Understimulation in the Woods

We talk a lot these days about overstimulation. Mostly we talk about this in the context of the ever-present screens in our lives: the notifications, the messenger apps, SnapChat (which despite what my students think, I do vaguely know how to use), the constant barrage of news and pictures and the necessary responses.

I know sometimes living in a city (if you call Boulder a city) gets overwhelming to me. There are always people, lights, things to do; something is going on. This is less true than say, downtown Denver, but it’s still a lot more than somewhere like Steamboat.

But for me, being a teacher is also wildly overstimulating. There are usually over twenty-five people in the room with me, and they’re all looking at me. I’m making a million decisions, evaluating their emotional and cognitive abilities, trying to listen to the goofball behind me while helping the student in front of me, while tuning out the twelve other conversations happening in the room, watching for the phones to sneak out, and oh yeah, somewhere in there, I’m trying to remember the subtle beautiful nuances of a complex and intertwined story that is biology and convey that to other human beings.

My mom once sent me a Facebook post that said, “Teaching seems to require the sort of skills that would be required to pilot a bus full of live chickens backwards, with no breaks, down a rocky road through the Andes, while providing colorful and informative commentary on the scenery.” The quote is by Franklin Habit and while I find it hilarious, I also find it almost painfully accurate.

Yeah. Teaching.

But one of the things I’ve been working on this year is going outside more. And I’ve realized something about going outside.

It’s incredibly, beautifully, wonderfully, understimulating.

There are fewer people. Even better, they usually don’t want to talk to me as much as I don’t want to talk to them. There aren’t a million conversations, and usually there’s no music. There aren’t the overpowering smells of the crazy processed artificial snacks my kids bring to class, and I don’t have to think. I just have to move my legs, whether I’m on foot or on my bike.

When I go outside, I have time to focus on the feeling of the sun on my face, listen to the wind in the needles of the pine trees, the smell of warm ponderosa bark as I lean against a tree. I love hearing the rush of blood behind my eardrums and feeling my pulse against my fingers, my throat, my cheeks.

When I get the glorious opportunity to go backpacking, it’s even better. Time stretches out so all I care about is when to eat and when to crawl in my warm sleeping bag. I absolutely love staring out over whatever scenery I’ve gotten myself back into.

This past weekend I wasn’t backpacking, but I got to go for a nine mile mountain bike ride in Golden Gate state park. The aspens were golden and rustled in the wind, when I could hear them over the rattling of my derailleur. The trail was rocky in places and hero dirt in others, and I was grinning like a crazy person the whole way. My brother Jeff and Jonathan came with me, and we spent as much time leaning on our handlebars appreciating the beauty around us as we did pedaling.

I love flying through a grove of aspens and watching the leaves swirl around my brother’s back tire. I love weaving through pines and climbing up around switchbacks and just generally being out in the forests. After being out there for five hours, coming back into a city seems colorful and noisy and fast-paced. It’s good to slow down.

To be fair, this particular definition of slowing down includes spiking my heart rate through the roof trying to keep up with two boys who are way stronger than I am. By the end of the ride my legs were tired and I was flailing around some corners. Jeff laughed very hard at my stupid clipless moment. (I have pedals that my shoes clip into, and if I don’t manage to unclip my foot before I stop, I fall over. Just…slow motion fall over.) But that’s also it’s own kind of fun.

Your homework this week: Go outside! Take a moment and see what you notice, and if your mind slows down a little bit.

Hej då,

Jamie

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Every Stitch

Today I’m writing from yet another state! I’m currently sitting outside of Penn Valley, California, at my friend Hannah’s childhood home. She grew up on a glorious five-acre property, with huge trees and vegetable gardens and a little orchard and chickens. This part of California is the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but it’s really different than the foothills in Colorado. At home, the the transition from flat to mountains is fairly abrupt. Here, I’m nestled into rolling hills of pine forests and farms. I think I found the Shire.

And when I found Hannah, I absolutely found a hobbit! Hannah grew up doing three-week backpacking trips with her family and close friends, packing all their extra food and supplies on horses. She wanders around barefoot almost all the time, and she bakes the best pumpkin butterscotch chocolate chip cookies you’ll ever have. We met in college in our leadership program, and I can easily say she’s one of my best girlfriends in the entire world. We’ve stayed up late giggling and singing, hiked and hugged trees and swam in rivers, and had some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever been a part of.

