Unapologetically Kind

I titled my post today (ok, I actually wrote this several days ago so I didn’t have to worry about it today!) with two adjectives that usually don’t hang out together much. I did this on purpose. (In my classroom, this is where I would grin and tell my students, “It’s almost like I planned it.”) Language is important, and contrasts bring attention to the uniqueness of the individual parts. I’m going to use the contrast between being unapologetic and being kind to explore both words and what they mean to me.

I started with Merriam-Webster online dictionary. They have quite a lot to say about the word “kind.” It is officially defined as “affectionate, loving, of a sympathetic of helpful nature, arising from or characterized by sympathy of forbearance, to give pleasure or relief.” But Merriam-Webster also has a definition for English Language Learners, which says “having or showing a gentle nature and desire to help others, wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others.” And there is a third definition, this one for students, that says “wanting or liking to do good and to bring happiness to others, showing or growing out of gentleness or goodness of heart, considerate.”

I hadn’t previously thought about the word gentle, which came up frequently. But thinking about the relationship between “kind” and “gentle” also leads me to a handful of other words that maybe aren’t so positive. Kindness sometimes is perceived as passive, enabling, or permissive. Kind people get taken advantage of. Being kind is being soft. I don’t agree with all of these associations, but it’s important to acknowledge that they exist.

I’ve written about kindness in my classroom before; I’ll very briefly relay that story to you. After a class period marked by several swearing shouting matches, a threatened fight, removing a student from my room and very little chemistry, I asked my fourth block students how to show kindness in the chemistry classroom. Over half my students wrote “be quiet.”

Another classroom story: last week I had a student who surprised me by staying after class to help me put the chairs up. I commented that this was a very kind thing for her to do. She looked at me and said, “It’s Christmas. Being nice is allowed right now.” Our societal and cultural views and expectations of kindness matter, to the point where they dictate that kindness is seasonal.

So let’s turn to the word “unapologetic.” According to Merriam-Webster, unapologetic is defined as “not apologetic :  offered, put forward, or being such without apology or qualification.” The  English Language Learners category definition is “not feeling or showing regret or shame.”

Unapologetic is an interesting word because, to me, it implies that someone feels like there is something I should apologize for or temper in some manner. Being unapologetic means defying the feeling that you should be apologetic in the first place.

When I think of unapologetic, I think of words like outspoken, bold, firm in my opinion, uncaring of others’ reactions to me or my thoughts. Being unapologetic seems to preclude listening or compassion. I don’t necessarily agree with all of these, but I’m going to take all of this apart in a moment.

“Unapologetic” and “kind” really do seem contradictory at first, and not in a productive way. In fact, they seem downright contradictory. An immediate question that comes to mind is this: why would anyone feel like they have to apologize for being kind? Being kind is a positive thing; and if you don’t feel like you should apologize, then you don’t have to be unapologetic. And a second question: if you’re being unapologetic, can you be kind? So let me take a stab at answering both of these questions.

The first question expresses a feeling of surprise that being kind is something worth apologizing for. Read the following conversation, and think about if it feels familiar.

“[Insert some mean comment about another person here]”

Laughter

“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

“Oh come on, it was just a joke. Lighten up.”

And at that point, there are several options. The person who stood up for kindness can continue to argue about it, subside into silence, or fake some laughter to fit in. What would you do? Would you have said anything in the first place? I think we’ve all been in a situation like this before, where we chose between being kind and being cool.

To answer my first question: yes, I have apologized for being kind. I have been made fun of. I have been told that I’m too nice, that I spend too much time thinking about other people, that I will get taken advantage of. I have been brushed off as not serious enough, not hardcore enough. This has been expressed to me at various points throughout my life by my friends, peers, colleagues, and students.

The second question is about the combination of unapologetic and kind; is it even possible? I think it is, but only if we strip some of the untrue associations from both words.

I actually really like the English Language Learner definition of unapologetic, the one about not feeling regret or shame. In that way, being unapologetic is first an internal process. I will not feel bad about being kind, and I will not be not afraid to show a kind heart to the rest of the world. Being unapologetic about being kind allows me to be genuine and authentic in really important ways.

But being unapologetic does not mean that I shout my opinion to everyone whether they want to hear it or not. It means when I hear a joke that I thought was mean, I point out how it could’ve been hurtful, refuse to participate in the joke, and then I let it go. Even as I refuse to be pressured to be “cool” by agreeing with the joke, I refuse to pressure other people to agree with me. Instead I can model different kinds of humor, different kinds of interacting.

