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, December 21, 2012

The Disproportionate Response...and Our Children

Remember last Friday? December 14th? I do too. It was my birthday! And perhaps because of that, I purposefully stayed away from the news. I heard about the tragedy in Newtown, CT, of course. And I was heartbroken. I still am. But I also knew what was in store for everyone that day, and for many days to come—a media frenzy. A focus storm that would undoubtedly cause more harm than good. On so many levels.

So I refused to get pulled in. I've kept informed, but not by allowing the media to tug at my heart and hypnotizing me into believing that every ounce of my emotion needed to be focused on this event. The bandaid solutions that end up being the consequence of these reports and subsequent discussions never work long term, nor do they get at the root of the actual problem.

And so after a week of reflection, here are the three most important things on my mind.

1. Our Thoughtfulness Deficit—We are a society that demands immediate gratification. If we're hungry, we eat whatever is in front of us. We don't think about whether it's good for us and/or how much to eat. We "over-satiate" ourselves. If we're confused, we don't grapple with an idea. We Google it. And we accept the response. If we're angry, we retaliate in order to release the discomfort. (So if there are weapons around that can be used to release this anger, it could very well be the coping mechanism some desperate individual uses to move forward...I know there's much more to this current tragedy. That this situation is not straightforward. But it is still the consequence of a nurtured cultural perspective.) We need to practice what it means to be reflective, how to navigate different emotions, and develop coping mechanisms for our unique feelings. And we must nurture the mentality that an immediate "answer" robs us of our natural, remarkable human condition.

2. Our Mental Health Perspective—Mental Health is one part of our overall well-being and should be treated with the same level of importance as our physical health. Whether mental illness was a factor in the Newtown shooting, however, is unknown. We will probably never know why this happened. Yet, the event has sparked dialogue about our understanding and treatment (or lack thereof) regarding mental illness. But we should be very careful about using this tragic event as the foundation for any sort of improvement in the area of mental health diagnosis, treatment, etc. Too often mental illness ends up being the scapegoat for a host of tragic events. And then we hear words like "evil," or "a message from God," following an inappropriate media diagnosis. This is intolerable and disgusting. In fact there are myriad conditions, as well as levels of said conditions, for mental illness. There are as many as there are physical ailments and disease. We should root our conversation about mental health, particularly with our young children, in a positive context. Whether one person suffers from a physical ailment and another from a mental disorder does not define who they are or what they are capable of contributing to their loved ones or society.

3. The Disproportionate Response—We should be ashamed of our response to this tragedy. Not because we "disproportionally" responded to what happened in Newtown by aching for the victims and their families and community. But to our LACK of response for communities who suffer this type of loss on a regular basis. Is it the number of children who died that provoked our response?  The city of Chicago lost 38 teenagers this past summer. Where was our support for those mothers, fathers, siblings, friends? Where are their candles, teddy bears and prayers? Or is it the fact that so many children died at once that matters? Because 30,000 children die every day from treatable or preventable causes. Why don't we fly the flag at half mast for them? Why don't we demand our government officials respond to those tragedies with the same level of passion and desperation? Or is it the location of where these children died? Most children are killed in a location where we would consider them, expect them to be safe. Or is it the fact that these children look like our children? Live lives like our children? My point is...ALL children deserve this type of response. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

It's worth doing some honest reflection. In doing so, we must stop our emotions from demanding some knee-jerk, band-aid solution. We need to look LONG TERM. What solutions, strategies can we develop—not those through an economic or political lens, but in honest-to-goodness cultural improvement—that will work for all, forever? At least that's the bar we should shoot for. I'm in. Are you?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jacob Riis and Flash Photography

Sleeping Children, 1890
Today, I was helping a former student edit her AP US History paper, and I became captivated by the subject, Mr. Jacob Riis. I was drawn in by the connection between art and science, and the resulting positive changes that occurred due to the meshing of the two. I was inspired by his creative problem-solving and his unwavering humanitarianism.

Mr. Riis was born in Denmark and emigrated to the United States in 1870. Eventually, he became one of many journalists who published works regarding the misery of the New York City slums. But he wondered how he might more vividly portray the destitution he was witnessing. The solution resulted in Riis becoming a self-taught photographer and his work proceeded in making him one of the most influential photojournalists in history. Many of his photographs can be seen in the publication, How the Other Half Lives, which is now on my list of must-read-books.

