Wednesday, November 29, 2017

All Our Pieces. All Together.

The sun is shining this morning. Gloriously bright and warming my body and spirit as I sit at the kitchen table with my laptop.

The trees are skeletons once again. Their naked bones rise up between me and that fiery ball in the sky, casting sketchy shadows across the lawn and cement.

I’ve been struggling over what to write. I have quite a bit in my head- too much, in fact. That’s pretty common for me. Thoughts, ideas and stories spin through my mind almost continuously. Right now, I can’t seem to piece together a full tale. So, I decided to step back for a minute and simply note my surroundings. It’s quiet. The cats are sleeping. My coffee's cold. But again, that sun is shining down on me.

I need to write. I need to run. I need to call people. I need to clean and later, I need to cook.

I sigh and close my eyes. (Yes, I can type still. Those typing classes in middle school were probably some of the best ones I could have taken.) The furnace kicks on and I return to my task here.

I’m being pulled in many directions. Physical and mental needs and demands are pressing hard, and yet, there’s that other force bringing me back to the inviting sun and the moment which is now. It’s my spirit. It’s asking for some of my attention. To be acknowledged and affirmed.

We all have these parts: body, mind and spirit. What if we don’t pay heed to them all? In a word: chaos.

I am adamant in my assertion that we all need to work on all 3 parts. I dislike exercise, but a weak body does my mind a great disservice. If I try to isolate myself from others, my spiritual self is shorted but my physical and mental worlds are as well. In addition, those who could benefit from my presence lose what I can offer them. It’s a two-way street.

Oh, but it can be so, so so much easier to narrow our vision and forge ahead with just the basics. Or, we may feel there’s simply no other way to exist. We can be so damaged today from a lifetime (or generations) of dealing with people who have neglected or abused their parts that we don’t see the point or possibility of anything but simple survival.

We can always get and do better.

There are so many things we can list that worry us, anger us or depress us. It doesn’t matter who you are. We all know of things we’d like to change about ourselves, our immediate surroundings or our world at large.

We can. We can because it’s not all planned out in advance. We can make choices. We can reach out to others. We can help and be helped. We can crawl, then walk, then run and then maybe even fly. We may find ourselves on a path through a murky wood that fills us with blinding fear today, but we can try to cut a new course.

We can find that sun. We can embrace that warmth. We can find a peace inside that lets us pick up our work once again. As whole people. Together.

My book, Dear Teachers, can be a light in your life or in that of a teacher you hold close to your heart. Please consider it as a holiday gift- perhaps combined with some warm socks and the makings for hot cocoa!

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.