I also think I have to reject some of the connotations of kindness. Being kind does not mean being permissive, especially in my classroom. Holding my students to high expectations is the best thing I can do for them. I can be strict in terms of classroom management and still be kind. Being kind to myself also means knowing when to say no and not let people take advantage of me. Being kind requires balance.

I remember my mom telling me when I was really little that when I held our cat, I had be to gentle and firm. These words are contradictory, but I think we’re more used to hearing those together. This is what I mean by being unapologetic and kind. I am firm in my own belief, but I am gentle in sharing this. Being unapologetic does not preclude listening or caring about another person. It does not preclude compassion. In fact, I think being unapologetic about being kind brings out the best in both of these two characteristics; they balance each other in their contrasts.

And for a sense of levity in an otherwise serious post, and because it’s the holidays, the yin-yang image at the top is made from sugar and chocolate powder. Yum. 🙂

Your homework today is going to be a little bit different. Instead of a question, I’m going to give you a challenge. Demonstrate unapologetic kindness. And instead of sharing you answer to the question, I would love it if you shared your story of how you demonstrated unapologetic kindness.

Many good wishes to you all on this last Sunday of 2016.

Hej då,

Jamie

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Home

Yesterday I drove to Steamboat for winter break. My dad, mom, brother and I have always spent Christmas together at home. Mom and I bake and decorate, Jeff and I throw snowballs at each other, Dad and I volunteer at the local ski race, and we all fight with the cat over the two chairs in front of the fire place. (The cat always wins.) I absolutely love coming home!

Home for me has been a pretty stable place. I moved to Steamboat when I was five, so I have only the vaguest memories of living in Denver. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, and Jeff and I come back up as often as we can. Moving to Boulder for college was actually a very distressing part of my life, because suddenly I was much farther away from everything that was familiar. I was lucky to travel almost every weekend in the winter for ski races and all over with my family during the summer, but I always could come home at the end of the trip. So when I moved to Boulder, I had to figure out how to create “home” without the physical place.

In my freshman dorm room, I did my best to make my desk look like home. Mom lent me a very special mug and I lined up my favorite books. I carefully arranged a handful of trinkets, which I call my collection, on the shelves. But despite all of that, Boulder did not feel like home that year. Looking at those things helped, but it wasn’t quite enough.

I still have a shelf of my favorite books: Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Sword, Naya Nuki, East of Eden, Les Miserables, The Ancient One and several others that have been added since. (The collection of Harry Potter books get their own shelf!) And my other collections have grown too. I have a glass slipper I got at Disneyland when I was seven, a ceramic box my grandma painted, several fairy figurines, a wooden dolphin my dad bargained for in Mexico, a wooden fan from Spain, a Dala horse from Sweden, and coral and shells from Panama, among other things. Seeing these objects reminds me of their stories, my stories, that helped make me who I am.

So beyond these things or a physical place, what makes a home? A very old friend, Jonathon, gave me some insight into that question yesterday.

We met up early in the morning to go for a (very snowy) hike. We got to talk about a lot of different things, but one thing we laughed about was the weird way our lives have come together and wandered apart. Jonathon moved to Steamboat and joined my elementary school in second grade. Part way through middle school he moved to Alaska, and I didn’t see him again until he ski raced for University of Wyoming in college. We waved to each other at our races for two years until I stopped racing, and then I didn’t hear from him for the next five and a half years.

That was, until about a month ago, when I posted an article by the Dalai Lama on Facebook. That was shortly followed by my first blog post, and then Jonathon sent me a message. He liked the article I posted, and thought my writing was interesting. He was finishing his Masters in Electrical Engineering at Colorado School of Mines, so he came up to Boulder and got tea with me. Several cups of tea later, our friendship has been rekindled.

We reminisced about growing up in Steamboat together, and then he told me stories about living in Ketchikan, Alaska and working in Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and various other places. He has some amazing stories. But somewhere in these stories, he mentioned that “home” was an odd concept to him because he’s moved so many times. His friends are scattered across the country, and his childhood homes are no longer his to go back to. He has a set of amazingly beautiful photos he keeps on his walls, which I think might serve something of the same purpose as my collection. But one thing he mentioned to me was how close he is with his brother. They’ve been through every move together, and stayed roommates through their first several jobs. He got me thinking about a third part of “home,” and what I think might be the most important part.

Perhaps home also involves the people who love you. I know my brother Jeff loves to come home because he can slouch downstairs at noon in his sweatpants and drink straight from the orange juice bottle and feel totally comfortable. I love how my family teases each other and how we can just be totally us. I definitely love my house, but that is dwarfed by how much I love my family.

