Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Mom Tree

When it's a good day, the universe gives you a story.  A story that you need to live better. "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros was that gift about fifteen years ago during some teacher training. The story was used in a procedure for teaching story elements and it was a helpful exercise that I've used many times.  I still remembering hoping to avoid becoming Mrs. Price, the cranky-pants teacher in the story whose thoughtless comments ruined a child"s day. That wasn't, however, the theme that came to me as I approach this Mothers’ Day.

In the story the character is having a birthday and she says, "What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight..." She compares the years of one's life to the rings of a tree. It's a helpful image as I relate to my mother. It's easy to think of the aging people in our lives and just view them as they are now, forgetting that inside they are all of the ages they have ever been. We celebrate those years sometimes after our loved ones die, but probably not often enough while they are still with us. 

My mother, 89, is a woman of wisdom and strength. She has to stop to catch her breath more often these days when we walk. She often tells me the same thing two or three times in one conversation  and I frequently have to finish her sentences or give her a name she is trying to retrieve. She can still walk a 5K,  read about 70 books a year, make a mean casserole, and keep an active social schedule. In spite of her vitality, I often think of her as an almost 90 year old instead of the woman who is still 10, 18, 28, 45, and 60. It helps though that she has shared life stories and that I have my own memory bank of her earlier days. Just recently she shared with me about her first teaching position. "I made $1800 for the year. Can you believe that?" 

The Tree of Mom. Inside the strong, slight exterior of this lovely woman are the rings of experiences watered by grace. The 18 year old who was first in her family to go to college, the teacher in a one room schoolhouse, the young bride, the tired mother of three, middle school teacher, spiritual director, ordained minister, and voracious reader. The woman who could shake one mighty finger at my sassy 14-year-old self and bring me back to my senses. The woman who has the most beautiful singing voice I have ever heard. The woman with magical dreams and strong bones. I often rest in the shade of this mighty woman and when God is with me, I pay attention. I listen more, slow down to walk beside her, and see the rings of life which sustain my own.

Happy Mothers' Day!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

No Equal Measure

Two seemingly unrelated occurrences this week came together in an interesting confluence: Holy Week and math lessons on units of measurement . There has been a steady stream of students coming in to the Resource Room this week for help on comparing standard and metric units. How many cups in a quart, how many milliliters in a liter, if Sam drinks 3 quarts of water is that more than 2 liters and what should I use to measure the size of my headache after thinking about all this?

Anyway, as usual the students I saw showed fortitude and perseverance that inspired me to work through the hard questions with them. But all this thinking about measurement got me to thinking about how often I attempt to measure things that I shouldn't be measuring. Teacher life is full of opportunities to measure. Teachers measure pounds of papers, sizes of classrooms, cups of coffee needed on Monday, pencil lengths, and voice levels among their students on any given day in April. That is the nature of the job, but the thought that occurred to me this Holy Week is that I am prone to measuring and comparing the very things that should freely flow from my heart.

We aren't meant to keep track of the number of times we had to smile at a student before we got a smile back. We aren't meant to measure how many times we have done that small act of kindness or how much recognition we got for it. It's not productive to count how many affirmations we give out and how many we receive.  We sometimes wonder if pound for pound, we have put more effort into a project than someone else. We hold onto some love if we feel the other hasn't made a big enough deposit into our happiness account because we imagine we might feel better somehow if we wait until it's equal.  It might cross our minds that we have extended more grace than we have been shown at times and soon we are placing limits on the capacity of our hearts that can actually be overflowing, poured out, and readily refillable.

So, here is where Holy Week comes in. Working at a Catholic School I am reminded, every hour on the hour, that the biggest measure of love and grace, is the cross.  I looked at the image of Jesus today hanging on the cross and had to let it get real.  I just can't find any unit greater, heavier, or containing more capacity than the mass of that wooden cross. When my father was still alive, he gave the homily at my daughter's wedding. He was talking about love and the kind of love that it takes a marriage to work. He reached into his pocket and handed a small crucifix to the young man marrying his granddaughter. "Here," he said, "this is love."  A startled young man accepted the 8 oz. cross and the charge to love without measure.