Taking a position on the night-shift, it became difficult for Riis to photograph the lives of the underprivileged immigrants in the slums. But he resolved this issue with a progressive new technique called flash photography. At the time, this magic potion allowed for photographing in the dark by reacting a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate, the first ever flash powder. Upon heating this (potentially dangerous) mixture, an intense flash of light was produced. What ingenuity! To use the result of a chemical reaction as a means of capturing the injustices of the tenement housing area. Incredible. Riis was one of the first American flash photographers.

The science behind Riis's photographs defined his work and is the reason why he was able to document such horrific conditions in a spontaneous manner, like street photography. It is why he was able to provide an indelible mental image of the these deplorable tenement house living conditions. And it is why he was able to call attention to the need for immediate relief by bringing these images to schools and churches and sharing them with the public.

Furthermore, Riis did not just call attention to these conditions through his photography; he recommended creative, practical and workable solutions. And continued to show off his photographs of  the horrors of the slums until he caught the attention of government officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt—then police commissioner—who called Riis, simply and endearingly, "The most useful citizen in New York." Riis was able to convince the wealthy and powerful to make positive change, and his work influenced new laws in the housing communities in not only New York, but Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and indeed many other corners of the world.

Riis made such incredible strides over the couple decades of his tenure as a police reporter and photo-journalist. So why haven't our present government officials continued the legacy he began in bettering the housing conditions of our current under-privileged communities at the same rate he did? It's been over 100 years...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Do You Recognize Miss Represenation?

When my oldest daughter, Katina, was deciding which college might be the right place for her, she had a conversation with an admissions officer from Simmons College. Simmons is an all-female school. And this was a conversation I'll never forget.

Katina shared her thoughts with the admissions officer, "Simmons seems like such a wonderful fit for me. I love everything about the school. But I do have one hesitation. I think I would miss the male voice being part of my academic climate. Is that a problem for a lot of students?"

The woman smiled and responded, "In all the years I've been doing this, no potential applicant has ever asked such an insightful question. So not having a chance to really think about it, here is my gut response. You live in a male-dominated society. You don't even realize how deeply every aspect of your life is permeated with the 'male voice.' Don't you think you deserve to give yourself at least 4 years of time where the female voice is heard? Your voice is heard? And it is not only understood, but accepted without unnecessary justification or biased qualification?"

Powerful words. And they've been spinning around in my head for the past week.

Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the documentary Miss Representation. The organization's site describes the movie as, "...a film that exposes how mainstream media contributes to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence in America." The video truly resonated with me. So deeply, in fact, I believe I will be grappling with everything it had to offer for quite some time. I loved the movie. (Not all of it. But most of it.) And I hope everyone takes advantage of an opportunity to see it. We need to raise the level of discourse in this area.

I grew up in a home where I truly believed that I could do or be anything I wanted. But it wasn't until recently that I realized that there was this unspoken ending to that sentiment: "...even though you're a girl." Upon reflection, it's obvious that the beginning part of the message was being pushed a bit too persistently, too desperately. Particularly in comparison to the conversations I would hear with my young male friends and their parents.

I am an athlete. And I am the product of the first Title IX generation. I was involved in playing the games and being on teams that are stereotypically "meant for boys." And basketball was my favorite sport. To my parents' credit, they nurtured me in these areas. My father—with four daughters and one son—consistently and steadfastly defended me whenever I was teased or mocked for being a tom-boy. My parents sincerely loved how passionate I was about the things I enjoyed.

But until now, I didn't realize how offensive it was to be taught a double-standard by my middle school and high school teachers and coaches, "It's great that you're into sports! You're setting a wonderful example for future young women everywhere. Sports isn't just for boys any more. You can be an athlete on the court. And then behave as a woman off the court."

There is so much I could share. So many stories. But I need to spend more time processing my own thoughts before sharing them with the public.

So instead, I'll leave you with these two things to ponder:

  1. How are women represented in the media? In your daily life? In the small communities you're a part of on a daily basis? And how does this representation affect you and your behavior?
  2. The cover of a special edition of the National Geographic caught my eye (below). First, because it had stories about five historical figures about whom I enjoy learning. Second, because I saw the five mini-descriptions of each. What do you think about these descriptors?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Invisible Children, The Power of We

"Ms. Gallagher, Can we please go see the Invisible Children presentation in the auditorium during class today?" my former student Brad asked as he entered our chemistry class.

"Well, we have a pretty busy day scheduled today," I responded.

