather than understanding the need to earn them.  They think that second chances are a given rather than a gift. This was (is) a problem.
Above all, I seek for my students to be happy and successful. I believe that education- of the mind, body, and soul- is an integral part of ensuring this. It became apparent to me very quickly that this sense of entitlement was hindering their achievement of these goals. So, how to fix it? I tried reasoning with them: “The paper is still perfectly good! There is plenty of space to write.” “I didn’t give you an F; you haven’t turned in a single assignment.” And so on. But nothing was changing.
This struggle with my students came at a time of struggle for happiness in my own life. Due to a myriad of things, it was hard to for me to wake up with a smile and some days even get out of bed at all. And then I found it: GRATITUDE. Such a simple concept really; saying thank you is nearly a robotic response a great deal of the time. It’s just a programmed answer like “How are you? Fine and you?” But true gratitude was exactly what I, and my students, needed. 
Gratitude is a concept that has been around since, at the very least, the biblical ages.  There are over twenty-three references to being thankful in the Psalms alone.  In Ephesians 5:4, it states, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”  Being grateful is an imperative, replacing the coarser matters of obscenity and crudeness.  The basic tenets of most religions center around being kind to the people around you, which most often includes being thankful.
I would quickly like to clarify a small but important difference between gratitude (being grateful) and being gracious.  Graciousness implies courtesy and grace, while being grateful connotes an actual feeling of appreciation and thankfulness.  I focus here on being grateful.  
Success and happiness are very often related and usually in a causal relationship; success leads to happiness and happiness leads to success. In fact, in a study by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener in 2005, it was found that “happiness is associated with and precedes numerous successful outcomes, as well as behaviors paralleling success. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that positive affect--the hallmark of well-being--may be the cause of many of the desirable characteristics, resources, and successes correlated with happiness.” Most people crave happiness; it is the motivating factor behind most actions.  Our society actively works to eradicate unhappiness through a myriad of practices (some healthier than others): materialism, medical treatment, sports and hobbies, etc.  Serious unhappiness, or clinical depression, is a documented disease.  So, how does one attain this desired, often elusive emotion?  What can someone do to be truly happy and thus successful, especially when so much is going wrong?  There are many theories on the matter, but one particularly important finding is that about gratitude. 
Meister Eckhardt, a noted theologian from the thirteenth century said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ it will be enough.”  The practice of gratitude has been around for as long as moral imperatives have been documented.  Only recently though, have people begun conducting studies on the effects of gratitude on personal happiness and general well being. Sincere and honest feelings of gratefulness, unbound by social courtesy or a sense of duty, are the path to increasing happiness through the practice of gratitude. 
Taking this knowledge of the power of gratefulness, I undertook a study myself. I decided to teach the concept to my students and document the results in regard to their overall well-being and that pesky sense of entitlement. I called it, “Attitude of Gratitude.” I began by defining the concept and then having students keep a daily journal of all the things they were grateful for. Five minutes everyday was devoted to their Gratitude Journals. In addition to that, they had projects where they had to do something nice for someone else and document the reactions of the recipient as well as how they felt after completing the act. After several months, I found that interpersonal conflicts in the classroom decreased, academic achievement increased, and behavior problems all but disappeared. Now, I am scientific enough to know that there are LOTS of variables unaccounted for in that study and so I cannot prove that those effects are solely related to the study of gratitude. However, now I begin each day in the classroom by going around the room and sharing at least one thing that everyone is grateful for and my students have shared with me (unprompted) that they feel more positive because of it.
In a discussion with my latest group of students, I asked them why they thought we started class that way everyday and they were spot on. They told me it was because they were able to hear what other students said and connect with them even if they weren’t good friends, they were able to start class on a positive note even if the beginning of their day had been sour, and they got a chance to think about all of the good things in their lives. I nearly cried for joy. Not only did they get it on a cognitive level, but I saw the physical evidence in class. I saw so many students enter in a foul mood and hesitate when asked to share “a grateful” and leave class smiling. They told me that they hated it initially, that they didn’t like having to share what was going on in their lives but that toward the end of the year it was their favorite part of class.
I have shared this practice with others to use for themselves and with youth and have received nothing but positive feedback. So often when I am starting to feel negative, I will catch myself and start reciting everything I can think of to be grateful for. Sometimes, I have to start with the basics- air, water, food- and work my way up to the other things. I don’t always feel elated when I’m done, but I do always feel at least a little bit better than when I started.
Gratitude is a building block of happiness and thus success. If we aren’t grateful for what we have (little though it sometimes may be) we cannot achieve more. This is a concept I work daily to instill in my students and myself. I’ll tell you one thing, ask anyone in my life if I’m happier now than I was three years ago and they’ll likely say, “yes” before you even finish the question. I can’t attribute all of my success to sitting around and counting my blessings, but I can assure you that’s where it started. I can’t ensure that my students will always make the right choices or be mindful of the resources they consume, but I know that they have the skills to highlight the positive and opt for happiness if they choose to.
I hope that on this journey, you too will choose gratitude and love and share your joy with the world.