The first time I came to her home was for spring break during our freshman year of college. She took me cross country skiing to a cabin that some of her family friends built by hand (no power tools!), and then she took me on my very first backpacking trip at Point Reyes. I loved both of these adventures, but what I remember most about that trip was how included and loved I felt with her family. It’s been a happy place ever since in my memory.

This time, I’m back for Hannah’s wedding, and I could not be more honored and delighted and totally overwhelmed by how much love there was, not only at the ceremony last night, but as I’ve been here helping for the last several days. Hannah’s family is deeply intertwined in this community, and people demonstrated such an incredible amount of support, creating decorations and food and moving tables and chairs around in 100+ degree heat. I’ve been crashing at her house, and I’ve had so much fun painting signs and chopping veggies for appetizers at the rehearsal dinner, and carrying anything. I’ve met Hannah’s friends from all different parts of her life and reunited with some of our college friends. In the midst of everything, Hannah still carved out two hours to pick me up from the airport and to chat with me about my life and what we’ve been thinking about lately.

Another good example of the love here: Hannah and her (now husband!!!!!!!) Ben decided to opt for a less-traditional wedding theme and combine Star Wars and Lord of the Rings into a fantasy land of awesomeness. Everyone showed up in costume, including her grandfather in the Leia buns and dress. My costume experienced a bit of a setback when the green dress I wanted to be an elf archer didn’t come on time, so I rushed to grab a back up plan. What I ended up wearing consisted of my mom’s cowboy boots, Hannah’s sister’s socks, a brand new friend’s white tunic, Hannah’s dad’s bow and a pair of earrings I stole from Hannah herself years ago. Only my brown leggings, camisole, quiver and arm guards were actually mine! People gave freely and without thinking about it, and I wasn’t even the person of interest.

Yesterday, the day of the wedding, we all headed to the ranch where it was going to take place and set things up for several hours. At 11:30, we headed off grab lunch and go to one of Hannah’s favorite places: the Yuba river. After a (SUPER HOT) short hike, we jumped in the water for a bit and then ran back to the wedding site. Supposed to be back by two-thirty for celebrations starting at 4? Definitely arrived at 3:20. But Hannah has collected the kind of friends who a) will jump in a river and not worry about their hair and b) can totally handle getting ready for a wedding, in less than an hour, with only one bathroom between eleven girls. We had a blast braiding hair and gluing elf ears, and watching Hannah transform from hiking river girl to absolutely stunning bride. This is the kind of girly-ness I really do love.

The ceremony itself was beautiful and multi-part and incorporated lots of Jewish rituals (my knowledge of Yiddish had probably quadrupled in the last three days). I won’t try to explain it all, but I will tell you it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. All the cliché things people say about weddings, the radiant bride, the crying mothers, the perfect light…all of it was true last night. I cried through both ceremonies and afterwards when I got to tell Hannah how much I loved her. I danced until I had blisters and laughed harder than I have in a very long time. And after we cleaned up, we all lost our heads a bit and ended up paddling around in the pool on the property, most of us still in our dresses and costumes!

I like to write. I love stories and words. But how could I ever begin to explain how much my friendship with Hannah means to me? How could I describe how much I loved coming home with her and experiencing her community? How could I possibly capture this weekend?

I didn’t even try. At least, not in words.

A year ago, when Hannah called me to tell me she got engaged, I knit two nine inch by nine inch squares out of some left-over turquoise yarn in a basket weave pattern. And over the course of this last year, I’ve (very sporadically) worked on creating 46 more squares and sewing them together to create a blanket. There were months where I forgot about it, and a lot of frantic knitting and sewing in these last couple of weeks! (I actually finished it here, on the floor of Hannah’s guest room.)

When I knit, every stitch is a good wish, a thank you, and a promise. They’re little tiny good thoughts, but they add up. And I thought it was a nice metaphor for building a life together. It’s a series of small things.

And when I knit, I don’t do it in isolation. Mom taught me how to make cable patterns. Granny helped me lay out all the blocks so the colors were balanced. The whole thing is a work of love. And it’s a way for me to say it without fumbling around with words and clichés.

