Teaching with Conviction

Taylor Mali might be one of my favorite slam poets. Honestly, this isn’t saying a whole lot, because I’m not really familiar with slam poetry. Mostly I see what pops up on my Facebook feed. But I regularly watch his poem about “What Teachers Make” when I’m getting frustrated with my job.

It’s here, if you need a pick-me-up at the end of the back-to-school rush.

And I also really like this one, about “Speaking with Conviction.” For one thing, his delivery is hilarious and I always get a giggle out of it. But I’m finding it more and more relevant to my life as I continue being a teacher.

There are a million and three decisions a teacher makes during the course of a school day. How do I phrase this concept? Do my kids really need two more minutes to finish this up? How long will this take kids to do? What’s the best way to support learning in this instant? Which kid with their hand up needs help first? Do I redirect that group in the back or give them a minute to see if they can pull it together? Do I answer that question or get the kids to think about it? I am constantly gauging my class and comparing the reality of my room to the lesson plan I made.

Sometimes my decisions have nothing to do with my lesson plan. Let’s take last Thursday as an example. I had a student say some really nasty inappropriate things two minutes into my ninety-minute block. When I asked this student to take a break, the student swore again and stomped out.

At this point, I had options. I could try to go after the student myself. I could send another teacher. I could email and/or call the assistant principle in charge of freshmen, or the campus supervisor. I could go talk to the other students involved in the situation. I could let the rest of my class keep working on their warm up. I could cut the warm up off and get the whole class focused on something different. And along with all these options, I had twenty-three eyes watching me, ready to learn from the way I reacted.

I chose to shoot off that email and move the class along. But when I did that, I couldn’t question my decision. I had to make it, and though I wasn’t speaking it, I had to act with conviction.

I’ve noticed this more with my classes of students who don’t trust or don’t feel successful in school. The more conviction I have in what I’m teaching and how I’m managing my class, the more they trust me and go along with me. When I hesitate, they wonder why. Kids are incredibly observant.

This is true of adults, as well, and in writing. When I’m trying to give someone new information, whether that’s biology facts or a story, I need to be clear in my own thinking before I can convey it clearly to another person. Teaching really is a year-long persuasive speech; I’m working with people who have their own conceptions of the world and how it works and I’m asking them to see the world in a different way.

Having conviction is incredibly important. It’s also incredibly exhausting! It means I need to know my own content backwards and forwards. It means I need to know my values and my chaos tolerance level so I can choose how to react in my classroom.

Outside my classroom, conviction is just as important. There are a million different narratives about public education, and what’s successful and what’s not. Knowing what I’m doing in my classroom and being able to explain that to others is critical for my department, my school, and my community to all be on the same page to support students.

Your homework: Where do you need conviction in your life? How do you generate the self-knowledge to stand in your conviction?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

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Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,

Jamie

Reading and Rereading

One of the only negative parent-teacher conferences I ever had as a student was with my seventh grade English and history teacher. Unbeknownst to me, she knew I’d been reading under my desk almost constantly in her class. I had discovered Anne McCaffrey wrote A LOT more books than I originally thought, and I was devouring anything by her I could get my hands on. So much for me being sneaky about it! My mom, I think, was more amused than mad at me, although I did have promise not to read in class anymore.

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. In one of my scholarship essays, I wrote about reading as something I really enjoyed.

“Reading opens up any world I choose; it’s a way for me to see other people’s point of view and learn their stories. There are books that require thought and analysis and challenge my perceptions, like Beloved. This kind of book changes how I think about myself and others, and inspires me to act on my newly acquired understanding. These books are not always easy to read, but they’re hugely rewarding because they have depth and themes that recur universally throughout life.

But reading can also be purely for pleasure, to take a break from reality and experience something completely different. There are books that are fun, like Twilight. They probably won’t change how I think or inspire me to do great things, but they make me laugh and not take myself too seriously, which is just as important. Other books are comfortable because I’ve reread them so many times; it’s like visiting old friends and reminiscing together.

I remember the first word I read in kindergarten: love. It was an appropriate first word to read because since that moment, I haven’t stopped. Reading has many roles in my life; the wide spectrum of possibilities is why I love it.”

In the interview process for that scholarship, one of the questions I remember was about this essay. One interview had noticed the incredible amount of time I poured into ski racing – upwards of 35 hours per week – and asked why I didn’t write about ski racing as the thing I enjoyed. I had to think for a minute. I hadn’t chosen to write about ski racing for any of my five essays for that application. Finally I told the panel that I did love ski racing. But ski racing is dependent on seasons, location, and having functional knees. It’s not something everyone can do, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something I could do forever. Stories unite people. Anyone can learn to read. It’s something I’ll have my entire life, and it’s purpose in my life will never change.

When I was in elementary and middle school, I used to imagine myself into the worlds I read about even once the book was no longer in my hand. I was a pioneer girl and sister to Laura Ingalls Wilder. I swam with dolphins and ran with wolves, I journeyed across the world, all while walking along side my mom in the grocery story.

