The Undercover Familiar

“Ich habe gedacht, Sie sind Oesterreicherin!”

Someone said this to me today (“I thought you were Austrian!”). Yes, they genuinely thought I was an Austrian, that I grew up here. And the reality is not so far from the truth. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but Vienna is where I came of age. Surprising, though, even post 50 how muddled and mixed I portray my own identity in this special context – on Austrian soil, in my adopted homeland.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I live in Vienna but grew up in the US.”

That was a new description. It felt a bit like flipping the script. Where I previously tended to confess the American citizenship first before adding up my decades of residence in this German speaking country, I decided on the spot that this description is far more accurate. Vienna is home, home, home.

Vienna is where I have lived in one district for 15 out of 25 years, where both of my sons were born, where I’ve worked at the same school for two decades – home. But I’ve never been Austrian. I neither have citizenship nor do I look the part (stereotypically speaking). I am an immigrant, not an expat. I am here by choice and this is my life.

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So while I’m out at my favorite mountain lake in a very different part of the country, enjoying the best speedskating conditions one could hope for, my unexpected presence as black woman traveling in the singular raises questions among fellow hotel guests and skaters. The attention I receive is friendly curiosity from the Dutch and German table neighbors. It’s funny to recognize that we belong to a common age range of well past 40 and maxing out probably under 65. Middle-agers mostly in couple formations, I probably fit right in – economically, socially.

Meanwhile, my language usage gives me away. I no longer sound very American when I speak German. Austrian service personnel usually need a moment to size me up and make that split second guess as to whether I will understand whatever query they might have in store for me:

“Sind Sie Frau Spelic?” (Are you Ms. Spelic?)

“Zum trinken, was moechten Sie?” (To drink, what would you like?)

“Haben Sie eine angenehme Anreise gehabt?” (Did you have a pleasant trip here?)

The relief when I respond without hesitation in a clear and comprehensible German is immediate  and visible. This often gives rise to another, different level of curiosity. Often people want to understand how this is possible: such clear German, so colloquial and familiar. That’s what throws people – the familiarity. How could she, how does she seem so comfortable, so at home here?

I left home without my passport as I usually do when I travel within the country. I’m driving my own car, I have an Austrian driver’s license and my residence permit with me. I also know where I’m going. I’ve been in this particular place often. Just yesterday I ran into the owner of another hotel down the road who greeted me warmly and we shared news of our respective children. Another reminder that my presence here is not incidental, it has a history and background. This place is familiar and so too am I.

I am a domestic foreigner. Outwardly, because of my skin color I am readily perceived as a foreigner, a non-native for sure. Once I speak and engage in easy conversation, then things change. I am that unexpected foreigner who defies the stereotype. I become a source of fascination. Internally however, I am working with a full deck of previous experience and local savvy. When I move about in this country I become the undercover familiar.

images ©Sherri Spelic / @edifiedlistener 2017

Speaking Digital PD

I recently held a workshop entitled: Navigating The Blogosphere and Social Media for Professional Growth. It’s a long title for a few simple ideas. I designed this 90 minute session as an interactive, experience-sharing and question-growing learning event and that’s mostly what it turned out to be according to participant feedback. I’m glad about that.

While part of my aim was to encourage participants to seek out social media opportunities to grow their professional practice and connections, I found that there was more I wanted to say. So often in promoting digital tools in education spaces, we emphasize all the things we can get from them: lesson plans, snappy ideas, old wine in new bottles, new wine in virtual bottles and on and on. There is no doubt much to be had, to be consumed, to be added to our overflowing professional plates.

At the same time, there is a piece that is so often ignored or hardly mentioned: the potency of our contribution. Yes, bloggers will tell you to blog, and that others can benefit from your hearing your story. This is true and frequently shared. The missing piece, however lies not simply adding to the jumble of voices but to take an active part in creating and sustaining community. That means finding ways to acknowledge the voices you respect,  giving credit where it is due, providing feedback and links which may benefit others. I summed up this idea in the slide below: “Go for what you crave, stay to make the space a richer one.” Show up on social media and be an example of positive digital citizenship: be kind, be thoughtful, be you. Make social media spaces better by being a good human.

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The other point I wanted to emphasize with regard to social media use is that only you know (and will find out) what (and how much) is good for you and your aims (recognizing, too, that this will shift and change over time). Resist the pressure to try all platforms or to be everywhere at once. Let those impulses die a quick death. Instead, find the things that you find useful, do those and skip the rest. If Pinterest works for you in your private life, it may be a tremendous resource for your classroom or office needs. On the other hand, if you feel especially comfortable with Facebook, why not seek out like-minded groups there to begin your journey into education conversations in the digital sphere? Start somewhere and go from there.