My friends are so incredibly important to me. Hannah’s given me more sunshine and support than I thought possible.

Your homework today is very similar to some other homework I’ve given before, but I think it’s worth doing twice. How do you show your people you love them? Try to find a way to demonstrate that this week!

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Constraints

In the last month, I’ve had three individual people in my life (some of whom don’t know each other AT ALL) mention creativity as a crucial part of their life. Stephen, who is an applied mathematician at Cambridge, mentioned he’d started composing violin music again. Matt, who is a Knowles Fellow teaching math in Washington, noted that he used to play music and missed it. My mom and I had a conversation about how lesson planning is satisfying because of the creativity.

Because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and how it is a thread that runs through lots of parts of my life. So this month of May I’m going to focus on creativity, and how it plays out through being an adventurer, a nerd, and an old-lady-hobbit.

Most of my own creative outlets (that come immediately to mind) are firmly in the nerd or hobbit category. I write short stories and fan-fiction. I plan lessons. I play (infrequently, now) the flute and piano. I knit. Baking and cooking can be creative. But there is also creativity in being an adventurer, and an adventurous spirit can lend itself to creativity in really important ways.

Start talking with any back country skier and you’ll open a vault of stories about good lines and bad lines and choosing lines and dreaming about lines. They’re obsessed. (A line is a path you choose down a slope, for non-skiers). There is huge creativity in designing a line for maximum thrill and at least a modicum of safety, whether that means dropping a cliff or avoiding an avalanche (the lead picture is the Wikipedia definition of avalanche…looks like a bad time). Even though I ski almost entirely in-bounds of a designated ski area, I love to take new interesting lines between trees, especially aspens that no one else has tried yet. So in this way, there is a lot of creativity in skiing.

Now, most of my time on skis wasn’t in the trees. I spent most of my time on a race course. And in a race course there are gates that tell you where to turn. Miss a gate, and you get disqualified. This seems like a huge limit on creativity.

But here’s the thing. I think in a lot of cases, creativity flows best under constraints. A race course has a set of gates everyone has to ski, true. But at the end of the run, there will be a huge variety of lines carved into the snow. I usually tried to make my turn as much above the gate as I could. Some racers pin it at the gate and make a lot of the turn below it. Really good racers can hold the entire course in their head and figure out where to go straight and where to set up a big turn in order to carry momentum. The ability to find the fastest line through a set of constraints (plus the ability to then actually ski that line) is what makes a truly great ski racer fast.

Mountain biking is very much the same way. One way to look at a trail is as a limit; riders have to stay on the single track. However, I love riding a trail where I know exactly how to take on obstacles and where to shift up and where to give a little more power, where to be precise and where to let it flow a little bit. The creativity is not in the trail, but in the approach to the trail.

Constraints lead to innovation. They require the creator to be thoughtful about how to navigate what already exists in a new way. Without constraints, there is no challenge to really be creative. Most modern technologies were invented in the midst of and because of constraints.

It requires bravery and a certain fortitude to look at constraints as a good thing instead of hardships. I struggle with this in every single part of my life. It’s easy to wish for more time or resources, for better weather or more strength. But there’s no challenge in that. I think part of the joy of creating comes from overcoming some sort of challenge. I’ve learned the most from situations where what I was trying to do seemed impossible and I had to be creative to figure out how to make it possible.

Doesn’t that just sound like an adventurer? “What I was trying to do seemed impossible, and I had to figure out how to make it possible.” This could be a quote from any pioneer who skied a new line, climbed a new mountain, or traveled to a new place.

Your homework: Where do you get to be creative in your life? How do you think constraints influence your creativity?

Hej då,

Jamie

Seeking the Summit

In my life thus far, I’ve had quite a bit of experience with goal setting. I had meetings with my ski coaches every fall  (and bike coaches every spring) to set goals. I had strength and agility standards to meet. I had race series I wanted to qualify for and top speed records to break. In school, I had sporadic G-T (gifted and talented) meetings to talk about my academic potential. I wanted to be good enough for top scholarships and universities.

