I used to think…

berry-blue-blueberries-70862

I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

image CC0

What We Mean When We Talk About Quality Of Life

Vienna, Austria is consistently rated among the cities with the highest quality of life. I agree with that evaluation. Here’s one example.

I had some time on my hands early on a Saturday morning. I decided to visit a public park that I normally wouldn’t visit.

Playground spaces always speak to me: How much room is there to run and jump? How many different ways can kids challenge themselves and their dexterity? How many pieces of equipment are designed for multiple children? How is fun built into the design of the space? This part offered a series of playgrounds and play spaces, including the skater park at the top. All of it looked so welcoming. I was fascinated by these giant swings that I actually put down my backpack and had a go. It was calming and delightful.

While I was composing this on my cell phone, the post published before I could finish. I wanted to describe the things I saw and how they struck me, like this tree above. I had never seen one like it before. It was a needle tree but in the shape of a deciduous tree. I was genuinely fascinated. Trunk like a cypress and these very bright light green fingers of needles hanging down and the roots threatening to burst its concrete casing.

img_20181006_083644

Since it was so early in the morning, the park was nearly empty and gloriously peaceful. Ponds, fountains and rolling green spaces made me feel incredibly grateful for the time I took to explore and discover. Privilege in action. That’s part of quality of life.

img_20181006_084553

I have some thoughts about parent-teacher conferences

As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.

First of all, I thank parents for coming.

Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?

Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.

Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.

When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.

While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.

In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading.  This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.

swimming-course-619088_1920

“So what does your child enjoy doing?”

10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.

This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other.  Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.

Ski Jumping and Parental Awe

The more I write, the more I ask myself: Which stories are mine to tell?

My youngest son participates in ski jumping. It’s a fairly spectacular sport: Jumpers in a squatting position on especially wide and long skis, place the skis into a metal track, zoom down the steep track at high speed and cast themselves into a straightened body position which allows them to glide down the steep hill and land safely in an upright position before returning to a squat in order to brake the skis.

By now I have watched this process hundreds of times, weekend after weekend, performed by children as young as six on small hills, to the 8 and 9 year olds who advance to hills from 15 to 30 m, on up to the next group of older kids who may jump on hills anywhere from 40 to 70 m in length. As a family we’ve been at this for a little over 2 years and our son’s progress has been swift.

As a spectator I have learned a lot but I remain remarkably ill-informed about all the ins and outs of the scoring process, the finer points of measuring the distance jumped, and which wind is the good kind. I suppose, this is part of what makes watching a joy. I can lose myself in the aesthetics and daring of the enterprise. The risks are real, yet observed cases of real injury have been extremely rare.

My son asked me what it’s like for me to watch him in action. “Well,” I started, “I think I hold my breath, actually. I can film you and keep the camera still but I get pretty nervous, especially for the first jump.”

Meanwhile I was thinking but could not really find the words to describe the pride that swells in my throat, the relief that settles over me every time he returns from his flights unscathed, the sheer awe of watching him test the laws of gravity a little farther each time.

There is an unusual joy in being able to see our children succeed first hand. To witness my son’s satisfaction with his own performance becomes its own great gift.

While I cannot tell his story of sailing through the air on skis, I can tell my story of what it feels like to be connected to the person doing the sailing. Miraculous.

This is what my son watches for inspiration:

 

 

15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616

 

SOL Tuesdays: Some thoughts on The Marrow Thieves

It was my librarian friend who pressed the book into my hands. I wasn’t sure I had time. We just started the school year.

She knew.

I began reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Fiction often throws me into disorientation which I somehow resent. I feel feeble-minded for not being able to keep up with the cast of characters and imagine them, each distinctly in my mind’s eye. Fiction can make me feel ‘less than’ sometimes: less than a strong reader, less than an attentive reader.

I read this story anyway which begins with the opening of a big bag of Doritos.

The fiction of The Marrow Thieves takes us into a dark, vicious future not very far away and every inch fathomable. That is both its magic and its grip. The tale it tells of another wave of destruction of indigenous populations across North America by none other the white colonizers. It’s a pillaging of a population which still maintains the ability to dream by those who have lost that same capacity. The native people are hunted for their bone marrow where their dreams are held.

I think it is the comprehensive idea of destruction that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. The narrative takes place in a time when climate change has wrought irreparable damage and environmental devastation defines landscapes more than anything else. Migration, resource scarcity, disease and insanity become the norm. And these are related as “The Story” told by the leader of a ragtag group of children and teens moving north through the bush evading “Recruiters” and others who might harm them.

One passage blew me away: “Soon they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.” (p. 89)

It’s often necessary to read about the struggles of others to understand what struggle even means.

I cannot remember reading a book and feeling so much fear, hope and kinship with the characters. While I prayed for resolution, I hardly expected it, though Dimaline’s writing which weaves story lines so gracefully offered reward enough regardless of the outcome.

My library friend knew I was ready. This was the fiction I needed to better see reality.

Going Back to School Thoughts

I’m not ready. I’ve never been all-the-way ready.

The first day is always exciting, year, after year, after year. Imagine a career full of fresh starts annually. That’s teaching.

Spending a few prep days with adult colleagues feels comforting.

Yet nothing compares to the arrival of children in all shapes and sizes. Big sisters, little brothers, eager dads and well informed moms – all these people pouring into the building, filling it with life, giving the school a purpose.

We teachers and staff members hold our collective breath in anticipation and then celebrate an enormous exhale as the first hour breezes by, then lunchtime, then recess and already the first day is history and we can hardly believe our luck at the incredible people we will get to spend the year with.

So many smiles and excited conversations, so much catching up to do, so many friendships to renew. The hallways are loud with laughter and questions.

New students have a special look of awe about them. Taking it all in, finding the familiar faces they met the day before – such a relief to be recognized and waved to, encouraged that yes, this school might actually be OK after all.

While I think about routines and first impressions, setting the right tone and helping students feel at home, all it takes is one encounter – unanticipated, spontaneous- I’m helping a misdirected middle schooler find his health class or stop to chat with a new parent who is waiting around (in case of emergency) or meet a former student who stops to give me the most generous hug ever en route to her brand new classroom in 4th grade, not 3rd – one encounter and suddenly I am back. I am immersed in the flow of what we will call a new school year.

There is no agenda for these moments that make up the heartbeat of a school and I am grateful. For all the structures that schools embody and uphold, part of what keeps calling me back is the way young humans consistently resist, refashion and reclaim school structures to create space for their unique ways of being.

Every year I am witness to this 180 day ritual and I cannot imagine a better, more rewarding use of my time.

I’m ready. Let’s do this.