Words Fall Short (Reflections on PoCC17 in Progress)

Words can do a lot. Or, I should say we can do a lot with words. And still they fall short.

Which words would I choose to tell you about my day?

I would start with beauty. Human beauty in so many hues, tones and shades. An unyielding variety on which to feast the eyes that didn’t realized they were starved.

I might continue with brilliance – the kind that comes in a warm smile of greeting, the kind you hear in a voice that is both clear and rich and needs no mic.

But also a brilliance of presence – to hold sway with an audience of thousands through song and movement, in chorus and in the spirit of freedom.

And of wit…to tell the familiar truths in the charm of Disney’s favorite fairy tales and allow us to laugh when our response under different circumstances could just as well be to weep.

I might use bravery – some of my own and really that of others – especially those who invite us to learn with them; who stand at the podium encouraging us to turn and talk, connect and commit.

I’d have to say ready. Ready in the sense of prepared, hungry and waiting for this moment to finally, yes finally, say what needs saying without sugarcoating, or toning it down and be heard, heard, heard. So very ready for exactly that again and again.

Fierce in our love for one another, for this particular space and time together. Fierce in our understanding that even if we do not see eye to eye, we see and acknowledge each other and the sacrifices we have each made to be here.

Responsive. Oh these snaps and praise hands and nods and shout outs – that kind of real responsiveness. Call and response responsiveness like in church. A hug, a touch, a moment, a shared silence – ways of responding we find for each other.

I cannot report well what was said and how it was received. I have just these impressions of

colleagues and kin, folks and friends

some people I’ve never met and may never know

but I saw them and they moved me

each magnificent in the singular, breathtaking as a body.

This is PoCC for me. People of Color Conference. Where I can be

Black (with a capital B), Woman in all the ways I choose; teacher, learner, listener, facilitator, space maker, collaborator, blogger, tweeter, note taker, observer, participant, ally, accomplice, friend, sister, colleague, dancer…

Me.

Field Day Lessons

At my school we have a field day tradition in the elementary. For the space of almost two hours the whole population, PK-5th grade is in motion, rotating through 16 activity stations and 2 rest stops. Students are grouped into multi-aged teams of about 15-17 children, led by 5th graders. This year and last year we also offered 5th graders the opportunity to pair up to lead the activity stations. That meant, explaining the game, helping teams break into smaller groups and supervising play. Adults at each of the stations provided support where needed but generally it was up to the 5th graders to run the events and manage their younger charges.

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Field Day favorite: Freight Truck! ©ais_elementary

All in all, this year’s field day was, in the eyes of most, a great success. Teachers praised the 5th grade leaders for their fortitude and patience and perseverance in their roles of responsibility. The giggles, smiles and shrieks of joy from the PK-4th grade students were testament to the fun they were having throughout the morning. And the 5th graders, once they were officially done and able to enjoy their ice cream treat in peace, seemed satisfied and pleased with their work.

All good, right?

Well…Actually…

When I walked around the 4 spaces where the games were in progress, I noticed that the 5th graders after about 30 minutes often looked like wilted sunflowers. The group leaders seemed to be more upbeat but after an hour, many of them appeared a bit harried and pensive, rather than wilted. Some of them were having a really good time some of the time, but the impression I gained was one of overwhelm, exhaustion and a bit of boredom; which, given their assignments, was fully understandable.

On the following morning I went to their respective classrooms and asked them for feedback on field day – what they thought went well and what they felt could be improved.

This turned out to be one of the best professional moves I ever made: I got schooled in the danger of placing faith in my adult assumptions over the genuine desires of kids. While lots of kids expressed pride in their achievement, their enthusiasm for the event was audibly muted. And listening to their specific feedback I understood why:

In response to the question “What would make field day better?” Here is what they said:

“The 5th graders should get a chance to go to all the stations and play afterwards.”

“The teachers should help us control the groups at the stations.”

“You should tell the younger kids to listen to the 5th graders.”

“The 4th graders should know that they have responsibilities, too.”

“We got kind of bored. It would be good if we could switch stations after a while.”

Of course! It dawned on me. We gave them heaps of responsibility, let them lead throughout, and they got tired, bored and felt a bit shortchanged in the fun department. As I was wrapping up my reflections with the kids, one of the 5th grader teachers added the fact that as the tasks came from us, the adults, and not from them, the 5th graders lacked the same level of investment.

All along, my colleagues and I had been working on the assumption that this is what our 5th graders wanted and needed – an authentic opportunity to lead and manage. While that my have been true for some, and of significant interest to many, what they also wanted and needed was the chance to have fun like the other kids; to enjoy responsibility mixed in with distinct phases of carefree play.

