The Lie of Busyness

Over the weekend, our school hosted our 2nd annual 5Sigma Educonference (a reflection post to come later). Because we roll over learning excursions for the conference into Sunday, Kelly schedules a “no school” day on the Monday after the conference for a much-needed day off.

I do not do “days off” well. One of two things generally happens when i don’t have a work day: 1) I schedule it chock full of appointments and errand running, or 2) I’m so exhausted, I sleep through the entire day and practice my bump on a log impressions. If the latter occurs, I spend the rest of the week feeling so guilty about wasting a precious day, and any restful benefits from doing nothing wear off immediately.

cc licensed photo by Jeffrey Putnam

cc licensed photo by Jeffrey Putnam https://flic.kr/p/e9pSi4

What is about American culture that makes us feel guilty about doing nothing? (I’m sure it’s not entirely exclusive to Americans, but…) We’re constantly describing people as productive or as lazy. The cultural disapproval of one who is seen as lazy or unproductive is everywhere. We even do it to kids as young as five. If they’re not “on task” or taking their academic progress seriously, we start looking at disorders and how we can FIX them*. The message we send children, by example and by directive, is that we must always be ON and working.

What we have created is a culture of highly anxious, stressed out, and wellness-deprived people.

For some, being “busy” all of the time is worn like a badge of honor. My friend, Dean Shareski, wrote about that in “Let’s Stamp Out ‘Busyness.’” Dean also talks in this post about how being busy is used to feel superior to “less busy” people. I witnessed examples of this on a trip to Maui once. Maui Time is a thing. If a business says it opens at 9am, don’t expect anyone to be there at 9am. They’ll get there when they roll in. I knew this before I arrived, but it was interesting to hear the tourists complain… lots of people talking about laziness: “how can they possibly be expected to make a profit if they’re so unproductive,” and “I do not have time to wait around for someone who doesn’t care about my business,” etc. What I noticed was happy owners and employees who didn’t really care what anyone else thought.

On the day-after our educonference, I scheduled a few hours at a local spa. My class and their families had graciously given me a gift card for Christmas and my birthday, and that paid for my entire time at the spa. As I sat and relaxed, it got me thinking about how needed this day was due to the road runner-like pace of the last few months. (I’d started noticing that my heart rate was elevated, even when I sat down. My anxiety about checking off things on my to-do list and planning the minutiae of each day was causing my heart a little stress, too.)

While I was on my way to the relaxation room, I was tempted to bring my phone with me, but decided against it. My husband knew where I would be and knew how to reach me in an emergency. There was nothing else that needed my attention on that phone.

Instead, I brought my journal and a book. I started with a short meditation, and then began reading Paulo Coelho’s Like The Flowing River. In this book, Coelho shares thoughts and reflections in his usual style. This man can craft a metaphor and such incredible imagery… it often leaves me breathless as I read his writing. In one of the first sections, he talks about seasons of our lives and how they mimic seasons of our planet. Even Nature knows when to go dormant and rejuvenate.

While I was reading, I was reminded of a time when I heard a very insightful, yet simple comment. Dr. Martha Bruckner, currently superintendent of Council Bluffs Community Schools in Iowa,  said something once that has since stuck with me (and I’ll paraphrase here):

Sometimes, you just need to go sit under a tree.

cc licensed photo by Laura Gilchrist https://flic.kr/p/cayGbQ

cc licensed photo by Laura Gilchrist https://flic.kr/p/cayGbQ

Schools (and school districts) can often operate like speeding trains… go, go, go. Move, move, move. Don’t sit still; we don’t have time to be unproductive. We must remain busy, busy, busy.

What I’ve found is that you miss so much of the scenery every day when you’re on that train. The speed of the train blurs out really important things… things that matter. Often, we’re on that train for so long, we’ve forgotten everything else around us.

Busyness does that to a person. It lies about how important it is… and even how important we are. It lies to us about the people who do know how important it is to just be still.

Sometimes, sitting under a tree is exactly what we need. A person can see so much from that perspective and view, and it’s not at all blurry. Everything seems to be light and clear.

Our bodies, minds, and souls need rest. They need days when we do nothing. They need days when we just take the time to recuperate.

As always, I think about the lessons I’m learning, and how I can do better for the children I serve. My little students love learning, and we’re always excited to do more! But then I remember that they also need rest. They need time to play and just be little kids. They need time to sit under actual trees. I know I’m responsible for these children for many hours a day… and while their learning is a part of that responsibility, so is their wellness as human beings.

