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 sticky note exercise that I have used many times to help students identify and discuss literature.  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 Mother's 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 age and 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, 88, has to stop to catch her breath more often when we walk. She often tells me the same thing two or three times in one conversation (my kids tell me I do too) and I frequently have to finish her sentences or give her a name she is trying to retrieve. Again, I admit I sometimes have to look to my younger friends for the same support. She can still walk a 5K,  read about 70 books a year, make a mean casserole,  and keep an active social schedule. Sometimes, I forget and I think of her as "just" my elderly mother 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 yesterday 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 touched 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, the retreat leader, spiritual director, ordained minister, and voracious reader. The woman who could shake one mighty finger at my sassy 14-year-old self,and bring my back to my senses. (This particular memory is why I still show her the respect she deserves!) 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 don't take it for granted. I listen more, walk slower, and look for the rings of life which sustain my own.


Happy Mother's Day!


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

No Equal Measure

Two seemingly unrelated occurrences this week became correlated in the inner workings of my mind. First, Holy Week, and second, 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 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 have that to hang onto. 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 what Holy Week comes in. Working at a Catholic School I am reminded, every hour on the hour, that the biggest measure of love, of grace, is the cross.  I looked at the image of Jesus today hanging on the cross and had to get real with myself. I just can't find any unit greater, heavier, or with 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 one pound 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 visit 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.

~Ellen~

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 

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.

Reverence

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.

~Ellen~


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.









Monday, May 5, 2014

An End of the Year Letter

Dear Students,


When I think of you I remember your sweaty and tired faces, coming in from a too short recess break. I remember your faces turned up with expectation, the occasional roll of the eye and the impulsive outbursts, like popcorn that can't be contained. Mostly, I remember when I felt like you had your own Aha moment. The times your face just lit up... Your hand may have shot upward... or not, depending on how comfortable you felt speaking out in class. But I saw on your beautiful young faces something new, I saw the light of understanding and the recognition of something larger than you. I remember the times you opened your minds and hearts and let the words of the pages written years before you were born penetrate your modern world.  I remember the courage with which you asked questions if you didn't understand something.


I hope when you think of your experiences here at STA and in particular, 8th grade Literature you remember the good things. Don't remember the times I failed to give you the best lesson of your life, please.  I won't remember the days you didn't give your best effort because most of the time we all brought our A game. So, let's hang on to that!


Some of you have known pain: the death of a beloved family member, the divorce of your parents, the struggle of a learning or attention issue which made learning hard, or the pain of not fitting in with your peer group. When you have known sadness, your capacity for kindness has grown. Don't forget that. You have kept going and working and you are still striving to learn. I am so proud of you for that.

So, here are my final "words of the wiser."

There is a lot that is good and worthy in a great book than you will ever find on Twitter. You can learn more about real life from a 75 year old than you will ever learn from anything posted on Instagram.  So occasionally, no frequently, put down your phone, open your eyes, read, question and learn. Never stop being amazed.


Be like Scout, feisty and brave. Be like Jem, loyal and steadfast. Be like Atticus, live with integrity. Be like Tom Robinson, live with forgiveness and truth. Be like Ponyboy and look for what you have in common with people, not what divides you. Be like Wang Li, always looking for the words of wisdom. Don't be like the girl with the white umbrella who finally finds kindness and throws it down the sewer! Stay gold.


You have just a few days of school left. Make them good ones. You probably liked your teachers better in November than you do right now. That is okay, it helps you move on to your next place if you are tired of us.  You should know that we have been sleepless in the middle of the night more than a few times, worried about you and hoping we found the key to connect you to your best self.  We love you. We send you off (with some relief to be perfectly honest) but mostly gratitude and hope. Thank you for making us smile.


God Bless.
Keep Reading!
Mrs. Awe

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lent and the End of a School Year: Why We Can't Give Up

It's a strange coincidence that Lent and the last quarter of the school year occur about the same time. When taken seriously, both can seem long and difficult. At first, we are excited about  the possibilities and start out, plans in hand, to effect change in ourselves and those around us. As the weeks pass by, the allure begins to fade and we are yearning for the dark chocolate we gave up or the alleluias back in the liturgy or those lazy summer days when we haven't set our alarm clocks.We are "over it" so to speak and it is "over us."

We can't quit however.  We can actually, but we know it's better if we keep striving. We didn't choose this path because we are sissypants!  We must, in the words of my former administrator, "Finish strong!"  We persevere because frankly, the world needs us to. I am convinced more than ever, that the world needs those who are steadfast and strong, who stay the course and who can speak from a deep well of love and peace.

For Lent,this year, I vowed to make more space for God in my life. To not fill every quiet moment and every empty space with noise or things. Three weeks in, it got tough. I wondered why I had  made the vow to begin and end the day with prayer and reading, to not check my phone so often or to fill the empty spaces with chatter and conversation. Crazy at it seems, I wanted back my old ways, not because they are better, just familiar. A few things helped: encouragement of my Lenten study group members who share their own journeys, the words of wisdom from the good reverend each week  and the knowledge that sometimes someone else needs our desire to grow closer to God. As much as we need it, maybe someone else needs it too and our journey helps their journey. Recently, I was encouraged by a show of persevering love by a friend who had a figurative door shut in her face. She knocked again, then again, and she offered love through the solid wooden door. Was it easy? I'm guessing not and her courage inspired my fearful heart.

I think that is why, in these last few weeks of school, we don't blow it off, we don't just fill the time. We give students our best up to the end. Even if they don't give us their best efforts,  they need ours. Yes, we are tired, yes we are impatient, and nigh to insane with assessment madness. But, we have these little and medium sized people in our classrooms who need us to model fortitude and learning for the sake of learning. They need our best selves  to keep showing up. As we are loved unto the end, we love our students to the end. As if we had a choice, really.The great things about kids is that they see through us. They know if we love them or merely put up with them. Children come equipped with sincerity detectors and they will know if we are there with them in body or if we are truly there, up to the end, in spirit as well. They deserve to be taught and loved, up to the last minute of the last day of school.

Lent and the school year relentlessly move us and shows us what we are made of. Let's draw on our wells of love for faith, our students, and use up every last creative quiver in our bags to finish what we started. It hasn't escaped me that this blog was supposed to be for tips and strategies and has ended up being mostly about the soul journey of a teacher that wants to touch every heart and retain the passion that she started with. If you have stuck with me, thank you. I work out my angst on the keyboard and hope that it encourages someone and sets my soul aright. I'll share some strategies and some resources again, I promise. Thanks for listening.

Peace,
~Ellen~