Lesson learned. Next year we’ll aim for a field day which incorporates more of what students tell us that they want and work to design an experience that remains big on fun and responsive to student leadership needs.

It feels strange to make this huge event seem like such a downer. It wasn’t. Truly, much fun was had on multiple fronts. Being mindful and aware that not all students experienced the day in the ways we adults anticipated they would strikes me as precisely the work that distinguishes us as the reflective practitioners we strive to be.

 

 

 

And when this is done…

How many times do you say that to yourself?

“…and when this is done, then I’ll…” Oh, illusion!

My list usually includes verbs like finish, clean, collect, store, organize, write, read, re-read, call, listen to, sit down with, and on and on. And in rare cases, some of these events actually come to pass. Like “When I’m done with the laundry, I’ll sit down with a nice cup of tea.” Or “When I’m done recording students’ tickets, I’ll make a list of what we got done.”

Like most folks I know, I feel like I have a lot on my plate. That means that I am always in the process of trying to empty it. I complete this task, then move on to the next. Or, I get started over there while I am still in the middle of this thing right here. Fully in the maelstrom between activity and recovery, I habitually bite off just a little bit more than I can chew and hope for the best. There are moments when of course the plate is full and so is my mouth. I’m chewing but not really digesting.

I’m making mistakes. I recently double booked myself with two appointments I definitely wanted to keep. I am getting things done, well enough but likely not at my very best. My efforts lack efficiency and at times, effectiveness. Things are going – with or without me.

Be that all as it may, these seem like good opportunities to let go. That’s right, to let go. I am learning how to let go of getting everything right. I am letting go of being right. I am learning to let go of the need to be the one. The one who gets A’s, is everyone’s favorite, always wears a smile, hardly complains, is always calm and positive. Some of those attributes fit me sometimes but certainly not always, and I’m getting better at being OK with that.

“When this project is done, I’ll have more time to write.”

That statement is still probably not true. In the interest of learning to let go, I want to practice focusing on what is true:

  • The project will have an end.
  • I will make choices about how I allocate my time and energy to other topics.
  • I will make choices about how I frame my thinking about the priorities I set.
  • Every conversation I have is with myself (and may involve other people). *

I began by talking about the “state of my plate.” And ultimately, my plate is not the issue. What is on or off the plate will change. How I approach the plate will change. Right now I notice a real taste for release, breathing space, an open calendar. These are things I can begin preparing or perhaps only need to take off the shelf – because I have them in store, but I’ve placed them out of sight and/reach. The metaphors here around eating and digesting are hardly lost on me. My search for nourishment, for sustenance, is never ending. My awareness of and engagement with that search takes many forms, of which writing is one, living my family life is another, cultivating relationships private and professional, yet another.

I have a healthy acquaintance with satisfaction. And I need to frequently remind myself of that fact.

“When this blog post is done…”

…let’s just see.

*Insight from reading Susan Scott’s  Fierce Conversations.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching and Thinking: Episodes

When I am teaching, when I inhabit that role of “teacher,” stuff happens. In me, to me, around me, because of me. I rise and I fall. I succeed and I fail. I keep it together and things fall apart. In a day, in an hour, in a class, in a moment there are cycles, waves, patterns, stages. I am on the ball and then behind the ball. I have the solution and I forgot the question. I have everything under control and my students need release. I am in my element and simultaneously out of my depth.

When I call myself “the teacher,” this is what I notice:

  • I notice that a great deal of my teacher talk to students refers to time. Not just time in general, but most often to indicate a scarcity of time. “Let’s go,” I say. “Hustle.” “Hurry up now, we’re running late.” “30 seconds!”  “We ran out of time, boys and girls.” I say that quite a lot.
  • Knowing names is something I practice at every turn. Almost every interaction is an opportunity to call someone’s name. “Ella, can you come be partners with Luke, please.”  “I see Josh and Emilia have lots of space.” When I call a name I am saying: “I see you, I know who you are, I recognize you. You belong here.”
  • Every day I could kick myself for not remembering that children find waiting hard and tedious.
  • Freedom for a child can be as simple as a run at full speed eluding a tagger.
  • I have experienced few children under the age of 6 who are able to commence a game of tag without screaming at the top of their lungs while they disperse.
  • I have a student who vexes me. I see that I will have to work so hard on myself in order to make our relationship work that I have to practice deep breathing often when he is with me. If I look a little more closely I see that he has a temper as hot and swift as my own. The struggle probably has more to do with seeing so much of myself in him for a whole class period.
  • On the other hand, I have a first grader who often confides as she enters the gym: “Mrs. Spelic, I really like the activities we do in PE.” That is sustaining and life extending.
  • Now that I’m back to teaching I enjoy incidental exercise – bounding up the stairs, practicing squats while I wait, stretching with the kids – more than the ‘now-I’ll-go-over-here-and-have-a workout’ variety. That may have to do with age.
  • My need for chocolate has increased significantly in the last three weeks.
  • One first grader who was hardly able to participate one day, enthusiastically volunteered to be “it” in our tag game on the next. Great! Game started and I noticed her chasing classmates with a long skinny object, which from the distance resembled a pencil. I dashed over to her and recognized it as a faintly purple colored straw. When I told she would need to put it away on the bench because it wasn’t safe to run around with, she said, “But it’s my wand.”  She was telling the truth and she put it on the bench.

