Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stretching and Flexing to Thrive

Tuesday is usually a lift day for me.

This week, I decided to just stretch. It’s been awhile since I put some gentle, flowing music on (Michael Fesser's RelaxDaily is one of my favorites) and just went with where the music would lead me. No reps, no challenges, no pressure.

I began slowly, warming the joints with easy motions. It felt good to reach high and arch my arms through the air. I went back to some yoga poses and some felt tugs and resistance. It didn’t matter. The music was setting the tone: relax.

I held poses. I breathed and balanced. I shifted from one focus to another and then back again. Yoga instructors encourage you to feel your stretches become deeper. Yesterday, I experienced that once again. I felt my hips and back relax and and I sank. Blissfully, I sighed, and eventually my hands wrapped around the soles of my feet, peacefully.

We get so caught up in the daily grind: in our days and in our expectations. We become locked in and driven. That can lead to success. Yet, it can also lead to a loss. Our eyesight and mindset tunnel and we become oblivious to other truths and realities. My run today felt a bit better- perhaps the change I did yesterday has something to do with that.

Whether it’s our bodies or our minds, if we maintain some flexibility, we can more readily adjust to what life throws at us. If we demand a certain framework every single day, we miss the beauty of flow, growth and the thrill of exploration and discovery.

I stretched and yet, I know I can stretch more. I know I can reach out more.

Why do the grasses, bamboo and willows flourish? Yes, the flex. But their roots also take in those messages from above and reach further to the ground to help the plant survive. We can do the same. We grow. We experience. We adapt. We succeed.

What can we do to stretch and flex a bit more tomorrow? Let’s pick something and give it a try.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Great Expectations. Or Not?

An article came out this week that is getting quite a bit of attention in the education world. Goodbye Clip Charts, Marble Jars, and Stickers for Behavior was written by Kristine Mraz, an author and kindergarten teacher in New York City and member of The Educator Collaborative.

Behavior management systems.

Huh? If you’re not a teacher, you may never have stopped to consider how one adult orchestrates a large group of children (25-30 typically at a time, more as they get older and/or if districts cut back teacher positions) by his/herself all day AND gets stuff done. Things learned. Projects started. Full thoughts conveyed. How?

If you’re a parent, you know the temptation to bribe and coerce.

We’re entering that peak bribery and coercion time of year, in fact. “You better behave! Santa’s watching you!!” Here in Wisconsin, there’s yet another character employed to solicit compliance: Elf on the Shelf. This creepy elf (my personal opinion, granted) is WATCHING YOU.

This compliance approach has led to a variety of practices used today in many schools. Check Ms. Mraz’s article for specific details if you’re interested. For my purposes, I’d like to focus on our overall use of this in our culture, and see if I can tease out some more general problems we may all be familiar with and reveal some possible alternatives.

Bribery and coercion are effective in the short term.

Beyond the whole Santa thing, which obviously only lasts a month or two before you’re right back where you started (and perhaps worse off because the kids are coming down from a holiday free-for-all), we see bribery and coercion used in us adults. Rebates if you stop smoking or lose weight. A free month of gym membership if you sign up for a contract. Points for preferred customers.

We’re tempted to comply. It works for a while. We know we’re getting played, even as we comply. Many times, we slide back into our old ways. Or, we’ll pretend things have changed and we’ll hide the cigarettes and cupcakes.

Real change (growth) takes vested interest and a plan.

If I want to be healthier, if I want a specific job, if I want a relationship- I own that decision. To reach that goal, MY goal, I will find steps to get there. I need to understand what I can do and what I need to obtain. Training? Supplies? Expert advice? I will start the process and I will probably stumble. Repeatedly. If I’m really committed, I’ll step beyond myself and ask for teammates- family, friends or professionals- to work with me closely. They will help hold me to my plans and support me mentally and physically. I will practice and perhaps revise my plans and then try again.

When I reach my goal, I will feel that success deep in my bones. I’ll be grateful to all those who helped me. If I don’t succeed, I’ll still feel that gratitude and I’ll know that I tried as hard as I could. I will feel good for those 2 facts. My failure may eventually give me ideas that will lead to a future success or others may see my successes and failures and be inspired in their own journeys.

