Monday, June 4, 2012

The Waves That Greet Me Each Morning

Tomorrow I begin my last week of teaching this academic year. The following week I and other 9th grade teachers have arranged a "Health Week" where all freshmen will work in teams to create a proposal about a health  issue to present to a panel of judges from the community. It will be a great way to end the year. But this week each of them must focus on finishing their letters advocating about a health issue they researched to persaude their audience with a "call to action." This is project based learning, this is social justice education, and this is amazing for kids from our community to be  engaged in. It is also taxing for teachers to equip them for. In August I began student teaching at this school. Though I finished in April, I came back two weeks ago as a long term sub until the end of the school year. Looking ahead to tomorrow morning, I thought of something I wrote in January, when I had just taken over teaching all the classes and creating my own curriculum for them. A friend asked me how I was doing. I replied, "I feel like I wake up each day trying to stem the tide". She asked me to explain, and I wrote this piece:


Stemming the Tide

My dream is interrupted by a foreign sound
that transports me to an ocean
and unleashes the familiar tides of each day’s pressures
They relentlessly rush toward me, over me, through me
They are so overpowering, so loud, so disorienting
I curl up
Into my blankets out of habit for safety
As I am tossed, turned and churned
Not wanting to face them,
Not wanting to be reminded of how futile it feels
to reach out and fight

They taunt me, these waves,
With their chaotic currents of the day’s responsibilities
That push me down with their demands
Leaving me struggling, straining, suffocating
For air, for life

Some days I get the courage to stem the tide
I stretch and bend and twist
to become whoever I need to be
to fulfill the responsibilities, to master the tasks
to break through their wake
long enough to hear my own voice in the midst of their deafening cries
to have some peace before the next set rolls in
Its roar can seem quiet and small from a distance
Yet they become a pounding torrent so quickly

Sometimes I am prepared and in pride feel like I can ride the waves
Because I have worked especially hard to get on top
because some waves are smaller than others
because I am blind to a larger one developing
I grow weary of warping my body back and forth
To ride what does not want to be ridden

But most days I am not prepared and in desperation I cry out to God
Knowing that only he is big enough
To conquer and tame the storms
To silence the roar of the waves,
To subdue the pounding torrents
Only he has the right and power to tell me
Who I am and who I am called to be

I pull back my blanket
The Sun is out and is making me warm
Inviting me to not simply get through the day
But to enjoy it
It is quiet now because there was a voice louder than the noise
That calls me by my name instead of titles
I am safe to stand up,
to stretch and step into another day

The waves are still there yet seem smaller
The waters are too complex for me to know
Yet alone control
He is shaping and guiding each one
To reveal my strengths and weakness and reform them
To unmask my fears and dreams and redirect them
Risks remain of course yet all is not lost when I fail
When I fall I am not alone
I am slowly learning to hear his voice each morning
To call out when I am tempted to even try
To stem the tide that greets me

Beyond the pressure of teaching, I feel additional pressures of "shoulds" - things I should be involved in, supporting or helping. I love encouraging people in pursuing their dreams, processing their journey and pointing them to Jesus. I enjoy helping them think through ideas but often don't view that as "help" unless I also physically participate in carrying out those ideas. Though I may not physically be present feeding the homeless, helping neighbors with their yard, cleaning a friend's house as they move or counseling university students, I will invest time and energy mentally and emotionally processing all these things in addition to issues with my faith, family and friends. These "shoulds" become taxing and draining. In the past month I have had a few friends remind me that my support by listening to and engaging in their ideas is a gift in and of itself; that often that kind of caring is more unique and welcome than simply doing tasks. I am learning to remove the distractions of "what if" in order to focus on "right here, right now" Or to recycle a quote I made for myself in college: "Don't let good things prevent better things" Graduate school and teaching has  forced me to say "no" to a lot this past year. It has been hard but also freeing. I know myself better, both my gifts and my joys, which refreshes my soul to both run and rest as the waves of life rise and fall.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lessons from Children