So, there it is- my strange juxtaposition on math and the occasion of Holy Week. I hope to love more, to give more, to live larger, and to stop measuring the unmeasurable.

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for his friends."
John 15:13

Saturday, January 30, 2016

One.One. One. One hundred paper smiles.

A long time admirer of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, recently I studied her life more closely.  I have taken to studying female saints and other wise women believing their lives lived decades or centuries ago, hold timeless illuminations.  I knew Mother Teresa had some things to teach me. Mother Teresa's mission to the poor and dying in India came to the attention of the American people through the writings of Malcom Muggeridge. His work is in a book titled, "Something Beautiful for God." I was given this book for college graduation over 30 years ago and ever since then, I've been a fan. Mother Teresa believed each person needed to be touched by love and smiles. Sometimes she was criticized for her work  because it was thought that she didn't do enough to change systems, rather she focused on small works for the poor and dying. Her work  did in time actually result in some rather large organizations and services in India and beyond but her mission was summed up in one of her most frequently used expressions in the Hindi language, "Ek. Ek. Ek." Translated in English, it's "One, One, One." Mother Teresa believed that if you encountered one person who needed love and care you give it, never minding what happened after that. She was also big on smiling. Small things withe great love. One. One. One. This phrase became a mantra I couldn't shake from my mind so I invited it in to stay. What, I wondered, will this simple phrase mean to me?

Working for the large school system with a sometimes challenging, always beautiful, population of students with intellectual disabilities, I find myself frustrated with the big and crazy things we do in the name of education. I'd love to change most things about the institution of school but my calling seems to be the classroom, not the boardroom. I find myself wondering if what my staff and I do matters and I sometimes allow myself a nice long soak in the pool of despair. The voice comes, One. One. One. But I'm tired, I say. One. One. One. This kid is too hard. One.One. One. The curriculum is so irrelevant. One. One. One. Their parents should do more. One. One. One. State Assessments are ridiculous. One. One. One.

A kiddo new to our school entered the beginning of the year. Loaded with personality and willingness to learn he was easy to like. He was, however, capable of disrupting the quiet little classroom I had envisioned and tried to create for myself and my students. He had a quiver full of devious behaviors to deploy. Luckily he made it easy to figure out the motivation behind his behavior. "Hey guys, watch this!" he'd say as he threw something across the room. "Like THIS guys?" he'd shout as he slammed a door. Casting a sideways glance in my direction, he'd shove the student next to him. The minute I'd open my mouth to address the class, he'd start shouting at the top of his lungs. He was seeking (quite successfully) lots of attention.

Like Mother Teresa, he's been a teacher to me and he's been surprisingly teachable as well. After a two day grace period (for me as well as him as I wasn't sure what the heck to do) we started slowly turning things around. He was a regular visitor to the safe seat, he learned to calm himself by looking at books and rearranging them on the bookshelves, we practiced positive behaviors until I was tired of hearing myself talk.  He liked side hugs and even when he smelled like a fifth grade boy, I was liberal with them. And I smiled at him. A lot. One day, about three weeks into the school year, he raised his hand (glory hallelujah) and waited to be called on (endless joy!) and then said, "Mrs. Awe? I calm." And indeed he was. It's been a long road and it hasn't always been easy. When he's difficult it's really disruptive and quite maddening. But he is a different kid than he was at the beginning of the year and he is, more often than not, a positive member of our small classroom community.

Recently we celebrated 100 days of school. He took home his little baggie with a note requesting that he bring back one hundred things that would fit into his bag. He announced that he wanted to fill it with trains and I had no idea if and how it would be returned.  However, as requested, he returned Friday morning with 100 little circles in his bag. Upon closer look, I saw that the bag contained one hundred paper smiles. He and some of his family members had spent the previous evening cutting out and decorating all these happy faces in a variety of colors and sizes. When he presented it with his head bowed and his signature "I can't quite maintain eye contact" posture, the look of pride and happiness on his face went straight to my heart.

