Because Someone’s Listening

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The sign that’s not on my fridge but should be:

“Don’t go there.”

Of course, I go.

Damn social media. Damn me.

The time I spend in my own head is no longer solitary.

I can hear myself think (still)

but

my voice is tempered for your possible reception;

my words carefully tested for palatability

before they can be released.

And I keep writing, writing, writing

straight onto the screen, so few

filters between this thought

and what you might make of it.

 

But let me say this:

I have an Alice Walker T-shirt from the Writing Project and the quote says:

“Writing has saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.”

And every day that I come to terms with concentrated power

in the (tiny) hands of a federal administration bent on

harm, revenge and unmitigated selfishness,

I thank God for writing saving me from the sin and inconvenience

of violence.

 

My moral outrage is but a drop in the bucket of

untold suffering among

too many.

Some of whom understand what is in the making and many more

who have no inkling that they will not be spared

the pain and humiliation

of being discarded, dismissed, and annulled.

 

I regret to inform you that

I have spent time reading the incomprehensible

transcripts of a figurehead

who struggles to express one thought

coherently.

 

I regret to inform you that

these elementary and primitive

patterns of speech

appeal to some,

to many, in fact.

The joke that was now lays like detrimental oil spill

over the gulf of what we thought

was a semi-functioning democracy.

 

The bill for the clean up will be paid

by our children and grandchildren

But the spill is ongoing,

widening its toxic reach

seeping and tumbling past each new measure

designed to contain it.

 

I can be angry about social media

about myself on social media

and I can write

because someone, somewhere

is listening.

and sometimes that is just enough

of what is needed.

 

 

The Archive Project

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I was looking for some information in my archives. I’ve written and kept a lot: Workshop descriptions and agendas, decades of report card comments, professional letters, application essays, you name it. In the process I have come across some documents that remind me of what’s important still. Here are a couple of brief examples.

This is from a workshop introduction I did in 2014. The topic is trust.

 If the members of a large organization are surveyed, among the most common wishes expressed are those for better communication and greater trust. Not surprisingly these two aspects go hand in hand.  As members of an organization and community, we seek belonging and purpose. We join forces, bundle our resources, commit our energies, share our results and take pride in our accomplishments.  When our channels of communication are clogged, crossed or even haywire, we suffer.  Our contributions may be squandered, go unnoticed, never reach fruition.  What is our response? We doubt our leaders, withhold our best efforts and bemoan our organizational dysfunction.  In short, we lose trust in the very organization and community which we sought support and improve.

So often we wait for our organizations to finally change. We find new leaders. We restructure our staff. We announce sweeping reforms and initiate widespread training initiatives. And once again, the critical ingredient of trust remains outside these bargains, and the desired change almost never takes hold.

I also found this gem in a letter about professional development to an author educator, not sure that I even sent the letter, though.

The more I think of it, the more convinced I become that we only improve our educational offerings at the rate at which we improve ourselves by becoming students – struggling students, in fact. We need to spend more time not just attending PD, we need to be creating, reinventing, challenging the very notion of PD. Frankly, I’m tired of sit and (for)get. I’m in for get up, get busy and take charge of your own experience. That’s the direction we need to be moving as educators and our kids are already paving the way a million times over.

What sorts of treasures are in your archive? Just because it wasn’t written or created last week or last year doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

Think about this with me. Dive into your archives and find out who you were, what you prioritized, how you’ve grown. Share out on your blog, in a reply, on Twitter or anywhere else. I wanted to give this idea a more formal kick-off because it’s been rattling around in my brain for a while. This will have to suffice for now. It probably needs a hashtag. Maybe #ArchiveProject?

Writing, Academia and Freedom

Silence Won’t Protect You by Kelly J. Baker

On Poverty by Alison Stine

Confronting the Conditions of Contract Faculty by Melonie Fullick

I read quite a bit about higher education these days and the news I frequently come across is sobering to say the least. There are multiple areas of concern: rising tuition fees and students with obscene levels of debt, increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who are above all underpaid for work loads which lack both security and status, and institutions that are run more like businesses rather than centers of learning (if that is what they should in fact be). These are the topics I am most likely to encounter in my circles of contact.

