Monday, January 23, 2017

Struggling

I admit it:  I'm struggling with this blog.

Not the writing—I love the that part of it.  When I have a topic that works for me, my fingers fly and I capture what I'm thinking and I'm all, like, happy and stuff.

I'm struggling because I don't know what this blog is.  I know what I originally envisioned for it—a place where I ruminated on things related to leadership.  But I've noticed that "leadership" is a word that's getting pretty diluted these days.  Everyone is talking about it and lecturing on it, and I'm not sure I have anything new to add.  And I'm not really that important of a leader.  It's not like I'm running Coca-Cola or something.  So the things I'm saying about being a leader are being said a thousand other places, making my voice pretty feeble.

I've spent the last few weeks posting things and then deciding they're stupid and taking them down and then doing it all over again and again—all the while asking myself some questions about this blog and where it should go.

Is it a place for me to ramble on about things I'm thinking?  I don't want it to be that, because there are enough people out there in the world rambling (it feels like spouting off, actually), and the last thing I want is to be another one of them.

Is it a place for me to take a stand?  No.  I stand up in my own ways, in my own time, privately and with my own type of force.  My writing has never been done to take a stand on anything, and it's not going to start now.

Is it a place for me to tell stories about my job and my work?  Well, maybe.  A lot of really hilarious, profound, interesting stuff happens to me every day, just because I work in a place where 700 people from age five to sixty-five rub elbows all day.

But I don't know for sure.

I'll find my way, I hope, because I want my writing to make an impact in the world, even in a tiny little way.  I've written my book, and people are saying really nice things about it, but I want to throw something more into the universe.

If you've got ideas or opinions, let me know.  Is there something out there missing?  Something that needs considered, said, thought about, written about?

I'm thinking input from my readers might help.

((heart))

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Teaching = Messy


Not long ago, I was in a first grade classroom completing a teacher’s formal observation.  The teacher was talking with the class about the important components of opinion writing.  After documenting their thinking, she transitioned students to the circle area for a reading of the book I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff. 

 “I love this book,” the teacher told her class, opening to the first page.  “It is one of my very favorites!”

Clearly.  The book, a paperback, was, well…  ragged.  Its pages were faded, with edges folded and frilled; creases were evident everywhere.  The book had obviously been read many, many times. 
 
She began reading. In the story, Alex wants an iguana. Badly. In letters to his mother, he leverages all of his arguments about why he needs one.  Alex has strong negotiation skills; so does his mom.  She responds to each argument with a reasonable rebuttal; Alex comes back with reasonable counter-arguments. 

I found myself listening with a crinkled brow, eager to hear if Alex.  Gets.  His.  Iguana.  Does he?  Does he?  Will his mother finally relent? 

And then, just as the suspense couldn’t build any longer, the book fell to the floor in a fluttering, flying mess of paper.

The room was still for a moment.  We all stared.

“Well.”  The teacher said.  “That’s the end of the iguana book.”

Twenty-five little faces fell. 

“It’s okay,” she reassured them.  “Really, it is.  We can put this book back together and tape it up, good as new.”  The students helped her gather the pages.   She flipped and shuffled it all back to order—“Here’s page 23.  No, wait.  That goes here.  Where’s page 24?  Ooops!  Upside down!”  It took a few minutes for to get back on track and finish the story.

I felt bummed for her.  Here she was, sharing one of her most favorite books—during her annual evaluation, no less—and it had fallen to pieces right at the climax.  She’d lost all the momentum she’d built in reading the story.  She’d get it back, of course—teachers always do—but… Well,  it was just a bummer, that’s all. 

It’s a vulnerable feeling, being a teacher.  Their work is scrutinized and judged, for better or worse, either formally or formatively, by their principal, colleagues, parents, and even their students.  It’s exhausting. That’s why so many teachers angst when things go “wrong.”  They say, “I wish I had done that differently.”  Or, “If only I had planned for that!”   Or, “I’m sorry you saw that moment of chaos…”

Teachers want everything to be perfect.

Which of course, it isn’t.  Ever.  It can’t be.  Teaching is messier than that.

As the class finished the story, I closed the browser window where I’d been documenting her lesson.  And right then and there, I logged onto Amazon to order next-day delivery for a new—hardback—copy of the book.

After school that day, she came to my office.  “I’m so sorry the book fell apart,” she said.  “I certainly didn’t plan that!  And it kind of made the lesson awkward and clunky for a while.”

“I think you handled it beautifully,” I reassured her. 

“Yes, but…”  She sighed.  “It would have been perfect if…”

I stopped her.  “That’s teaching, though. Right? Just because your principal is in the room evaluating your work doesn’t mean things will magically work out as you’ve planned.  Just like any other day, the unpredictable will happen.  Students will behave poorly; resources will fall apart; the pace or sequence will be all off.  When those things happen, you have to adjust plans on the fly.  That’s normal.  And real.”