Yesterday as I began traveling to see my sister, brother in-law, and my seven week old nephew in Redding, CA, I thought about why I was so excited to be an uncle. I love kids, not simply because they are fun to be around but because of what they draw out in me. In many ways I grew up too quickly, and being around children has provided a way to “grow young” in rediscovering and pursuing my passions. Here are just a few lessons they have taught me:

1. Express yourself

As we get older, there is an expectation that we should become self-aware, making us more careful and conservative in how we express ourselves. Some kids adopt this norm sooner than others, but I applaud the ones who cherish their freedom “to be a kid” and hesitate to throw in the towel. When I was a counselor of 2nd and 3rd graders, several of them were already hesitant to express themselves. Thankfully most of them were content to be kids, evidenced by their the volatile emotions and actions: screams of panic, yells of delight, huge hugs, jumping high-fives, guttural noises of disgust, sudden silence of anticipation, wild flailing arms, tears over a lost toy, creative costumes, and fiery faces fuming with frustration. Subtlety was a foreign word to them. Dancing was one specific avenue I continually encouraged them to feel free to look ridiculous and “let it all out”. Part of this was for them, but part of it was for me too. As I walked to the stereo and selected their favorite sons, I would shed my veneer of “adulthood and maturity.” Each kid had something unique to offer, whether it was Will’s intensity in “Eye of the Tiger,” Sadie’s passionate singing “keep keep bleedin your love,” AP’s breakdancing or Alessandro’s moonwalking tribute to MJ . Dancing, like any other form of expression, was a tangible reminder that we are made to enjoy, not manage, life.

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do." - Marrianne Williamson

2. Though simple, curiosity has a beauty and power

Early in life I convinced myself that people did not really want to know the “whole” me. Due to my wide range of interests, I floated between social groups and developed a habit of sharing only the pieces of myself I thought were palpable to others or relative to the conversation. These gave glimpses into who I was. It wasn’t until college that anybody called me out on this. But often kids yearn to know people from the moment they enter a room. The promise and power of a child’s lack of inhibition strikes fear into most adults when they enter a room. Both they and the child poise to interpret reactions, eager to evaluate their expectations, carefully ‘calculating’ like an iphone processing an app. Kids can spot discomfort in seconds from a mile away. An adult’s comical glance or warm smile is often enough to signal acceptance. At this point, the adult should know they have surrendered themselves to a torrent of questions since they are not intimidated by the breadth or depth of anyone’s identity-whether a car salesman or a cultural anthropologist. They ask questions incessantly to know the “whole” you: your job, toothpaste preferences, crazy pranks, amazing adventures, scary moments, epic failures, embarrassing experiences, teenage crushes-they wanted to know it all. This curiosity is beautiful because their questions invite relationship, they reach out to touch us to close the gap of age and experience and confirm that we are the same. They eagerly watch for a reaction, and a smirk, a pause, a blush, or even a twitch ito prove our humanity. This curiosity is powerful in its ability to disarm us and reveal who we really are. Like a contagion, it makes us increasingly sensitive and vulnerable evidenced by how adults often are more explicit and open with kids than each other. The beauty and power of children’s curiosity is fed by an insatiable capacity to wonder, which sadly diminishes as we get older.

“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder”-Blaise Pascal

3. Recalling out First Steps: Gravitational Principles

Often when I am coaching runners about the importance of form, I remind them of learning to walk for the first time. Half of them line up on a line and the other half watch to see which part of their partner’s body moves first when they begin walking. Besides those who are joking around, they all notice that the chest moved first. Something had to propel the body forward, which in this case meant utilizing gravity. Movement begins by falling. This is what makes our first steps so scary-suspending control and surrendering ourselves to unknown forces. When you see a baby bobble and sway side to side on chubby little feet that are hesitant yet eager to rise in one place and fall in another, there is both hope and fear. Gravity offers its own life principles:

1. Life is full of risks, bumps and bruises are inevitable and pain is a gift. We are designed to learn more from falling than from standing. By not walking you are missing out on life and others miss out on discovering all you were designed to be.

2. Seeing and knowing where you will put your feet helps. Have a sense of direction and purpose with each step, however small.