Two recent reads speak to these concerns from different angles and the third points to the issue of solidarity and privilege and how these play out both within and outside the academy.

Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) provides a handy recap of panel discussion on the casualisation of higher education teaching in Canada and a few other countries. This is helpful because it teases out a number of different aspects of the whole package of dilemmas posed by the widespread use of faculty whose jobs lack stability and often adequate compensation.

Describing specific CAF working conditions and their effects: While contract faculty jobs are precarious and underpaid, so is an increasing amount of work in the current economy; the “big picture” is the decline of stable work that provides livable wages, and how that gap affects people’s lives. At the same time, when people hear the words “university professor” they tend to think of privilege. So it’s important to communicate in detail how, for contract faculty, precarious conditions combine with low institutional status and lack of professional support, leading to financial and health problems, low morale and burnout. None of these things is in the best interests of students or those teaching them, thus they’re not in the best interests of universities, either.

A second aspect that stood out for me was the conversation around solidarity and who can and will support whom under which circumstances and the conundrums that many casually employed faculty face in daring to speak out against lousy work conditions. There are very real risks involved.

Depending on context, it can be difficult for contract faculty to participate in organizing because often naming the problem means becoming the problem, which brings the very real possibility of losing access to jobs in the future.

And this is precisely where Kelly J. Baker picks up the baton and takes the conversation a step further and names the future of academic freedom as concurrent risk in the current higher ed climate. What she documents in her article lends heft to Fullick’s suggestion that naming the problem is often tied to becoming the problem, particularly for adjunct faculty.

Academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity, and simplified messages. Your speech is protected if your words fit neatly with the university’s brand, if your institution chooses to stand with you, or if your university cares about your tenure.

In conclusion, Baker leaves no doubt as to the necessary course of action:

If you care about academic freedom, then you should care about all of those who lack academic freedom. You should stand with them and support them. Use your academic freedom, while you still have it, to make academia a safer space for everyone or lose it in your silence. Use it to include more voices and protect more people. Don’t try to save your own academic freedom, but try to save it for all of us. That’s the only way it will continue. Silence nor complacency will save us from the increasing adjunctification of higher education, the corporatized university, the growth of the administrative class, or the continual devaluation of teaching. The neoliberal university will grind us down until there’s nothing left. Choose solidarity. Choose academic freedom for all scholars. Stand together.

Your silence won’t protect you, but solidarity might.

Alison Stine’s piece ‘On Poverty’ comes at us from a very different place – outside the academy, from coal mining country where lack is tangible reality. In describing her personal decision stop teaching in an adjunct position because she could no longer afford to continue, she writes:

Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”

As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English Departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.

But this is only a part of the picture. What Stine further laments and draws our attention to is the poverty we are likely creating in writing as an art as it becomes the domain of the well-off and academic.

I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead…

…There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.

This is why we need to look carefully at where we are and who we are when we are speaking up and out and on whose behalf. It may well be the case that our best work is not speaking at all but creating space for someone else’s voice.

The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.

We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.

We stay poor because doors stay closed.

Stine reminds us all that freedom is not a given and that some, many in fact, lack the freedom to simply change. The nudge that I received from ‘On Poverty’ was that I have a choice. I can choose solidarity or not. And solidarity requires more than admiring so many beautiful problems. It requires self awareness, perhaps in the form of recognizing my own forms of privilege for starters. Solidarity requires listening first and creating space. Solidarity means I need to open doors for and with others wherever possible.

I am fascinated by higher education. I love being able to ‘hang’ with my PhD friends on social media and feel welcomed in their conversations. Yet these reads encourage me to go deeper, to look at who’s speaking and what are we really talking about and ultimately what my choices convey about my priorities in these spaces. Keeping our conversations open and routinely asking ourselves who is not present moves us in the direction of solidarity. I wish I had a better, tidier conclusion. In the end there is more work ahead. Work that demands consciousness and fortitude and engagement. Not tidy, necessary.