How do I become an adult who will do all that work?

I need to learn how to define what I want. I need to learn how to commit and to hope. I need to learn how to work with people. I need to learn how to pick myself up when I fall. I need to learn how to adapt. I need to learn how to ask for help. I need to learn that we all make mistakes and that’s just a part of life and that something good can still arise from “failure”.

This line from Ms. Mraz’s essay spoke volumes to me:

“Who cares if kids can read at level Z in first grade if they grow up to be narcissists, seeking rewards for kindness and masking shame behind bravado and cruelty?”

How do I become an adult who will do all that work? It’s by learning about and practicing those “I need to learn” skills I just outlined. At home. At school. At work. Practicing and living them every day. From birth. These are the things that teachers like Ms. Mraz are seeking to teach in their classrooms.

Is it necessary?

To answer that, I will leave you with these questions. Do you see many people today who seem rudderless, just looking for praise or fun? Do you see many people today who hide behind bravado and cruelty? Of those people you consider truly successful and positive, what traits do they embrace? The ones I indicated here and those advocated by Ms. Mraz and others, or the ones that are supported by bribery and coercion?

We all have a role in this, just as we all can play a role by changing our behaviors if our answers lead towards that call.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Not Fun and Games

My husband was playing a quick round of Clash Royale this morning. He’s a serious gamer, but his face folded into even deeper creases than usual as he tapped the screen. Then he growled, “I’m playing against someone who’s screen name is a Nazi’s name.”

I confess that I’m paraphrasing him. He said the name, along with some colorful adjectives. We both knew the name. We knew the name was intentionally chosen. I choose not to put it down in print yet again.

I’ve written before about the importance and weight our words have, in The Word Soup We’re Living In.  I also went into the concept of constructive or destructive words back in January, with Are We Cultivators or Killers. That piece, in retrospect, is child-like in the examples I shared of destructive words. I think the overall validity of its message remains true, however.

Where we let our minds linger affects us all.

All too often, we hear excuses such as, “I was just joking.” or “I didn’t do anything.”. In this world with more information at our fingertips than ever before, we also repeatedly hear “I didn’t know.” and “It wasn’t *that* bad.”. There is a real or perceived disconnect between self, one’s actions and others.

Excuses. Feigned Ignorance. Self-Preservation. Anger. Fear.

It doesn’t matter which one it is, we have to stop. It’s possible to change and imperative to do so. I’m still a firm believer in the potential good that each individual human can cultivate, despite the vast array of examples on the opposite side of the spectrum. I believe our potential altitude goes both positive or negative: for however far down someone falls, I bet there’s someone somewhere doing something that much better than was done before.

Positive messages are out there.

Organizations such as Playworks bring inclusive play and social skill development to playgrounds and schools. Restorative justice systems exist that bring victims and their offenders together for real healing and growth. Grist magazine publishes a list of 50 Fixers who are putting their skills and passions in building better ways around the world. Musicians are stepping up to improve the lives of diabetics (Nick Jonas’s BeyondType1) and children worldwide (BTS’s campaign with UNICEF).

We all can participate. Every time someone helps a neighbor or volunteers at a school- no matter how insignificant it may seem- they are exemplifying the idea of constructive living.

Constructive lives don’t have space for destructive ideas and ways.

Teachers around the world are working hard to create environments that offer opportunities for personal growth for their students. Increasingly, there are pushes for students to create products during their learning that can be offered to their world at large. Whether large scale like Design Learning's problem-solving competitions, or in more homegrown projects, I believe we need much more of this. We need to embrace this as an expectation of our youth: you try and you give. Don’t do something for grades. Do something to help and connect.

When youth connect with their communities and our communities see the talents and energy our youth can provide the whole, real change and improvement can occur. We can teach each other. We can learn from each other. Working together, we’ll have far less time and temptation to “joke” about (or, let’s face it, not joke, and emulate) such horrifying people and times as was exemplified by the Nazis and the other groups who seek to divide and belittle the “other” to this day.

