September glory

September was always my favorite month as a child. Now it flies by so fast that every attempt I make at capturing its beauty in writing fails. The gorgeous late days of September deserve poetry better than any I could write. The orange-yellow-pink sunrise over the Potomac River last weekend is etched in my mind and on my Facebook feed forever. The early morning air dehumidifies and greets us like an old friend. For the first time in months, outside feels better than inside. Too bad that September is one of the busiest months for teachers, and we have less time than ever to truly enjoy the changing seasons.

That’s what made my weekend trip to Maine so special.  Up north, it seems people cherish the good weather more than we do in the DC area. Maybe because Mainers live “the way life should be.” Maybe because the winters are so harsh, they enjoy the last heated rays of the sun that linger over lakes, coves, and bays. We took a motorboat into one of the many coastal waterways and saw a seal, some osprey, a kingfisher or two, and several bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s late September but my son and my husband went swimming in the Kennebec River with an old friend. I swam in a lake that I had just canoed across. Later, while I was bundled in several layers, hovering near a bonfire, true Mainers were wearing shorts and sandals, reluctant to acknowledge that summer was really over.

We spent part of the long weekend at a farm, where more than a dozen of my husband’s former Woodsmen’s Team classmates gathered. We had a tour of a self-sustaining farm, where they grow all the vegetables they eat throughout the year, and raise and butcher their own livestock. They have solar panels that make enough energy to sell back to Maine Power Company. They produce aged goat cheese and bake their own bread. They have engineered their own wheat threshers, made a fire pit out of an old tire rim, and grow peppers inside a greenhouse all winter. The farm couple clearly loved having the reunion at their place, but they never stopped working the entire time we were there. If that’s the way life should be, it is an exhausting way of life.

I think of the Great Outdoors especially fondly at this time of year as I commute 30 minutes to a climate-controlled school building where the only light I see all day is man-made. Teaching is like farm work in many ways – it’s just as unrelenting, it’s seasonal, with a schedule determined by some cycle that’s not quite in my control. The work is intrinsically rewarding, like farming, with its own harsh realities. It’s the life I chose, even though it keeps me away from the natural world that soothes me.

So now, I want to capture every beautiful outdoor moment. Because everything changes in late September, and not just the back-to-school busy-ness that takes over. The enjoyment of nature will soon become a luxury, and I’ll be happy to have an indoor job. Fortunately I have the ability to travel and see how other people live, and I have the weekends to reconnect with who I am during the good weather.

farmhouse in Maine

sheep are cool

Crossed It Off My Bucket List

As I reflect on the summer and start planning the new school year, it feels good to say that I have crossed a few things off my Bucket List. I traveled to El Salvador. Check. I went skydiving – okay, it was indoor skydiving. Check. I raced in a rowing regatta. Check. I’ve read 19 out of the 28 books I set out to read in 2019. Check. And finally, I biked 150 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. Check. School starts up next week for students – and I feel good, accomplished. I’ve got a clear model for the “What I did this summer” essay.  But I might change up the format this year.

I’m wondering if other teachers do this during the summer. When my kids were little, summer was filled with family travel and family activities. Now that they’re grown, I can focus more on my own wants and needs. It’s liberating to be at this phase of life. And I’m lucky to have friends willing to go along with me.

I’ve spent a week getting ready for the students to come back after Labor Day. The night before school starts, I usually need a quiet, calm place to gather my thoughts and run through the plans I’ve so carefully made. This year, I think I’ll change up one of the the get-to-know-you activities. For my advanced ESOL 5 students, they’re going to create a six-word memoir, like the famous Hemingway one. For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn. I’ll show slides with several examples and a short video. Then I’ll show them my model. I’ve got the perfect title, with a photo to explain it.

Take your eyes off the clock

One of the things about being a full time K-12 teacher is that it takes several weeks after school ends to emerge as a whole person. I’m more than halfway through summer break and I finally feel like the real me.