 

 

A Way (Away) With Words

I cannot stop thinking about language.

I saw a tweet this morning that resonated. I chose not to retweet because some of the word choices are a bit too over the top for my tastes but the fundamental message is spot on. The title is “How To Talk Like an Entrepreneur” and it offers a list of handy translations of typical start-up talk:

“I’m passionate about…” becomes “I’d like to make money from…”

“Change the world”  implies “make an app to do something we already do marginally faster…”

“Disrupting X” actually means “Taking market share by temporarily avoiding regulations that larger companies deal with”

You get the idea.

We who write tend to be good at finding words – words to illustrate, evoke, provoke, reveal, cover up, distract, focus, frame, shape, manipulate, determine, lead astray, pass judgment, ignore, beautify, decorate, downplay, exaggerate, say, show, tell. We find words and string them together in hopes of conveying a thought or thoughts which will make sense to someone else. We find words, we commit words, we imbue them meaning and we let them out onto the page or screen to be read by someone else, aiming for reception and resonance – sometimes hitting the mark, other times missing spectacularly.

I’ve been thinking about my own use of language, particularly in how I communicate with parents and colleagues to describe students in my class. For years I have considered this a strong point – my capacity to write specifically about each individual student. In fact, when I reread comments written 10, 5 or 2  years ago I see evidence of that expressive strength. At the same time, these comments reveal my distinct teacher values and preferences.

Here are some of the phrases which crop up fairly often:

“wanders off task”

“maintains a busy social agenda”

“is a pleasure to teach”

“struggles with listening to and following directions”

“Finds it difficult to separate from a favorite buddy”

“requires several reminders”

“shows visible progress”

“can-do attitude and strong work ethic”

“is adjusting to our routines”

There are several more and when I think about the students and the behaviors I am trying to describe, these phrases seem to fit. There is a great deal of emphasis on compliant behavior (i.e., listening to and following directions) and considerably less talk about creative expression and student latitude (although these do appear). When I teach, it’s true that much or even most of the time I want to have things done ‘my way.’ And some would argue that is the nature of the job: teacher directs, students follow. To be fair, I would suggest that most teacher direction is necessary in the gym where students’ potential for injury is entirely real. Being able to move safely in a tag game, say, requires parameters, structures, and instruction. That’s a big part of my job – providing the necessary structures and parameters for each student to be able to practice and improve safely and with both the necessary support and creative release.

Yet when I comment I usually have more to say about student behavior – how they interact with me, with classmates, with the equipment – and affect than about their specific skills. This, I suppose, reflects my desire to show parents and colleagues and the student, exactly whom I see in my class. I want to offer a window into (and my take on) that child’s experience of physical education throughout the year. I am aware of my special teacher lens and can also see, the more deeply I read, how much I wish for each child’s success socially, emotionally, physically in my class and far beyond.

Like so many aspects of education, of school, of teaching and learning – it’s a balancing act. While I wondered at the outset of this post if I was in the habit of using “code” to speak to parents and colleagues about students, I am thinking now that my comments present more than code and jargon. Sometimes I feel like I manage to get the mix almost right.

Here’s one example I think works:

“I enjoyed working with L.* this year. He may have tried my patience from time to time but he also could hardly have shown more enthusiasm for movement, sport and activity.”

And one more where I realize the truth of our teacher-student dilemma:

… Currently his greatest struggles are in keeping quiet during instructions, stopping on the signal and holding equipment still when asked to. Mainly these are problems for the teacher, not necessarily for R.* Because R.* is literally having the time of his life in the gym – he’s active, among great friends, in a big space and often the center of attention – his tremendous exuberance is understandable… (emphasis mine)

As I write about students, it’s clear that I, too, am striving for understanding, for clarity, for some sense-making, both of their behavior and my response to that behavior. My teacher lenses (yes, plural. I am sure I have more than one set.) are enduring and well worn. Seeing beyond them and without them can pose a challenge when I want to accurately interpret student behavior. What have I observed? What data do I have? What and how has this been communicated before? These are the questions I need to answer in order to insure that my interpretation and recounting have some foothold in reality.