Clarifications on Gratitude vs. Graciousness and Ideas for Practice:
In his article, “Gratitude,” Berger discussed the idea of the “duty of gratitude”- the idea of owing gratefulness depending on the circumstances incurring your benefit.  He argues that if someone does not intend to do something for your benefit or if they complete the action under threat, you owe them no gratitude.  However, I believe that is a misuse of the term “gratitude.”  As I distinguished earlier, I believe that falls under the category of graciousness.  When something is pleasing to you or benefits you in some way, gratitude is due.  It is not a duty to show it, but rather the best possible response.  If expressed out of a sense of duty, it is not true appreciation.  One must feel gratitude honestly in order for it to have positive effects upon the state of well-being. Berger continues to assert that the “proper object” of gratitude is benevolence, not beneficence; we owe no gratitude to someone who unwittingly benefits us (Berger).  I agree that we may not “owe” that person gratitude, but a genuine feeling of gratitude for the receipt of the boon should automatically follow.  To what or to whom the gratitude is directed is up for debate.
Walker recognizes the distinctions of gratitude in his article, “Gratefulness and Gratitude.”  He discussed three types of gratitude: obligatory social gratitude (which I distinguish as graciousness), gratitude to a person who does the “duty” of assisting in times of danger, and finally to a person who goes above and beyond the call of what is necessary in the given situation (Walker).  These three types of gratitude are instilled in us for the purposes of social justice, according to Walker.  He notes though, that this all categorizes gratitude in a “hopelessly superficial way.”  Sincerity is the key in effective and affective gratitude. 
Keeping a gratitude journal is a good first step in growing a sense of gratitude.  The gratitude is not directed at any one person in particular, but a general feeling of gratefulness for the multitude of wonderful gifts present in each of our lives is expressed to the universe.  It encourages the search for gratitude as well.  When one stops to think about what there is to be grateful for, really the list can be endless.  The keeping of the journal, which is an open-ended space for listing items for which to be grateful promotes the idea that is not an emotion owed, but rather an ongoing and pervasive emotion that can and should be expressed often and for much.  It broadens the scope of what there is to be grateful for.  This is the type of gratitude that must be practiced to increase feelings of happiness and thus success.

Friday, August 10, 2012

How to spell "ear"

Today in class, a student asked me how to spell the word "ear." Like I always do when a student asks me how to spell something, I asked her back: "how do you think it's spelled?" "E-I-R," she replied in earnest. I told her she was close and gave her the correct spelling and she smiled and went back to her work. I am teaching high school English. This girl is going to be a sophomore in high school in the fall. She does not have a significant learning disability and while she is enrolled in a summer credit recovery program, I still have to wonder how our education system has let her come so far without the skills to spell the word "ear."

This question plagues me far too often. I have spent the last three years teaching in low-income, high-need schools in grades ranging from 6-12, but the achievement-level often starts at first grade. I understand social promotion at it's core: students who are held back are far more likely to drop out of school, so we should send them to the next grade rather than risk them quitting altogether. We need to ask ourselves though, does sending a student to second grade or tenth grade or whatever grade make sense if they haven't mastered the material from their current level? It seems a silly question; the obvious answer is "no". AND YET WE DO IT. I assume in hopes that they will catch up the next year, but that rarely (if ever) actually happens. So now, Johnny Student is sitting in second grade and the teacher calls on him to read the next paragraph. And he can't. How does his embarrassment serve to further his education? Most of the time, he isn't going to come in after school for extra help unless someone forces him to and usually, no one will (the reasons behind the neglect are varied, but in the end the reasons don't really matter). He's going to fall further behind and now in third grade, embarrassed and frustrated he starts acting out. Maybe he's the class clown, maybe he just doesn't care about school, maybe he's mean... anything to cover up that he just doesn't get it. Now he's in my eighth grade classroom and he can barely read "see spot run." Let's leave alone for the moment that I'm going to be held accountable for his ability to pass a state-wide standardized test at the same level as his on-grade-level peers and just look at him: 12 or 13 years old and 7 years behind in school already. Even if he doesn't drop out, he's not getting the education that he's entitled to.

There are many repercussions and factors involved in this story that I am not mentioning because this is a blog post and not a book, but the core of this issue is that our current system is failing students. Repeatedly and with vigor. We continue to cut funds, increase class sizes and decrease the classes that kids actually enjoy and expect not just the same results we've been getting, but better ones. We are somehow supposed to be IMPROVING our students' educations with less resources and often less class time. My second year teaching, we had 17 furlough days. For nearly every week of the school year, the kids only had school Monday-Thursday from 8-2:30.

This post is mostly a rant about the current state of education, but it's also a cry for help. The state of education is not going to change unless we take action- it is the way it is because we have let it get this bad. We (and I don't just mean educators and parents; I mean we the nation, we the world) need to stand up and say this is unacceptable. We need to take action. We need to DO something. All students deserve equal opportunities to receive a good education. No matter what.

Maybe you disagree; maybe you think that because you don't have kids or because you live in an affluent neighborhood with good schools that this doesn't affect you. Let me widen your lens: Johnny Student is an adult now. He still can't read very well, so he can't get a decent job. But his inability to read didn't stop him from starting a family and now he's on welfare. Your taxes are paying for that.

Or maybe Johnny got a job doing manual labor and he makes enough, but he's working on your house and can't read the warning on the glue he's using and accidentally starts a fire in your kitchen.

Or maybe he is miserable with his life because he has no job and he drinks himself into a stupor and drives home right when you happen to be driving home from work.

Or maybe...

You live in the same country, so I promise you that what happens to him affects you too.

So, what are you going to do about it? Until people outside of the education system start demanding change, it isn't going to happen. When I talk about it, I'm whining; when you talk about it, maybe something will get done. So please, don't let another student reach 10th grade without being able to spell "ear."