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~

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,
~Ellen~

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,
~Ellen~

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Everywhere and Nowhere

"To be everywhere is to be nowhere." 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca



We all know it is  possible to have too much of a good thing. The World Wide Web, which has transformed the world of communication and learning, can dominate our lives. Most of it carry it in our pockets, purses or palms. We are always connected. I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I love what I have learned. I love that blogging has given me a platform to publish my writing. I love staying in touch with people. I appreciate that the use of apps and assistive technology has enabled access for individuals with learning differences. On the flip side, I hate looking at the top of people's heads while we are having lunch, I hate the spread of pornography and lies that "go viral" too easily, and I loathe the stress it causes because when I try to unplug for a day or a week I feel that I am getting left behind. Mostly what I resent about technology is what we aren't doing when we are plugged in: deep reading of great books, meaningful conversations with those older and younger than ourselves and watching the wind blow through the leaves on the trees. I notice that my already short attention span has become even shorter and that I find myself looking at my phone when my husband is trying to tell me something, even though I don't like that behavior in others.


A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I bought it from Warren Farha, owner of Eighth Day Books. He told me, "Every teacher and every parent should read this book." I agree. This isn't a book review so I won't describe the book in great detail. It is however a recommendation. Read this book! It is the information we need to move forward in this century and to make good decisions about our children. We could go back to the chalk and slate days but we won't. We can however, make sure that we make wise and thoughtful decisions about the use of technology and that we leave more "white space" in our days. I firmly believe we should still read and teach from print materials, along with digital text. Maybe we should allocate as much money to planting a garden as we do to upgrading our computers.

One of the biggest changes I have made after reading this book is limiting my time online. I realized that in my desire to be connected, current, and stimulated, I have allowed my ever malleable brain to be transformed.  I notice it takes more effort than it used to when I  read printed text and I have substituted 30 character statements for deep understanding of concepts. I have also added to my internal frenzy by clicking "one more link" rather than pulling away from my desk and taking a walk down the hall or having a real face time interaction. I realized sometimes I  have traded a cute family picture on Facebook for an authentic family moment. It will likely always be a balancing act for us as we seek to integrate technology for our benefit but not let it run our lives. It's a necessary endeavor to undertake however. We do need to stop and weigh the costs of giving our brains to digital devices for a majority of the day. This thoughtful, well-researched book is a good first step.


As a grandparent now one of the things I am most grateful for is that my grandchild's parents have decided to leave the TV off until their baby goes to bed every night. They also have a "no social media" rule for friends and family regarding their baby. Although I really think this kid is so cute that he ought to be all over Facebook, I have to say that it has meant we see our time with little Oliver as wonderful and precious and we aren't tempted to turn it into a photo opportunity. I'd love to be able to "share" his photos but I deeply respect and support the decision of his wise parents. For them it is the beginning of a long journey about what to expose him to and how to guide his choices about how he will spend his time in the world.


For now, I am logging off to take a walk! Thanks for reading.


Peace,
~Ellen~

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 2011)