One. One. One. It can add up to one hundred smiles.
It's an equation this teacher/learner will never forget.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Measure of Success: Small things with Great Love

Last August,  I started a new job in a public school. Shaken and stirred, I felt like a brand spanking new teacher again. I like change and challenge but it doesn't always like me. The first couple of months have been difficult, to say the least and I haven't posted because I've been exhausted, overwhelmed, and very unsure of myself.

My new position is only geographically a mile away from my former school, but so unbelievably different in so many ways. "Kids are kids"  I say by which I mean, kids are amazing and I love them. Beyond that, the differences abound: background, opportunity, environment, resources, language models, and life experiences vary so much. I've been in this field a long time but with this new position, the learning curve has been steep and winding.

This morning, my daughter, an accountant asked me, " So Mom, how is it going at work? Better?"  Hmm.... I thought back to Friday and the fact that two kids hugged me. One little boy, clad in a dirty T-shirt and always just one little step away from trouble, had thrown his arms around my waist and said, " MY Mrs. Awe. "  I don't know what that was about but I'll take it. Another girl, tough as nails, fresh from a  disciplinary  hearing, came up behind me and hugged me around the shoulders and laid her long braided hair on mine as she was leaving my classroom for the day. My heart filled up with joy. You know the kind that you wouldn't trade for all the cash in a casino?  That joy. Okay, I thought, that was a good day. Is it going better? Yes, I think it is. My daughter, who counts profits, not hugs, when measuring success, seemed sincerely surprised and even a bit envious.

"Small things with great love" has been my mantra the last few weeks. The system is huge, I don't understand the national and state mandates and mostly I feel pretty powerless. Some of the stuff we do in education is crazy.  But I can offer, as Mother Teresa advised, ... "Small things with great love."  So, I've tried. A smile when a kid tries hard. A joke when they need a lift. A warm hand and an " I'm sorry" when they are feeling down. A high five when they decode a word and a really sincere appreciation for getting to be part of their one beautiful life.

I don't know anymore how to measure success. I suspect it has less to do with test scores and more to do with spontaneous hugs and enthusiasm for learning.  Less to do with achievement and more to do with perseverance. Less to do with great things and more to do with small things. Small things with great love. It's what I can give and what I am blessed to receive.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What I'll Take With Me: A Mennonite in A Catholic School

Years ago, I landed in the bosom of the Catholic Church via an educational consultation at a parish school. After a couple of years of consulting occasionally, one day I didn't leave, but instead accepted a full time position as Special Needs Director. The school was a warm and loving place although not always an easy fit for this born and bred Mennonite girl. It helped, I think, that I am strangely comfortable with being an outsider. I tend to be more liberal than my conservative friends and more conservative than my liberal friends. I can't bust out in four part harmony and I never chose to hyphenate my name (too confusing for me) which I sometimes fear could land me in the Mennonite equivalent of Purgatory so  I have kept to the fringes in my beloved denomination of birth .Last time I was with a big group of Mennonites on an 11 day tour they had this beautiful but embarrassing habit of breaking into song (in PARTS) at every transition. Let me tell you, I learned to lip sync like nobody's business.

In the Catholic school, I realized I didn't know so many of the prayers or the saints but I am a fairly good student so picked them up quickly. I know the prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas backward and forward and ardently love it for its plethora of adverbs.  At one point, I considered joining the Catholic church so I could fully participate in Mass. Turns out, I didn't have the tenacity to scale Annulment Mountain. So, I remain, the Mennonite who loves Mass and is thoroughly appreciative of my Catholic schoolteacher experience. I have to confess that on every possible occasion, I stubbornly stood in the Bishop's communion line, arms crossed over my chest, because I longed to receive a blessing from him.  As I end my tenure as a parochial school teacher and return to the public school I am thinking about what I'll take with me when I go. Here's a couple of things I'll hang on to.