3. Small steps come before big steps so start with small risks and small goals

4. Learning to walk happens faster when you are not alone. True community provides support when you take risks

5. Walking happens before running so remember that mundane decisions always come before exciting ones, master the basics and you’ll be better prepared for the fun.

6. Walking off a step is more hazardous than walking on a flat surface so remember that context always influences the impact of even identical risks.

7. When you walk downhill you can see further, need less energy but also have less control than when you walk uphill. Simple decisions are easy to make but often have hidden instabilities we are unprepared for. Hard decisions require more effort but we benefit from inherently taking smaller steps that are manageable. If you’ve overextended your step going uphill, anatomically you know you can compensate more easily than when you are going downhill. We are more prepared to react fast to trouble in hard decisions than easy ones.

8. Running is so much more fun than walking, but it is more tiring. We are designed to enjoy life but we have to work to do it well. If all you do is work, you will burn out. If all you do is enjoy life, it becomes static and empty. The more you learn the skill of running by discovering and pursuing your unique interests and passions, the stronger your joy will be in life.

9. Each of us walks differently, no stride is perfectly alike. Whether we walk or run, it doesn’t need to be in the same direction or with the same purpose. “Finding your stride” takes a while.

10. For a step to be a success you only need to have moved somewhere new. Taking risks doesn’t always need to be a show. Normally it isn’t after we’ve had a few steps that we realize how far we’ve come.

This morning my nephew was not walking or talking, but he was expressing himself in any way he could. Rolling his head to the opposite side was a huge victory for him and relief swept across his face after getting a fresh diaper. It is amazing how these simple actions become significant when they are significant to one person. As I hold him, we each are getting comfortable with each other and both of us are learning from each other. Kids, like anything valuable in life, are messy, costly, complex and mysterious but totally worth having. For now I’m happy to just be an uncle.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Character as Clothing

While flipping through channels in a motel room I stopped to watch Project Runway, though I admit that if others were in the room I would have kept flipping channels… A few years ago I had watched some episodes of Project Runway with a friend. My normal disclaimer was “it gives us something to do together and talk about” but honestly I was intrigued. It may sound weird coming from a guy who has clothes that are 10yrs old, who sews on patches and rarely goes shopping but I like fashion. There, I said it.

Why? What is it about fashion that I like? I am one of the first to mock the cyclical repetition of past trends and the eccentric, abstract side of high fashion, the irony of millions buying the same “unique” image, and humor of desiring beat-up, low quality clothing. Yet perhaps those extremes are just lazy ideas of what fashion is…I don’t know. Project Runway is a reality tv show on fashion design and I like that no matter how much the judges encourage bold, radical concepts they also want technical and concrete execution of those concepts to ground the clothing in reality, in something people would actually wear-something marketable. I think what draws me is the artistic side of making an idea come to fruition with the ultimate goal (I assume) to complement to wearer.

There is a balance between highlighting the person and the clothing. They must work together instead of compensating for each other-like when my sister said my good looks compensated for my old, tattered clothes- (I was just happy to find a compliment in that statement). With a person and the clothing, one might stand out before the other but together they draw you in. Aligning the two is not essential but doing so denote honor or shame (a joyful friend in rags becomes stylish compared to a well-dress jerk becomes disheveled). This is why we adorn those we honor and generally agree with the proverb “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman with no discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). As character and clothing align, character must lead. But whichever one leads, following requires an investment and sacrifice (either for yourself or for others).

Thus, a good dresser in my view is one who has found a way to bring out their unique features subtly, almost creating an intrigue making others wonder “what is so attractive about them?” Like great art, you are left searching for the significance beyond the sensory, the meaning beyond the medium, pondering the beauty that is not immediately perceived. In this way I hope that good fashion guides us to see people as subjects, not objects, as dynamic instead of static, pulling us into relationship instead of away.

Perhaps the reason we are the only creature to blush is because we realize how our thoughts of a person and their thoughts towards us are an intrusion at worst (base attractions) and acknowledgement at best (compliment of value). In a real sense a blush hints towards an innate code to honor who that person is, to acknowledge something substantial and weighty. We want to know the person because we have glimpsed something glorious and in this sense character becomes the most authentic and durable clothing.

