Monday, June 20, 2011


It is finally summer, which means two things for a teacher: time to read and time to travel. They often go hand in hand.  I go for 10 months of the year feeling like I am running interval sprints during a long-distance run, leaving me with very little, if any time to read for pleasure.  The first few days of summer vacation (after inservice) I picked up some magazines that I hadn't had time to read during the mad dash to the finish line of the school year.

June's Vogue with Penelope Cruz on the cover (who is a favorite actress of mine for a few of her roles in Almodovar's films) had a thought-provoking letter from the editor entitled Point of Departure. Editor Anna Wintour elaborates on a Henry Miller phrase, "One's destination is never a place rather a new of looking at things," to go as far as saying, "travel allows us the pleasure of becoming someone else, even if only for the duration of that trip." While sitting at my kitchen table her comment struck me. Ten years ago I dreamed of traveling all the time, of working simply so I could travel.  I think based on Ms. Wintour's premise, by traveling and trying out different personas in these new places at that time in my life I was really seeking out the person that I felt most comfortable being.

 I think through my past travels I have found my happy medium between shy and outgoing, wallflower and adventurer. I can't say that there are many trips I regret. I got something out of all of them, even if they were negative experiences like bad accommodations or company. I learned how to be a better judge of people by eliminating all of the biases I hold in my own sphere and by being brave (and sometimes naive) enough to get to know new people in a foreign land. But in the end I came home.

I can't help but wonder if wanderlust isn't somehow tied to our own insecurities (or if the term "tripping" in relation to mind-altering experiences has more to do with traveling than falling down, but I digress...) When I am traipsing around the globe I can be the life of the party, beach bum, explorer, adventurer, writer, missionary, etc., and play these roles to their fullest extent a'la Penelope Cruz. I think about my little Kindergartners who take little trips around the school whenever they get the chance. EVERYONE wants to take the library books back and take the folder to the office. When I am at home, I have to be content with who I am and my present circumstances.  Sitting at my kitchen table, with suitcases empty in a closet, I feel like I have finally settled into a "moment" in my life of contentedness. I think perhaps for the first time in my adult life I feel content with where I am, what I have, and where my life is going.

A few weeks back my friend asked me what my dreams were for the future.  I can't say that right now I am yearning too deeply for anything.  I plan on finishing my masters degree, paying off debt, starting my son in school when he's ready, and yes, I'd love to travel again when the time is right, exploring the space between my ears by venturing somewhere 30,000 feet in the stratosphere, but right now I don't feel the urge as I did before.

This summer I have decided that my travels will be close to home, getting to know Wisconsin and the midwest, the land and the people that have largely made me who I am. I think, if Ms. Wintour's perceptions are right, I can be myself and explore this contented moment of my life a little more deeply.

This weekend I was lucky enough to take a day trip up to Door County and Washington Island.  There are so many beautiful places in that peninsula let alone in the entire state.
School House Beach on Washington Island has no sand, only pummeled, polished white stones.
Even on a rocky beach with no sand, these feet are happy where they stand.
Now that I am back home after a short trip,  I am opening that Vogue magazine to read the article featuring Penelope Cruz in this month's vogue entitled The Dream Life of Penelope. She is a new mom, a successful actress and living her dream-life in this moment too. I close the magazine and go to bed, beyond happy to be living the life I never dreamed of.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sink or Swim, Float or Faith

Sink or swim is a term often used in education and life. It means simply doing something, maybe without preparation or the right skills and either succeeding or failing at it.  Sometimes in our lives we are pulled out into waters we never intended to venture into and we have to sink or swim, even though it isn't a choice we want to make but feel we are being forced into.

Back when I was student teaching in an internship teaching English language-learners and my first classes for my bilingual license, we often talked about ELLs are expected to sink or swim when it came to comprehending academics.  Students with a natural gift for language and learning succeeded and still do, whereas students who didn't have the proper supports (in terms of vocabulary and modeling, etc.) struggled in school and began to account for those gaps in their academic achievementwe are so trying to close between different demographics of students.  Sink or swim means you rely on nothing but yourself, and there are simply too many times (in education and in life) where someone needs support, a lifeline to be pulled in.

Sometimes we are too preoccupied to see that we won't necessarily sink.  We are so panicked by the fact that we are swept out to sea, we do nothing but float.  Being kept afloat is still surviving, but it is no way to teach, no way to learn, and no way to live. Surprisingly some people are satisfied with simply floating with the status quo. Some people look desperately for ways to get out (and those who try are better swimmers than they ever thought).  

