Archives for category: Kindness

We’ve had our last day of “professional development” for the nonce and that’s  good thing.  You can only take so much.  It took a little while and some kind companionship (a.k.a. complaining with colleagues) to correct  course.

What happens sometimes is that we are given an article to read that touts some new method for engaging students and fostering learning.  New methods are great and engaged students who learn is what it’s all about, so you’d think that would be helpful.  The problem is that the method is overhyped.  Always.  It’s not just an answer, it’s the answer, the be-all, end-all, slam-dunk, fool-proof, can’t-miss solution to every problem any teacher ever had.  A classroom library of wonderful books will mean that literally Not One Student will fail to learn to love reading!  Postcards of fine art (Matisse, Kahlo, Klimt) will mean that every single, solitary, disengaged, angry kid will suddenly fall in love with creative expression and analyze poetry like Ph.D!  And I mean all of them:  Jose, Marisol, Eduardo, Spike, Dylan, Natasha, Olivia, and Sven.  The postcards will transform your classroom into a thrumming hive of learning and never again will you know the doldrums.  Your students will all win Pulitzers and thank you.

It stems from a fervent wish that teaching were a science rather than an art.  A lot of bad thinking about education stems from this wish.  Standards imply that if teachers just knew what to teach, they could succeed with every kid.  Merit pay rests on the assumption that if teachers were more motivated (by money) they would succeed with every kid.  There has to be some foolproof, can’t-miss, slam-dunk way that we could make all those interchangeable non-entities called teachers do stuff that would guarantee success with every kid.

But teaching is not a science.  Parenting isn’t either, and every attempt (Dr. Spock, are you listening?) to treat it as a science ignored the essential role of loving, creative, good-humored parents.  Parents are unique.  Kids are unique.  Families are unique.  Parenting comes out of the deepest values of the mum and dad as they love their ever-changing and one-of-a-kind kid.  Sometimes that works out great.  Sometimes kids don’t get what they need or parents can’t figure out how to help their kid.  But standardizing it is the opposite of the answer.  You wouldn’t get better parenting if you offered parents bonuses for meeting some criteria or other.

By now I hope we know that if someone says to a parent with a kid with a problem, “Oh, that’s easy.  All you do is.  .  . ” they should walk away.  When someone talks like that, all it means is that their kid didn’t have the problem your kid does.  Lucky them.  Or they found a solution that worked, for a while, with that particular kid.  Again, lucky them.  You can try their idea, but you go into it with wisdom, prepared to abandon the method of it antagonizes your kid.  There are very few universals.

And so it is with teaching.  I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, lots of methods I can trot out when they seem promising, but any lesson might work with some of the kids but never all.  Or might work, mostly, with one class and fail totally with another.  What remains is my love, my excitement about learning, my faith in them as smart people who can get excited about learning, too.  Just as you only ever learn to be a parent to the kids you actually have, so you only ever learn to teach the students you’ve actually had.  Each class poses new challenges and while some of what you’ve learned may work, you’re also probably going to have to figure out all new ways to reach them.

Teachers aren’t cogs or widgets (nor are students).  Our passion, ingenuity, and love are what make the thing work.  The methods don’t mean any more than whether a family likes to read Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter to their kids.  It depends.

Sorry, Powers That Be.  You’re never going to help teachers do a better job until you recognize our individuality, our own creativity, our passionate motivation, and our un-bribe-able love as the heart of it all.

But yeah, it is nice to show them some Matisse.

Image result for matisse dancers

 

Sometimes you see something and you know you’ll be talking about it in class one day.  This one struck me as highly useful.

Picture a beautiful summer day and I’m walking on a sidewalk on a quiet, not heavily traveled street, on my way back from walking the labyrinth.  Outside the Michener Museum, a car stops.  The driver, a woman on a cell phone, makes no effort to pull over and make room for another car, but there’s nobody behind her.  She is dropping off her daughter, as I supposed, who is in the passenger seat, texting or handling some kind of business.  Someone comes up behind them.  The two women don’t see that car.  The car waits a little bit, and then gives a little toot on the horn as it pulls around them.  The woman looks up from her phone and puts her hand out the window to give them the finger.  I hear both her and the daughter say something angry, but I didn’t catch the specifics.  The daughter gets out of the car and crosses the street to go to maybe a job at the Michener and the mother roars off in the car, angry and nettled.