When I think about the last three years I spent at CU, this idea makes even more sense. I lived in a drafty but beautiful house on a cul de sac called Holly Place, so we called the house Holly House. In the three years I lived there, I had at least seven different roommates, three of whom were Swedish exchange students. We often had friends spending the night on couches (sometimes we called it Holly Hostel!). And every Tuesday night we would have family dinner. Anyone who had ever lived at Holly House, plus some close friends, would bring something to eat and we’d gather around our too-small table and hang out all evening long. Sure, we loved Holly House itself. But family dinner, and the people who were there, was what made is so incredibly special.

I think that’s part of what it means for me to be an old-lady-hobbit. I love the places I call my house, and I take care of them. I love my friends and family, and to be close to them and talk to them. I love my home, with everything that encompasses.

Your homework: What makes you feel at home? How do you take care of and participate with the places, things, and people that make up your home?

I wish you all a very happy holiday, and hope you get to experience home however you love most!

Hej då,

Jamie

Learning and Motivation

As a college student, I had a love-hate relationship with final exams. I really liked the idea of having this massive body of knowledge in my head and demonstrating understanding. Trouble was, I usually had some pretty significant gaps in that massive body of knowledge, and that was a bit stressful. Or a lot stressful.

So I can understand why my students get stressed about finals. There is pressure to be competitive for college, there is pressure from home, from coaches, and for some of my students from within. I spend all year trying to teach my students to care about understanding instead of points, and sometimes at finals all of the progress I thought I’d made vanishes.

But at no point do I ever give up on that idea! Seeking understanding is a skill that will serve my kids for the rest of their lives. Seeking points is playing a game that will end as soon as they leave academia. I want my students to motivated by the process of learning rather than the end product of the grade.

Understanding my student’s motivations can be really tricky. As well as I think I know them, I see them in a single context for 90 minutes every other day, and not on weekends. Just yesterday, as a student was doing text corrections, I learned that this boy played the clarinet in jazz band well enough that he had been singled out for awards. In my eyes, this student was bright, goofy, and often forgot to do his homework.

So rather than trying to puzzle out each individual student, I started by looking within myself. When am I motivated? When am I not motivated?

Recently, I attended a Biological Science Initiative (BSI) workshop through CU, where I learned about the microbiome of the gut and its effects on the immune and nervous system, particularly mental health. It was a fascinating look at how the nervous, immune, and digestive systems are all intertwined.

(My science nerd is going to take over for a moment. I promise not to use too much vocabulary, so follow along as you wish!)

There is a whole ecosystem of bacteria living in your gut (and in mine, and everyone else’s) that varies depending on what kinds of food you eat, what kinds of infections you pick up as a kid, and several other factors. Those bacteria help train your immune system, so you don’t overreact to molecules that aren’t actually harmful to you. There is a whole group of cells (called T-regulatory cells) that is responsible for turning the immune system off in non-threatening situations. For example, allergies are an immune response to a molecule (like a peanut molecule or lactose, to name a couple well-known examples) that isn’t actually harmful to your body under normal circumstances.

When your immune system is turned on, there are cells that secrete a messenger chemical called cytokines. Cytokines move throughout your body in your blood, telling the rest of your body that there’s an immune response. This is why sometimes a food allergy can give someone a rash; the cytokines have carried the immune response away from the original site of the molecules. Cytokines can also get into the brain, which makes them pretty special. Not just anything can get into the brain. Scientists aren’t totally sure how cytokines affect neurons at a molecular level, but there is macro-level evidence that an increase of cytokines is linked to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Hopefully someday we know how or why cytokines affect mental health, but for now we just know that they do.

It was a full day of listening to lecture, and though I did have a moment at 2:30 in the afternoon where I felt my eyes get scratchy and my mind wander, I loved soaking up that information. But I also thought back to my undergraduate immunology class, and I know I didn’t have the same level of attentiveness or understanding then. So what was the difference? Was it the presenter? The content? The fact that this workshop had no test at the end? The difference in my own maturity? Could it be that the workshop was only one day, and my undergraduate classes were a whole semester? Or that I had an application (my classroom) for the information I was learning?

I think, for myself, this last piece is really important. I knew why I was learning about these three systems and how they’re connected. I was thinking about what I already knew about the immune, nervous, and digestive system. I was thinking about how this directly impacted my own heath. And I was thinking about how I could incorporate all this information into my classroom. So really, I was motivated because I was thinking about lots of things at once, not just one thing at a time. I could see the connections.