In late June I started off the summer by traveling to El Salvador – not exactly a top tourist destination. It was for a graduate course on Visual Literacy as a Tool for Cultural Proficiency in the Classroom – how could I not go? That was almost the exact title of my last WATESOL presentation! Perfect synchronicity! Since I have so many students from El Salvador and Central America, I wanted to try to understand a little more about their country and culture. I also wanted a chance to speak Spanish every day in an authentic setting. And I’m getting graduate credits!

Laberinto Projects Educa was the perfect way to combine education and tourism – an experience led by a woman who grew up in San Salvador, a child of immigrant refugees, who is trying to keep her mother’s art legacy alive. Her personal story is a powerful entry into learning about the Salvadoran Civil War, the gangs, and how ordinary people are trying to find a way to make a difference. Our group of DC area teachers had several powerful lectures by local artists, a photo-journalist, a museum curator, an archeologist, a seed conservationist, and a gallery owner. We were able to travel around the western part of the country with a trusted driver. Everywhere we went we were the only tourists. In one colorful mountain town, villagers took photos of us taking photos.

Not everyone has the chance to kickstart their summer vacation like me, but I feel empowered. Now that I have had some down time, I’ve been able to catch up on exercise, my family, and my reading.

I subscribe to a blog called Curmudgucation that I absolutely love. It’s written by a retired teacher who stands up for public education. It’s usually more political than the following post, but I want to share it anyway. Time flies during the summer, and sometimes teachers need a reminder to unlearn certain behaviors that develop over the 10 months we’re jogging on the conveyor belt of the school year.

This is from the July 26th Curmudgucation blog, about teachers needing the summer to unlearn some things.

Here are some things I have had to learn.

* Measure out time in increments larger than 30 seconds. It is not necessary to squeeze achievements into every second of the day, particularly when you could be using the time to interact with the other carbon based life forms in your home.

* Eat a meal in more than five minutes.

* Read a book without repeatedly thinking, “I could use this in class for my unit about X.”

* Read a book that you couldn’t possibly use for class ever.

* Visit an interesting location without grabbing pamphlets for your classroom.

* Moving through your day without a gnawing sense of urgency that there’s something you should be grading, reading, planning or reviewing.

* Figuring out what to do with the uncontrollable urge that hits every time you learn something new, which is the urge to pass it on to somebody else.

* Understanding that you might never not be a teacher, and you’re going to have to figure out what to do with that.

* Exercise. Because you’re not walking ten miles a day any more.

* Face you’re unreasonable addiction to office supplies.

* Talk yourself out of running for school board.

* Seriously. You can take fifteen or twenty minutes to eat lunch. Take a breath between bites. Chew your food. Talk to somebody.

* Take your eyes off the clock.

 

 

Memorial Day

May 28, 2019

Memorial Day has come and gone. I’ve read the stories of soldiers who fought and died for freedom, watched the parades, and listened to the commentators praise our military service members. I’ve stood facing the flag with my hand over my heart five days a week and said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a room full of immigrants and recited the words, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But I’m not feeling it this year. I understand that my perspective may be in the minority and it might make me unpopular; I’ll say it anyway. I’m a little bit angry about all the praise for war.

Don’t get me wrong. My father, my mother, and my uncles fought in World War II. My cousin served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His name is engraved on the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve taken my students there and pointed out Peter M. Sullivan on Panel 15E, Line 10. They were impressed when the docent climbed a ladder to create a rubbing for me. It made the experience a little more real for them. My students from Vietnam were silent. Even though we’d read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, later they told me, “Miss, I thought we were going to see something about my culture!” They understood that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not about them. They helped me see it in a new light.