If the woman had pulled over, or even into the adjacent parking lot, she and her daughter could have had some quiet to handle their business and not trouble anyone.  So why not do that?  She set herself up for an unpleasant interaction.  She did everything she reasonably could to guarantee a rotten start to her day.  The car behind her wasn’t behaving aggressively.  They just wanted to get where they wanted to go, along a public street.

That seemed to me a perfect example of how placing yourself at the center of the universe will teach you that everyone is a jerk and out to get you.  But if you see the world as full of reasonable people who all have stuff to do, you pull over and they go around you and you’re happy for them and they for you.

Consideration is its own reward.  Selfishness is its own punishment.  I plan to use this story with my students.  Feel free to adopt it if it’s a parable for your classroom, too.

Image result for michener museum

(It happened right about here.)

One of my new-teacher friends asked me to post something about the recent election and it’s taken me a couple of days to think through what I could say.

There isn’t much to say.

But:

What we saw was the revelation of something we might already have known.  We are a divided nation.  Racism and othering of all kinds are real.  People are afraid.  They want easy answers.  They perceive rage and impulsiveness as strength, consideration and thoughtfulness as weakness.  It’s easier to label and withdraw our compassion than to open, inquire, and embrace.

If the election had gone the other way, this state of affairs would differ only in the types of battles we would be fighting.  The protests would be ugly and violent and Congress would set its face implacably against the president.  Any gains would come in the teeth of fierce resistance and shoved down the throats of the angry half of the nation.  We’d be just as divided as we are now, only raging rather than gloating/mourning.

Is it possible that four years of what they think they want will be the best argument for another way?  Is it possible that people will grow tired of fearing one another and want to go to amicable, peaceable co-existence?  That’s the hope to which I cling.

We never needed teachers more than we do now, especially those who teach English and Social Studies.  The compassion that literature imparts and the lessons history holds for us are now vital to our kids’ lives.

Yesterday I put 3 take-aways on the board.

  1.  We must stop being hateful and rotten to one another.  Rude, cruel speech is an attack, an attempt to invalidate another person.  If you slap a label on someone, you’ve put them in a basket, deplorable or otherwise, that means you don’t have to listen to them anymore.  That’s the problem, not the solution.  We must stop, and teach our kids to stop, annihilating with words those with whom they disagree.  And the same for us.  Our new president is a person, not any of the names it might feel good to call him, and so is each one of his supporters.  The only way to heal the rift is to listen and respond with respect.
  2. Truth matters.  Good decisions come not from fear, nor actually from unfounded hope, but from careful understanding of reality.
  3. Kids need to run for public office.  Start by going to your borough hall or township building and finding out what committees you are free to join.  Get involved.  How cool would it be if our  former students ran for school board?  For mayor?  For state representative?

There have always been bad ideas scurrying round underfoot, in every age.  The only way to defeat a bad idea is with a better, truer one– and that has happened.  Women got the vote.  Slavery ended.  Kids didn’t have to work in sweatshops.  Products had to be accurately labeled.  Everybody got to go to school.  Rather than wishing we  could ram our good ideas into place, we have learned that we must do the painstaking work of demonstrating their merit.

So that’s what we teachers are going to do.  We will foster respectful, truthful debate and compassion for all humans and encourage our kids to express their views thoughtfully and clearly.  Our new president has four years to do what he can; then, the people will decide on how he did.  He will be judged.

We teachers have the lifetimes of all our combined students to leave a legacy of love and wisdom.

Sometimes things don’t go so well.

You’re going along, teaching for all you’re worth, and some one student rankles, irks, gets under your skin, hurts your feelings or “presses your buttons.”  Weeds spring up in the happy garden of your cultivating:  the weeds are your unskillful responses to that kid.

