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

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

People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

Twitter Talk, Year 3

I want to talk a little bit about Twitter. I do this periodically in different forms and I am still learning as I go. And I want to address folks who are perhaps new to this thing and are perhaps weighing the costs and benefits of engaging.

Some thoughts from my previous posts strike me as still true and relevant. On the one hand, I am quick to extol the virtues of this non-stop stream of eclectic content. On the other hand, I wonder about some challenges of engagement including, but not limited to overwhelm and unanticipated negative exposure.

Here’s the stuff I appreciate about Twitter now:

  • My people. Yes, my people. Through this platform I have developed relationships that matter. I have met people who encourage, support and challenge me. Over time I have learned about their lives, their concerns, their joys and struggles. And I, in turn, have been able to share my own. Safely and authentically.  It’s worth underscoring those last two words, because they are not a given on Twitter or other social media channels. This fact reinforces my gratitude for the community I enjoy and prize.
  • I think it’s making me smarter. The more I read, comment, re-read, and dialogue with others, the more thoroughly I am forced to clarify my thinking and develop my own positions.  This is definitely good exercise for my brain and my social and intellectual development building stamina, strength, flexibility and power.
  • I have opened myself to the world in ways I never thought that I would. Increased and more varied reading has prompted me to write more, to reach a growing audience, to explore areas of interest which extend well beyond what I thought I knew. My work is intentionally visible and public. That fact surprises me even now.
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Visible and public – on purpose. ‘Author, Audience and Parts of Speech’

  • Twitter allows me to distribute my work more widely. I blog here on my personal space, I use Medium for other posts, I’ve become a publisher and editor and I tweet (@edifiedlistener). I specifically use Twitter to share my content and to boost writing and perspectives I consider valuable. These actions go hand in hand for me. Without the contributions of others, I would not be out here engaging.
  • I’ve learned to have more fun. It took me some time, but I’ve developed my use of humor in under 140 characters. I chat more back and forth with friends, have begun to incorporate the occasional GIF, and find myself literally laughing out loud while scrolling through my feed.
  • My use of Twitter is still quite primitive relative to others. For me there is just the platform. I don’t use an add-on organizer like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck yet. I have 1 or 2 lists which I don’t really use. I’m okay with that. Efficiency is not my point at this stage.
  • As my follower count has climbed, the currency of established significant relationships on the platform has also increased. Meeting more & new folks can be invigorating and potentially distracting. Maintaining significant relationships requires a special effort and, in a fast-paced forum such as Twitter, a certain degree of vigilance. Making wise choices about whom you engage and recognizing how they affect your energy becomes more important.
  • My connections on Twitter have opened doors I didn’t even know existed. Thanks to @EdSpeakersCo I had the opportunity to travel to Denver for ISTE 2016 to address affiliate conference organizers in a keynote smackdown. Conversations with fellow independent school bloggers led to an accepted workshop proposal for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference to be held in December 2016. In this respect, Twitter has done more for my professional and career development than Linked In ever could.

This list is longer than I anticipated. As much as I aim to resist the trap of jumping on a particular branding  bandwagon, it is not lost on me that with this post and others I have written specific to this single platform, I am fueling the corporate machinery that keeps it all going. This post ends up as a wonderful display of brand loyalty and customer enthusiasm; a textbook testimonial. I want to acknowledge that and my conflictedness over it.

Rather than offer advice, I prefer to share my experiences (overwhelmingly positive to date) and leave it to you to determine what this platform might have in store for you. I am writing this after 3 years of fairly steady engagement. I feel like my growth by all measures here has been organic and manageable. I’ve had time to adjust and expand my parameters of engagement. And that has felt healthy. Which is saying a lot considering that we’re talking about social media.

Come for the intellectual buffet, stay for the kittens:

 

 

Notes from #ISTE2016

No kidding. Another #ISTE post!

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EdSpeakers trio at ISTE2016: @edifiedlistener, @ShellTerrell & @Regionalconsult

First, the excitement: I finally got to hug @ShellTerrell, @Sarahdateechur, @CoburnCori, @ShanaVWhite! On top of that I got to hang with @RegionalConsult (Juanita Hines), @mrhooker, James Kapptie as fellow keynoters. Here’s a periscope link of the ISTE Affiliate Keynote Smackdown.

So now that the nerve-wracking portion of my attendance has passed, I can take some time to step back and “observe my observations.”

I brought one book with me on this trip: (Yes, a real hold-in-your-hands, takes-up-space-in-your-carry-on book.) Researching Your Own practice: The Discipline of Noticing by John Mason (Routledge 2002) which was recommended to me by a Maths educator friend on Twitter, @dannytbrown. The author’s premise is that developing professionals, particularly teachers, rests on the understanding that “change is not something you can do to other people but something you do to yourself, following the maxim that ‘I cannot change others, but I can work at changing myself’.”

We have heard this idea expressed before. Yet Mason’s emphasis on the practice of noticing in all of its cognitive and emotional and physiological facets, provides a surprisingly compelling impetus to try the exercises, to test oneself and discover both the challenges and rewards of actively noticing.

So I am at #ISTE2016 and working on noticing.

This morning I sat down to sift through some of the flyers in my bag. There are several from (I’m guessing) the biggest sponsors alerting me to events and presentations supported by their companies in some way. There are some key official ISTE resources – maps, program, contact info. One thing which caught my particular attention was the raffle booklet for various vendor giveaways. Naturally, you fill out a stub with your essential contact info and your name is entered to win some fabulous object or service. This is a common tradeoff.

But leafing through this booklet, I was struck by the language in many of the blurbs referencing the sponsoring product or company.

“Set your teachers free with _____________! … Enjoy the flexibility of presenting lessons anywhere in the classroom and increase personalized learning.”