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If our goal is to encourage and empower colleagues, students, parents, administrators and policy makers to engage in education conversations on various channels, we need to think about how we welcome them into spaces which are new to them but territory to us. In that process we also need to break open our ideas about what PD is and can be. This is as true for us as it is for the systems we inhabit and sustain.

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I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist. I do consider myself an active member of the commons who appreciates and uses digital tools. This distinction matters to me. And that is what I aim to share with colleagues when I find myself speaking digital.

 

Document 2017

The peaceful transfer of power

We all watched it happen: the shaking of hands, the sitting through ceremony,

hands on Bibles. Peaceful Transfer

of power.

To witness the immediate consolidation

and abuse

of power.

To stomach the legislative complicity of

that abuse of

peacefully transferred power.

If this is where we are after 10 days,

where are we likely to be in 100 days?

I am told not to despair,

that we will fight back. Yes.

But all that power we handed over,

so peacefully

Is being used to frighten, silence and beat

us all.

If you think this is not you,

just wait.

Unless you belong to someone in that room

applauding each fresh signature of doom,

don’t believe that this won’t catch you

someday.

People will bow to authority before they recall

their humanity and

acknowledge yours.

Each of us has power and often we hand it over

because we trust,

we have faith,

we believe

that others mean us no harm.

What we forget is how poorly

we understand harm when it is not us

but our neighbor,

our colleague,

the guy across the street, city, county, country

whose livelihood, dignity, existence

is at stake.

‘No harm done’ we say so easily

because we followed protocol

when it came time.

We witnessed the peaceful transfer

of power.

Laws will be broken.

Orders will be given.

People will suffer. Always.

And that room of self-satisfied men

will know

That they got the power cheap at a

fake news rummage sale.

And they will hoard it and flaunt it

and use it against us,

because we gave it to them,

we handed it to them through

our quirky institutions and unspoken appetite

for criminal political theater.

The power they got peacefully handed over

will be the instrument of our undoing.

It already is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parallel Lines

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I am awash in feelings right now. It’s after midnight and I can’t imagine what advantages sleep will bring. My Twitter feed is overflowing with the unfolding tragedy of the new US Presidency. Today it is the Muslim Ban executive order in effect, which involves the detainment, questioning, and/or potential turning away of citizens from 7 Muslim-majority states. We don’t know which further affront to human rights and democratic process will follow. But by now, many of us are confident that more anti-human measures are in store.

And it’s Saturday, a Saturday on which I was attending and presenting at a conference for middle level educators. I listened with interest to engaging speakers, got into conversations with old friends while welcoming new contacts, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to create some workshop magic for a group of educators. There was great food, a warm hospitality and plenty of laughter.

Saturday – and I led a session on using social media and blogging for professional growth. I had three folks from my school attend including two administrators. There was a lot to celebrate. I felt happy being among educators from schools all across Europe. Educators are my people.

Still, the reports keep rolling in. Protests at major US airports are growing. The New York City Taxi Workers have called for a 1 hr strike on transportation to and from JFK airport. Families have been separated. Fear levels both within the US and without is rising, not only about the implications of this order but everything that could possibly follow. Unchecked.

I went out to the evening celebration and had fun chatting with new acquaintances and eventually shaking a leg on the dancefloor. The conference attendees were a strikingly white crowd, mainly of American and British descent with a few other nationalities sprinkled in. I am used to this – being the only black person in the room. This is my every day norm, and a result of multiple life choices. We were celebrating the end of a successful conference and the dancing felt good. “Joy is also a form of resistance.” I read this week in my Twitter feed.

I checked my phone on the way home, catching up on developments as the tram rumbled through town. It’s Sunday here now and the bad news will not let up. Whatever individual victories I can call my own today or yesterday or even tomorrow are dwarfed by the scale of human suffering that is systematically being exacerbated by policies put in place by a few powerful white American males in suits.

We are always living our lives in context. And often – perhaps more often that we recognize- contexts is the correct phrasing, covering foreground and background, subtle and overt, praise-worthy and fear-inducing. Today I was reminded of how these contexts can ride in parallel, cross paths or even collide all within the space of me being me.

Saturday to Sunday.

image via Pixabay.com

I Went For A March

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I went for a march which

can hardly be the correct terminology but

it is what happened to me or

was what I felt

when I showed up at the place

where they told us to meet because

I went. For a march.

The march.