It can happen that a student is difficult and awkward. If you can see that this kid has trouble everywhere with everyone, it can get easier. Every kid deserves a safe place where the teacher will at least not add to his or her troubles. Every kid is somebody’s child. Knowing what that kid must have suffered can often dissolve the harsh response.

But not always. Teachers are human and we can feel manipulated and played, one-upped and put down. What do you do when a kid lands a barb in the quick?  How do you respond if you’re all weedy with anger, frustration, and defeat?

My former neighbor (Nancy, I honor you) told me a story about when her son, Jeff, first got his driver’s license. She had told him he could use her car and a number of friends came over for a ride. She watched out her bedroom window as the car motored down the rocky driveway, teenagers hanging out the passenger windows whooping, perching on the door ledges, pounding on the roof, and she just about threw up with terror. There were no cell phones then, so all she could do was hold her fear and wait. In time, Jeff came home, and Nancy was at the kitchen table, waiting.

What did she do? Did she yell and scream? Did she take away his license? What is the wise response?

She told him simply and without embellishment of her fear. She told him she loved him and wanted him to be safe. And (in a highly surprising move) he cried and told her of his fear, that he could not control his friends, that he had no power to control them. Together they came up with a way. I don’t remember it, but that scarcely matters. Jeff knew that his mother would provide the cover he needed to inform his friends that dangerous behavior was off limits, and Nancy knew that Jeff needed her to set the limits that would protect him. Because both of them could own their feelings (which in this case involved fear, the purpose of which is to keep us safe), they could work out a plan.

If they had instead gone to passing the fear back and forth, Nancy yelling, Jeff defending—who knows?

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Playing Hot Potato with feelings makes them hotter and bigger and more unmanageable, not to mention burning everyone’s hands in the process.

What Nancy did not do:

  1. Observe erroneously, exaggerating, dramatizing, self-pitying.
  2. Go wild: allow the fear to possess her.
  3. Scream, yell, and in all other ways discharge her feelings so that they were Jeff’s problems.
  4. Abandon Jeff to deal not only with his unruly friends but also his irate mother.

What Nancy did:

  1. Observe accurately: look clearly at what was occurring.
  2. Feel and own her feelings without becoming lost in them.
  3. Communicate both her observations and her feelings simply and directly.
  4. Contain her feelings enough to hear what Jeff had to say.
  5. Work with her son to create a workable framework for the future.

Our emotional feelings are as much our responsibility as our physical feelings. If we feel pain, we have to look at that, figure out what hurts and why and deal with it.

I’ve had a number of difficult interactions with kids recently where I felt a bit like Nancy up at her bedroom window, although my response wasn’t fear. More like offense, feeling disrespected and taken for granted. The weedy response is to act out and thrust the feelings back at the kid.

Note to self: How to uproot mean weeds of unkindness to students.

  1. Observe accurately.
  2. Feel and own my feelings.
  3. Communicate my observations and my feelings.
  4. Contain my feelings enough to hear what the student has to say.
  5. Work with the student to create a workable framework for the future.
Take 'em right on out.

Take ’em right on out.

I’m glad to write this out and put it where I can find it again, because I’ll need to remind myself.  Weedy feelings make me stupid and forgetful.  Weeds crowd out the other plants and try to take over the whole lawn.  Plus they keep coming back, so you have to break out the weeding tool again and again.

Yesterday I had the privilege of being the student of a gifted teacher: fascinating on so many levels.

This was my son’s first guitar teacher and he was in town for a short time on his way to a WWOOF placement in Maryland (my kind of guy. He’s also an “avid walker.” I wonder how he feels about otters). He met me to give me a single lesson and I had emailed to say that I’d like to try to untangle my confusion about chords and intervals and to try to improve the sound of the songs I can play.

He was highly encouraging: I came away replete with courage. I liked hearing him tell me I’d done a good job and use my name. It turns out that even we older learners are hungry for faith that we can accomplish and achieve. He exuded confidence, both in his ability/mastery and in his interest in helping people to learn. From an email in answer to a question:

I am indeed, very patient.  I feel like it is the most important skill to learn as a guitar teacher, as well as a good memory back to the days when my struggles on the instrument were the same as my student’s.  I think most guitarists encounter frustration in the same areas of physically and mentally adjusting to the instrument from beginner to advanced.