Character is worn daily with or without thought. Ideally integrity becomes your style for without it, you become a chameleon-rebelling against consistency, as if for survival. You adapt to others perceptions of beauty. Your goal to be noticed only makes you invisible for people are not seeing you, only what their ideal “you” would be. Instead what captivates me is someone who knows who they are; they have discovered what in their character is beautiful in and of itself-rooted in a classic style yet creatively expressed beyond it alluding to a universal sense of beauty. Their strengths are the first to be seen and their weaknesses are like accents-perhaps pointing to or outlining a striking feature yet content to stay in the background. The combination becomes their style, their “look” plus attitude… and like any character trait its expression organically responds to the seasons of life.

Each season brings a context to adapt to, each a challenge and opportunity. Did you have enough layers in your clothing, and in your character, to not only survive harsh winters but actually warm others around you? Did the summer heat surprise you? Was its warmth enough to entice you to bare some skin? The sun’s rays will bear witness of your “look’s”, and your character’s, ability to discern the proper limit in shedding those layers. In each season, and I suppose each day, our fashion and our character is revealed. And with both we may or may not feel equipped to face what lies ahead yet risk is the required seed for their expression.

…I like this metaphor. I suppose it reminds me of the freedom I am feeling to be known as I am. Yes I admit that in both character and clothing it is easier to be a chameleon, changing to match others’ perceptions of “what I should be.” It takes courage to express your character and be known by it, like discovering your style. In establishing any style it is hard to establish what pieces to build around: do I want to wear this shirt with this tie? What belt? Shoes? Wait…is this clean? Sometimes when I would help one of my sisters think through an entire outfit I’d realize at the end “This isn’t you, let’s start again” Likewise with my character: do I want to be funny right now? With who? Why? When should I ask how they are? Only to realize later “Ben, this isn’t you, honestly answer my question.”

I have shed my borrowed clothing, my chameleon’s skin and am moving into the foreground. I am growing confident in my character as others observe, compliment and encourage me, like friends confirming a new look. Though many say I am thoughtful, caring, and genuine there are others who notice that I am also humorous, joyful, and creative. I believe this is probably the difference between noticing the features and noticing the accents. Like any look, people sees its flaws as well: hyper-analytical, verbose, and nosy. A surprise picture and a spontaneous conversation can often reveal one’s day-to-day character and look, judging their integrity. The surprise picture for me would probably be in is my long sleeve green shirt, knit sweater, dark jeans, and brown shoes/ beige loafers. The look is comfortable, intentional, and distinguishable, combining my creative and rational (thrifty) characteristics. Most of my friends can name this exact outfit because it is my default. Yet the spontaneous conversation would not be so balanced. Odds are that I would go deeper in the conversation than desired. Good friends have noticed the imbalance at times and said I “am thoughtful, sometimes too thoughtful” as if to ask for another look but really wanting a different attitude/character-akin to asking Zoolander for something besides Blue Steel (yet in my case nowhere near as comical or adventurous). I am beginning to believe it is safe to bring out those accents, the eclectic quirks I assumed no one was intrigued by.

I have periodically stopped to smile and laugh at myself even writing this yet as I think of character as clothing I realize it is very human, simple yet profound. If style is character/attitude combined with clothing/”look” and culture is what we make of the world (ideas and stuff) than my style is a slice of culture, so much for being subtle…

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Christmas in the cabin

My break had a rough start-due to snow and ice I landed at 1am in Denver, made it my friend's house at 2:30am and found out later in the morning I had dropped my phone in the snow. But thankfully everything improved from there! The phone was found, the skies cleared and soon I was snowshoeing into our family cabin on Casper Mountain to celebrate Christmas. Sadly none of my other siblings could make it-my sisters were with their in-laws and my brother had to work. Nonetheless, my parents and I kept our family traditions-Fondue Christmas Eve dinner, stockings Christmas morning, and Red and Green Breakfast.

Maintaining our traditions requires new efforts when celebrating inside a log cabin lacking the normal amenities of a house.

whatever you want at the cabin, you need to be willing to carry in for a mile through the snow. Typically we load up a few sleds and pull them behind us while snowshoeing.