And what I found was people:

people I knew,

used to know,

was glad to know again. We met

for a march

where we ambled and chatted.

I was a poor and hesitant chanter

although I had cheat sheets in my hand.

The seasoned and vocal protesters behind

us had volume and a repertoire

and I could not keep up.

But I appreciated their efforts

in teaching me about marching.

At the beginning

there was standing and spotting and running up to

and hugging and greeting and sharing.

Then there was listening and a moment

when I held my breath and thought

the tears might come.

I was offered signs but wanted none

preferring to keep my hands free

to wield my device which knows too much already.

When we marched

my feet were cold and our path oddly shaped.

It was a brief march,

well attended and a notable beginning.

I think we know we will be doing this

again soon.

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images: ©Spelic/@edifiedlistener

 

The Unsettled Here and Now

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I’m going to get personal for a minute here.

Sometimes I can be particularly observant of what’s going on around me and also in me. At present it feels like my powers of observation are a little out of whack. And I think this has to do with my increased traffic on social media platforms.

Since the US Presidential election, I’ve delved more deeply into my online engagements. Twitter has become my primary news source as well as my go-to space for a sense of community in troubled times. As incredibly grateful as I feel for the tremendous wealth of good will, necessary political resistance, and human warmth I experience, I also recognize the slow drain on my attentional and emotional resources.

Every day and on every tweet that I raise my #resist flag, I know this is what I must do, at the very least. I have picked a side and it happens to be against the incoming administration and majority aggressively Republican legislature. Even though I am geographically very distant, I experience the sense of dangerous and targeted upheaval on a very personal level. I fear for individuals as well as systems. And as I watch a group of overwhelmingly white, straight, so-called Christian males parade before multiple TV cameras and announce their policy plans, I feel sickened to know how quickly the country will likely find itself flat on its back not knowing how it got there.

I fear for our individual and collective exposure through our very willing and often enthusiastic embrace of digital tools and platforms which offer us convenience, speed, and seemingly unlimited choice. We are, at the same time, in fairly constant danger of becoming hostages of all the data we give away daily. With our clicks and instrumentalized acquiescence, we have created our most sophisticated and unforgiving monsters yet, which still maintain a miraculously rosy veneer of being society’s new great helpers.

All told, I’m feeling a lot of fear.

At my core I am an educator. My dialogues with students provide some of the richest contours to my thinking and doing. I look forward to starting classes soon in order to get grounded again; to be brought back to my core mission of helping students “Get fit, get better, and get along.”  We’ll have conversations about how we include, nurture, challenge and respect each other. They will remind me about the importance of fair play and being kind to one another. They will remind me to keep working on being my best. Perhaps more than at any other time in my teaching career, creating a classroom where fairness, openness and care are built into everything we do is the most important work I can do – for my students and for myself.

 

image: Spelic/@edifiedlistener

Words Worth Reading

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image via Gratisography

For days I was eager to get back to my laptop to finally be able to write again. Really write. And here I am with a little time and peace and I feel empty rather than full. At the same time I do have a need and desire to share a few helpful/useful/peace-bringing reads which have made this challenging political moment a little less dim, a bit more manageable.

Tressie has become a trusted source of wisdom, clarity and wit. In this post-election essay, she explains how so many “professionally smart people” completely misread the signs and signals that the Republican candidate could win. Understanding how she arrives at hopelessness as a point of departure requires more of the reader than surface comprehension, it demands empathy.

My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does.

I love this conversation because it’s probably the only way I can “be in the same room with” these people I so deeply admire.

I described this essay on place and identity as a “gentle and exquisite read”.

“We live in a world where love of land, love of place, love of home, means very little. We might value it in literature, but if a place must be sacrificed for a higher use, meaning a use that generates money, then love will not save it. That doesn’t make the love any less real.”

This article is the most uplifting yet practical piece I’ve read since the election. Taking care of ourselves and our loved ones while resisting political bankruptcy is a tall order for long stretch. The article shares how to do both.

Our first task, then, is to get ready to resist in ways small and quiet, and large and loud…

Much of the progress in the coming years will happen locally—in cities and neighborhoods, and sometimes statewide. Cities are locally accountable and far less gridlocked by partisanship, and they have some latitude to get things done, even with a hostile federal government. City leaders understand the need for living wages, they value their immigrant populations, and they see firsthand the impacts of climate change. Change is still possible in our communities.

This collection of White House photos of the first family are, well, a little bit of comfort in stormy times.

By the way, The New Yorker has had some outstanding cartoons out these last few weeks. go treat yourself to some well crafted humor.

Be well, everyone. We have work to do and we have each other.