He had a lot for me to work on. I’d told him what I wanted to learn and he had firm ideas of how to work on learning it. He asked me to figure stuff out and when I couldn’t, he was there with both the answer and some supportive remarks about my thinking process. He gave me a scale to practice that will teach me a number of things, as well as serving to strengthen my fingers. My initial awkwardness at the scale didn’t trouble him. I didn’t feel judged: just part of the process.

The experience was challenging and rewarding. I wish I could take more lessons from him: it felt like being part of something bigger, as if I were a dues-paid-up member of a musical community. He told me two small things that were especially helpful:

  1. when you hear buzzing, that means you need a hair more pressure on a string. Use that buzzing not to be annoyed but to teach you the precise amount of pressure you need to apply. This transforms my relationship to buzzing. Now it’s my teacher.
  2. I’m past the roughest part of my barre chords. The hardest part is making them sound on each string. Transitioning smoothly to them takes time, sometimes lots of it, but I’m already past the part where they don’t sound like anything. So yay for that. There are stages and I’m past one of them.

In addition to learning some good stuff about guitar, I hatched a couple of questions.

I wonder whether yelling at people (using the term loosely, as the kids do) is ever useful? What I got from Chris was kindness, information, encouragement, ways to approach my practice—but no dissatisfaction, no message that I’d fallen short. I don’t need to be told that anyway: I’m acutely aware of how I fall short and I’m highly motivated to do better. Maybe the stern and cranky approach is necessary for those who are dogging it? I know I reproach my students at intervals, when I feel they are blowing off what I am telling them.

Another great teacher of my experience, Madame Menendez who taught me French in high school, once had a sit-down with us about our using the absolutely-never pile-up “de le.” In French, that just doesn’t happen. It switches to “du.” Somehow even as seniors we were sometimes saying de le, which would be like saying “I are.” It just doesn’t happen. For that moment she stopped being encouraging and enthusiastic and registered her frustration. Why, WHY can’t we remember that? And we said, well, it doesn’t come naturally. And she replied, okay fine, but then correct yourselves after the fact at the very least. I took that message and I honored her frustrations. It was a legitimate question.

But it was really nice to be with Chris yesterday and not fear getting yelled at, not even once. Is yelling generally productive? Or is it risky?  Is browbeating someone into learning a way to go?  Or does it just antagonize the learner?  Are you asking this question, “No Excuses” charter schools?

And it also raises this question: wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be a student in my own class? Boy would I learn a lot about how to teach and (I suspect) how not to be annoying.  I wish Chris could be his own student for a lesson. He would feel very proud.

A sincere thank you to Chris for all the teaching about guitar and about teaching. I hope fate has arranged for us to reconvene for more learning and sharing in the future.

 

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website.  Take by Rodrigo Rocha.

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website. Taken by Rodrigo Rocha.

 

There are a number of splendid blogs committed to battling the rubbish that goes by the name of school “reform”, Diane Ravitch’s being perhaps the best.  If you don’t already know her work, her blog is an excellent place to start.

I would like to do something a little different.  Instead of concentrating largely on the fight for public education, I would like to focus on what teachers, parents, administrators, and communities can do to strengthen their neighborhood schools.  This includes sometimes condensing talking points about contentious issues, such as unions and tenure, so that when we are called upon to explain their merits at dinner parties or family gatherings we have something to say (other than, “Why are you directing all this anger at me in what was otherwise a nice evening?”).

When I was a young mother, it seemed there was a rash of articles about how rotten mothering would ruin kids’ lives.  All the focus seemed to be on how horrid most mothers were, how messed up most adults were because of mothers, how if mothers would just get their crap together the whole world would thrive, and how mothers were to blame for every ill.  It was a drag, but I managed to ignore it and just hang out with my kids.  Now it’s deja vu all over again, when teachers are the scourge of society.  Once again, I’m in the demonized group.

So fine.  As they say on the internet, haters gonna hate.  But we don’t have to become haters, not even to debunk them.