Mary, the Mother of God that is. She is a rock star and I'm glad I got a chance to hail her and learn about her.  Early on, when I expressed concerned about a family member, my administrator told me to pray the Memorare. "...Never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly to thee O Virgin of virgins, my Mother...." How often I imagined myself flying to the feet of Mary and imploring help. It was a beautiful comfort to me many times. Who better to understand and hear my parental fears than the Mother of God? Mary accepted the challenge of raising Jesus and didn't even try to tell her son to go to college rather than save the world. Mary is strong, steadfast and on the side of the poor.The Magnificat is my favorite portion of Scripture because it is beautiful and hopeful. She takes the power structures and tips them right over.  As I said, she rocks, and I am definitely taking her along in my next phase of life.

"It's not about you." The mantra

If I heard it once, I heard it a 100 times..." It's not about you, it's about Jesus." Or" it's not about you, it's about serving others, or "it's not about you, it's about your buddy." Good advice for all of us at times because when it isn't about us, chances are, it's going to go better. We get our minds off our pitiful selves and things take on more meaning.  The Catholic school starts early to impress this on their young ones. Tired of kneeling? It's not about you. Bored? It's not about you. Impatient? It's not even remotely about you. In our selfie culture, we would do well to realize, it really isn't all about us, not even some of the time. This message is going to be packed up in my burlap bag alongside my Mother Teresa bumper sticker and the handmade wooden crucifix gifted to me by a dear friend.


I love the silence that befalls over a group of students simply because they have learned that some places (both physical and spiritual) are sacred. I love the awe that is inspired when the bells ring and the people stand. I love the hush that falls over 700 students just because someone has made the sign of the cross. I wish that public schools, even though they can't have prayer or Mass or a religious service, just had 30 minutes of silence twice a week so we could all just stop and get comfortable in our souls. These times of quiet and reverence  have calmed my fearful heart and brought me from the edge of crazy over and over again.The practice of reverence is stored deep in my liturgical heart and going with me wherever the path leads.

There's more but that's enough for now.Thank you Catholic community for welcoming the Mennonite girl. I'll miss singing with you because I never had to lip sync! I'm taking plenty with me that I hope can bless the world.

 God Bless, Mary Rocks, Peace be with you.. and with your spirit.


On a side note, I have found a really nice balance of Mennonite inclusiveness  and Catholic liturgy in a CEC congregation church here in Wichita. Church of the Resurrection is my current church home.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Favorites and Prodigals

It was a unexpected question on a Friday afternoon, right before Spring Break no less. One of my students, peered at me from behind smudgey glasses and asked, " Am I your favorite, Mrs. Awe?" It caught me off guard and I can't say I handled it deftly. "I can't have favorites," I replied, hoping my warm smile conveyed the care I felt for her in her teenage angst about acceptance and belonging. "If I could, you'd be right up there." Groan, bad answer.  No matter. " I knew it," she said, "I'm your favorite." She turned and headed to the locker section, seemingly satisfied.

Truth is, that minute, she was hands down, my favorite.  She prepares for class, loves to read and always pays attention. But that isn't why she is my favorite. It was because she was there, right there with me and she wanted to know. I look out over my sea of students at any given time and I'd be hard pressed to tell you which one is NOT my favorite. The eye-roller, the sloucher, the one prone to outbursts and the one who doesn't crack a book unless I'm sitting on the top of his desk and even then he only pretends to read or the one who laughs at my every lame joke. For this year, they are mine, and they are all my favorites. It's true.

Part of my Lenten practice is to read  Space for God by Don Postema. One of the exercises was to read the story of the Prodigal Son and just experience the joy of being welcomed home. Not to analyze, the exercise instructed, just to feel. The elder son has always kind of annoyed me,  but reflecting on the story and the question I'd just fielded from my student caused me to consider the events from a new perspective.The elder son, like the prodigal,  like my inquiring student, like me, wants to know he belongs-that he's loved.  It's always about this really isn't it? All of us, regardless if we have always been "at home" or if we ran around squandering money and time, want at last to be at home and be assured we are loved and favored.