Tomorrow, the weather forecast is sunny and 52º F. We’re going to make time to just go sit under a tree.

 

 

 

Note; As I edit my writing in this post, I acknowledge the HUGE amount of privilege I have in occasionally seeing a day off and being able to make time to rest and relax.  There are many who do not share in such a luxury. I want to help make that a possibility for all of us, not just a few. If you have ideas about this, leave suggestions in the comments section. 

 

*We’ve started getting phone calls at Anastasis from parents who are interested in our school because family physicians recommend our school in place of anxiety medications. This says a LOT about the culture of busyness in most schools… and what it says truly breaks my heart. We have to do so much better for kids.

Star Wars, The Cool Kids, & Ridicule

I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and I’m proud of that. I think I was in 2nd grade when A New Hope was released, and it absolutely captivated me. I have so much nostalgia for those movies, and I don’t care if other people think I’m weird for liking them so much. Yes, I have an R2-D2 USB charger in my car, and I nearly lost my mind the other day when my Waze navigation app asked if I would like to have C3PO’s voice deliver my driving instruction. Umm… YES!

Of course I have friends who don’t “get” my love of all things Star Wars. Most of them chuckle at my excitement… some of them politely rib me about it… some come right out and say, “I don’t understand how you can get so into these sci fi/fantasy movies.”

And that’s okay. I’m almost 47 years old, and I’m at that wonderful place in my life where I don’t always care so much about what other people think of me. It’s taken a long time to get to that place, even though I still struggle in some areas.

I started thinking this morning about how people sometimes make fun of others simply for the things they LIKE… or are really passionate about. A friend and I were chatting yesterday about how mainstream Comic Con has become. Conventions like that used to be fodder for a lot of jokes. People dressing up like the characters in comics, science fiction, or fantasy? What nerds, right? Now we know that cosplaying is an art form, and I’m increasingly in awe of the incredible attention to detail in so many of those costumes!

A couple weeks ago, a “news” channel, which shall remain unnamed (and not linked, because I don’t think they deserve more attention or traffic to their website), spent time making fun of people who like Star Wars. One of the commentators went on and on about how ridiculous these people are, and that she is too cool and “attractive” (yes, she actually used that term) to be into Star Wars. She presented herself as one of the Cool Kids, and liking something she thinks is stupid is unthinkable.

So, ridicule is important enough to air these days? (Again, I consider the source, but still…)

As always, my teacher hat pops on, and I think about the students in my classroom, in our school… and kids all around us. What does it say to THEM when they hear someone ridicule another person or group of people simply for what they LIKE?

When I was a shy, little girl, I was VERY aware of what the people around me thought. In 5th grade, I was really excited to wear my brand new Peanuts socks to school. Every character was on those socks, and I thought they were really cute. I wore a dress that day, and proudly pulled up those socks to my knees, so that you couldn’t miss seeing Charlie Brown and company.

When I got to school, some of my friends looked at my socks and then walked away. Later, I overheard them whispering to each other, “Can you believe she likes Peanuts?” “That’s so stupid.” “I hate Charlie Brown and Snoopy.”

3345031799_ff51aaf115_b

CC licensed photo by Matt Grimm

I was crushed. I kept trying to hide my legs under the table so no one would see them. I thought about taking them off and putting them in my backpack, but I lived in Omaha, Nebraska… and it was a chilly day. I excused myself to the restroom and tried turning them inside out, but you could still see exactly what they were. I stayed in the restroom and cried for a while, because I didn’t know what to do.

[Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/66Aaq4 by Matt Grimm]

That was one example… but I know most of us have have multiple examples of situations like that. As I got older, I started hiding the things I REALLY liked from my friends. I was a closet nerd. Most of the kids in my class loved Star Wars, so I didn’t have to hide that. Luckily, it was cool to like Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s. But my tastes in music, certain books, TV shows, toys I played with… much of that was hidden from the kids at school. I stopped sharing the things I was really passionate about and pretended to like the things that the other kids liked. Sad, but pretty typical, right?

When I became a music teacher, I often invited the kids to bring in music they wanted to share with their class. I didn’t realize that asking 7-12 grade kids to do this could open up a lot of pain for some kids. As they brought in their cassette tapes and CDs, I asked them to play a song for the class and then explain what they liked about the music, lyrics, etc. We had to go beyond just saying, “It’s cool,” to discussing the music a little more deeply. I asked the rest of the class to also ask questions or provide comments about the music…  Which instruments do you hear?What do you hear in the bass line? How does any of this make the song unique? etc.