When I went to college and learned a bit about writing grants, I encountered a whole different way to think about goals and measuring progress. I learned about SMART goals – goals that were Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Realistic (or Relevant), and Time-bound. I learned to laugh at the girl who had eagerly told her coaches she wanted to ski in the Olympics. That wasn’t a realistic goal. I had no benchmarks between where I was and that end point.

And then I became a teacher. Teaching is FULL of goals. Standardized test score goals. Building-wide goals, department goals, individual goals. Goals driven by data, by current trends, by whoever your evaluator might be. Goals born out of professional development and dreams of what my classroom could (should) look like.

This is the first weekend of my spring break and I’m finding myself looking back at a lot of goals I made in September, shaking my head, and laughing ruefully. Maybe it’s because it’s March and I’m exhausted, but those goals seem completely ridiculous to me right now. I feel a bit like I’m looking at the girl who wanted to go to the Olympics. You wanted to have every assessment planned before you started the unit? Yeah right. You wanted to call parents once a week, ha ha. You wanted to incorporate formative assessment into your classroom on a regular basis and put learning in the hands of the students; what a sweet thought.

For this first weekend I packed up and came home to Steamboat. I’ve written a bit before about how absolutely wonderful it is to come home; Mom cooks, Jeffrey teases the life out of me, I play my piano and laze around in my Hufflepuff sweatpants. (What, you don’t have Hufflepuff sweatpants?) And I knit. Mom and I sit on the couches across from each other and duel with our knitting needles. And while we do this, we spend hours talking about anything and everything.

Last night we talked about my dream classroom. We were talking about all those goals at I had in September – students being meta-cognitive about their learning, awesome leveled assessments, and about differentiation. Especially in Anatomy and Physiology, I have students with completely different purposes for learning in my room. Some kids need another science credit to graduate or had too many free blocks. Some kids want to be neurosurgeons and are applying for pre-med programs. Some want to be personal trainers or dieticians, and some are just curious about why they get hiccups.

So we started building this dream-classroom, with strong class culture and student choice and opportunities for everyone to learn and grow. But instead of being inspiring, this felt crushing. How on earth was I supposed to create something like this?

For one thing, I trained to be a MOLECULAR biologist. I can tell you a bit about proteins and biochemistry. I can’t name even half the bones in the body. I don’t know what most hormones do. I reread the textbook before every unit so I know what on earth I’m talking about. For another thing, I’m already overwhelmed just trying to make sure I have a lesson every day for them, let alone an awesome lesson or a creative project or multiple options for them to explore. If I’m struggling to meet the normal expectations of a teacher, how do I ask myself to do more?

I know a lot of this feeling is because it’s March, and like I mentioned earlier, I’m fried. In my rant, I snapped out that I don’t need to be looking at a dream classroom. I need to be figuring out something that’s realistic for me to do for the rest of the year. Mom came back with equally valid logic; in order to move forward I need something to shoot for. It was past my bedtime and I was cranky (and I knew it), so I subsided with a grumble and took myself to bed.

This morning, we got up early and snowshoed up to the top of the gondola. It’s not an easy hike; it’s only just about two miles but over 2000 feet of elevation gain. This morning it started warm – about 36o F – and spitting corn snow. We hit the cloud ceiling about a third of the way up and it started snowing harder, with a gentle wind. My right eyelashes kept collecting ice crystals and my ponytail was completely stiff. The trees, lift towers, and other hikers were ghost-like in the fog.

I was delighted at the return of nearly-proper winter! It’s fun to pit myself against the elements and see how far I can go. I love the feeling of my hamstrings and quads contracting and releasing, moving me one step higher. I love the stingy feeling of blood pumping through my cold hands and cheeks. I think it’s hilarious how my hair turns into a demented Christmas ornament, all twisted and frosted.

One thing we definitely couldn’t see was the summit. Normally the lodge that also houses the top of the gondola looms over Heavenly Daze, the ski run we climb up. It can be a bit daunting, looking up at it and knowing exactly how far away I am. I tend to take tiny steps when I’m hiking up something steep, so it’s A LOT of steps for me to get to the top.

As Mom and I paused to catch our breaths, a woman on skins came up behind us. She stopped for a moment too, and looked over at us. “Crazy weather,” she announced. “It’s way harder to do this when I don’t know how far up I am!”