This requires puring fresh gas into our generator and filling up cartons with ice cold water as fast as possible to keep your hands from freezing. The ground is cold enough that the water that spills gathers at your feet instead of soaking into the earth. We have plumbing inside but the pipes are too cold to pump water through in the winter. This is our water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, etc.

3. Heat
It was 10 degrees outside when we arrived, and 12 degrees inside the cabin. Our wood burning stove was our indoor heating and also used to heat up water occasionally. It was idyllic to curl up on the couch with a good book and warm up after a good hike through the woods. The fire and candles also provided our lighting during our fondue dinner.

4. Bathroom
after we shoveled a clearing into the cabin and packed down a path to the outhouse all you needed were slippers and a warm jacket on your way back and forth

5. Baking
Our family loves bread, preferably homemade. At such a high elevation though rising takes a long time, and a few prayers.

6. Generators
we set up a wind generator and solar panel to power an electric outlet for our light (singular) inside and to charge our phones (otherwise we might have to use flares to communicate)

7. Whipping Cream
It took a while but eventually I made whipping cream from scratch for our crepes. thankfully the other red and green elements of our breakfast were prepared more easily.

Was it worth this extra effort? Yes!

Christmas was wonderful. It has snowed 30in in less than a day on the mountain so we had fun sledding, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing the next few days. I got to sleep in, read books, watch movies, and play games. It was nice to go into "kid" mode around my parents-they helped pay for me to come out, made me meals, asked what I wanted to do, bought me treats (cheesecake), my mom even cut my hair despite doing it outside the cabin in the cold! It was also refreshing to not think about school-studying or teaching-for a few days. I met several of my parents' friends and one couple actually served each of us a roasted hen for one meal. Many of their friends are my age, which i think is there way of compensating for us kids being so far away. Christmas is always full of memories and i am grateful I could add a few more this time around.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Teaching social justice-why questions must be asked

Over a month ago I spent a Saturday from 8am until 4:30pm at theNorthwest Conference on Teaching for Social JusticeI was excited about it for two reasons: learning tools and strategies to apply to my teaching and learning how teachers in the NW define and practice “social justice”. I was glad to see several workshops highlighting issues and approaches for math and science, instead of just language arts and social studies. It was interesting to be part of a workshop on anthropology with college professors and high school teachers. When given the task of defining “culture” as a group, family and faith were the last elements to be mentioned and though all agreed that we need to teach kids how to see the world around them, they also said no one can ever critique or judge another person and students needed to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. No one pointed out the discrepancy between wanting students to decide their identity while also telling them what it should be.

Overall I was surprised by the fluid definition and unstructured practice of “social justice” around me. No one ever defined “social justice” and no one expressed its impact beyond the classroom. Though I admit that both were assumed implicitly, it is revealing that neither was addressed explicitly. It is hard to find anyone who is against social justice and even fewer who say that education has no social context. Much of our society blames education for its problems, whether academic or moral, and educators are quick to blame others, yet all call out for “social justice.” And even beyond education this cry of “social justice” (much like “local” “free-trade” and “organic”) has become a marketable slogan for everyone from international chain stores to your local stationary shop. Given its popularity and wide application, why is there so little clarity on what social justice is and what it does?

I came in with this question and left with it still unanswered making me rather solemn as I left the conference, while my friends and other fellow educators left the conference much more elated. I wanted space to identify what it was that bothered me yet the responsibilities and commitments of the “now” has enveloped me like a fog since then. And even weeks later my nascent thoughts were still striving for air-until today. I believe we should not throw the word “social justice” around without asking clarifying questions since it can almost mean anything to anyone. Here are some reflections on why those questions must be asked and in another post I’ll share answers I’ve been wrestling with.

Admittedly I walked into the conference with my own baggage around the word “social justice.” In various jobs around the country and world I have met many well intended people who develop a messiah complex trying to establish their own definition of social justice for a community. I have worked alongside people who define social justice as “justice for me.” As a Seattle resident I have seen over and over again advocates of social justice and friends seek to abolish structures around them and once successful become frustrated realizing the necessity of structure to take any action. “Social justice” that was so pure and simple in theory becomes messy and complex in practice.