A lot of the kids brought in heavy metal (to this day, I think I know all the lyrics to “Enter Sandman by heart.), rap, and a lot of country. Often, I would hear comments about how stupid someone was for liking a particular song… and that took me right back to the days of being ridiculed for liking something that others did not. I couldn’t let it go.

I asked the kids, “Do we all have to like the same things? Is one type of music better or cooler than another type? Or is it just different?” We started discussions that, at first, weren’t very productive. But as we started to analyze the music more deeply, the kids started to notice some common elements, patterns, and other factors that helped them move forward in their thinking. I kept reminding them how boring it would be if we all liked exactly the same things. Some of the kids started listening to music they would never have dreamed they’d like. For those kids whose tastes were completely different than their peers, I started to see some relief, and eventually, more confidence about those tastes.

Inevitably, the kids started asking me about my tastes in music… and other things as well. I shared the things I liked. When they laughed at some of the songs, movies, TV shows, and books I brought up, I stopped and just looked at them. And waited. And waited… until one of the students stood up for me. That was HUGE! By modeling for them that it was okay to like different things, and that it was actually cool to be an outlier with your tastes, some of them were able to step up and advocate for me, and eventually their peers. When kids begin to act as leaders in your school and start to show acceptance of diverse tastes, the rest of the kids take notice.

Fast-forward to the present in my teaching with 5, 6, and 7 year olds, I’m seeing the same things. They all tend to want conformity, and they’re sometimes afraid to share the things they really love that are different. We spend a LOT of time really working out those issues and sharing that we SHOULD all like different things. We are better together, because we have diverse tastes.

Now… back to the recent Star Wars ridicule. Or whatever it is that someone is really passionate about. If you’re an educator (or parent, or someone who has influence with children), how are you modeling acceptance? How are you showing children that we should celebrate our differences? That it’s okay to like something that isn’t mainstream or popular?

It’s difficult enough for kids, especially when peer pressure is so great an influence in their lives… if the adults are acting like Regina George from Mean Girls and dictating our tastes and opinions, how are the kids supposed to deal with that on their level?

One of the parents from my school told me earlier this year that she could hear “my voice” in her son’s conversations at home. At first, I was flattered… and then I started thinking even more about how great my influence is on these children… and what a heavy responsibility that is. If I were to make fun of a movie I didn’t like, for example, what would that do to a child in my class who liked that movie? What impression does that leave with that child?

I can’t just leave that in the classroom. I see it among the adults in my network, on Facebook (which is its own evil monster sometimes), and in conversations with acquaintances. Yes, snark is often funny, but I wonder how we could learn to appreciate our different tastes more… or maybe just let it go. If you don’t “get” why everyone is losing their minds over Star Wars right now (or whatever the new thing will be after the Star Wars mania dies down), that’s okay. Maybe just keep that to yourself. We won’t tell the other Cool Kids.

You don’t make your flame any greater by extinguishing that of another.

Start With The Kids

School started for us at Anastasis Academy last Wednesday. We’ve had three days with our classes so far, and I’m so excited about all the possibilities in store for our students.

My students on the playground (c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

My students on the playground
(c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

I have nine kids in my class this year, four of whom were with me last year, too. They range in age from 5 to 7, and watching every little aspect of the school day through their eyes is an incredible experience already.

I should back up a bit and explain that we have meetings with each child individually before the first day of school. We call these meetings “Learning Profiles.” We ask the kids about themselves, their favorite movies, what they like most about school, their best vacation ever, etc.

One of the questions we ask is, “If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?” Every single one of my littles replied with either “Nothing!” or “I don’t know… probably nothing.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time to that place when we really liked exactly who we were?)

I always enjoy these learning profiles so very much. The kids make me smile, laugh, and sometimes even cry. Most importantly, I get to know quite a bit about these little friends before they join the rest of their classmates for their first day.

Before school even starts, we spend time getting to know each child… even those we’ve had in class before. We start with the kids.

Not the curriculum. (We don’t have boxed curriculum at Anastasis, but even the thoughts about what we want to do with our students come later… after we actually know something about the kids in our care.)

Not the rules.

Not the routine of each day.

