Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hello, Joan. It's So Nice To See You Again!

Family time. Traveling. Basketball. Baking. Photography. Science. Running. Reading. These activities fill my heart, fuel my spirit, keep me grounded, make me a better professional, and guide me to becoming a better person. But that last one—reading—has only recently been added to my personal "hobbies and interests" list. My husband jokes that I've become "smarter" in the last 6 months, ever since he got me a Kindle. And I agree! I'm making connections, seeing my environment and feeling my experiences at a whole new level. 

Life is a series of changes, phases. As we live, we grow (or so we hope). Our experiences can be a major life event, such as finding your first love, beating an illness, moving, having children, losing a loved one, or living in a different country, etc. And other times, it can be more subtle, like taking a class, changing jobs or reading a book. Something touches you deep inside; you’re forced to stand up and take notice. I’m going through one of those moments right now, and I want to celebrate! And it all has to do with reading.

Over the last forty years, I have read a few books that have been life changing and/or life affirming. And as I think about them today—thanks to me being smarter, and all—I've made yet another connection. I realize they all had something to do with finding comfort and joy with who I am. The latest book, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall, really got me reflecting...

I was a skinny (bony), red-headed, fair skinned, freckled, tomboy, completely indifferent about my physical appearance. (Comb my hair? Only if you can catch me!) I was bossy, confident, defensive, abrasive, determined, antsy, and fast. Really fast. (Nickname? Roadrunner. Although, I felt more like Wile E. Coyote, at times.) Ninety percent of my childhood was spent outdoors or on a basketball court. When I was forced to stop and eat, I found that interruption to my neighborhood exploration incredibly annoying. But above all, I was carefree and happy. I woke up energized. I went to bed satisfied. I dreamt with excitement and curiosity about what the next day’s adventures would be.

But as I got older, I started to feel more vulnerable, less secure with the reflection in the mirror. The very things that made me who I was were the things that others used to tease me with. Red hair apparently made me alien-like to some, even though it was normal in my family. ("Redheads can't be pretty.") A boyish figure and competitive nature allowed me to be speedy. Being "undeveloped" and athletic put me on the receiving end of notes from other kids asking, "So are you a boy or a girl?" Etc. No pity, please. EVERYONE gets teased as a child. I got through it just fine. In fact, it's the chicken and the egg scenario. Was my behavior a defense from theirs, or was theirs a defense from mine? Likely, a lot of both.

So, like most tomboys, I began to want to be more "girl-like." Mine was a slow transition through high school and college. I started to tip the scale from more athletic and outdoor activities, to more co-ed social events. And, of course, I fell in love. A few times. And as many women know, we tend to only focus on the happiness we feel when in the presence of our significant other when that happens. So we naturally lose the focus of what makes us happy as an individual. And at some point, in becoming a woman, I think I lost a bit of what really fueled my own personal spirit. (The things that likely made those others fall in love with me in the first place!)

Over the past two years, I've been allowing the fulcrum to tip the scale back to where it belongs. I've worked out more. I've explored the outdoors regularly. In fact, I’m at lunch today, alone, outside, people-watching, writing this, and loving this 50 minutes of time to myself! And I feel like all parts of me are coming together thanks to this reconnection with this one part of what makes me me—physical play. Wife. Mother. Sister. Daughter. Friend. Educator, Etc. I am happier in these roles every time I take the time to be myself, doing something outside and physical.

And I realize this because of the book Born To Run. I cannot TELL you how this book resonated with me. I feel like I've come full circle. I feel good about being my perfect balance of “tomboy” and “girl-like,” if that makes sense to anyone.

This book is difficult to describe. Some reviewers focus on the fact that we are evolutionarily runners by nature. Some discuss that running barefoot is better for you. Some talk about ultramarathoning. And still others write about the Tarahumara and their way of life. What captured me was the focus on life-style. When people run—not for a race or a purpose, but for play—they smile. There's a connection between youth and freedom and happiness that made sense to me. Quotes like the following jumped out at me. Absent context, though, I'm not sure their meaning is there... "[He] couldn't quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running..." "You don't stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running." "It wasn't Arnulfo's [A Tarahumara] and Scott's [An American] matching form so much as their matching smiles..." They loved to run. They loved to run together.

My parents gave me such good advice when I was young. “To be happy, all you need to do is keep a balance in life.” But, they never told me what that balance is, or that each person’s balance is different. Took me a while, but I honestly think I’ve figured mine out.

Some people need to spend the time to reconnect with a piece of who they were in their childhood and fuse it with who they are now, based on their adult life experiences, in order to be happy. Others may need to find that balance for the first time because perhaps they never felt what I felt as a child. But it’s worth experimenting. Every aspect of life really comes alive, feels tingly, makes your heart sing, when you do.