While studying teaching at UW it has been hard to distinguish social justice from simply good teaching-lending itself to a culture of comparison. Thus, as a citizen and an educator, what I feared going to the conference was a spirit of competition (us vs. them) rather than one of collaboration (us with/for them). The former leads us to mainly focus on identifying shared enemies while the latter leads us to mainly focus on identifying shared problems. I saw the former at the conference with a simplifying of the issues and a tendency to demonize the “other.” The necessity of humility seen in this famous quote by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was not written to promote inaction but perspective, not to quench passion for healing and restoration but to deepen it:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
-One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Human experience led him, has led me, and I believe should lead us to desire a deeper grounding for “social justice” and clearer vision for what it does.

But why are people often content with not having it defined or its purpose or goal stated? I suppose the short answer is that it is easier to mobilize people around an abstract idea than a concrete one. Many activists get frustrated by this reality. Many elements of our modern world let us be associated with something or someone without commitment, and even asking to clarify expectations seems “offensive”. We want to promote things without cost, similar to clicking “like” on Facebook.

The longer answer requires us to admit the gap between our words and actions. Some of my friends started a coalition to address human trafficking in Seattle (SeattleAgainstSlavery) and though people claim to support equality and human rights it is a struggle to get people to carve out 1 hour/month for a meeting or a 5min phone call to their representatives. We hear the words “equality”, “diversity”, and “dignity” and the actions “inform” and “ally” yet there rarely is talk of how to engage the conflict or reveal the cost or sacrifice required.

Again, I admit that most would assume conflict arises with social justice but what I wanted to know, and what would be most beneficial to those at the conference, was how to prepare, address and move past those conflicts. When you see a need to change the curriculum and you have no support at your school to do so, what do you do? When you have colleagues and parents get angry at you for advocating for LGBTQ students how do you react professionally? Personally? Even when you have the letter of the law promote social justice, the hostile culture of your school often still breaks the “spirit” of it- what can you do? Should we distinguish shaping our students’ minds from shaping their character? When I go to the store to buy paper for my students and another teacher distributes laptops to theirs, how do I begin to address the disparity? Information alone does not change people’s minds because change comes at a cost. Simply asking “who will act, who will pay?” makes the attractive call for “social justice” a threat.

In education, like every other area of society, we have conflicting visions for democracy: upholding individual rights and universal equality. Though Foucault would remind us it is all about power Mandela would remind us to not be bitter empowered people but forgiving empowered people. For social justice to be concrete, it must engage these two conflicting values. We must wrestle with asking “Justice for who? According to what? Toward what end? At what cost?” I was frustrated that Saturday because these questions were either ignored or answered with vague platitudes. Addressing something as deeply personal and cultural as “social justice” not only deserves but requires discernment.

Given the gravity and complexity of life, I know it takes courage to ask those deeper questions. It takes even more courage to engage the controversial issues both in and out of the classroom. I am caught balancing hesitant humility and hasty passion in aiming for effective action. Some people know neither the structures they live within nor why they act within them as they do. A crucial part of educating students is making them aware of these power relations, teaching them to identify their role within them, and guide them in taking agency within them as responsible citizens. I want education to give them both the content and context necessary to engage the world-tools to practice that engagement and power to develop them in meaningful ways. That is a high goal, one that I came to the conference hoping to be equipped for. Like Antaeus, the mythical giant in Greek mythology who lost his power when his feet were not on the earth, I can only understand and apply social justice when it has been grounded, when it has something to stand on and stand for. It only has power for me when given this traction and direction in the real world. I think I left frustrated because I was still seeking to give weight, gravity and grounding to those “legs” while others seemed content leaving them in the air.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

7 weeks in...

Thursday I dropped by the Boys and Girls Club I used to work at and visited familiar staff, kids and parents. One of the parents asked what I liked most about student teaching. I paused and then replied, “All the things that I used to talk about hypothetically are real now.” I had more to say but that conversation and some dialogue with colleagues later that day made me realize that though I have made notes and observations about my teaching thus far, it has been primarily geared toward developing lessons, reacting to situations, juggling responsibilities, and preparing ways to implement my grad courses. I have not been good about making written reflections about my teaching experience as a whole.