The more purpose we feel, the more optimistic we feel. With optimism, dark times & people will lose their appeal and they will go back to what they should be: painfully acquired lessons on what NOT to do and be.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Forgiveness & Frayed Edges

Today, a Twitter friend introduced me to Mark Oldman, who wrote an editorial in Tes Magazine, entitled Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean Forgetting Bad Behaviour, that grabbed me relentlessly with its honest opening line:

“When a pupil threatened to kill my newborn child, in a short instance I hated him, genuinely.”

Mr. Oldman writes from Leicester, in the UK, but I am sure readers from all corners of the US can relate situations just as shocking. When we consider the problems faced in schools, we must remember how universal the difficulties are. And I should correct myself on that point: it’s not the problems faced in schools. It’s the problems faced by our youth. Schools are simply the best place for many of them to get help.

Washington educator Nate Bowling brought up a key point later in the day that helps explain the why’s for their struggles, in my opinion. In response to another shooting here in the US today (not related to schools or youth), he commented, “Social contracts are fragile; I'm increasingly concerned ours is fraying.”

My take: Our youth are reacting to the social contracts fraying before their eyes wherever they look.

Social contracts are written or unwritten systems upon which we all rely on for mutual benefit. Think “give and take” and “cooperation”. If we all invest a little bit of something, we can all get something back at some point.

Connections with others don’t go right all the time. There are hiccups. Sometimes, there are huge and horrifying mistakes- ones we can’t believe ever existed. That student’s reaction, to threaten a child’s life, is somewhere on that spectrum. Mr. Oldman gives an amazing powerful outline for an extremely challenging, but fruitful, response.

Forgive, but don’t forget.

Rather than simply punish, forgive. Rather than ignore, choose to explore. Rather than throw away a life as faulty, teach, practice, and support a behavior system that fosters buy-in to the social contracts we want everyone to live by. With how often our children see (and experience) a lack of empathy, fear of “others” and destructive anger, they may not even understand there is (or should be) a vital connection between themselves and the rest of the world. As Mr. Oldman states so well:

“There will always be incidents in schools that are treated as if they are unforgivable, but they have to be forgiven, otherwise pupils can’t move on and social boundaries cannot be established or reinforced.”

This kind of change requires effort. It requires buy-in from the culture at large. It requires investment in teaching and support jobs and assets. However, unless we want our society to fray away to nothing, or to become one that’s truly unredeemable and unrecognizable, we must try.

Mr. Oldman didn’t succumb to his initial knee-jerk reaction. Neither should we. We are stronger together, and should seek opportunities to practice this whenever we can.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November Thoughts: Light or Dark Crossroads

Near the shore, huddled fowl do bob, their
Observant eyes tracking prey and gulls alike.
Vibrant mounds of shed leaves abound,
Ending their summer life to cold autumn’s rot.
Maybe it will snow, perhaps it will sleet
By the time night falls across this scene.
Enjoy the light whilst we can, I cry.
Remember to keep the spark of life inside.

This time of year can be dangerous in the Northern Hemisphere. Everything is withdrawing: light, temperature, life-forces. Trees shed, animals migrate. The world wants to rest and protect. It’s so easy to turn this opportunity to rest and reflect into a cloak of darkness. Viewpoints can become shaded by feelings of helplessness and loneliness.

November can be a reminder to come back to our truths. In summer’s robust madness, we can lose sight of our ultimate goals. Or, we may have discovered something in our fun explorations that we need to consider further. This is a perfect time to do that.

We are not hopeless.

We each have means to affect ourselves and those around us. I was reminded of this today with the announcement that BTS has signed a longterm deal with UNICEF to help world youth. As stated on their new website,

“Children and teens have the right to pursue their lives in safety and happiness and to grow with love and care. At this very moment, however, some of them are falling victim to various levels of violence. Many of them are unable to enjoy their fair share of chances to dream of a healthy future.”

This is a huge task they are taking on. Bullying. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Violence towards those you feel aren’t like you. Can they fix everything? No. Can they try? Yes. Can you and I help through our deeds or develop our own plans? Yes.

Yes. Now. Always. Together.

That’s the key we need to hold onto: Yes. That’s the spark of life. It’s hope. It’s optimism. It’s what can get us up in the morning when darkness wants to linger and root itself inside us.