While I am away from my kids for a couple of days, I wish them all the time in the world where the choice to hustle is entirely their own. Where “late” just doesn’t enter the picture and there’s always time for one more round of whatever it is.

What I notice when I am not teaching is that the hardest work I have in teaching is being: being myself, being whole and imperfect, being both right and wrong, being aware, attentive, and present. Being. Just.

 

 

 

Moment to Moment

That moment …

…when I realize that the kids I meet lined up on the stairs are actually glad to see me.

… when I watch their attention gradually shift to me, my words, my message and for a hot minute, they’re okay with that.

… when my 5th graders see themselves on video, talk about it and then go solve their team building challenge in a heartbeat.

… when I see that my kindergartners are all over the place, not following directions and having the time of their lives, and I stop them, but do so with a loving sort of roar and they get it.

… when I realize that what I have to say to them simply isn’t as important as what I will show them with my actions.

… when I realize that if I find the right words (like magic, secret, or game), Pre-K will listen a little more closely.

… when I turn my back and my kids are just fine doing their work.

… when I look at my plan on the board and toss it out the window because my students need something entirely different.

… when my 4 year old friend comes to give me a hug because he wanted to give me a hug.

… when I tell a first grader that my Tinkerbell tattoo is watching him and we reach a new understanding as a result.

… when I realize that my colleague and I have the same plan written up in separate locations without having discussed it beforehand; we are intuitively “on the same page.”

… when I realize that after 20 years of teaching, the statement “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t” is truer and more resonant than ever, especially in relation to my students.

… when I recognize that a day full of skipping, galloping, bear walks and cartwheels is more exhausting at 50 than it seemed to be at 35 and 40.

That moment is now. Good night.

It’s the Relationships

Yes, you have heard this before and maybe you preach it on your own time. It’s the relationships that matter and keep me engaged on social media.
It’s the relationships to people and their ideas that compels me to stay up later than I ought to, to leave longer blog comments than I originally intended, to delight in good news that a friends are sharing not only with the world but also with me.
It’s the relationships that ideas enable. When we each bring a bunch of our ideas to the table and have a potluck, we celebrate a conversation.

Two Twitter friends just sent news of their kids doing brave and meaningful stuff and it pleases me to respond and share in that moment of pride. Those are the relationships I mean.
I dug into a long post about the challenges of teaching writing to “today’s students” and I found a statement that made all the difference for me: “many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet.” The relationship between the idea and my experience is formed almost immediately. I mean these relationships too.

Every hour that I spend on here is costly and worth it. I have these many relationships to thank for that.

Adventures at The Running School

 