“We’re on the last steep pitch,” I offered. I’ve basically lived on this hill my whole life, so I was certain I was right. The other lady nodded and continued on with a cheery farewell. Mom and I started trudging up behind her.

I was wrong, in case you were curious. I thought we were a pitch higher than we were. Don’t be overconfident in low visibility, friends. My dad can tell an awesome story about how he got 180turned around in a snowstorm while hunting one time. He thought his compass was broken!

The symbolism of all of this was not lost on me. I told Mom wryly that this sounded an awful lot like a conversation we’d had last night. She laughed at me and just continued hiking.

I like reading mountaineering stories, of climbers on Everest and K2 (that’s the picture at the top this time) and other famous peaks. It’s interesting to see how the summit captures their whole focus, how that goal can become consuming. Mountaineers are incredible because they allow their desire to get to that goal to carry them through huge difficulties, sometimes past when it would be smart to turn back. Often the writers or the people who watch them climb wonder what it is about the summit that drives the climbers to try superhuman feats.

Now, the top of the gondola is in no way comparable to the summit of K2, but it is still  satisfying to get up there. It is much easier to sit around in my aforementioned sweatpants and drink tea. (Trust me, that’s what I’m currently doing, and I’m deeply enjoying it.) But I also enjoyed pushing myself past physical discomfort in order to reach that summit.

Mom (and the lady skinning up) is right – it’s easier when we can see the top. Just the same as it’s easier to practice a piano piece when I know what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s easier to attempt a new bread recipe when I know what it’s supposed to taste like. And it is easier to become a better teacher when I know what good teaching looks like.

So what I’m left with is a lot of questions. Why are goals sometimes motivating and sometimes not? When are expectations something to rise to and when are they a burden to carry? Where is the line between challenge and struggle? Is there a difference between a goal and a dream?

That’s your homework and mine, this time.

Hej då,

Jamie

The Technical Delegate

Happy February! We finally made it to February! Since I started back to school on January 2nd, this month has felt long. Very, very long. But it is in fact February, so it’s time for an adventure post!

Today I’m going to give you a window into the world of ski racing, and especially ski race officiating. I ski raced for fifteen of my twenty-five years, and I’ve been a ski race official for nearly eight years now. Many of the life skills I can claim now I learned from ski racing. But that’s another story.

For those who are not winter sports enthusiasts, I was an alpine ski racer. There are different kinds of alpine racing, depending on how big the turns are. The smallest turns are in an event called slalom. The next biggest turns are in an event called GS (giant slalom), then the next biggest even is called super G (which stands for super giant slalom!). The biggest turns of all, and the highest speeds, create a downhill.

(Even if you knew all of that, click on the videos anyway. I spent way too much time trying to pick out my favorite racers and courses and such. Every single one of those racers is one of my heroes!)

Ski racing was amazing, but while I was racing I never gave a lot of thought to the people who were running the race. It actually takes A LOT of people to make a race happen! At absolute minimum, you need nine certified officials, plus twenty-five-ish volunteers, to make a race happen. So let me walk you through exactly what it takes to put on a ski race.

I’ll start with the volunteers. These are usually the parents helping out, and they’re super awesome! Gate keepers stand on the side of the hill and make sure all the racers go around all the gates. Course crew is in charge of keeping the course from getting too rutty (bumpy) and replacing broken gates.

And then there are the certified officials. The Race Administrator handles all the paperwork required for the race: the athlete entries, the start orders, the official results. The Chief of Timing is in charge of running the clocks and the computer; usually that person has an assistant also. The Chief of Course is the leader of the course crew, and is responsible for all the shovels, extra gates, and protective fencing. Two of my favorite positions are the Start Referee and the Finish Referee. They stand at the start and finish, respectively, and are responsible for ensuring the correct athlete goes out of the start or through the finish at the right time. I love working at the start because I like getting to interact with the racers. Everyone is excited at the start!

Then there are the three jury members: the referee, the chief of race, and the technical delegate. These are the people responsible for making any race-day decisions. The referee is usually also a coach because their job is to represent the athlete. The chief of race is the local hill’s representative and has one of the hardest jobs because they do all of the pre-race work to get everything organized. And the technical delegate, or TD, is the representative of the governing body, either USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association, and yes I know there is an S missing) or FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski, for higher-level races that qualify for international rankings).