I wrote When's It Gonna Change? Right Now. in response to the song, Change, that BTS’s leader, RM, did with rapper Wale this spring. The song declares that today’s young adults need to stand up and with each other. Clearly, this Unicef deal was in the works during this collaboration. All this effort is a great example for us all (young, old and everyone in between): don’t give up and don’t just think of yourself. Look for opportunities and try.

Try. Try. Try.

Friday, October 27, 2017

We Can Be Both Wind and Water

It’s here.

I don’t need to check the calendar. The steel grey sky and ruthless winds cutting at my face tell me November is just days away. I shiver and tug on my coat zipper, ensuring it’s as tight as it can get. It’s a biting cold today. No question: Mother Nature isn’t fooling around anymore.

I look across the lake, eyes beginning to tear with the incessant gusts. Both waves and wind feel heavy- scoffing at both bobbing waterfowl and me as we struggle against their influence. The wind has been blowing for a hours, leaving foamy lines across the water’s surface like rows in a farmer’s field. These are windrows, caused by something called Langmuir circulation. With a consistent breeze, the top layer of a large body of water can start to rotate in small series of rotations and we see the results on the surface, where these alternating circles pull surface items together. One regular pulse causes vibrations that can spread across an unbelievable distance.

Repetition leads to patterns. Patterns can maintain themselves until an outside force is applied.

I muse. Physical patterns. Patterns of thought. Patterns of behavior. What patterns of thought and action are pushing at us? Are they from us? Do they truly resonant with us? I wonder.

I adjust my grip on my now barely-warm coffee mug, fingers growing stiffer and colder as the moments tick by. I should go, but I’m mesmerized by the scene. The sky is darkening today as morning marches toward noon: a storm is rolling in. Change.

Patterns can be broken.

Those ephemeral lines of foam go on across the lake, disappearing from my view in the distance. They won’t last. The winds will shift, rains (or snow) will fall, and temperatures will eventually drop to the point where the lake’s surface will become an insulating cap of ice, impervious to the fickle wind’s touch. For a time.

We can be both wind and water. We can react. We can create. We can flow and change direction. It takes effort, but it’s possible. It has to be.

Otherwise, we’re just the foam on that water’s surface- coming and going at the will of something else. Do you agree? If yes, than we must try. Again and again and again...

Regardless of season. Regardless of time. Try.

With November comes the entrance of the holiday gift-giving season. My guided journal, Dear Teachers, makes a great gift for yourself or a teacher you appreciate. Supportive thoughts, beautiful photos and space to write all in one handy place.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Things Comply. We Collaborate.

This essay began as a quick sketch as I was editing my upcoming book, tentatively titled Dear Warriors: A guided journal to support & inspire those with diabetes. It grew as a bridge developed and I felt compelled to share it live today. I’d love to hear your response!

Compliant vs Noncompliant. Absolute trigger words for me.

To be compliant means to conform or bend to an authority. Merriam-Webster defines it as “ready or disposed to comply :submissive.” and its opposite, noncompliance, as “ :failure or refusal to comply with something”.

I was reminded of these words recently while observing a twitter chat regarding diabetic care. I guess I had blocked the dark pall these terms cause to fall over my mind during the last few years as I’ve been focusing on raising my kids and exploring the world of education. If you’re not aware, when medical directions are not being followed, the phrase “patient is noncompliant” can be used. If they are followed, the “patient is compliant”.

The use of “compliant” and “noncompliant” does not usually happen in education today. “Compliant” may be used to indicate simple indifference but they both smell of right/wrong, good/bad and strength/weakness and are typically avoided. I immediately wondered why they would still be used to describe diabetic warriors today. Or ANYONE for that matter. Even two former presidents are giving speeches on our need to work together.

You demand my submissiveness?!? <insert heated response here>

The truth is, whether you’re in first grade or midlife, you want to belong. You want to be a part of something. You want to be valued. You want to be respected. You want to be heard and to feel comfortable sharing your reality.