"Please, Ms. G. I am really interested in learning about this and no other teacher has let me go. We'll all learn from it, I'm sure."

I could tell by the look in his eyes that this was really important to him. So I said, "Field Trip!"

It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I was moved beyond description, shedding enormous amounts of tears, sadness paralleled with a sense of calling. Moreover, I brought home what I learned and shared it with my family. It quite literally changed my daughters' lives, along with the lives of thousands of other young adults across the globe.

The Invisible Children (IC) organization is living proof of the famous saying, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead)

Nine years ago, three young college graduates left on what they expected to be the happiest adventure of their lives. They went to Uganda to make a documentary. They were caught completely unaware, walking into the longest running war in Africa, seeing first hand atrocities that were impossible to process. These young men ended up making a promise to a little Ugandan boy who had recently watched the brutal killing of his brother. They told him they were going to do everything in their power to end the war and bring families back together.

Today, this small group of dedicated, caring people are still going strong, only they're not so small anymore! There are ~68 members who work full time in San Diego, the Invisible Children's headquarters. There are also ~86 people working over in Uganda. And there are thousands of young adults across the world actively doing their part to help this organization end this war and bring families back together.

Invisible Children has made this idea more than just a thought. They have given our young adults the opportunity to participate in a movement that is legitimately saving lives and changing the world for the better. IC teaches our youth not to wait to be the change they want to see in the world. IC gives them the power to do something now. They are learning that the Power of We does make a difference.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Customized Education. Not Standardized.

It is with a great deal of passion and desperation that I write this post. I have seen the crushing blow of a standardized education, both personally and professionally. And it is damaging to our kids. We know this. Experts tell us that we need to change course. Deb MeierYong ZhaoWilliam SchubertKen RobinsonMadeline LevineAlfie Kohn, and dozens of others share irrefutable evidence that we must revolutionize the journey in public education. 

We have got to move beyond standardization. 

Why? We are damaging our young adults. 

How? As all the above experts have attested, we are hurting their social, cognitive, psychological, and emotional growth. By having our teens/young adults fit into a "one-size-fits-all" educational experience, we force their brains to conform to a predetermined set of academic standards, removing what makes each person special. But what's worse, we are quite literally hurting them physiologically. 

During ages 12 to 25, the brain is going through what is called synaptic pruning. This process includes axons becoming more insulated with myelin (which increases transmission speed), dendrites growing twiggier, heavily used synapses growing stronger, rarely used synapses withering and the brain’s cortex becoming thinner and more efficient. All of these changes create an incredibly sophisticated organ. It is a slow, clumsy process. Teens need years of practice to learn to use their brain’s new networks. But the key here is that if we simply try to control their behavior, rather than embrace this process by giving them opportunities to explore, we will forever turn off the areas that make each child unique.

David Dobbs does a wonderful job of painting the teen/young adult brain in a positive light in his article Beautiful Brains (National Geographic, October 2011). (A summary of the article is here in the New York Times.) We typically hear about the impulsive, idiotic, emotional, rebellious behavior of our youth. But in fact, during this brain transition process, they are in a position to really fly, if we would only view this time as magnificent rather than a time for discipline and control. 

"We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period."

And because our teens/young adults brains are going through the physiological changes described above, we need to offer them creative opportunities to investigate themselves in a way that they are only really capable of exploring at this time in their lives.

Three ways educators can help:
  1. Let Them Socialize! We have got to get out of their way. It is still the norm to see a classroom set up in a way where the teacher is talking and the students are recording. We're wanting to "get through the content." But the teen/young adult brain prefers "...the company of other teenagers because they are designed to invest in the future rather than the past. And they perceive a social crisis as a threat to their very existence because, on a neural level, our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply.” Simply put, social engagement in a learning community is critical. If we don't allow for this growth, students will "starve."
  2. Give Them Something New! How fatigued with the institution of education students must be by the time they get to high school and college. We are slowly testing them out of curiosity and creativity, and it's evident by the time they begin 9th grade. They just want to know what they have to know so they can check it off a list. But, "...we all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence." Typically, thrill-seeking is only interpreted as dangerous. But perhaps we can offer opportunities for this to be constructive. This age is open to new experiences. So let's give them some. Engage them in relevant, meaningful tasks where they get to work with peers on a challenging, exciting problem. Etc. Let's practice creative teaching.
  3. Embrace Flexibility! We are all a bit eager for the last part of the adolescent brain to finish developing. The frontal lobe. But perhaps we shouldn't be in such a hurry. The frontal lobe develops to increase speed in decision making. But with speed, you lose flexibility. By customizing education for the children who cross our paths, we allow for them to practice flexible, creative problem solving and prepare for an unpredictable future. 
We customize our own lifestyles in terms of diet, exercise, intellectual challenge, spiritual fulfillment, social engagement, etc. We find a balance that nurtures our well-being in all areas. We need to do the same for and with our students.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Grab A Tissue...This One Is Sad