Last year when I taught chemistry I got asked “why do I need to know this?” with alarming frequency. The scarier part was that most of the time, I didn’t have a good answer. Let’s take a student named Anthony, for example. (Anthony a composite of three students I had last year and not a real person.) Anthony worked at his dad’s auto-body shop and was already a respected technician. He was seventeen going on eighteen, having already failed chemistry once. He could tell you about engines and oils and things I didn’t understand for hours on end. Anthony did not care what an atom looked like. He did not care about the difference between ionic and covalent bonds. And no matter what I said to him, he never did care about those things. He saw no application to his work at the auto-body shop.

Now, I do not want to open up a debate today about education standards and what we should or should not be teaching students. It’s an important conversation, but it’s also a deep dark rabbit hole. Everyone is biased towards their own content. For me, I think everyone should have a working knowledge of biology. It’s important to understand how to care for our planet and for our bodies. But I’m sure there are also highly successful people in the world who don’t know a lick of biology and don’t care to.

So how do I motivate Anthony to learn about biology (or chemistry, or literature, or anything else)? One thing I talk about a lot with my students is that learning is a process and a skill. That skill is transferable to lots of different parts of life, whether that be in science or history, trying to figure out how to start a business or how to fix a car. Science is about asking the right question and figuring out how to answer it. That’s what I want students to learn.

And, for right now, I’ll lean on the immediacy of finals. I’ve been stealing a line from my mom lately; assessments should be celebrations of understanding. I already have a giant bag of clementines, brownies, and hot chocolate ready to help my students celebrate. And hopefully they will also find learning worth celebrating someday.

And, lest you think I forgot! Your homework: What motivates you to learn? What’s your favorite thing you ever learned (and please don’t limit yourself to a school setting!)? Why is that your favorite?

Hej då,

Jamie

“Serendipity and Bravery” or “En Krone”

Today I lead you, my kind readers, to a third country. My mom and I were only in Norway for six days, but the trip had a huge impact on my life. The alternate title of my post means “One Crown” in Norwegian, and it is a reference to their currency. The picture you see there is a one krone coin, which is worth about twelve cents at the moment. The one krone and five kroner coins both really do have holes in them! But I’ll explain why I’m talking about Norwegian money in a moment.

At the end of my study abroad in Uppsala, Sweden, my mom came to fetch me home. We spent two weeks together on our own unofficial bread, pastry, and knitting tour of Scandinavia. The first two days we spent exploring Stockholm. We visited the Vasa, the only remaining 17th century warship, and the Nobel museum, which had displays created by all the most recent Nobel laureates explaining their research. Then we got on a train to Oslo to spend six days in Norway.

We spent the first three days in the city of Oslo, where we sampled lots of kanelbullar (they’re similar to cinnamon roles but they also have cardamom in them), found the coolest little knitting shops, and visited the oldest ski jump in the world. The second three days we took a plane to Tromsø, which is a small town 350km north of the Arctic Circle. It is home to the northern-most university and the northern-most botanic gardens, featuring arctic plants from all over the world’s arctic regions. Tromsø was fantastic; the fjords were beautiful, the food was amazing, and the sun never set. It went around the sky in a circle. (This was in mid-June, just before the solstice.) Mom and I got to go to a midnight sun concert that featured traditional Norwegian and Sami music and lasted until 1AM. I could tell you stories about Tromsø and how beautiful it is for hours.

But that’s not actually the story I’m going to tell you today. Really, all of that was to give you a flavor for Norway and for how my mom and I travel. We’re completely happy throwing some snacks in a backpack and walking all day to see and experience the places we get to visit. We’re interested in anything from history to architecture to science to music to knitting to food. Perhaps, Mom, you’re part of the reason I’m such a conglomeration of things!

The story I’m really going to tell you today, though, begins with me procrastinating. Normally when I go somewhere new, I like to draw a map in my notebook. Then I don’t have to look quite so much like the idiot tourist. But the night before this particular trip, I had a yearly report due for my scholarship that I hadn’t quite finished. In the process of staying up late to get it done, and getting up early to leave the next day, I never drew my map. This didn’t even occur to me until Mom and I got off the train in Oslo and had no idea which way was north.

We resigned ourselves to looking like tourists, at least a little, and found the train station’s information center. We talked to a nice Norwegian boy who helpfully showed us where the most common tourist attractions were, and how to get from the train station to our hotel. Since we were there anyway, we decided to ask if there was anything interesting going on in Oslo the next several days. The conversation that followed has been burned into my brain.