(Alright, let me be really honest here. I still make up stories as I’m doing dishes or sorting papers or driving between Boulder and Longmont. This Friday evening, as I made dinner for Mom, I was imagining that I was the owner of a bed and breakfast in the Swiss Alps. If my imagination ever stops, I think life will be deeply boring.)

I love discovering new worlds and stories, but I also love rereading books. Like I mentioned in my essay, it’s like meeting up with old friends and reminiscing. Often I feel like I can see my younger self reading the books, and it’s fun to remember what I noticed and cared about the first time I read the book. But I’ve also noticed that as I’ve grown, some books’ meanings have changed or deepened for me. Some books (like Twilight) I’ve outgrown and likely won’t go back to. But all the books in the lead picture are books that have traveled with me from Steamboat to the many places I’ve lived within Boulder. Some of them even made the journey to Sweden and Panama. I love these characters and stories and the things I learn (and relearn) as I read them. Each of these books means something special to me.

(Those books are, from left to right on top, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, Picabo: Nothing to Hide by Picabo Street, and on bottom The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, The Ancient One by TA Barron, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma, The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg, and Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery.)

There are a couple (ok, more than a couple) authors whose books I would add: Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane,  Paulo Coelho, Carolyn Keene, Gary Paulson, Will Hobbs, Philip Pullman, Ann Brashares, Jane Austen, Deborah Ellis…really, there’s a reason I can’t carry all my books with me!

I cherish all of these stories for different reasons, but there are two series in particular that have been incredibly formative for me. I’ve already written about Harry Potter (and don’t worry, I’ll write about him more at some point) so today I’d like to tell you a little bit about my second-most-reread-series-of-all-time: Anne of Green Gables.

This is a series that has grown up with me. There are eight books in total, following Anne through her life and her children’s lives. When I was little I loved the first book, where Anne grows from age eleven to age fifteen. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate the later books in ways I didn’t before. My favorite while I was in college was Anne of the Island, because Anne was in college. Actually, I think that’s still my favorite, but someday I can imagine that I will have a different perspective on the books where Anne gets married and has children.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Anne Shirley in an orphan girl who is accidently sent to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, siblings in their mid-fifties who live at Green Gables. They originally wanted a boy to help with the farm, but through a miscommunication got Anne instead. Anne is red-haired, much to her dismay, talkative, and very imaginative. She gets into all sorts of scrapes but always with the best of intentions. I love her as a child and as an adult; I think it’s one of the best literary examples of character growth. There is a lot about Anne that I aspire to, especially as she matures.

At the moment, I’m especially appreciative of the fact that Anne never loses her imagination, not even as a mother of six. As I mentioned above, I certainly don’t ever want to lose mine. That’s part of why I continue to write, even when I’m writing something silly like fanfiction. Maybe especially silly things like fanfiction. As Anne would say, there’s just so much scope for imagination!

I got into the habit of rereading at least the first book every April my junior year of college when I was living in Sweden. Most years I also reread a couple more, though I haven’t yet made it through all eight since the first time I read them all. I don’t always read them in order, and sometimes I read more than one at a time. This year the urge to go back to Anne’s story crept up on me a bit earlier than normal, so I’ve already started into it. Perhaps this will be the year I actually get through them all again!

I could go on for a long time about why I love Anne – she inspires my nerd and also my old-lady-hobbitness. I love how much she loves flowers and trees and rambling walks outdoors. But, I’ll stop here for today and instead give you your homework!

Why do you read? Do you reread? Why or why not?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

Passion and Pleasure

I am currently subscribed to an email list called Project Happiness. They come in weekly cycles: Mindful Monday, Grati-Tuesday, Wednesday Wellness, Thoughtful Thursday, Freedom Friday, Social Saturday, and Soul Sunday. I like them because they remind me to make a thoughtful space in the mornings before the day gets crazy.

Last year, on May 1st, I received a really interesting one. It sparked me to write in what I call “thought process” style. I give up completely on grammar and punctuation and just see how many words I can get out at once. Sometimes I do this to get worry or stress down on paper, which helps me move past it. In this case, I wrote because it helps me make connections between disparate ideas, or clarify something that’s been confusing me. I’ve taken my blog post today to revisit two realizations I wrote about then.

This is what the Project Happiness email said:

Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” What if, just for today, you let happiness be the purpose for your existence. For the next 24 hours, embark on the oldest human adventure and dive deep into your inner world today. Whatever makes your soul happy, do that…”

My first response was disappointment. I got this on a Sunday, but I had only been mildly productive the day before (I bought myself a zen coloring book and happily lost about two hours that way) so I was feeling the pressure to knock some things off my to-do list. In particular, I was really behind on some work I needed to do for my Knowles teaching fellowship. There’s no way I can just follow my soul today, I thought. I have too much to do.