Teachers do challenging work.  Not only need we deflect attacks, we also need to continue to sharpen our skills, to create a larger and more supportive community around our work.  This is necessary not only for us, but for our students.

This blog is for collaboration, mindfulness, inspiration, whole teacher/whole child, sustainable, vibrant education in its largest sense.  I would like to do what I can to speak to those who, like me, want to move from this:

The testy vision of education.

The testy vision of education.

To this:

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Each person, highest potential.  That’s the ticket.

Banging along to the Lumineers.

Two aspiring musicians plus the Lumineers on stereo.

To learn something, you shuttle between the appalling knowledge of all you don’t know and a nice, plucky, can-do sense of moving steadily along.

Teaching feels like this:  a finely honed sense of whether to help the kids understand (kindly, of course) how completely ignorant and clueless they are?  Or whether to encourage and help them feel powerful and able?  Too much confidence means they think they have nothing to learn.  Too much humility and they’re overwhelmed, crushed to the ground, by all there is to know.

Many thanks to those like my son who step in at intervals to point out the obvious:  no matter how much there is to know, if you work hard at it for twenty years, consistently and with proper effort, you’re apt to wind up pretty good at it.  Even if it’s as hard as guitar.

Metta is the Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness, as the word is frequently translated.  That sounds very sweet and darling, downright flowery, in English and, as I understand it, the Pali doesn’t have that connotation.  As I understand it, it’s an open-hearted warmth toward living things, the polar opposite of judgment.  All beings are as they are, and with metta, we accept them fully and warmly.  We wish the best for them.  We open to them rather than turning from them.  We send them our friendliness.

But what about our enemies, you might ask?  Why would we open to them and extend to them our good wishes?

Metta doesn’t bestow success.  If you have a murderer next door, offering metta doesn’t grant him license to continue to harm.   Metta depends upon the understanding that if your murdering neighbor were safe and protected, healthy and strong, peaceful and happy, knowing ease of well-being and accepting all the conditions of this world, he or she wouldn’t be murdering.  It’s out of illness and discord that violence grows.  Wishing our enemies peace of mind is another way of wishing the world free from pain and sorrow.

Metta begins with ourselves.  Why not?  You can’t breathe out all the time– there has to be a breathing in, too.  It makes such sense that we need to express that kind of acceptance, warmth, and friendship to ourselves first:  you can’t give what you don’t have.

So here is metta’s first step:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of wellbeing and accept all the conditions of this world.

Say it before bed, on rising, and at intervals during the day.  An expression of unselfishness, metta prepares us to extend the same love, compassion, warmth, tenderness, understanding, acceptance to all sentient beings.

It’s pretty neat.  Try it.

Babette puts her quails in the oven.

Babette, having won the lottery, prepares a magnificent dinner for her friends.

Did you ever see the movie Babette’s Feast?  If you like to cook, or ever had a meal that made the leap to transcendence where everyone at the table fell in love, at least for the nonce, you should.

And today on Slate.com, I found this article:

Cooking with Babette:  I made the richest, most expensive dish from the best food movie of all time.

J. Bryan Lowder recounts the re-creation of Babette’s signature dish, cailles en sarcophages, for friends.  More than that, he muses on the role of the cook.  An excerpt:

During this dinner I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, prepping the next course, opening more wine, and generally taking pleasure in the fact that my guests were enjoying themselves—my food and service, as the grist for the gathering, were more important than my constant presence. In this sensibility I share something fundamental with Babette, who cooks not to impress or to show off (indeed, she never appears in the dining room), but rather to facilitate the alchemy that transforms good food into great fellowship.

This is an ethic that is all too rare. We live in a food culture dominated by the notion that cooking is a performance art, something that you wow people with from behind the island of your open-concept kitchen as if you were the host of your own Food Network show. The covers of glossy cooking magazines exhort you to “impress your friends” with this or that new technique, while “celebrity chefs” by their very existence make the argument that a cook’s personality is more important than her food. This is the contemporary self-centeredness that makes Julie’s half of Julie & Julia so unbearable—she may master French cooking, but in the end, the only guest she’s interested in feeding is her ego.