She said she appreciated my reassurance, but it wasn’t until the next afternoon when I went to her room, armed with a brand new copy of I Wanna Iguana, that I got to solidify my point.  I gathered her students’ attention and said, “I have something for you all.”  There were smiles all around as they realized their teacher’s favorite book had a brand new life ahead of it. 

“Here’s to adjusting on the fly,” I said, handing over the book. 

A student asked, “What does that mean?”  The teacher began to explain, and as I slipped out of the room, she flashed me a grin and a wink. 

It wasn’t the actual book that made her happy.  It was the token of reassurance that I understood how things work.  That no lesson ever goes by without a hitch.  All the planning in the world will never eliminate unexpected challenges.  But strong teaching means going with the flow, being flexible, and finding a way to make a learning opportunity out of every challenge.





Most Impressive Mannequin Challenge in the World?

Our staff performs a variety show for our students on the day before holiday break.  Teachers create little skits--singing, dancing, spoofing--and the students get to just sit back and watch.  The skits reveal the creative, fun, zany personalities of our staff members; students howl with laughter and delight.  It's one of my favorite activities of our year.

This year, we got all spontaneous in the middle of the show.  The fifth grade teachers had just performed a faux snowball fight, which culminated in a mid-fight Mannequin Challenge.  "We should do a school-wide one," whispered Mrs. Stanley, who was standing next to me.

"Let's do it," I said.  We grinned at one another.  The timing was perfect for a little unplanned fun.

I grabbed the microphone.  "Would you all like to do a Mannequin Challenge like that?"  There was a collective happy shout:  "YES YES YES YES!!"  (Some kids had no idea what I was talking about, but they were clearly up for anything, so... yeah.) The music teacher scrambled on her laptop for the right music, and right then and there, we staged a silent this-side-against-that-side snowball fight.  630 kids and 70 grown-ups stood stock-still (well, almost).  One teacher walked up and down the sea of mannequins and filmed.
We shared the video with teachers so they could show their classes later in the day.  The result was pretty good, if I do say so myself.

I know, I know--Mannequin Challenges are so #lastfall.  But who cares?

I love that I have a job where something like this can just happen.  Where we can go off the script, so to speak, and have some fun.  No planning, no overthinking, no assigned jobs or responsibilities.  Just fun... and simply because it's fun.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Use of Time

I’m not a big TV watcher.  I'd rather read, write, or—ahhhh, yes—sleep.  But a couple times a week, when all household stuff is done and the family is busy, TV is nice.  I flop on the couch and lose myself in someone else’s story.  I watch in fifteen or twenty minute segments.  The marvel of television today—DVR and Netflix, for me—means I can stop and start when I’d like; go back and re-watch if I’ve forgotten the story line; or quickly find a better option if a show stops working for me.

I worked through Gilmore Girls and Parenthood this way—both took me about six months, watching in those small increments.  Neither took much emotional energy, but kept me eager for my next chance to watch.  I then went on to Orange is the New Black—I’d loved the book, after all, and had heard great things about the show.

I only got eight episodes in before deciding it was time to move on.  The truth—?  Orange left me a little nauseous with how it depicted human beings—as heartless, psychotic animals.  Apparently I need my television time to be a little less about hatred and a little more about good.

I used to muscle through shows I didn’t enjoy.  I watched movies where whole cities blew up.  Where people got shot; death and hurt and betrayal were main themes; and basic human decency was nonexistant. I used to think it made me a deeper, more complete person to watch things that made me uncomfortable.  More equipped, perhaps, to handle the ugliness of the world. 

Not anymore.  I’ve changed my stance.  The reason?  Time.

I think a lot about time, mostly because it baffles me so.  Time is, by its very definition, static, predictable, and never-changing… but it feels the exact opposite.  It speeds up and slows down in some sort of system that is bizarre and, frankly, unfair.

I’ve written before about how unhappy I was in college.  Miserable, in fact.  While I was there, time was my enemy—I ached for it to hurry up, so the entire ordeal—one I had to endure and complete—would all be over.  There were occasions in which I literally counted minutes.  I kept a calendar on my desk where I painstakingly marked an "X" each time a day passed.  It seemed like an eternity between each one.  

But now, I feel the opposite.  Time frightens me now.  It’s going by way too quickly, and I have no control over its speed.  Hours, days, and weeks just… disappear.  All the things I’ve heard said about time—don’t blink; someday you’ll wake up and it will all be over—are proving to be true. 


And that means I don’t have time to give to a show (or pretty much anything else, for that matter) that doesn’t make me think, make me grow, make me feel better about our world—make me a better person or mother or professional.  I’m much more picky with my time because I’m slowly coming to realize—no, it’s more than realize—it’s understand— really understand—that I’m going to run out of it someday.    

This isn't about hurrying.  At all.  I don't want to cram more in.  Quite the opposite, in fact; I will continue to work to slow down and enjoy the things that take my time.  

And that means I need to avoid things that waste it.

No more Orange for me.  

Sausage Being Made (Or, a Community of Kindred Spirits)

A few weeks back, I got an email from David Redneck, editor of The New Yorker.   David Remnick emailed me. Well, he actually emailed a few...