Then I wondered if I might be looking at this all wrong. I’ve had, for years, my Bodleian dream. It centers around having a really compelling question, diving deep into books that no one reads anymore, losing myself in our human inheritance of knowledge, creating something from the scraps and pieces and using it to change to the world! This Bodleian dream seems most real in a vast university library, which is why I named it after one of the most famous. (For anyone interested in this language and philosophy, I highly recommend reading Michael Oakeshott. There are, as in any philosophy, major issues, but there is something about it that really calls deeply to me.)

In some ways I felt like I’d missed my opportunity to pursue my Bodleian dream. I’m not a college student anymore, and when I was a college student I squandered my time on personal and relationship issues, on fanfiction, on anything but being a scholar and an academic. For reasons that were unclear to me then, I could not dredge up the motivation in myself to truly pursue this dream of research and learning. I think perhaps it came down to something very simple; I had nothing to research that I was passionate about. This sounds cliché, and I’m going to circle back to this idea of passion in a moment.

Now I do have something I pursue with energy and dedication. Teaching takes over my mind, heart, and soul in compelling, beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming ways. And my Knowles fellowship gives me a chance to dig back into inquiry, reflection, and the practice of asking really good questions. So perhaps that work with Knowles that was sitting on my to-do list actually was what my soul would lead me to. I was getting a second chance at my Bodleian dream. Or at least, a slightly modified version of it.

This thinking led me to my first realization; happiness is not derived solely from pleasure.

I find it pleasurable to read fanfiction and eat chocolate. But I also find these things, especially in conjunction with each other, can be really detrimental to me if I have nothing else happening in my life. There must be other components to happiness, I thought to myself. So I started brainstorming.

I find satisfaction in crossing things off my to-do list. I get fulfillment in digging deeply into content to learn and to then create a lesson plan. I feel great joy in seeing student growth. I feel the most present and alive when my heart is racing and my legs are straining as I push myself up a mountain; sore muscles never fail to make me grin. Chopping vegetables and folding my laundry are fairly mundane tasks, but cooking myself healthy meals and taking care of my things makes me feel like a competent adult.

These things are not pleasurable in the way that fanfiction and chocolate are, but they do contribute to my happiness. Especially in terms of my teaching, I do not work so that I can get time off to do something else. I do my work because I find it necessary and compelling. I am very passionate about my work.

And there it is again. This idea was at the center of my second realization; passion isn’t comfortable.

“Find what you’re passionate about! Pursue your passion!” I hear it all the time when our school does anything related to college or job searches. We tell our students (and ourselves) that if we find what we’re passionate about, we’ll never work a day in our lives. Passion seems to be some magic ingredient to make hard thing easy. I don’t think that’s true. At all. I think passion allows us to continue in spite of the hardness.

Teaching is hard. (That’s absolutely my desk at school one day last year in the picture at the top!) There are a lot of pieces that go into making a functional classroom and school; if you’re curious about what a day in my life as a teacher looks like I wrote this article for a friend’s project about understanding other people’s jobs. [Note – he’s redoing his website at the moment, so you can read the Google doc version for now. I’ll update this link when he gets his site back up!]

Though the list of responsibilities I have as a teacher is long, that’s not the hardest part of teaching. I currently have 172 students on my rosters. That’s 172 individual human beings with thoughts, feelings, and needs. That 172 different stories. Sometimes those stories are incredibly triumphant, and sometimes those stories absolutely break my heart. There are days when caring for my students takes every last drop of energy I have, and then demands more. I’ve had more mornings than I care to admit to where my alarm went off and I had to force myself out of bed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried for my students.

But I do get up. I dig around in myself and I find more energy and compassion than I thought I had. I push myself to revise a good lesson to make it awesome, to give students that extra bit of feedback, to let my own nerdy excitement for biology take over even when I’m exhausted. Yes, teaching is hard. But my passion drives me through that.

Passion isn’t comfortable. There are days I find myself wishing I wasn’t passionate about teaching. There are a million things I could do that would be easier. In fact, almost anything would be easier. Because if I wasn’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t care so much. I wouldn’t feel compelled to give so much. But when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade it. Not for anything.

Just as pleasure isn’t the only component of happiness, I don’t think passion is either. Without moments of pleasure and joy, without fulfillment, passion can drive a person into exhaustion. As with so many parts of life, there is a balance. And that, dear readers, is a third realization I’ve only now just had, in writing this to you.

I finished my thought process writing last May with this thought, and I still really like it. I wrote:

“So I am going to follow my soul today, but not by following just my limbic system. And it might not be the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever done, but it will be beautiful and bring me happiness in other ways.”

Your homework this time is a single question, but it’s likely going to be a complicated answer! What relationships do you see between the ideas of happiness, joy, pleasure, fulfillment, passion, and satisfaction?

Hej då,

Jamie

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