I spent the first week setting up the classroom before school started. Some tasks were the same as moving into a new house: decorations, supplies, storage, syncing technology, getting keys, figuring out parking. Other tasks were like moving into a new office: procedures (handbook), HR (paperwork and policies), PR (writing a syllabus), IT support (email, logins, grades, attendance, discipline flow chart), connecting with clientele (contacting parents, making a survey, determining my title and role), establishing and posting norms (expectations), looking for outside funding (grant writing), and meetings. The unusual thing about teaching is discerning how to shape this space to accommodate learning (acquisition and practice) for people you have not met and know very little about-a new batch of students.

My mentor teacher is great about letting me take things at my own pace as far as teaching. He addresses me as his “fellow teacher” so since Day 1 the kids see both us as having the same authority even though they know I am a teacher in training. Much can be learned about teaching through trial and error. Trying to equitably grade 100 assignments forces you to set a clear standard. Trying to teach four different classes the same material though each class has a different composition of students forces you to know your students. Trying to answer five questions at once makes you realize the importance of making a procedure. Trying to build student learning day by day forces you to develop a clear scope and sequence for the course. With my freshmen I learned very quickly that I cannot make assumptions about their skills or behavior. When my seniors come in, I am grateful to see more self-regulation. Identifying, evaluating and reacting to patterns and exceptions in each class, with each student, with each day prevents this job from ever being mundane.

Kids often want to humanize you as a teacher-my students actually want to know who I am. Most of the time they want a 5-10 second answer so it has been helpful for me to defer their questions to another context and/or have short answers prepared. I share who I am bit by bit-alluding to an experience in a lecture, referencing an interest 1-1, answering their questions directly and succinctly at times (“No I am not married”). The timing of their questions often makes it a distraction (independent work time) but acknowledging their interest validates their question while shutting them up snuffs out their interest. It has been fun building some playful intrigue into our conversations.

Much more could be said but back to my comment about hypothetical things made real. The hypothetical silent but smart student has a name and sits in the second row of our class “meeting area.” The hypothetical unproductive meeting now has a time slot on my calendar. The hypothetical gap between content demands and student ability now looms large as I plan the next unit, the next lesson, the next activity. “Keeping up” is a good day. “Busy” becomes normal. “Stressed” is a red flag. “Despair” is when you’ve already failed. My sister aptly once distinguished the last two by saying “Stress is when you think you can still do something about it” and I’d have to agree. As I consider my schedule and responsibilities this way, most days are between “keeping up” and “busy”. I have not had time to truly soak in what I’m learning so I said “no grading this weekend” and made no commitments on Saturday. When I have a classroom to myself I will not have that luxury. Friday night I went to our high school football game, saw friends and Sat I soaked in the extra sleep and went for a walk in Lincoln Park.
A recurring phrase I keep using in this experience is “glimpses of grace” to remember the positive things that have happened in my day or week. I’ve been sharing it with a few colleagues since we so often focus on the negative.

1. having a student tell me what class was like while I was gone one afternoon at my UW class: “It was weird not having you there. Mr. ____ did okay but it was like having Batman without Robin-we really need both of you.”
2. the look of astonishment on a kid’s face when he finally realized that I actually designed lessons to help him learn how to meet the objectives.
3. After days of working one on one with someone to learn to put their thoughts into writing sentence by sentence, I saw them enter my room with a smirk and put a full, detailed paragraph on my desk.
4. Having a student walk directly up to me during lunch and ask me which class I planned on teaching next year hoping that they’d be in it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climbing Mt. Rainier

Climbing Mt. Rainier had been a dream of mine for several years. Having grown up in the NW, it was always something I felt I needed to at least attempt in my life. Being out of state for college, not having sufficient gear, lacking a guide or not having time are some of the reasons/excuses that came up but when a friend invited me back in May to join him this summer in climbing it, I realized the main thing I needed was accountability. I needed people to train with, to help remind me to set aside time to be prepared technically and physically.