I feel happy being me again. My center is running. My center requires running. Not running a race. Not running a specific distance. Just running around. A new path each time. I’m not the same me I was at age 12. I don’t want to be. (Who does?!) But I’m 44 and I feel like me more than I have at any other time since college. Who we are in fact is the culmination of our life experiences. Which means, since I have a lot of life left (I hope), I am still becoming. But I have those familiar feelings of waking up energized, going to bed satisfied, and dreaming about what the next adventure will be.

Thank you, Christopher McDougall, Tarahumara, and Caballo Blanco. Wouldn’t have put this together without you.

To Balance. Whatever that means for you. Cheers!

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Common Ground. We need to get back to that mentality. Or maybe, we need to find it. Perhaps the ideas that were instilled in me about how to live a rewarding life only existed in the hopes and dreams of the adults surrounding me in my youth.
You remember the lessons, right?
• Turn the other cheek.
• Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
• Give back tenfold what you've been given.
• Be there for others.
• And the ultimate All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgum.

We should all reconnect with these simple life guidelines and stop trying to beat each other down. Specifically, I'm upset with the the fact that the gulf between rich and poor is increasing. And I'm sad that there is a notion that certain groups of people are not sacrificing as much as they "should" be during these belt-tightening times.

Police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, etc. These are people who chose a profession that by their very nature requires sacrifice. But they chose it anyway. And not only are they being accused of not sacrificing enough, they're being made to feel that they are the cause of many states' financial crises. It's insulting and hurtful. And it's simply not true.

My husband and I are both teachers. We have never complained about our salaries. We feel well-compensated in our respective districts. But I do not believe we are overly compensated for the work that we do. Not by any stretch of the imagination. (We believe educators in less fortunate districts are tragically under-compensated.) Our salaries, which are so publicly displayed on the internet, include the cost of our benefits and pensions. And we won't get social security. Ever. We both have advanced degrees, which we paid for. Together, we have worked 14-20 hour days for a total of 39 years.

I am all for "everyone pitching in" during economic decline. We have felt the effects. My daughter's school district cut dozens of teachers. Multiple academic, athletic and fine arts programs have been lost. And class sizes are huge. My husband and I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck these days. We, too, are paying more for gas, energy, food, etc. We are taking a HUGE hit on the sale of our home. And our taxes went up this year.

When I walk into my school, the only thing on my mind is, "How can I make a positive impact on those I cross paths with today? What can I give?" And I believe that this is true for the vast majority of educators I work with. We are all working together to determine what is in the best interest of the children we serve.

If collective bargaining is lost, there will be a tragic mental shift that takes place in our schools. Teachers will be required to think about themselves first and students second. Teachers will need to compete, rather than collaborate, with each other. Teachers will be spending time thinking about how they can serve the master, rather than serve the students. Students will be required to produce even more than they are already. (And a similar negative shift will occur in these other lines of work.)

The worst part about this is that removing collective bargaining rights won't fix the financial crisis that exists. It is a power move, plain and simple. And one that will ultimately hurt all of us. Not just public employees.

Many hard-working public and private sector workers need help right now. As do our children. Let's think of the common ground that unites us. Let's be more creative and work together on a realistic solution to the economic crisis we're experiencing, rather than going after each other.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My New Love—Fiction and Huck Finn

I reckon you're eager to read what I have to say, so be patient. Don't be wanderin' away from my post too early. Instead, take a gander at what I'm telling you. Been spendin' most of my wakin' hours readin' and writin' these days. It's fetchin' me some long nights cuz I do n't know how to stop. My thoughts are spinnin' somethin' fierce from all the new ideas fillin' my head, even more than Tom coulda made happen in one of 'em crazy adventures. And I do n't knowed which direction to fix my eyes on, cuz I been achin' to learn me truths for a spell. I like readin' books that shows truths, truths about schools and teachers and life and such and I been readin' up a storm. But then I says to myself, "Why not stick yer head in one of them story-type books that tells tales of kids an kings an murders an Tom-Sawyer-type adventures an such an let yer head enjoy you some make-believe? Life's too stinkin' short to miss out on the make-believe. That's what Pap always said, anyways. And even tho I do n't wanna admit it, well, let's just' say, he wa rn't wrong. Made up stuff is exciting."

After reading a half dozen nonfiction books over the past couple months, I decided to baptize myself into the world of fiction once again. Can you guess which book I started with? From my feeble attempt at "becoming" Huck? Yes, I picked up a book I read in high school over 25 years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I will not tell a lie; I hated this book in high school. Hated it. Why? Because it was assigned. It was required. It was work. It was boring.