I have cousins in the Army today, and I’m sure they are making a sacrifice to serve in the military. I am not against giving people respect for the jobs they do. But why aren’t we giving the same respect to people actively promoting peace? to students who lose their lives to gun violence in schools? According to Education Week , and the Washington Post more American students died from mass shootings than died during active-duty combat while serving their country in the U.S. military. There have been 13 school shootings so far this year in the USA. Wikipedia says that there have been 48 school-shooting deaths since January 2018. I have had to conduct active-shooter drills in my classroom. There’s no honor in preparing for some crazy person with a gun who wields more power than I do. His rights are firmly protected by the Constitution and the NRA. What about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t want to put down the work of our military; they have an important role. But when the focus is so strongly on the heroism of death, why aren’t we honoring the teachers and students who face a lunatic gunman and come out alive? Instead we get Parkland students mocked and threatened for daring to speak out after surviving a school shooting where 17 children were gunned down. They were followed around by badass NRA-provoked warriors in tank-like vehicles. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? *

Why aren’t we honoring people who bring peace to our communities? The Martin Luther Kings of the future? The activists and leaders who speak out against killing and preventable gun violence? In 1961 President Kennedy founded the U.S. Peace Corps. My ESOL 5 students started a unit about it this week. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I served this country. I raised my right hand and swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. More than 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. We’ve never gotten an entire holiday dedicated to our service.  What about all the Foreign Service workers and diplomats? The ones who do the actual work of promoting the interests of the United States? I served again as an English Language Fellow helping promote American ideals overseas. Why is peaceful service not being honored?

All the flag waving feels hollow to me. I don’t want to glorify death via military service or any other way. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? Next Memorial Day, I will honor the peacemakers.

* Hot off the press! Parkland school journalists win Pulitzer Prize!

 

Am I less valued because I teach low-income students?

I’m re-posting this piece I wrote 3 years ago.

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Time to make noise (again.

Here’s another great voice for the need to support teachers of low socio-economic-status students in this EdWeek article. Bruce Hansen mentions that when he received the “golden apple award” his colleagues assumed that he would pursue an easier job at a school in a high-income district. He may feel guilty, but that’s exactly what he did. “There’s a perception that really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families,” he writes. He recommends that teachers get special training “from university educators,” who develop specialized techniques and curricula. But the reason Mr. Hansen left his job has nothing to do with curriculum or training. He left because he did not receive enough support.

I’ve been teaching high-poverty English Language Learners for 15 years and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. When students are so needy every day, it can be emotionally and physically draining. We don’t need more university educators telling us what to do.  We need compassionate administrators who understand what it’s like to “work in the trenches.” We need a network of like-minded teachers and student counselors who can prevent us from being traumatized by the traumas of our students. At the end of the day, I can get in my car and drive back to my leafy suburb. It’s important for teachers of high poverty students to be mentally healthy.

Unfortunately many low-income schools are where new principals get placed to learn the ropes before moving on, where teachers involuntarily transferred land, and where there’s high teacher turnover and little administrative support. I’m proud to say that this practice is not prevalent in my mixed-income school. However, I definitely get a feeling that I count less than teachers of AP and IB students heading to Harvard. My administrator has never set foot in my classroom to give his famous Timeline speech, in spite of my annual plea to come for a visit. However, he is very supportive in other ways. And that makes all the difference.

I also have a union that backs me up at the district level, full access to excellent training resources, and local leadership that listens to teachers and gives priority to education. Now if they could just add back that hour of time that Daylight Savings took away, I could get a lot more done in 24 hours.

 

 

 

Boxed In – Help!

During the holidays, I ordered a lot of items to be delivered directly to my house. I’m not an Amazon person – except for books – but I have been a Catalogue Queen for two decades. Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Garnet Hill, and DHC are among my favorites. Each item comes in a box that is sometimes so beautiful that I don’t want to throw it away!

Lands End used to have a holiday themed coloring outline on the inside of its boxes. When the kids were little, we used to cut open each one carefully and spend hours on the floor with crayons and markers. It was a surprisingly fun holiday activity when we lived overseas. Now I have no such excuse to keep the boxes, but they are filling up my basement and cluttering up my life.

To make matters worse, my son seems to have inherited this disturbing habit. Just when I start to clean them out, he orders another Japanese robot collectible. Each comes mindfully packaged in high-quality cardboard. Like me, he thinks, “That box would be a perfect container for something.” I brought some to work when we were cleaning out the book room, and those things proved to be quite sturdy. He must have noticed the same properties because, when I got home, they were filled with my books. And his Japanese transformers now cover the bookshelves. Where is Marie Kondo when I need her? These changes do NOT spark joy!