Typically, I read this journal reflection aloud to my students during the week of September 24th each school year. However, I am refraining from doing so this year in light of the loss we've felt in our school community. In all honesty, it would be too difficult for me to get through this year. However, I have had students request that I answer one of the reflection questions I asked them, "What was a difficult time in your life and how did you handle it?" The following is my response to that question. One of the most difficult experiences of my life was the sudden loss of a close friend; he passed away from cardiac arrest.

Forty-five years ago on September 28, 1967, a baby boy by the name of Daniel Eric Welsh was born to Kay and James. The fifth of five children. Dan and I eventually became very close friends, like brother and sister. We went to Blessed Sacrament Grade School, Morton High School, and the University of Illinois together. Our schedules were always identical, hour by hour, through grade 12. The only difference that occurred in high school was our language class—when I went to German, Dan went to Spanish. Then during our last year of college, I decided to go into teaching and he applied to medical schools. We both graduated. I began my teaching career and fell in love with it. He went to Rush University for medical school and also had found his calling. We, of course, kept in touch. Twenty years ago on September 24, 1992, four days before his 25th birthday, my dear friend died.

I’m sharing this story with you because I still have a hard time with the fact that he is no longer around, even after twenty years. One action that has provided me with some comfort is to share his life with my students. Why? I’ll explain.

Dan was the type of person who did everything 100%, otherwise he wouldn’t do it at all. When he studied, he studied 100%. No matter what gadgets or distractions we created at the library, he would not stop focusing on his studies. When he slept, he slept 100%. We actually had to break the door down one day to wake him up to go to Physics. Pounding on it wasn’t doing the trick! And when he had fun, he had fun 100%...well, you get the idea.

Saying that Dan was focused doesn’t seem to describe him thoroughly enough. When we were in grade school, we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. We actually recorded our responses, and I still have a copy of our class’s responses in my keepsake box. He said, without hesitation, “a doctor.” He was lucky this way. He knew what he wanted to be for a very long time. And throughout his life, his family experiences gave him the motivation to make his dream come true. His focus started at a very young age and never faltered. He was the type of person who wouldn’t miss class in college because he felt that something he learned that day might end up saving the life of one of his patients in the future. He was intense.

I’ve always had a very difficult time during this week of the year, ever since I lost Dan. When it first happened, I remember feeling so weak in the knees, to the point where standing up was an effort. My younger brother, Bill, was worried about me, because he knew how close Dan and I were. Bill had also lost a friend of his, Matt, 2 years prior to Dan’s death. Bill came into my room one day to give me a reassuring hug. I looked at him and asked, “When did you stop crying? When will I stop crying?” He said—and let me remind you that this is my younger brother, but at this moment he seemed so wise—he said, “Joan, it seems like holding onto the pain is the only way to stay close to Dan, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t know how or why, but one day I was thinking of Matt, and I laughed. I laughed out loud. And it felt great. And one day that will happen to you; you’ll think of Dan and smile. You just have to be patient. Just don’t think that the pain of his loss is the only way to stay close to him.” I  knew he was right, but had trouble with this for years. But, about 10 summers ago it happened. I was thinking about Dan, about how in second grade he glued a Kleenex on his eraser and started flying it around the classroom calling it a “Super Eraser”, and I smiled...then I laughed out loud. Bill was right. It did feel good to let the happiness through.

So why share such a painful story? Because if Dan's life can in any way inspire you for one moment in your life to grasp everything that occasion has to offer, if this story can inspire you to make your next words and actions be a positive influence on the people around you, then this story will have made a difference. You have no idea to what extent you are impacting another person’s life. Who knew that I would ever remember “Super Eraser” and that that memory would in some way help me grow as an individual twenty-seven years later? Your words and actions make a difference for you and for others. Speak carefully, listen wholeheartedly, and live positively...

Every experience, no matter how painful, provides opportunity for growth. Dan’s life and death have influenced my teaching in a profound way. And I will be forever grateful to my friend for playing his part in helping me to become the teacher I am.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Science Exploration: Why Bother?