“Well,” he said, “there is a world fair sort of festival happening today, here.” He circled a plaza on the other side of the city from the train station. “And there will be a lady speaking. I don’t remember her name, it is hard to say, but she is receiving her Nobel Peace Prize after years of being under house arrest. She is from Burma.”

Mom and I stared at him, wide-eyed. “Aung San Suu Kyi?” Mom asked.

“Yes, that sounds right,” he said. He was pleased he’d suggested something we were excited about. “But it is happening soon, in two hours I think.”

Mom and I quickly thanked the nice young man, folded up our map, and took off across Oslo. We made it to the plaza with enough time to wander briefly through the fair – lots of stands were selling food and gifts from all over the world – before we found spots in front of the stage. There was an area cordoned off for Burmese refugees, of which Norway has quite a large population. Mom and I were three rows of people back from the barrier behind them.

(In case you need a quick history refresher: The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country in South-East Asia. In 1962, a coup d’état created a military dictatorship. For most of the next 50 years, the country was embroiled in ethnic strife and civil wars. Aung San Suu Kyi has long been a proponent of democratic government in the country, and has been placed under house arrest several times. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but couldn’t leave the country to receive it. The country had a general election in 2010 and in 2011 the military junta was official dissolved. Mom and I saw Aung San Suu Kyi speak in June of 2012.)

Hearing Aung San Suu Kyi speak was incredible. She carries herself with grace and patience. I could see that she had faced hardships and did not expect them to end, but I could also see that her patience would outlast all of that. I only remember snippets of what she said, but seeing her face, and the faces of the Burmese refugees as they watched her talk, was a very, very special experience.

Afterwards, Mom and I couldn’t get over how completely insanely incredibly lucky we were! Normally, Mom and I do a ton of research and we’re super prepared with our plans when we go on adventures like this. But nowhere in either of our research did we come across information about Aung San Suu Kyi receiving her Nobel Peace Prize! We both agreed that sometimes, the universe will drop a gift in your lap if you’re brave enough to ask for it. I draw my maps and avoid tourist locations because I don’t like to stand out as a foreigner, but in this case standing out and asking led us to a really cool experience.

But at this point, some of you are still wondering why I started off this post by talking about Norwegian currency. About a week after our Norway adventure, Mom and I found ourselves walking from a different train station to a different place to stay. We spent three days in Rättvik and Mora, celebrating the Swedish holiday of Midsommar. It’s a bit like a May-Day festival and it’s celebrated on whatever Friday is closest to June 21st, the longest day of the year. That walk took us about a mile and a half outside of Rättvik, through fields full of wildflowers. Along the way, Mom and I had some deep conversations about adventuring, being brave, and being lucky. I slid a Norwegian one krone coin onto a chain, and I’ve worn that necklace almost every day since then.

I am not always a brave person. I spent much of my study abroad in Sweden reading or wandering around Uppsala quietly by myself. In some ways, this was really good for me. But there are some adventures I wish I had gone on while I was there. I never saw the northern lights, for example, or went to see the glassblowers in Kalmar and Småland. I never got to see the Fårö coast.

But wearing my krone reminds me to be brave. It reminds me to work for what I want, and to state my goals out loud. Often, there are people out there who have amazing opportunities, and they’re looking for the right person for them. I just have to make myself known to them in order to get a chance at those opportunities.

This message has been recently driven home to me again. At the National Association of Biology Teacher’s conference this year, I got a chance to meet some really incredible people. One, a woman named Briana, works for the Smithsonian. I have a serious crush on the Smithsonian, thanks to my time working with them in Panama, but that’s another story. By being brave enough to ask her what opportunities the Smithsonian has, I might get to resume my flirtation with them. Similarly, most people don’t know that I harbor a very small, very quiet dream to someday write for National Geographic or another similar publication. That’s part of why I’m here; to practice my writing. And more importantly, to declare to all of you and to the universe that I am ready for an adventure.

And just yesterday, a friend of a friend commented on my necklace. I smiled, told her the same story I just told you, and told her how I was on the lookout for adventures. Turns out the woman runs the summer native plant courses at School of Mines. One of these courses involve rafting down rivers in Colorado to study shifting ecosystems. I don’t know a ton of details, but now I have an email sitting in my inbox with some potentially awesome opportunities!

Now that I’ve dragged you across large chunks of Scandinavia, I still have homework for you! How do you remember to be brave? How do you work towards what you want? Do you believe in serendipity?

Hej då,

Jamie