Teachers face a classroom of prodigals and elder sons every day and we find ourselves for the sake of classroom management, giving more attention to those who could cause our structure to go to hell in a hand basket if we don't rein them in. We make a big deal when the student who rarely knows the answer, does in fact nail the inciting force in that short story. We applaud the arrival of on time homework from our most disorganized student. The "responsible ones" may be left to wonder why their assignment isn't such a big deal.  I try to be generous of heart with all my students and to celebrate their efforts and accomplishments. I hope they can all know at some point that they are in fact, my favorite. Because they are.

I am, you know, God's favorite. You are too. When I first studied the story as an adult, I related to the Prodigal Son because I was lost, then found and welcomed home by my earthly father and by God. I lived a long time identifying with the Prodigal, accepting the grace and provisions with a grateful heart. A year or so ago, following my father's death, I studied the story again as it is written by Henri Nouwen in Return of the Prodigal.  That is one beautiful book. I expected it to be another warm experience confirming my prodigality.But no! What in fact awaited me in the pages was this message: Grow up there girl! Your gig as the Prodigal is up and it is time to love like the Father. Welcome the prodigals, welcome the elder sisters and brothers. Slaughter that fatted calf every day and give them all the goods you've got in the pantry.

It all makes more sense  now. The question, the story, and why I can never pick a favorite.

Welcome home,

Monday, February 17, 2014

Seeing it through: On capturing Words of Wisdom

Not every idea I try in the classroom works. Sometimes I aim way too high, sometimes pitifully low, but occasionally, God and the universe shoot me an idea and it takes. In fact, the best ideas have  benefits that reach beyond my original intention.

A couple of months ago, I embarked on a long journey with my 8th grade Literature class. We picked up To Kill A Mockingbird, the beloved classic rated only 2nd in influential books behind the Bible according to some sources.  It's 31 chapters long and while wonderfully written, not always easy to understand to today's students. My class is comprised of wonderful students but if pressed I'd say it has a 90/10 reluctant/enthusiastic reader ratio. So, I wondered how I might keep them engaged and interested for the duration.

Utilizing a bulletin board and some vintage paper to match the old fashioned themes of the book, we began to choose one quote for each chapter. I started the process, choosing a quote that I felt reflected a major theme of the chapter. From there I assigned one student per chapter to pick out the quote. He or she would write it on the paper and mount it on the bulletin board. At first, the students began to share and tell why they picked the quote. After a time though, it became a great way to review. Often after a long weekend or when I felt comprehension of some key ideas was waning, we'd go back a few chapters and reread the quotes. We'd answer three questions: Who said it? Who was he/she talking to? What was he/she talking about? It became a great way to review and informally check my students understanding. Those who hadn't caught some of the key ideas received another opportunity to hear them from their peers.

A couple of things happened that I hadn't plan for. The students began to refer to some of the quotes as "words of wisdom" and indeed many of them are. They also used some of them for their end of the book character projects to reflect aspects of their chosen character. A large portion of the final test was over the quotes which reflected their understanding better than a multiple choice question.

Just on a whim and because I had ten minutes to fill at the end of a class one day, I asked the students to write a letter to next year's eighth graders stating why or why not it would be a good idea to read To Kill A Mockingbird. Except for one student (he said it was too long), they all recommended the book. The common themes in their letters: the book helped  to understand a different time period ('back then"), there were many words of wisdom, some intense scenes and some cursing!  Thank goodness for Scout's occasional outbursts which kept my sometimes sleepy middle-school readers turning the pages!

Every good idea I stumble upon helps me as a reader. While reading something that I want my middle aged memory to grasp onto ( my memory is holey and holy these day) this strategy helps me to find the flow of key ideas and themes of a book I want to remember and learn from. Equipped with my reading log notebook and a pencil, I can use this strategy to help me be a more active learner. when finished, I also write about what I liked/didn't like about a book and what I believed I learned from it. Teaching is a great opportunity to learn, I have discovered. The surprising benefits to encouraging my digitally gifted, information overloaded students to read more closely and venture into new and unfamiliar territory is that I have grown as a reader and learner myself. The quote below became one of my favorites and I was thrilled when the young man who found it recognized such an important theme!

Seeing it through,