Not All Accolades

To all the parents subject to end of the year festivities this week . . .

Maybe, amidst the pride for your child, there are other emotions.

Maybe the reminder that your child is another year older, another year closer to leaving your nest brings a sadness to the celebration.

Maybe all the social connections your child is making reminds you that her web is ever widening and you can’t climb each ring with her.

Maybe the fact that your child is not traveling in social circles makes you mourn the life you thought he should have had.

Maybe you’re dreading a long stretch of uninterrupted time with your child – not because you don’t love him, but because there are countless hours you are expected to fill and that’s an emotional burden your psyche is not prepared to bear.

Maybe you’ve done the math and know this is the year your child would’ve reached that big milestone – if he or she were still here.  

Maybe you’re just barely making it through the day and the thought of one more ceremony to attend is exhausting.

It’s okay for ambivalence, wistfulness, sadness, and annoyance to mix with the pride.

Parenting never asks just one thing of us.

I see it, I see you all.

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Fly on a Sticky Wicket

A second grader, hands still so small they remind you of the baby they grew out of not so long ago, eager to please, eyes full of wonder and mirth, proud to show her parent some of her schoolwork, excited because the parent is here, in her classroom. It is a special day, out of the ordinary. As she moves to retrieve her journal from its crate, a classmate in the front row sneers under his breath, “What do you think this is? A second open house?”

The parent in this scenario is me. The second grader is my daughter. The classmate in the front row is – rude? A bully? Jealous? The teacher in me found it hard not to reprimand this rude comment. The mother in me found it hard not to put this punk in his place. But because my daughter thankfully didn’t seem to hear it, because it wasn’t my place, and because it wasn’t my charge of children (ie my classroom) – I stepped back to assess the situation.

All teachers know that nearly all off-base comments are based on some insecurity hidden deep within the offending student. In the heat of a disruptive moment in one’s own classroom, it’s hard to remember or appreciate this, but as a parent privy to only this one comment and able to scoot back out the door I’d only just peeked into, it was easy to presuppose why this student may have made such a snarky comment.

As jazzed as my daughter was at my visit, there was a vacuum of other parents who couldn’t be in the room right then. Perhaps this young man was upset that his parent(s) couldn’t be there. Perhaps his parents have jobs that prevent a midday visit. Perhaps he’s angry or sad that his parents would never think to come into his classroom. Perhaps the obvious joy and pride in my daughter’s eyes reflecting in mine is something he can’t bear to see because this is the only time he will.

Perhaps it is unfair for me to make such presuppositions.

After many years of seeing students in action, however, I know that those students who you would least like to embrace are exactly the ones who need it most.

Not an easy task when they make hurtful comments, strike out at those around them, and have no other framework of operating to follow. There is no easy answer. Remember, I didn’t say anything . . .

But while there may be a reason for it, such behavior cannot be condoned. Had my child heard this hurtful comment, her joy would’ve been squashed as well. Her fragile nature, which I’d come into the classroom to build up, would’ve been diminished.

How do we support such children without discouraging others around them?

Education and Learning: A Mutual Understanding or Mutually Exclusive?

Believe it or not, I came home from a presentation on common-core requirements for kindergarten with a positive outlook on my child’s education.

“Surely, you jest,” you say.

No. I don’t.

The woman who facilitated the workshop, an early childhood educator with a masters in education, reminded me of the education professors I had in college, who were so excited about the learning process. Every moment was the teachable moment; every question or observation the origin of a journey they were willing to follow to its completion. It wasn’t about quantifiable results, but the complex ways in which our brains learned to work.

And this was the same thinking this presenter offered us. While children are expected to be able to name and recognize twenty letters of the alphabet upon entering kindergarten, that does not mean we should be drilling them with flashcards if they do not. Letter sounds and shapes are all around us; we can identify them on signs as we take a drive we needed to anyway. A lesson in classifying objects is as close and natural as mixing two boxes of puzzle pieces together on the floor. See the different ways your child separates them and make note of it. Basic math skills can happen at the dining table. If there are four people, but only three napkins on the table, ask your child how many more you need.

While all of these examples are seemingly ‘no-brainers’, it’s easy to lose sight of them during the course of a busy day. If we as parents are on our game, though, these are things we do innately every day. Likewise, all the insanely scripted tasks and goals of common-core are things good teachers do innately. People in charge of children with a true love of learning embed meaningful experiences into every activity.

This was what got me excited as I left that workshop. That there are still people, in the face of such crushing paper chases, who still marvel at making connections, flipping on the light bulb of learning, making that ‘a-ha’ moment happen. That is why people become teachers. That is what makes learning absolutely magical and powerful.

Unfortunately, that is not the direction in which education is moving. The hopeful feeling I had was tempered by the reality of the high stakes environment my daughter will experience upon entering school. She may not feel the pressure in kindergarten, but her teachers will and it will eventually filter down to her as she moves up in grades

I get it. We need to ensure that the millions of children across our country have an equal chance at quality education. We therefore need standardized language to articulate what that quality education will look like across the board. To assess adherence to and progress toward, we need quantifiable goals as part of this standardized language. All great ideas – in theory.

Essentially, the pie-in-the-sky learning process I described from my education classes in college was theory, too.

The future of education in America depends upon which theory will win.

SmART meets heART

When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum.  Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.

SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula.  Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect.  At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods.  That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building.  Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along.  Once, I convinced my entire team to come along.  While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.

While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies.  We acted out salient scenes.  We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures.  We played ‘games’ that built community.  We ‘became’ emotions.  We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way.  Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.

Through art, they became the book.  They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page.  And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them.  The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.

The PeaceLove Studio

The PeaceLove Studio

Fast-forward six years.  I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did.  Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health.  I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local.  Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.  I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now.  A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there.  That was my first real-world experience with the organization.  But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action.  Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.

PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”.  Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story.  First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell.  I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity.  It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.

My shoe-sterpiece!

My shoe-sterpiece!

As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out.  Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected.  Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot.  And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance.  Ultimately, it’s not about the details.  It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.

I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too.  We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes.  We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation.  I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that.  Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them.  It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.

"On the inside, we may feel empty, but we've left our mark nevertheless."

“On the inside, we may feel empty, but we’ve left our mark nevertheless.”

I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations.  I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.  I hear you.  I feel you.  I am with you.”

I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you.  Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.

If you walked in my shoes . . .

If you walked in my shoes . . .

To K or not to K

That is the question.

Whether tis nobler to stay home one more year,
gnoshing on animal crackers and coloring,

Or to load those neuron capacitors with ammo
so they may fire sooner and surer,
to better achieve their full potential.

Will planting you in the garden of kinder now make you blossom
or make your fragile shoot wither in the face of social corruption?

Will another year of playschool keep you pure, wondrous, awe-some
or hinder your thirst for knowledge as it’s satiated too easily?

Am I second-guessing the educational policy-makers-that-be
or my prospects for the next year –
my last with you
or my first of freedom
?

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