This analogy occurred to me while we were in a training for a new math curriculum today.  In our district, Kindergarten hasn't even had a curriculum adopted for our grade level for probably close to 10 years (my best guess).  Experienced teachers knew what Kindergartners could and should learn; all teachers based what they taught and practiced from the skill standards on the report card.  I couldn't tell you what, if anything that was based on as far as research goes.  So there was nothing to use to teach math, and even less to teach math in Spanish.  We were floating with little to hold on to. Some scrap wood, maybe.  Now we have a curriculum that is being adopted for Kindergarten AND it comes in Spanish for bilingual teachers.  It seems like it should be a no-brainer, but after not having anything really for the two years I've been teaching Kinder math, I'm pretty excited. Someone finally noticed us floating out here (teachers and students) and they are throwing us a line and pulling us in to solid research to stand on.  Despite the presenter asking us to have faith in the research and the completeness in progressive skills and behaviors taught, I noticed some teachers in the training were a little unwilling to let go of their floating scraps of wood. It's hard to let go of something that seemed so safe at one point. Adopting the new curriculum isn't going to be easy, but it will be easier for those of us (newer teachers) who were flailing instead of floating. 

There are times when one ends up in the water and has to swim back into shore, whether it be in a job or a relationship.  It's a long hard swim, but sometimes you have to have faith that it will get you where you need to be.  You may not make it if you get overtired or hit an undertow in the current, but there is risk in everything. If you did nothing you would be floating forever at the mercy of the waves (or in Spanish, A la deriva). In reflecting back on the last five years, there were many times when I had little faith in my abilities or value as a person and felt that I was floating. Those were very unhappy times.

Sometimes the only way you will have success, get to solid ground, is if you commit to something full-force, but not blindly. You have to know where the sharks are swimming, a guess of where the current is flowing, and if there's anyone who will throw you a line if you simply can't anymore. I truly believe that faith isn't blind.  I think faith can be attributed to intuitiveness or perceptiveness of our current conditions, part of it is based on past experience, and is also influenced by our hopes for the future. Part of committing fully to something, investing in it, is perceiving what factors affect what you are about to undertake. 

Sometimes you are blessed with the clarity in which you see an opportunity present itself, and it couldn't be a better time. Sweet serendipity, the clouds part, the sea calms, and you swim.


I heard this song on my way to pick up my son on the radio, and it reminded me to write. For your listening pleasure, "Faith" by George Michael. 

Before this river
Becomes an ocean
Before you throw my heart back on the floor
Oh baby I reconsider
My foolish notion
Well I need someone to hold me
But I'll wait for something more

Yes I've gotta have faith...

Friday, June 3, 2011

This school year

Today is the last Friday of the school year. There is only a day and half left of school. We are in wind-down mode, doing fun activities so the kids end their school year on a happy, stress-free note now that grades are in, report cards printed, and everyone is anxious for the free time they have earned.

In reflecting on this school year I think I have learned two things. Yesterday at lunch my friend Susan said, " In order for the kids (especially Kindergartners) to learn anything from you they have to love you, and for them to love you, you have to love them first." This is very true.  The best teachers love their jobs, and they love their jobs because they love their students. It isn't because teaching phonics is just THAT interesting, but watching students learn, sense their own accomplisment and ability is that rewarding.

I have to admit that there were days where I didn't feel like I loved my job or my students as much as I should. I feel like if I did I would have done things differently and probably more effectively.

It makes me think of two teachers who are at the opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard. Strangely enough, their rooms are right next to each other.  I find myself in the middle of their spectrum. One has been doing this a long time, has the same worksheets she uses to occupy her students while she beats through guided reading groups, the other also has the same centers she has been using to occupy students in exploratory learning so she can move around the room and work with her students individually.  The second teacher has had nearly miraculous results with her young students achieving a grade level above expectations. The first teacher is, well, frustrated, or maybe burnt out. 

This is the key of quality teaching. You have to love what you do.  The students are not pieces of plastic to be molded in a factory. They give and bend to your attitude. If you love school and you love them, they feel the same way.  It's a beautiful symbiosis that is proven to work when implemented, but impossible to measure other than in teacher attitude. No mini-lesson or workshop approach or scripted curriculum can even being to make-up for this element in great teaching.

Next year I am going to work on my attitude. I want to come to work feeling good, not worn-out. I need to take care of myself and my son first, so when I'm here I can make the most of my time and interactions with my students. This year has been a flurry of activity resulting in a blizzard of stress. Next year I hope for sunnier skies, or at least better boots.