But how? How could I have ever found this boring? Granted, I'm only 35% through the book (I know that thanks to my Kindle!). But I have laughed out loud on numerous occasions. 
"[Miss Watson] was going to live so as to go to the good place...Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it...I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together."
Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I thought this conversation was hilarious! I can just picture my head making those same types of connections as a child. How I used to make sense of my world so quickly, yet so creatively.

Huck (Twain) shares story after story from the child's perspective. And I find it fascinating how advanced this perspective is. Huck allows his mind to wander, unencumbered, so as to really explore his surroundings, his life. And the way he describes each experience allows you to be there, feeling his child-like excitement, panic, mischievousness, relief, guilt, love.

This level of "critical thinking" is what we hope to achieve as adults. Not in this immature way. But in this truly-connected-to-people kind of way. This stream-of-conscienceness allows one to gather unprescripted data, to make original connections or creative exaggerations, to recognize that an experience is what it is because of the people around you, to be so engaged that passion can't help but boil over.

I'm glad I picked up this book again. It's helped me remember what I loved so much about the explorations of my childhood. And it reminded me how much I am ready, willing and able to rekindle that level of curiosity and courage to live with the open-mindedness and passion of a child again.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Syrup, Post-Its, & Nicknames. Why Can't Good Teaching Be As Sticky?

"It's in EVERY research book you read. It's talked about at every educational and professional development conference you attend. It's the focus of every methods book. Inquiry-based teaching is it. Inquiry. Inquiry. Inquiry. But you don't see it implemented in the classroom, and if you do, it's not done well. Inquiry—it just isn't sticking."

Yesterday morning, I finished Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. (Recommended!) Yesterday afternoon, a university education professor said the above to me. I was taken aback. Anyone who has read Tipping Point likely knows why. I felt like one of those cartoon characters where a lightbulb starts flashing above your head!

Gladwell states that the three agents of change include the Law of the Few, the Power of Context, and the Stickiness Factor—the third agent being the cause for the lightbulb. The following Gladwell quote echoed in my head.
"The Stickiness Factor means that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."
My friend (and co-author) Dennis Smithenry and I are incredibly passionate about the benefits of Whole Class Inquiry. So when the professor said, "Inquiry—it just isn't sticking," I got to thinking about how we might be able to change that. How do we make our idea  "tip?" (Font choice in picture at right in honor of my husband.)

It was what the professor said next that really helped. "So many teachers believe that inquiry is a good idea; they just don't know how to make it happen. But being here, seeing it in action, talking to you, listening to the students, now the message makes sense. The theory of inquiry is alive in that room. "

Gladwell believes that some ideas are worthy, but have not been worded in a manner where the majority of the potential users can understand, let alone implement. The key to getting our message to tip? We need to redefine Whole Class Inquiry using the vocabulary and practice of these experimental, dedicated educators. We can't use Whole Class Inquiry to describe Whole Class Inquiry. We need to simplify a complex idea into presently used language. But how?

I'm working on it. And if I can't figure it out, there's always Krazy Glue...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"I'd Rather Be a Wolf Than a Tiger" Follow-Up

The fall-out from Amy Chua's book is a bit over-the-top. There's a combination of genius (perhaps on Chua's agent's part?) and insanity (public reaction?) threaded through this whole conversation. I admit I've been pulled in, but more as an educator than a mother. And today I read a column in the New York Times by David Brooks that made me smile. The title, Amy Chua is a Wimp, certainly caught my attention, but it wasn't the only thing that made me chuckle. In fact it was the intriguing twist he took in comparison to the other, more angry reviews. Here are my favorite quotes from the article. Remember that Brooks is making these statements to a Yale professor and "Chinese mother."

1. "I believe she’s coddling her children." (Whoa! Bet she's never heard that before!)
2. "I just wish [Chua] wasn’t so soft and indulgent." (Or this!)
3. "[Chua] doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t." (Not what a Yale professor usually hears, I'll bet.)
4. "[Practicing music for four hours] nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with fourteen-year-old girls." (Oh, don't I know it! No truer words have ever been spoken.)
5. "Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale." (I've never been to Yale, but I do know that these scenarios were far more challenging than the science courses I took at U of I!)
6. "Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood." Wow! It would be important for educators to notice this, too.
7. "I wish [Chua] recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library." (I remember this challenge very clearly. NOT fun!)

On a more serious note, it is these types of statements—along with others from his article—that support the notion that educators should be focused on the whole child. Our curriculum can help with these social challenges, as well as become a bit more relevant to the type of collaborative, connected, process-oriented lives our children lead.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'd Rather Be a Wolf Than A Tiger

I am the LAST person you should ask about parenting. For confirmation on that, just ask my girls. It is, without a doubt, the most taxing and simultaneously rewarding role there is. As a team, my husband and I have done the best we can with what we have and what we know for past 18-plus years. And wow! In my humble, unbiased opinion, we have the most amazing girls around. ;) Perhaps a bit because of us and perhaps a bit in spite of us.