The whole process is fraught. And complicated and challenging and rewarding.

In conclusion, and only fitting, a taste of my own medicine:

While Ms. Spelic appears to place a high value on capturing student individuality in her comments, her preference for big words may get in the way of achieving the clarity she claims to prize. Short and simple sentences can also be effective in describing how people act. In the future, perhaps we will see Ms. Spelic reduce her word count while boosting her use of concise and simpler language to achieve the same or better results.

*Names changed.

When all I want to do is read and write

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

This is a day on which all I seem to want to do is read and write. Read and write, read and write. But I’m at school and the kids won’t let me be. “Watch me!” they cry. They are starving for my attention and I see that there is no way I can possibly feed them all. They are feeling so hungry and so am I.  We’re all hungry, only for different things.

This is a day when I feel useless to them, worse than my own sub. I can’t even claim that I am a stand-in for my best intentions. No, I am not. I want to be somewhere else where it is quiet and peaceful and the wireless is functional. I am desperate to be reading and writing. Because of my peek-in reading this morning I had to immediately track down a new book in the elementary library. One read that leads to more reading and I feel a moment of relief.

My students hardly know how badly I need to write. They can’t tell. But maybe their parents will when they read the report comments that I have penned (electronically, of course) with such love and care. Comments are where my love of writing and the love for my students meld. Every comment is unique because every student is unique. Sometimes a comment can become a remarkable vignette of this child in this moment in my eyes. It is a joy and challenge to paint a picture of each child in the context of my busy gym space over the course of 9 or so weeks. When I describe their antics, struggles and idiosyncrasies, I try to make extra space for their strengths to light up the paragraph, even when I have a hard time coping with a difficult behavior pattern or two.

I just finished the first round of comments and so feel like a kid let out for recess. But then there are all these other demands: More curriculum documentation, new equipment that I have to integrate into my planning and lessons, tech tools that still need experimenting with. These tasks make me cranky. Because I’m like a kid in that I don’t really want to do the stuff I’m not really good at. I’m convinced that too much learning and growing isn’t good for you. It can make you tired and feel depleted and make you forget that you’ve already come so far. I’m not Lot’s wife. I won’t become a pillar of salt if I turn around and look at where I’ve been and take in the incredible traces I have left, am leaving. I’m not Lot’s wife, but I feel like I might be. Because, you know, continuous improvement means never standing still, always looking ahead, in order to be a part of ‘the next big thing,’ right?

It’s rare that my need to vent reaches the outside edges of this blog. But perhaps it’s high time to let off some steam, to throw off some of those public allures.

I read a post this morning about getting more traffic on your blog and I thought it both ridiculous and very revealing.

Here’s a taste of what I found:

According to Danny Iny, successful blogger and owner of Firepole Marketing, if you have a new blog that’s getting fewer than 200 page views per day, your focus should be on gaining more traffic. Okay, but how?

And I get that there’s a whole world out there in the giant attention economy filled with bloggers of every stripe who are literally “in it to win it.” They want, crave and pursue traffic because that’s what marketing experts like Iny say you should do. It made me think about the sound of that term: “traffic.” No, no, that’s not my point in being here. My interest, my purpose is in cultivating and caring for audience, which I understand to be quite distinct from traffic. 200 page views per day? Here? No, that is clearly not the party I am hosting. But for those who arrive here through one channel or another should feel welcomed, at ease, free to comment and share. That is what I am here for. It is the pay off for all the reading and writing I do and look forward to doing.

Meanwhile, I feel better now that I’ve got some writing out of my system. Sometimes there has to be room for this too: the unvarnished, the meandering, and even loopy post.

There, I’m done. Thanks.