While I was living in Laos last year, my sister sent a message. “What do you want from the house?” They were clearing out my mother’s home of almost 50 years, and I wasn’t ready to stake a claim. “I don’t want anything,” I replied. It was an honest reply. Until she sent photos of each room: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the TV room, the bedrooms. “Some things will go to the new house, some will go to family members, and the rest will be donated,” she wrote. I suddenly wanted some mementos. Antique family treasures now form the foundation of the Basement Box Room.

Help! I’m looking for inspiration to overhaul my house. And maybe my life. Please don’t tell me to kick out my son. That will come in due time. But what do I do with these things?!

 

Boxed sets – empty

My 2018 Heroine’s Journey…

I’m reading a book called You Are a Heroine, A Retelling of the Hero’s Journey, written by  Susanna Liller (a friend). In it she describes the journeys we all take throughout our lives. She names the steps along the way, provides practical exercises to help women hear “the Call,” and provides encouragement with her own real-life stories of heroines who are traveling this time-honored path. It’s a good way to think about my 2018, which has indeed been a journey.

It started with a swim in the warm pool right outside my apartment in Vientiane, Laos, where I was living. It finished with a dip in a hot tub surrounded by snow in the mountains of Maryland. In between January 1st and December 31st, I traveled to 10 countries, attended a wedding, a funeral, and a family reunion. I lay in a hospital bed, alone, in Thailand for five days, where I recovered from a bone infection. In the jargon of the book, I traveled through the Belly of the Whale, I met some Mentors, became a Mentor, and had to deal with some Dragons (women don’t slay their dragons; they invite them out for tea). I have crossed the Return Threshold and am trying to figure out what it all means and how to share what I’ve learned with others.

Several friends and family members traveled to Laos to visit me during my 10-month Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State.  I became a tour guide, a culture broker, and a companion for my visitors. I shared photos of exotic places on Facebook, and friends back home loved my captions. I felt an obligation to teach about the country where I was living. I accepted new Lao friends on social media – something I never would have done two years ago. My public profile and my private life are intermingled now in a way I’ve grown to cherish. Laos is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and I’ve been getting wonderful Happy New Year messages for a couple of days. To imagine someone across the world thinking about me, carefully choosing a little gif in English, and sending it to me is a gift I would not have appreciated before I took a risk and moved overseas by myself.

Winter Break is a time for teachers to rest, renew, and recharge. For me, it’s a time to reconnect with my higher purpose. I love my job, but why did I take a year off to live abroad if not to share what I’ve learned with others? During this break, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I did in 2018 and what I want to do in 2019. I want to continue rowing and staying physically fit. I’m lucky to be part of a welcoming rowing community. However, I feel pulled to travel again, to write about my experiences. Maybe I’ll try a long bike trip next year. I’ve recently connected with fellow writers through social media, and done a couple of manuscript exchanges. We’re all writing about faraway countries. Maybe I’ll get published in 2019.

In 2018 I made a presentation at a professional TESOL conference that connected me back to the English Language Fellow program, exposed me to new opportunities, and helped me connect with international English teachers. I now have Twitter followers whose names I can’t even read because they’re in a language whose script I don’t understand! Some of my teacher friends have retired this year. I’m not quite ready for that, but I long to teach in a quieter way – without bells ringing every 50 minutes. We’ll see where summer 2019 will take me.

I have finished one heroine’s journey and I feel only marginally clearer, more focused, and more powerful. According to You Are a Heroine, self-reflection is a key component of  claiming one’s true identity. The Milestones I’ve reached this year were the results of micro-decisions that helped me widen my view of what is possible. On January 1st I will make some New Year’s Resolutions that will guide me toward the next Call. Thank you for sharing this journey with me!

fullsizeoutput_4e5a Sunset on the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2018.