"Voyager 1 Bids Farewell to Solar System." This news broke as the 2012 summer began. Not on the front page of the newspaper, of course. I read it in one of my science journals. I was vacationing up in northern Minnesota when I heard, and I was instantly pulled back into the adventures of space exploration. I followed so much of this as a child, living during the two decades following Sputnik, during the race to the moon. I was mesmerized once again as I looked up at the stars in the clear northern sky. A spectacular view, uninterrupted by Chicago light pollution. I then listened to Science Friday's Ira Flatow share details about Voyager 1's travels. (Listen here.)

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 35 years ago, in 1977. I was in fifth grade! Each have computers with only 68 kilobytes of memory and use 8 track tape recorders! I am in awe of the project scientist Edward C. Stone who has been involved with the adventures of Voyager since the very beginning. His dedication, patience and passion are extraordinary. Can you imagine being a part of a "science project" for half your life?!

Voyager 1 is about to "go where no one has gone before," no person or man-made object. It is on the edge of the sun's magnetic bubble, about the break through to interstellar space. It travels close to a MILLION miles a day, and has been for 35 years. The vastness of space is incomprehensible.  And simply fascinating.

Over the summer, we lost two legends associated with the space program, Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. After hearing the news of Armstrong's death, I reflected on the sad reality that a time is fast approaching where all members of the elite club, people who have actually been to the moon, will no longer be with us. And unfortunately viewing astronauts as scientific heroes and reading about space exploration as front page news is all but a distant memory.

Why explore? Why research? Why bother nurturing curiosity, discovery, innovation, invention? Why invest—money or time—in science at all? Don't we know enough? I've heard my students ask these types of questions over the years. And there are so many responses that jump to mind. Here are three that parallel the classroom articles I've handed out and the discussions I've had with my students this year so far.
  1. Historically, the journey of science itself, without first having a prescribed incentive or even a specific question in mind, has improved and expanded our knowledge base.. "Time after time, Voyager revealed unexpected—kind of counterintuitive—results, which means we have a lot to learn." ~Edward C. Stone. Exploration for the sake of exploration allows questions to surface that we didn't even know needed to be asked. It is the nature of science. And it's in our genes. As humans, we are naturally curious. If we don't explore the world around us, we are denying our humanity. (And I'm focused on all science, not just space exploration.)
  2. Scientific investigation allows for the unification of the global community around great achievement. Imagine if we decided to tackle a single problem together, like discovering the cure for cancer, or determining how to provide clean water to the world, or figuring out more efficient and effective methods for energy. Perhaps if we start to nurture creativity and imagination in school, rather than simply focusing on facts and figures, we can adopt the mentality of dreaming big again.
  3. Why should we explore? Well, why not?! That's a better question.
"I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did." ~Neil Armstrong

Friday, April 27, 2012

Day of Silence

I can't imagine not being able to speak. Speak the truth about who I am. "Who I am" today is not who I was 5 years ago, and it's not who I'm going to be 5 years from now. But regardless of my age, I've always felt valued. Accepted. Respected. Loved.

Today, as I keep silent in solidarity with those who don't feel this acceptance, I am grateful for my parents. I love them dearly. They taught me so much about love and family. I grew up believing I was important. I knew I was appreciated for who I was. I realize I grew up in an upper-middle class, white, educated, Christian, non-immigrant, traditional family. And that I really didn't have many "battles" to fight. But my parents nurtured the idea that not only could I do and be anything I set my mind to, but that I had a responsibility to stick of up for what I believed in, to take care of the underdog.

I am also grateful for my husband and friends. They have shown me that there's a whole world outside of the small town where I grew up. So many individuals do not have the luxury of "a voice" that I had as a kid, that I have as an adult. And my friends remind me what a treasure it has been, what a gift it still is. I'm lucky to have them in my life. They support my causes, they affirm my choices, and they challenge me to continue to do better for the underdog.

And today, I am particularly grateful for my students. I look out and see 25% of my first period class keeping silent, too. That's 50% more than last year. So we're growing as a school community. My students keep me young. They keep me honest. They remind me that there are many who have challenges that can't easily be voiced. And for those students who don't have a support system, feel loved, I have the model of my parents, husband and friends to fall back on. As my students eyes look to me for guidance and hope, I'm glad I can say, "It gets better. There are students around you who care. Until you feel connected, I'm here. Just hang on."