“The tools you need to be wired, inspired, charged and protected.”

“___________ harnesses the power of technology to empower, inspire and support schools with end-to-end ed-tech solutions.”

“Imagine idea sharing without barriers. Turn classrooms into interactive learning environments with __________. It’s the easiest way to get students connected and sharing ideas from any device. Smarter collaboration starts here.”

“________ helps teachers turn parents into partners by giving parents guidance and actionable suggestions, simplifying communications and activities management and making engagement fun.”

“…an online eLearning platform to help students improve skills in reading, writing, math, and science, access interactive prep for the SAT, ACT, AP …”

“Presenting an ultra easy standing desk solution…”

” _________ is one of the fastest growing education platforms that develops solutions aimed to enable educators, empower students and engage parents.”

“…Teachers have the ability to orchestrate and deliver content, work collaboratively and monitor student PCs.”

“Here’s your chance to teach 21st century skills to your students with the award-winning ______________.”

“In higher education you need to be able to work smarter and not harder. ___________ is redefining the way that administrators and educators coordinate and deliver great work.”

“The award winning ___________ is ideal for differentiated instruction, communication of school-wide initiatives and recognition of academic achievements.”

“____________, your leading provider of innovative, evidence-based instructional solutions and services, want to help you bring your lessons to life with the ___________!”

“…Students ‘learn by doing’ in a virtual environment where it is easy to undo mistakes and make changes with no material costs or clean up…”

“Technology charged learning starts here.”

I notice the language of magic: “turn into…” I notice the emphasis on ease, simplicity, and competitive advantage (i.e. “award winning, leading”). “Solutions” are prevalent as are high hopes for engagement, inspiration and communication.

This is what I noticed.

It is terribly exciting to be on site for this huge convergence of educator energies and passions. At the same time I am poked and prodded by the awareness that we are, above all, in a sales environment. As teachers, administrators, consultants and bloggers we are being wined and dined throughout the conference by industry representation currently giddy with investment dollars. It’s impossible to be here and not notice that.

This is also the point at which I acknowledge my distinct perspective as a participant-observer. I have come here on my own dime and am under no obligation to a school or district authority to account for the time spent here. I have the luxury and privilege to be able to browse, take-in, network and contribute at my leisure and level of comfort. While the atmosphere is tangibly celebratory, I know that there are many folks, vendors included, who are here and have business to attend to.

So I’ll work on my noticing skills and try to rein in my impulse to judge, judge, judge. #ISTE2016 is an amazing place to be, to learn, to become aware.

 

10 Things I Said In 2015 I’ll Say Again

About our lives with and in tech:

“There is no app for patience. Just as there is no app for respect, kindness or trust.”
There is no app for patience https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/there-is-no-app-for-patience/

“Critical and higher order thinking, collaboration, cooperation, digital literacy – these are skills we claim we want our children to master, that we insist are critical to their success in the future.  And I ask, How skilled are we?  How well are we collaborating and cooperating to inform ourselves and bolster our critical thinking skills?”
Sales, Not Education.  https://t.co/5KmgTARA6B

About my own identity and choices:

“There are many avenues to broaden our understanding first of self, then of our contexts and the societies we inhabit. And doing so involves work. We need to be active in our engagement, willing to blunder and try again, and again. There’s no certification process. Living your learning becomes a necessary maxim in this field. We are never done. And that’s part of what makes it hard and daunting to begin, persist, and tolerate setbacks. But it’s worth it and it is what we must model for our students if we truly want to see them grow and thrive.”

Let’s Talk About Privilege  http://physedagogy.com/2015/05/06/voices-of-physed-lets-talk-about-privilege/  In which I unpack my bundle of privileges as an African-American woman living in Austria.

“For me in my Black female physicality and intellect, the point (and the struggle) is to appear, to become visible, to cease being invisible.”
Woman. Black. Fit. Angry. (In)visible. All of the above

View story at Medium.com

About parenting:

“Not so long ago an idea reached me that offered surprising clarity: On my deathbed I will not be wishing I had fret more over my children’s education.”
What I Will Fret Over https://medium.com/synapse/what-i-will-fret-over-fc696fe0746d#.6t5h5iyq7 

“In my dreams my children and grandchildren will not go to college; they will give birth to one.”

How Much Higher, Education? https://t.co/oEVk5f0GMp

About the intellectual life:

“So there’s that political thing: connecting the things I do, use, and promote to their effect on me, on others, our our collective existence and making decisions about my actions based on the outcomes I say I want… The choices I make as an individual do not happen in a vacuum. They occur and have implications in and for my surroundings and also express views and beliefs that relate to those surroundings. This why reading Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottam has become so important for me. Both point to intersection after intersection where individual decisions collide or overlap with societal assumptions and outcomes.”

In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/in-deep-water-with-audrey-and-tressie/

“We cannot go on espousing the importance of critical thinking for our students, in our curricula, throughout our standards, if we are not willing and able to deconstruct the narratives we create and support in our own minds.”
Knee Jerk vs. A Stone’s Throw
https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/knee-jerk-vs-a-stones-throw/

About writing with the intent of being read:
“If we want audience, then we must first and foremost be audience. We need to read widely and astutely. We need to pause as we read the work of others – and become permeable.” 
Author, Audience and Parts of Speech for Digital Writing Month: https://t.co/mldE0OwtP6
   

About learning with my students:
“We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what are we creating in the way we choose to play it.”
Dodgeball Discussions https://t.co/mK8tPqqH1r

2015 turned out to be a very good year for me and my writing. Thank you for reading and supporting my work. May your 2016 be full of deep reading, healthy discovery and fearless personal and professional growth.