Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mendocino Poems

These are poems inspired by a place, Mendocino.  It is a small town on the northern coast of California.  My family has been going there every summer for over 50 years and now I take my son.  It's really special. 


It is possible that there are
cliffs like these in other places but
I refuse to believe they are as beautiful.
That anywhere else the sky forms
a more elegant tapestry.
That those other waves crash as symphonically
against such perfectly carved rocks.
That the song the sea foam sings on other shores
is as sweet as the lullaby I hear right now.

The Show

You can pay $18.50 for a ticket to the planetarium 
or you can sit in a field unpolluted by lights 
during the Perseid meteor shower.  

The crickets will narrate 
instead of Morgan Freeman.
The temperature in the theater 
is subject to change without notice
and since the footage is unedited 
your patience is required. 

Still, you can be quite certain 
that the universe extends beyond the ceiling
that the infinity of stars are twinkling in real time and 
that the one you just watched has not already 
been used up on some other person's wish. 

Ars Poetica

I don't call myself a poet, but I do write quite a bit of poetry.  I have been teaching it for the last seven years and it has become my preferred method of documenting and discussing my personal and inner lives.  I have never liked journaling, and while I suppose blogging could be considered a type of journaling, I don't cringe at my past words here like I do on paper.  I am learning to offer myself the same compassion I offer my students and their writing.  These are a few of the poems I've written recently that I like.


Spring did not come easy that year
and neither did her happiness.
Both were wrought from cold hard ground,
after a tough as nails winter,
faces into belligerent gusts of wind
and relentless rain.

Exhausted they turned toward the sun
the moment it appeared.
The first bud was strong and sweet
paving the way for full bloom.
Tiny leaves gathered on the branch and
suddenly everything was green. 


For Allen

My favorite memory will be picking blackberries with you
on the way to Boyle's swimming hole.
The path was well lit and sunny and dusty
like I remembered.
There were no cattails but the reeds were as high as our heads.
Blackberry thorns pricked on both sides.
Ripe fruit was scarce but
I reached into the briars
risking skin and limb because blackberries
are your favorite
and I would do anything for you.

Ars Poetica

When I was 5, I stole a piece of candy from the grocery store.
When I was 11, with my throat burning, I confessed this sin
to my father, who tilted his head as he looked at me and said,
Why are you telling me this?

Years later I gave birth to my one dear son,
and when I whispered my hopes and dreams
in his ear, he looked at me just like my father did.
Again, I guess, I was not making any sense.

Sometimes, language is insufficient

When Young Mothers Die of Cancer II

Somewhere in Maryland a
young mother is dying.
Down in Houston her mother grieves.
In California her children play together,
as she would have liked had she
lived long enough to see it.

At night sometimes she comes to them,
her smell sweet and familiar,
her hug warm and longed for.
She wraps them tight in memory.

In the morning they say nothing,
afraid someone will tell them it wasn't real.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Philosophy of Education

The book from college that I remember reading is Neil Postman’s The End of Education.  He was the founder and chair of my program, the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University.  While at the time I had no intention of becoming a teacher, now that I am I think about this book all the time.  To summarize, he asked school leaders, educators, and students, “Why are we all here?” Why indeed. 
Once I knew I wanted to be an educator I attended Bank Street College of Education, a place where I could grow my practice without compromise.  The gods served by progressive education were in alignment with Postman’s perspective that schooling should be about “how to make a life, not a living”.  After 12 years in the field, I still wonder how we might focus the methods of education (the standards, the learning goals, the essential questions, the projects) on “meaningful” ends – the definition of which educators disagree. Ultimately, what do I wish my students? A sense of personal identity, cooperative interdependence with others, respect for our earth, a commitment to community, to peace, and to justice.  Such “soft skills” are not often in vogue and yet who can deny that the human experience is complete without them?
I have three mantras that center my teaching around achieving what I see as the end goal of creating capable and confident lifelong learners who are empathic and engaged citizens.  People who might know how to go out and make a life. When faced with a dilemma I can count on these words to bring truth to light.