 

 

The Integrity Diet

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

Throughout this year I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about what it is I am actually supposed to be doing. For about 8 more weeks I will still be working, living and learning entirely on my own dime. Time away from the classroom has brought an astounding degree of freedom and plenty of thinking and dreaming space. As this designated phase draws to a close, I am looking for the list of achievements I can hang my hat on; evidence of my productive use of this precious time. I keep asking myself: so where is the evidence? What have you actually done with yourself this year?

A valid question, yet not the ideal. Rather, to ask about what I gained, how I grew and which capacities I strengthened – these are the questions that bring me closer to understanding the value of this time better than lists of what I did and made. And on closer inspection, I see that above all – I changed my diet. I paid closer attention to what I was taking in, how it affected me and this in turn changed what came out. I didn’t realize it while it was happening but now I see that this year had everything to do with my integrity – how I live my life as my whole self and how I express and share that whole self with the outside world. I treated myself to an integrity diet.

I recently shared one of my biggest revelations on Twitter:

I joined social media, specifically Twitter, to “hang out” in a sense but instead got “caught up” as I described in a recent post. The deeper and wider my education-related conversations became, the greater my interest and focus on the very things that school and education, in and of themselves, can hardly fix or solve. In fact, the more I engaged with educators, journalists, activists and academics around these topics, the more keenly aware I became of the potential for school systems and political systems to harm students, exacerbate disparities and claim ignorance about how such circumstances (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline, excessive police brutality against black and brown people, also in schools) could come to pass. Internally, I note a shift in myself from accommodating to critical. While I love the idea of speaking to a broad audience,  it has become more important for me as a person, as a writer and as an educator to speak out and speak up and accept that not everyone will feel included, or comfortable, or agree with what I have to say. I am now willing to run that risk. My ego may take a hit but my integrity finds sustenance.

While I feed my integrity, where does the time go?

It seems to me that I read for hours on end each day: books, articles, blog posts, e-mail. I read and I seek to become wiser, better informed. I read in search of nuance and depth. I read in search of examples of healthy daily coping. I follow my friends’ recommendations. I develop opinions and then read on to have those same opinions challenged. When I find nuance and depth, I am grateful and compelled to share. One think piece that struck me in particular was Why Women Talk Less because the author did not leave well enough alone. Rather, she  examined research and arguments from various angles refusing to sum up her findings in tidy tweetable bullet points. She let the reader grapple along with her as she laid out the complexity and stickiness of the options that women appear to have in choosing to speak out and up. This type of reading is like a good workout. It leaves you a little tired and mentally sweaty but satisfied. And stronger; ready for the next solid think piece to come along and start something. And there goes the time. I read,  feel edified, and wonder where all this reading may be leading me.

Where?

Into the arms of writing, it would seem. The other chunk of time when I am not reading, I am seated at my laptop, pecking my thoughts out onto white screens with hyper-interactive sidebars. I used to write in journals, on paper. I do less of that now and tend to go straight to the screen. Since June 2014 I have published 65 posts on this blog and about a dozen on Medium.  At the outset I was fairly sure that I would be writing about coaching and teaching. But the most passionate pieces are best characterized as responses. Something I read or saw or thought about struck a chord and affected me. Like when a post by Audrey Watters nearly sent me over the edge (in a good and slightly revivalist way). Or when I  needed to dissect the reactions I was seeing on Twitter and elsewhere to a NYT piece on Success Charter Schools. Or most recently when I felt a little out of my depth venturing to take higher education to task but I did it anyway and am glad  that I did. In all of these pieces there was an emotional boiling point which made writing imperative and allowed me to push past the weighty apprehension I typically feel before I click “Publish.” Writing this year has meant jumping over my own shadow. Repeatedly. And with bigger and bigger leaps.

What did I do with myself this year?

I grew and I learned. I have found that my interests extend far beyond where I thought my borders were. In my reading and writing, in fact, I’ve gone abroad. I have ventured into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable territory. I have gained a new appreciation for this wonderful brown skin I am living in.  I have come to better understand and value the ways in which it interacts and intersects with all the other aspects of who I am and how I identify.  I have explored aspects of my otherness while finding commonalities in likely and unlikely places. Opportunities to get down on the ground and truly wrestle with my most stubborn biases and blind spots have been multiple and recurring. I have made many friends and so far, very few enemies. I have come to value questions and responses over supposed answers and solutions. I have found a deeper desire to connect not simply with people but to their ideas and  connect those ideas to other people who may not be seeing the same things.