Today, I was drawn to an NPR article summarizing the humorous and controversial book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (See also author interview.) I haven't read the book, but think I might put it on my Kindle "To Read" list; the book is apparently causing quite a stir! Cultural stereotypes are rampant. Professor Chua shares her experiences being raised by and deciding to be a "Chinese" mother. In short, "Chinese" mothers are incredibly strict, focusing on producing highly accomplished kids, especially academically. Having fun and being happy are not part of the equation. "Western" mothers, on the other hand, are much less strict and "worry" about their kids' happiness, sometimes to a detrimental point.

Professor Chua makes it clear that this is a memoir, not a "how-to" book. She is candid and human in the interview. She makes fun of herself and reflects fondly on both her time as a child and as a parent. She emphasizes that this is not intended to compare the "Chinese Mother" to the "Western Mother," neither being superior. She creatively and honestly shares her journey with us—faults, achievements, pleasures, disappointments, etc.

I found the article and interview intriguing. And as both a parent and an educator, I learned a great deal from just the tidbits of information that NPR shared.
1. Parenting is complex. There's simply no other word for it. We build memories that could easily be the basis for a sitcom, drama, tragedy, action/adventure and psychological thriller all wrapped into one, every single day! But I'm really working on having the sitcom override all the others. Laughing with my children is the highlight of my day!
2. Cultural differences are deep. Even those messy, perhaps politically incorrect stereotypes should be investigated. These differences influence how our students navigate our educational system, and how our children respond to their environment. As educators, we need to know and understand these differences in order to reach every child.
3. Focus on the most important lesson, and the rest will follow. No disrespect intended, but personally, I would rather be a wolf than a tiger, both as an educator and a parent. I have never been a fan of false encouragement or beating-around-the-bush, just like Professor Chua. In fact, my husband and I have tried to be very aboveboard with our girls over the years. But I do not agree with the philosophy of being a "Tiger," pushing my children or my students to exhaustion to be superior to those around them. I would rather be a "Wolf" with a pack mentality. We are social creatures and we should help one another. We're not in competition with one another; rather, we're all in it together. Use your passion and your talent to make the world a better place than you found it.
4. Love is the common denominator.  Always has been. Always will be. All of us want what we believe is best for our kids. Because we love them!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I've Become A Reader!

I've always wanted to describe myself as an avid reader. When I observe others looking intently at the pages of a book, I see how they are pulled into another world, their "face changing with every line [they] read," experiencing a feeling of wonder, creativity, excitement, drama, etc. And I am instantly envious. I have kept myself busy reading online writings—blogs, journals, news articles—and I have learned a great deal. But it's not the same thing.

I find it incredibly enjoyable getting involved in a good book, but it takes so much effort for me to get started. Maybe it stems from the fact that I am a slow reader, and the appearance of a "thick" book is overwhelming. Or maybe it is the result of being surrounded by family and close friends who are voracious readers. I'm intimidated by how quickly they flip through pages. So over the years, it became easy to choose other recreational activities, activities that are more pleasurable and relaxing to me, over reading books—spending time with family and friends, going to the gym, relaxing in front of the television, etc.

But something happened to me recently. My husband surprised me with a Kindle! And I absolutely love it!* I can't quite put my finger on it, but a switch has been flipped and I have been reading nonstop. A book a week since Thanksgiving! I find myself anxiously awaiting the moment where I can squeeze in some quality KT (Kindle Time). And I've read FOUR books in FOUR weeks! [As an aside, the four books I chose to read were all non-fiction, since I am drawn to that.  Inspirational (Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand), Motivational (Seasbiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand), Affirming (Drive, by Daniel Pink), and Introspectional (The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz). I highly recommend them!]

At the present rate, the 57 books sitting on the shelf above my teacher desk—books that have been sitting there for 15+ years, books I have always wanted to read—could be read in a bit over a year! How exciting! There's something about the Kindle that really hooks me into reading. It's obvious this new format works for me. And I'm wondering how many others are out there who would benefit from this shift. Definitely worth investigating.

The big question now is, what should I read next?

 *At first glance, this may appear to be an endorsement for a particular product. But it's NOT! Yes, my husband surprised me with a Kindle for Christmas. And I LOVE it! But I have not done an in depth study comparing the Kindle to the Nook to the Sony Reader, etc. Nor do I care to. I trust my husband's expertise that he got me the tool that best serves my needs. And so far so good!