Julie Woodard M.Ed is a 6th grade elementary teacher in Texas with a talent for depicting the critical messages teachers are trying to convey to tomorrow’s adults: their students. I’d like you and I to sit for a bit together. Let’s examine a couple of her pieces and consider these ideas in light of today’s adults and today’s people (young and old) who are saddled with chronic conditions like diabetes and see what we discover. Why?

If we’re leading our children there, couldn’t we embrace it, too? And should?

October is National Principals Month and it also hosts National Bosses Day. Mrs. Woodard’s graphic on what defines a good principal smartly ties in the fall season. Let’s look what happens when we replace “principal” with “boss”. Why? If the terms “compliant” and “noncompliant” are to be used, someone has to be the boss, right? I'd like to show that even if the medical directions are from a "boss", that boss should not have this terminology in their vocabulary toolbox.

According to this graphic, a good boss creates leaders, not followers. They include others who are involved in a situation as “an integral part of the decision-making process” and they “empathize, encourage, (and) empower”. Those traits seem to go against the notion of compliance. “Just submit.”, you might want to say. “Why should I do any of that?”, you might be still asking.

It’s because empowered partners work together to something greater via collaboration.

Enter Mrs. Woodard’s 2nd graphic on collaboration. Collaboration requires work and practice. Notice the EKG-like art on her tool! It’s almost tailor-made for a medical textbook. This subject is at our heart: it’s vital. Again, let’s look at this image and take out the notion that this is geared to children and apply it to our adult world.

Information is shared and everyone involved learns something with collaboration. It levels the field by establishing goals and expectations together. Clearly defined roles, needs and ways to resolve problems are outlined in advance. As Mrs. Woodard reminds us, “One of the most valued skills employers look for is the ability to work together and collaborate.” Speaker, entrepreneur, corporate organizer and executive coach leader Anthony C. Gruppo speaks in what I feel are similar terms, tweeting, “When you aspire to achieve for others, the result exceeds what you imagined for yourself.” If that’s the case, we should act accordingly.

Things and objects should be compliant to human collaborative efforts.

Humans should never be submissive. You may argue that I’m messing with trivial semantics. However, I have written previously on the power of words, in The Word Soup We’re Living In. Words have weight. We can (and should) be collaborative, not superior/submissive.

If we find that plans aren’t being followed, we need to come back in partnership and review them together. Talk. Review options. Figure out what’s going to work for everyone involved. Confusion can be cleared that way and new agreements- workable ones, can be forged. The plans bend to the people’s needs and abilities.

Diabetes is complex and messy, as is life in general, frankly. No one is perfect. We’ll all benefit if we adopt the mindset of growth over time by collaboration. Sure, we’ll screw up. But, we’ll learn. We’ll evolve.

We’re in this together. We’re stronger that way, too.

I wrote my book, Dear Teachers, to help teachers take time for themselves and track what is working or not through a school year. It’s a collaboration with your inner voice! :-) If you haven't gotten a copy for yourself or a teacher you know, please consider it today!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Whens Demand Joy and Love


Some people pass early while still being able to impart fantastically rich gifts to those of us left on Earth. One of those is John O’Donohue, and I hope you enjoy listening to his reading of his poem, Beannacht, as posted on On Being. This comes from his book of poetry, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

Mr. O’Donohue does not talk of possibles. He talked of whens. When things get tough. When things rattle you. When darkness threatens to engulf.

Shit happens. It will always happen.

He gives us wishes and hopes- reminders. It’s all about how we respond to the whens. It’s about how we ALL respond: yesterday, today and tomorrow. It combines into a single force that he sums up in his last stanza:

“And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.”

His images describe love and joy. A single thing will not get us through the unavoidable troubles of life. It’s the sum of many good things, thoughts and actions. Across both time and space. You. Me. Our ancestors. Our descendents. Love, joy, and not being alone.

When the darkness threatens, what rescues us? Children’s laughter? A warm hug? A full belly? What lifts us, supports us and brightens our hearts and minds?

Let’s try to both give and receive these gifts when we can. At every chance we get. We don’t know when it’ll be too late.

I wrote my book, Dear Teachers, to be clay beneath the feet of teachers and a way for readers to document their experiences and growth over time. If you haven't gotten a copy for yourself or a teacher you know, please consider it today!