Teach the whole child

This was my first teaching philosophy, captured in a Master’s thesis that still rings true today.  At that time, I wrote:

My priority is preparing students to become lovers of learning for life.  I want them to value their intellects and capabilities and have faith in their desires and their dreams.  I want to provide opportunities for them to bring their outside learning in, as well as opportunities for them to share what we learn together with their families, friends, and communities…I want to be a teacher who sees all of my students as whole people with whole lives.  I want to fearlessly jump into those lives and care.  I want to bring those whole children into the classroom and leave their emotional, social, intellectual, and moral selves better than when I found them.  

My yesterday self would be proud to know that these are still my priorities.  I still seek to provide authentic learning experiences for the unique students I come in contact with each year. I still try to listen and solicit their ideas and feedback.  I still try to offer choices and leave room for their inspired creativity.  The invisible curriculum where students are building identities and friendships, where they are testing the boundaries of integrity and authority, where they are developing a growth mindset understanding of risk, failure, and success, is just as important as what we read and write and calculate.  I try and remember that those are simply means to a much bigger end.

Teach what matters

Our sixth-grade curriculum feels important.  Quaker philosophy asks that we “Let Our Lives Speak”.  To let one’s life speak, one has to discover what it might say.  By making careful curriculum choices, I try to give my students room to uncover areas of interest and to develop talents that might be of use as they go about the business of living. We are motivated by the testimonies – weighty concepts like peace, integrity, equality, and stewardship.  Over several years, our team has infused these ideas directly into the curriculum through the lens of social studies. 
Thematically, we study global issues and sustainable solutions.  Sixth graders want to know what is going on in the world.  We watch the news, we read articles, we research hot topics. We build our media literacy and think critically about information that is presented.  We debate potential perspectives. Current events can be frightening, even to adults, but we establish our classroom as a safe place to feel authentic emotions and to ask questions.  We learn about the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals and the movement to make major headway on key problems by 2030.  We leave room for our interests.  Last year we studied ethical sourcing of raw materials for chocolate and cell phones.  The year before it was endangered manatees.   The exact issue is less important than going through the process of asking ever deeper questions, using multiple sources to answer them, listening to a variety of perspectives, and putting our research into action.  It is a process they can use their whole life.   I am especially proud of how our food justice curriculum is taking shape. It contradicts the notions that service-learning work is not “rigorous” and that its integration dilutes the academic program.  What is more rigorous that studying world hunger?  It is a problem that has not yet been solved. 
We culminate the year with a design-thinking project.  Students are charged with building scale model sustainable homes for well-researched client families from around the world.  This highly collaborative, interdisciplinary experience allows them to apply a wide variety of gained skills in a novel way.  They have to depend on one another and to be dependable, as it is too much work for any one member to shoulder.  They can visualize what it will take to provide sustainable lifestyles around the globe.  What others need.  What we must give up.  Most of all, students walk away knowing there is a role for them in creating this better life.  They are involved and they are invested.  
Curriculum design is one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  I love wrestling with content, resources, and activities to craft dynamic learning experiences based on the interests of that year’s cohort. I see first-hand how social studies allows students to grapple with the problems of those who lived long ago or far away. It is an empathic exercise.  Quaker philosophy also asks that we look for “that of god in everyone”, something that I think social studies helps us to do.  Through our studies what I really hope is that students build the cultural competence and vulnerability required to be in community with others.  Only together in true partnership can we work on problems that really matter and create solutions that restore justice and create a sustainable future for all.