Not me. I wish… Image via pixabay.com

I recently attended a two-day training in running theory and practice: Running Technique Coach offered at The Running School. Over the last 3 years I have heard from several of my PE colleagues in Europe that Mike Antoniades and his team at The Running School were game changers and have a lot to offer us.  I decided to book a course in London to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
When it comes to running I think I know my stuff thanks to over 30 years’ experience competing, coaching and teaching.  As a result of the course, while I do know quite a bit, I now see, feel and understand that there is 1) so much more to learn and 2) that I will be able to improve my own running and that of others better than before. The course kept its promise and I am happy I went.
When Mike Antoniades, who led the course, talks about running, his love for the movement performed well and to the best of each individual’s ability comes across loud and clear. Storytelling features strongly in Mike’s presentations. He uses a variety of case studies to illustrate how runners and movers at every imaginable ability level have trained and practiced according to his methodology and gone on to achieve remarkable results. Some of these case studies were accompanied by before and after videos which proved helpful to us novices in recognizing changes made. Mike has spent decades delving into the intricacies of the human body that converge to yield functional running: biomechanics, physiology, neurology, and psychology. What struck me is that his love comes not from having been the best or fastest runner, but from having learned how to recover from injury. Getting better is at the heart of his practice and that makes more of a difference than one might imagine.
Mike has worked with some ridiculously high level athletes, Olympians, pros, European and World Championship material in numerous sports (soccer, American football, track and field, triathalon, rugby) and he emphasized that everyone has room for improvement. The motor interruptions caused by injuries large and small have repercussions throughout our movement lives.  For top athletes, the ability to stay healthy, functional and in good form presents huge challenges to the body systems. Deliberately practicing the most efficient running technique which reduces the risk of injury and increases speed can go a long way in serving the ultimate performance goal of the individual athlete. And for the rest of us the same is true even if we’re not aiming to qualify for a championship team. Essential to the Running School’s practice is this understanding: “Everyone can have their own perfect running technique based on what they are trying to achieve and their body type.” (Running School Manual, Running Technique Course, 2013., p.24) This point was critical for my buy-in to a visibly well-marketed methodology: seeing that the uniqueness of the individual including their goals, histories and specific physical state provides the starting point for determining a program rather than the other way around. Among exercise and training offerings designed to appeal to many this capacity to adapt to and accommodate the individual is not always a given.
Our group of 8 students between the ages of 20 something and 60ish demonstrated plenty of individual diversity. Granted, we were all fairly fit individuals including 3 PE teachers and 4 personal trainers who brought various  movement histories along with us. My goal for the two days was to complete the course without injury. I had been running a bit more consistently for the last 4 weeks in preparation (35- 70 min. 3 times/week) and so felt in reasonable cardiovascular shape but also keenly aware of tightness in both Achilles tendons and the hamstrings.
In total we spent up to maybe 5 hours outside doing the practical sessions. The first 90 minute session allowed us to experience the technique training as athletes going through the full warm-up, technique instructions, a series of practice drills and runs complete with individual feedback. We did this on a grassy area in a nearby park.  In the afternoon we returned to the same space and after an initial review of the mornings points and exercises we were challenged to each take a turn instructing the group in the two fundamental skill areas: leg cycling and arm motion. We each had four minutes to instruct. Think about this: Each person instructs – stands in the center, gives directions and feedback – while the others do the exercises. That means each person completes a total of 8 rounds of practicing proper technique within the nearly 2 hour session. Pedagogically, this worked a charm – lots of physical and mental repetition to reinforce the best technique and the opportunity to teach it to others extends and anchors the learning in a remarkably lasting way.  On the second day, our outdoor session involved 6 minute instruction periods for each participant to carry out which took us a step deeper in checking our understanding of the content as well as focusing attention on delivery-how to be brief, upbeat, encouraging and still give runners the necessary feedback for improvement. (You know, like good teachers.)
The practical sessions had a huge impact on my learning. It was in the doing and processing the doing that my many questions arose. I had so many questions over the two days! What if folks aren’t interested in running faster? Do well-trained athletes need longer to re-pattern their movements? What to do if individuals’ fitness levels are poor (i.e., unable to run more than for short bursts)? What are your tips for recovery between sessions? Why so many reps of this exercise? and how often per week? And what about Paula Radcliffe’s technique? (British Olympic marathoner – look it up) This almost never happens to me in traditional PD sessions. My brain was fired up trying to process and connect all this new input to previous knowledge and experience. During the sessions on theory, Mike’s interjections of stories helped me make sense of the information he was presenting and give it a home in my brain that was feeling pretty full.
When I first sat down to write this post I found that I kept coming back to the past. My own running past. I’ve been a runner for almost 38 years. And my earliest experiences were so positive and affirming that I kept coming back. This course helped me appreciate the fact that I had very good coaches and teachers along the way from whom I learned good technique. Having run track all four years of high school, two years of college and then as an adult with varying levels of intensity, I can count myself as fortunate to have sustained very few injuries. I can likely attribute much of that to good technique. What I also found in reflecting on that long running past was how much love I have for the movement and the sport. That explains why coaching track has been my most consistent professional gig, why examples of excellent running form are easier for me to retain than best times, why I enjoy the camaraderie among runners of various ability levels.
Upon returning from the course I tweeted out:

Truly the running technique course was among the very best professional development opportunities I have taken in many years. I learned. I am applying what I learned. I am sharing what I learned. I look forward to adding to what I learned. I’m inspired, fired up and ready to roll (or cycle, would be more appropriate here.). I can hardly wait to see what’s next.