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

The most memorable part of that movie for me, and I saw it back when it came out, was the guests’ utter joy at the end of the meal:  joy in the food, the wine, each other, and the world.  Out under the stars, I seem to recall, they experience some kind of 19th century, strait-laced, Lutheran Danish version of a group hug.  That is the power of good food, lovingly and generously prepared.

Still life with quails.

Still life with quails.

J. Bryan Lowder details all the steps to make the dish and its transformative effect on him and his friends, a kind of meditation in homage to the film and good cooks everywhere.

 

Heather Z.

Me, Heather, and my beloved colleague Becky at graduation June 19, 3013.

Listen to our student, Heather Z., and her answer to B. Wordsworth’s question:  what am I doing here?

We are often told that nobody is going to hand us anything-that there is no silver platter, and that we must go out and seek success ourselves. Nevertheless, there are things that we have been given. Wise people encourage us to make wise choices, but I can tell you that there are a couple of things over which we have no choice: no one chose to be born here, no one chose his/her parents, no one chose which name to be called. Yet, here we are today, ready to graduate from a community where wealth and prosperity were handed to us. We came into this world on a road that was already paved for our future.

However, 7,000 miles from here, there is a dirt road. And that path, instead of leading to success, leads to a dilapidated orphanage in the town of Liling City, China.  And on that road at some point, sometime, a desperate, Chinese mother wrapped blankets around her 5-month old baby and abandoned her. But, as one final goodbye before leaving, she tattooed a circle of blue on her daughter’s wrist, to signify her love. It was the only way that her mother could let her go. That woman was my mother. And she knew that that dirt road would lead to a smoother path and I thank her for every step I take.

When she marked my skin that day, she marked my heart forever.

We are all tattooed with indelible marks. And like my biological mother, many of the people who have touched and changed our lives may never know how deeply their actions have colored them.  Oftentimes, in our hurry to grow up and explore this world on our own, we fail to reflect upon the amount of dedication, love, and sacrifice that have been made for us. Let us think about our parents who protected us, our teachers who ignited our creativity and our older brothers and sisters who acted as our role models when all we wanted to do was grow up. The people whom we admire most shape who we become. All of them have stood by us and comforted us with unwavering support, all leaving their unique imprint.

And it does not stop there. It is so easy to forget the distant heroes, the people whom we have never met, but whose actions make our community safer and more prosperous every day. Let us remember the 66,000 soldiers far from home, working under unspeakable circumstances on our behalf.

And if we stop to reflect upon how many people have left both visible and invisible marks on our lives, we must realize the power that we have to leave a mark on others. So the question is what kind of mark do you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered?

Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is people who create the world, it is people who shape and influence the way we show kindness to our neighbors, the strength in our unity, and the justice by which we live… and now it is our turn to make the world, just as the world that we have grown up in has been made for us.

It is the loving and humble actions of human beings that make tomorrow better and brighter than the day we leave behind. It is these actions that create a world in which a mother gives her daughter a chance, without ever expecting a “thank you” in return, a world in which a different mother opens her heart and raises another woman’s child as her own.

People leave their marks because it is the right thing to do and not because they expect to be praised.

We- are the pride and joy of everyone in this stadium. All of us have our own unique gifts. We owe our thanks to the administration of the Central Bucks School District, the administration of C.B. West, our parents, our friends & families, and our teachers, all of whom have somehow influenced and created the world from which we are graduating.

And to my fellow classmates, remember: there is no question that we will leave an indelible mark for future generations because every time we act we send ripples into the world. Every single thing we do has an effect on the people around us. Instead, we need to ask ourselves this: will we have the courage and humility to leave a good mark? To do what is best, even if it means that we will not be celebrated for it. Austrian psychologist, William Stekel said, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that is wants to live humbly for one.” So, when this ceremony is over and we all take up the journey, let us think to the footsteps we leave behind, as much as to the roads that open before us.

Amen to you, Heather.  What an honor to be the teacher of a young person with such wisdom and promise.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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