Teach without ego

 I sincerely believe that ego is the nemesis of the teacher.  I define it as a projection of a self that is separate and different and special from the other selves in the world.  Left unchecked it can be divisive and a barrier to compassion.  It breeds insecurity, jealousy, and competition.  Ego can be a detriment to the practice of teaching. I came across this dilemma while exploring the concept of the teacher-leader.  As I seek to be an integral part of progress and evolution in my schools, I have to be really honest with myself about my intentions.  Am I propping up my self-esteem, trying to get ahead, or seeking to control a situation according to my own desires?  Am I operating on fear or resentment? With a fixed resolution or an open mind?  Am I acting in the interests of my students? Do I honor best practice? Do I uphold agreed up ethics? Am I present to talk or to listen?
When I first joined my current school, I entered into a team teaching situation that I greatly underestimated for its difficulty.  I came to realize that most of the angst I felt at work could be traced back to my ego.  Desires to be recognized, respected, and right can be strong. Self-preservation seems sensible and competition seems healthy.  A twinge of resentment over a close relationship or individually achieved success seems normal. Suspicion of new colleagues and initiatives seems expected. Giving priority to the activities and topics I prefer seems logical. But when these emotional responses interfere with my ability to focus on what is best for my students and their learning, my ego is the one that needs to back down.  In those moments, I am learning not to fight, not to defend, not to protect, not to promote.  I am learning to let go.  When "I" am at the center of my practice, the world my students and I are creating together feels fragile and destabilized, tilted in the direction of a self-concerned perspective.  When my students are at the center of my practice, our world seems infinitely more solid.

These mantras are evidence of my growth and continuing evolution as a teacher.  I acquired each of them during a particular time though for me they remain timeless.  With further reflection, my practice continues to deepen, proof that I am what I wish for my students, on a joyful journey of lifelong learning.

Friday, November 24, 2017

On Mentoring

Everyone with a career needs a mentor.  As I make holiday gratitude lists and contemplate my areas for growth on the heels of the New Year, I am thinking a lot about mentorship because I know that has been a major key to my success. No one makes good decisions in a vacuum.  It’s important to surround yourself with people who have achieved what you hope to or who are setting similar goals.  They might think like you or have a completely different approach. They might be personal friends or people you admire from afar. Whatever the case, a set of guiding stars can provide clarity and confidence.  This article outlines 8 things good teacher mentors do.

I really enjoy bonding with previous generations of teachers. The ones who started when computers were bulky, when the internet wasn’t a thing, when craft was king, and being able to define one’s personal pedagogy really mattered.  I have been lucky to teach with many talented people from this generation.  Some have retired and some are still at it, providing critical leadership at a time when so much about school is up for debate.  I find their perspective incredibly helpful and listening closely to their insights has prevented many novice mistakes. 

I am also lucky to be teaching with an incredible team of teachers who have become peer mentors.  We complement each other wonderfully because we all have different strengths, but the common thread is that everyone brings their "A game" everyday.  We listen without judgement.  We don't fixate on problems, we solve them.  We collaborate without competition.  We share without  threatening one another.  We teach with no ego.  

Sometimes mentors show up unexpectedly.  We recently invited a dynamic speaker to visit our grade as a DC hunger expert.   She previously led a cluster of charter schools and now is a food justice advocate. I am fascinated by her energy, her focus, and her ideas, and I am plotting how I might become her friend and partner with her on a project or two.

I recently came across this blogpost from my good friend and long time mentor, Monica Edinger. We began working together over a decade ago at The Dalton School.  To this day she remains a steadfast champion and a critical source of advice and ideas.  I deeply admire the way she has never become complacent with her practice.  She stays true to her core principles, but tries something fresh and new and innovative every year.  To have someone like that believe in you when you are just starting out gives you the confidence to press forward, to take risks, and to trust that the journey to becoming a master educator could be the funnest and most rewarding ride yet.  I look forward to having the opportunity to provide that to someone else.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Everybody Grows: A Community Partnership

As part of the 6th grade community engagement focus on Food Justice, we forged a partnership with Everybody Grows:

At Everybody Grows, our mission is to inspire and equip people to grow fresh, healthy food by bringing the home garden to everybody, wherever home may be.
We serve communities across the Washington DC area by making growing food possible regardless of location, age, income or mobility.  Our work brings families and communities closer through sharing the life-sustaining joy of growing food.
Inspiration Gardens are built in partnership with the DC Fire Department, local churches and nursing homes. These community-focused gardens provide an opportunity for people from all walks of life to plant together, harvest together and to learn how to grow their own vegetable gardens.
Jake is the Executive Director and an alum of SFS.  He had been looking for opportunities to bring his work as a landscape designer and gardener back to his alma mater.  Brad Ogilvie, long time SFS consultant connected us and this partnership was born.  This first we launched a seed growing initiative.  All of the students planted and tended over 700 seedlings.  Some died but some were donated and planted in DC community gardens.  As we solidify this partnership over the next year, we hope to soon have all 6th grade students going out into neighborhoods and helping with the gardens as well.  
Seed growing and soil quality are part of the 6th grade science curriculum so we will continue to deepen that connection.  We have found literary connections to Seedfolks and The Green Book, which I will teach this year.  It also connects to discussions about farming in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.  It complements the OxFam Hunger Banquet and Global Village experience since it exposes students to the difficulties of actually growing food to eat, something our American privilege and culture separates us from.  

My coworker Stewart and I had the opportunity to present these ideas at the Private Schools for Public Purpose conference. Here is our presentation called Sowing Seeds.

Transparent and Organized Math Instruction

A puzzle for my math teaching this year was how to make our learning goals transparent and how to organize class work so that it could be easily coalated into a portfolio at the end of the year.  Then I learned about a resource called  They hire master teachers to submit lessons in a variety of topics.  I liked one teacher's work in particular, especially the way her lessons featured student notes.

I appreciated the way she focused on her learning goals, both questions and mandated standards.  The "I will be able to" statements allowed students to understand what they were responsible for learning. The "Do Now" offered a way to kick off activities or to do mini-assessments.  The notes can contain information, activities, links, or resources.  It is easy to attach class or homework to them.  

I adapted this model for my own class and felt much more organized this year.  It was easy to integrate essential questions into our every day lessons.  It is also a useful system for differentiation as each student can get an individualized set of activities attached to the notes.   Students continued to need reminders to keep up with the notes and to use the notes to study for tests, but the system was in place for them to do so.  It was also useful during conversations with parents, as my expectations were clearly articulated in the student materials.  Here are some samples:

Monday, July 24, 2017

Project Highlight: Mapping With Heart

One of our social studies projects this year was featured on our school website (Click to see the article and examples of student work)!  The Mapping With Heart project came about through the diverse interests of our team.  Lauren did a Mapping By Heart project in middle school and brought that curriculum to the 6th grade.  Every spring, students studied the world maps they had created and explored throughout the year.  They memorized lines of latitude and longitude and made up tricks to be able to place countries, cities, and geographical features by heart.  New members of the team interpreted this assignment as a way to let students explore statistics and layer on top of the physical space a story about an issue they cared about.  This became the Mapping With Heart project.  Last year I gave my students a choice to do their maps By heart or With heart.  About half chose each.  The interpretations were fantastic and individual.  Students had to choose their projection and justify their choice.  We talked about how different projections shape our understanding of the world.

I even had students opt to try their hand with the complicated, but more accurate Fuller's projection.

This year all students did the Mapping With Heart exercise.  I am questioning the need to memorize these particular facts in this age of accessible information.  I do believe it is extremely useful to have students analyze data relating to a question they have and apply it to something they are creating by hand.  This project is very labor intensive. It requires attention to detail.  It is a long term project that needs to be approached in an organized and methodical way.  It is hard.  The resulting product is something that students take pride in. 

Progressive education values this type of project that is based on meaningful, student driven content and a deep, elongated, and creative process.  It was great to see it featured on our website as an example of the kind of global education offered by my team.  I look forward to the 3rd iteration of it this year.