At the end of this year I have no product to market, no book to pitch, no course of study to offer. What I do have is the well nourished integrity of my intellectual, social and artistic pursuits. Perhaps I have never been as fully myself as I am right now. My integrity has never been in better shape.

What am I doing here?

Much to my own astonishment I will soon have sent over 1000 tweets.  In a the space of about 15 months I have dramatically expanded my twitter activity and reach. While the numbers are still modest in terms of the Twiterverse at large, for me the reality of over one hundred followers and just under 100 people I follow – is slow to sink in.  Imagine meeting up with all of your followers in person at one time – what kind of space would you need?  A classroom, small lecture hall, an auditorium, a high school stadium?

About 4 years ago when my tech-savvy teenage son was still living at home, I asked him, “What’s Twitter?”  He chuckled and said it’s like “shouting random messages into cyberspace.”  Then he added, “it’s pretty pointless.”  That was good enough for me. It saved me from having to delve any further.

Once I joined Twitter in the summer of 2013 I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not at all as pointless as my son had estimated. As an educator, I was thrilled to find the richness of the conversations in progress – on everything from #edreform to #SEL (social and emotional learning) to the #futureof school.  And the more I read,  greater became my own desire to contribute.  I started by responding to a few blog posts, then writing more on my own blog. It became a cycle: catch a great link – retweet – write a blog response – tweet that – read more and so on.

Now nearing the 1000 tweet mark, I ask myself: What am I doing here?

When I started I was all about drinking it in: lurking, consuming, stockpiling.  And now?

  • I have made writing a priority. This post may become #93. The number of people who read what I’ve written varies tremendously but I do know this: Every time I post, at least one other person reads it besides me. And that is reason enough. Through followers of the blog and on Twitter, almost 200 people receive notice that I’ve put something out there. In the event of a powerful retweet, then the possible audience can grow into the thousands.  But that’s not the point. Daring to write, to say what I want to say and to offer it to whoever’s game – that is the priority that matters.
  • I pay attention to people and ideas.  I feel strongly about some things: student-centered education, social justice, and every intersection of those themes. Most of the people I actively follow are generally tied to one or all of those themes.  There may be others who offer perspectives slightly outside those distinct realms and add to my understanding of topics which influence my primary areas of interest, such as: tech industry happenings and political trends.
  • I am here to connect the dots.  The Twitterverse and internet are chock full of billions of disparate dots. From my little corner, I see but a miniscule fraction of those dots, by choice.  At the same time, those dots within my view may produce unusual and beautiful patterns. My joy lies in drawing connections from people to ideas, and ideas to ideas.  I’m a big fan of cross-pollination.
  • The excellent people I meet and the wealth of their contributions are why I stay.    About a month ago I conducted a sort of self-assessment of myself a s a coach and in that process I identified the type of people I appreciate and seek out as partners for collaboration. They “dare to diverge, show a degree of mental, emotional and physical fitness, have HUMOR, have a growth and change agenda, and demonstrate brave intentionality.”  It may or may not surprise you, but I have met more people who fit this description within the last year than in the previous 10 years. Some I have met through social media and others locally. The key is that “what I appreciate appreciates” and in terms of remarkable acquaintances, this maxim has delivered handsomely.

Twitter is by no means single-handedly responsible for all this good stuff. Rather, Twitter has provided a easy-to-navigate platform where I can meet and interact with individuals and groups who add value to my learning and understanding.  Now that I am even clearer about my purpose in populating and shaping my sliver of the Twitterverse, I can take even greater ownership of the role I want to play and how I can best serve the interests of these new connections I have welcomed into my life.

 

Special thanks for this post go to Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak, who kindly asked me way back in August 2013 what I wanted to do with my social media engagement when I requested his sage advice for beginners.