Not which gimmick or trendy education panacea will be best for our students and help raise their test scores.

We start by having conversations with every single kid and really listening to them. And these kids have a lot to tell us about what they want to learn about, how they like to learn (spoiler alert: none of them likes to sit still all day!), etc.

Our school’s founder, Kelly Tenkely, often talks about how she started our school with specific kids in mind. That these are “kids with names.” That kids are more than test scores. That children are NOT data points.

As a teacher, I think very intentionally about every single child in my classroom… and I start truly considering what each of them needs.

Many of you reading this post know I’m a connected educator. I believe very strongly in connecting my kids with other classrooms, educators, and experts around the world to learn from them and share what we’re learning with them. I love bringing other connected friends into my classroom, either in person or virtually, to expand our learning beyond our classroom walls.

But I don’t start with those connections.

At Anastasis, we like to get our kids out of the classroom to other learning experiences – museums, performances, and service learning opportunities –  just to name a few.

But we don’t start there.

We start with the kids. If any one of us thinks we know what’s best for these children BEFORE we get to know them, we are doing a huge disservice to those in our care.

My advice to you as you continue with your newly started school year or before those kids walk into your classroom for the first time in 2015-16:

  • Forget the gimmicks. These are not the things that are going to help your students learn.
  • Forget the outside connections for a while.
  • Take the time to get to know your students. (I know that many of you are in situations where you have two or three times as many kids in your classes as I do. I also know that you’re not able to have Learning Profile meetings before school like we do.But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your kids before everything else grabs your focus.)
  • Take the time to ask them about themselves.
  • Give them a reason to open up to you, and then keep that privilege sacred. When a child trusts you enough to share something personal, show her that you value her and what she has shared.
  • Ignore the advice from your undergraduate training that told you to hide your “humanness” and to be the “firm, but fair” teacher. Instead, show the kids you really care about them (not just their learning).

THIS is where you start when you want to improve a child’s education. It always starts with the kids.

 

Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

We Are More Than Our Mistakes

I was reading an article today about influential people, and one specifically caught my attention. Serena Williams had written about Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative,  and she mentioned Stevenson’s beliefs that “every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

There are those who believe in “justice” as punishment and shame… as if those are the deterrents to future mistakes or crimes. In my experience (personally and with others), shame doesn’t prevent someone from choosing the wrong path. It only serves the desire to avoid getting caught. Shame doesn’t necessarily lead to better actions or choices.

What has helped me as an individual to avoid repeating mistakes is grace, forgiveness, and compassion from others and from myself. When I realized that my mistakes weren’t part of my identity, and that I could learn  from my mistakes… THAT was a time when I experienced true growth.

I grew up in the religious dichotomy of “an eye for an eye” and “forgive others as you have been forgiven.” As a young kid, that was tough to reconcile. Personally, I viewed punishment as something to avoid at any cost, because I wasn’t certain about forgiveness. Again, that didn’t always translate into doing the right thing.

As a parent and an educator, however, I see the cost of a punitive society on our children… children who grow up to be our neighbors. I often ask myself why we, as a society, tend to enjoy the suffering of others so much. If we didn’t, people like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich wouldn’t have careers or celebrity. This is nothing new, though. For centuries, audiences have reveled in the “delights” of others’ suffering. Schadenfraude can be fun, right? A little snark never really hurt anyone, did it? When you’re the recipient of people shaming you, it does hurt.

Decades ago, a person with a past could move to another city or across the country and no one would have a clue. That’s impossible now. A single mistake can now be broadcast in real time and shared with millions within seconds. How does this allow us to learn from mistakes, especially in our youth? Even worse, what if our “mistake” didn’t really happen, but someone with an audience said it did? How does a person recover from that? Beyond the internet trolls that will pounce on anything, how do we shape our own reactions when something goes viral now?

In her TED Talk, The Price of Shame, Monica Lewinsky says, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.” I think often about this young woman who has felt the wrath of shame to a degree that most of us couldn’t ever imagine. Was she shown grace and compassion?

How does all of this translate to children? How are children treated in their schools when they make mistakes? How do we as educators react to those mistakes?

I can’t imagine who I would be today if every mistake I ever made was broadcast far and wide for anyone to see. And I doubt many of you reading this would be able to fathom that kind of public attention. It’s not enough for us to tell kids to avoid social media or posting everything in their lives. That’s not the world they live in today.