After walking up to Camp Muir July4th, many of my fears of the dangers of alpine climbing (crossing glaciers, crevasses, building ice anchors, etc) were lessened. We had basically walked up to 10,000ft, camped and skied down a blue-level glacier field. Other than that trip and snowshoeing, I had never really done any hiking or climbing in the snow. We spent one day reviewing our knots and setting some anchors in various places. Due to my school schedule I wasn't able to get altitude training on the weekends like Baker or Adams. I was able to run with some grad school friends and do stair repeats with a loaded backpack. When we left Friday night for Mt. Rainier I was not sure if I was in enough shape to climb.
We took the Kautz Route which is more technical than the normal route. Loaded with our skis, boards, food, tents, ice tools and gear, we hiked a few hours Friday night across the Nisqually Glacier Valley and camped on Wilson Glacier. The sun greeted us in the morning bringing enough heat that I was able to climb up to Camp Hazard on Saturday with just a shirt, shorts and my gaiters. After refilling our water bottles, eating a nice warm dinner and settling into our tents around 5:30pm, we all attempted to sleep until 11:30pm. I had been pushing myself finishing grad school projects and yet was unable to sleep more than an hour that night.

We left our skis and camping gear and went on with two packs to share between four of us. The moon and stars were bright as we walked through the impossible traverse and began climbing with our ice axes and ice tools. Soon we came upon an ice section at about 65 degrees. I swung my ice tools into the ice wall and tediously my crampon-ed feet followed. Fear of something unknown is usually stronger than a known fear-i could not see the bottom of the incline, it seemed to just drop off into the darkness. The ice my ice tool was driven into broke once and instinctively I swung my ice ax into the ice wall. It caught me but the jagged ice cut into my hand in the process-which I did not notice until a few minutes later when I noticed the gushing blood as I set an ice screw and began to setup to belay my friend. it was a good reminder of the ability of my body to prioritize sensory reactions-It had hurt but my instinct to hang on outweighed my instinct to let go. After roping in, I ice climbed 50 meters and then proceeded to free climb a slightly easier section with pointy ice mounds that made me think of it as the dark side of a Dr. Seuss story. We were all glad to have that steep section behind us.
After this we had to cross several crevasses and the final push from 12,500-13,500ft was one steep hill that required for us to switchback. My ankles got a workout with the crampons digging in with each step. About half way up we could see the sun beginning to rise. it was close to 5am. We pressed on after a few breaks and were relieved when we passed the false summit and leisurely walked to the summit and signed the record book. It was a clear day except for the clouds covering anything under 5000ft. When we looked south we could see Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens. Looking north you could not see the Puget Sound so there was just a cloudy gap between the Cascades and Olympics.
After celebrating our victory, one of us reminded us that were half way done-that we still needed to get back. It was around 8:30am and our plan was to ski or snowboard most of the way down after 10,000ft. It ended up taking almost 12hrs to get back to Paradise. The main reason for this was the snow condition which made it dangerous for us to use our skis or boards. This at least bothered me since I felt rather foolish carrying 195 skis and their boots up and never got to use them! Another reason for the long descent was the increasing danger of crevasse. Bridges we walked across on the way up were not safe on our way back. Having only slept 9hrs in 3 days, I was surprised to feel pretty energized on the way up but at around 2pm I slowed down.
Thankfully the weather was clear and we were in the shade so we could afford to be more spaced out on our descent. It is amazing how much your mind wanders when you are tired while doing a repetitive motion yet it can also be fixated on one thought or cycle of thoughts in a sometimes annoying, sometimes trance-like pattern. I won't bore you with all those thoughts, except for one. I thought of having a nice hearty burger and beer. We arrived at Paradise around 7:30 having hiked almost 20hrs.

God answered our prayers and many others' prayers no doubt. We had no injuries and were glad to be on our way home.
As for my burger and beer, those would have to wait since restaurants were closed. (I had an amazing meatloaf sandwich with a stout the following night). I got home at 11:30pm, unpacked, showered, and did my homework before sleeeping until 7am when I was off to help with a summer school program on the Eastside. It was a joy to finally greet people the next day saying "I climbed Rainier this weekend!" thanks to many friends who helped make it all possible.