The TD is the person responsible for making sure the race is safe and fair and the rules are followed. Normally the chief of race and referee do most of the work, but the TD can step in if the other two jury members miss something or don’t agree. In short, the TD is the top official on the hill.

I’ve been spending some of my time this winter getting certified to be a USSA-level TD. I took a written test in November about the rules of ski racing, and then I’ve completed two shadow-TD assignments. In these, I get to follow the TD around and learn from everything they’re doing on the hill. If you’re an educator, it’s like a classroom observation. I did my first shadow at home in Steamboat at one of my favorite annual races. The Holiday Classic is a series of slalom events at Howelsen Hill (that’s the picture at the top). One of the races is a night race, and the whole town turns out for the party! I did my second shadow at Beaver Creek and got to watch a top-notch race organization do what they did best. It was a very easy assignment in some ways, but it was also really good for me to see how a good race should look.

I’m currently in the middle of my third and final shadow, which is like a practical exam (or student teaching). I have a real certified TD with me, but I’m the acting TD and doing all of the normal TD things. I’m doing this one at Eldora, which is very close to where I live in Boulder. Hooray for getting to sleep in my own bed!

Being a TD is fun because you get to consider all of the things that ALMOST never happen. What do you do if a moose/fox/squirrel/raccoon/elk runs onto the course and interferes with a racer? What do you do if the timing doesn’t work correctly? (The variations on exactly how the timing can fail and what you do to fix it are ENDLESS.) What do you do if an athlete misses their assigned start position? What do you do if it starts snowing half way through the race and you get two feet in two hours? How and why do you disqualify an athlete? What requirements for the spacing between gates? (Every event and age group has their own set of rules, just to keep it exciting!) What equipment are athletes permitted to use? The list of questions goes on. And on. And on. (And yes, all of these are real situations. Including the moose.)

For a different sports analogy, and in honor of the fact that some of you will be watching a game of it tomorrow afternoon, let’s take football. The 2012 Super Bowl was the Giants-Patriots rematch, and the very first points scored in that game went to the Giants. They scored a safety because Tom Brady got called for an intentional grounding penalty in his own end zone. Yeah. Consider that for a moment. These weird things do happen, and the officials have to know it all.

(And then, for a laugh, consider the fact that I remember this vividly only because that was the spring I spent living in Sweden. I was trying to teach football rules to my new friends from Germany and France. We were still trying to figure out what a yard was. It was a very fun night, but it was a little confusing for them!)

I love being around ski racing, and talking about ski racing, and listening to the crack-thwack of hitting slalom gates. I love the first run of the day; we get to go up very early to set the course and I’ve watched sunrises from the tops of many Colorado mountains that way. I love being outside all day and hanging out with the other officials and coaches.

But there is nothing I love more than sharing a race  course with my dad. He’s taught me everything I know about being a good official, and we spend hours on the phone swapping stories about crazy situations so if we ever see something similar we have some idea of what to do. I’m really lucky because I’ve spent years listening to my dad tell stories. He became a ski race official when I was racing in middle school. This gives me a lot of second-hand experience to draw on when something weird happens. Because, inevitably, something weird WILL happen.

At the moment I’m sitting here writing this knowing that my face is an interesting combination sunburned and windburned (I swear I put on sunscreen, but at 10,000 some feet it doesn’t matter much), my backpack is full of wet gear and old start lists, and the road up the canyon is windy and icy. Tomorrow I get to go back on the hill for eight hours of standing in ski boots in winter weather conditions, watch over 100 athletes come down the hill, and fill out paperwork at the end. For some people, this makes me completely insane. But ski people will understand when I say I couldn’t be more excited.

Tomorrow’s my last day of TD shadowing; once all the paperwork gets turned in from this race I’ll officially be a certified TD. It’s a wonderful way to give back to a sport I love, to meet new people who also love the mountains, to go outside, and to nerd out about ski racing rules with my dad. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Your homework: What’s one really obscure body of knowledge you know A LOT about? (Like, for example, alpine ski racing rules…) How did you learn about it? How do you maintain ties to the things you loved as a child?

Happy adventuring this February!

Hej då,

Jamie