What we MUST do is become the models of grace and compassion OURSELVES. We must show them what it looks like to forgive. That even, in the midst of a seemingly unforgivable offense, that we can show compassion. That all human beings are worthy of grace, even when we hate what they might have done against us.

Again, back to my upbringing… I remember learning “love the sinner while hating the sin.” There are a multitude of sins that might be considered heinous (and I am not the one to define what is considered a sin and what is not), but if I don’t have room in me to forgive and give grace, then how can I expect forgiveness and grace for myself?

I’ve also been thinking about Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher who was suspended because her students wrote get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The reaction to this news was swift, intense, and full of outrage. This story went viral… yet I wonder… what lesson about compassion does this really give to kids? If we teach children to be forgiving and compassionate, shouldn’t we be less concerned with who deserves their forgiveness and compassion? Is “forgive others as you have been forgiven” only reserved for those whom we deem deserving of forgiveness and compassion? Or are we back to “an eye for an eye?”

As an adult, I find this all troubling and extremely confusing. I can’t imagine what kids are trying to glean from our examples.

I remember reading articles about restorative justice in schools, specifically about how damaging zero tolerance policies are to students (this one is very good). In my experience, those who advocate for zero tolerance generally don’t want to apply the same types of policies to themselves or their own children, yet it’s ok for “those other kids.” In our school, I love that we don’t have blanket policies regarding student behavior and mistakes. Each situation is unique. Each child is unique. A standard policy cannot possibly account for every situation, nor should it.

With my students this year, we have looked at what apologies are, and how our mistakes are ours to own. When one of my students apologizes to another, the last thing he asks is, “will you forgive me?” We are prepared to understand that we don’t have to be forgiven… yet my students always answer “yes.” When I asked them why they always agree to forgive, one little guy responded, “because I want to be forgiven if I make a mistake.” From the mouths of babes…

I always want to strive to be the person who considers that there is good in everyone, and that all are worthy of being more than their mistakes. As a teacher, I HAVE to be that person; otherwise, I have no business working with children.  I want to be the one to reflect on my own reaction to someone else’s transgression, real or perceivedand be the first to offer grace and forgiveness. I haven’t always felt this way. It’s been a personal journey of several decades, and I wish that I could go back to the students I had when I first started teaching to apologize for my lack of compassion. I wasn’t that person yet.

Who will you be?

 

What Spock Taught Me

The thing I loved most about Spock on Star Trek is that, occasionally, his human side would show through. He was that logical being with no emotion for most of the series; but as the movies came out, we saw a side of Spock rarely, if ever, seen on tv.

Growing up, I was an extremely emotional kid who saw my sensitivity as a weakness. In school, the other kids called me “the smart kid.” My ability to be (seemingly) logical saved me many times from breaking down in front of other kids or teachers. Every once in a while, it would still happen, but I learned to keep those emotions in check for the most part. Spock was my model. Stay logical.

Over time, Spock’s character explored more of his human half. As I watched the movies, especially the ones where they spent time on the friendship between Kirk and Spock, I noticed how much wiser and “complete” Spock seemed. He was happier, even when his emotions caused him distress.

For so many years, I hid the part of me that feels too much. Sometimes, the world is a very overwhelming place when you allow yourself to feel.

But Spock seemed better when he allowed himself to feel, even though he was often ostracized by the other Vulcans because of it.

As a new teacher, I learned to distance myself from my students and show that tough, outer shell. That’s how I was taught to do it in my education methods courses. “Don’t let them see you be human.”

Is there worse advice for a teacher?

(Do you ever feel like you’ve “grown up” long after you’re considered a grown up?)

As a more experienced teacher, I now know I’m better when I show how I feel and allow that human-ness to shine through. I feel wiser. More complete. Just like the older Spock.

I don’t know how much actual influence Leonard Nimoy had on the evolution of his character, but I read somewhere that he wanted a chance for Spock to be able to explore his human side. I’m grateful for that, because somewhere along the way, Spock showed me the way.  The scene where Spock dies in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was sad and serene for me at the same time.

Leonard Nimoy was a very interesting person, and the more I read about him post-Star Trek, the more I appreciated his intellect and humanity. While many actors tend to rebel against their “defining” roles, he came to embrace Spock more and more, especially recently with the retooled Star Trek movies and his guest stints on Big Bang Theory. I’m grateful for the man as well as the character he cultivated.

Live long and prosper, indeed.