this message will self-destruct in…

This month, I returned again to Sacred Heart for another retreat. I was struck by many things, but one of them was an innovative and insightful way to approach the Bible. Father Kinerk shared something along these lines (as interpreted by me):

When you are in love with someone, you visit their home to meet their family. While there, you peruse photo albums from your significant other’s past. While perusing, your present conversation is filled with questions, comments, laughter, tears, responses, dialogue, and such. What is most important is not the photo album with its events and images, but the greater connection it fosters in the present with the one you love.

A conversation starter. A connection builder. I like that. It’s healing.

For most of my life, for the most part, I have been a lover of the Bible. I remember vividly excelling in AWANA, memorizing and reciting verses for some arbitrary awards system. I furiously argued with my high school English teacher about differing perspectives on Job when we read it in AP Literature. Throughout the years, I have annotated many Bibles until the marks have become highlights on my heart, then given them away as gifts. I think in Scripture. I credit my love of the Bible to my effective instruction in reading analysis. To this day, nothing warms me so much as sitting down with a twinkling candle, journal, mug of something warm, and my Bible.

But I cannot lie, there are parts of the Bible that make me cringe. I cannot accept any longer the idea that the Bible is a weapon, something to wield to gain oppressive power by knocking the “other” down. In my life, I have been the victim of this abuse. In my life, I have been the perpetrator of this abuse. I also cannot fathom how certain groups cling to the One. Essential. Scripture. that makes or breaks you as a “Christian”…but yet avoid others since they were written to “a different audience” or “for a different purpose.” For an argument to stand, it must stand on both feet, all the time…not just a balancing act when convenient.

All this swims in my head frequently, and sometimes I feel like I am drowning. I do take comfort in other people I respect addressing it in various ways, like here or here.

I also find comfort in other words of literature. I recognize the Bible as “the better story” (Life of Pi) or “the story-truth, not the happening-truth” (The Things They Carried). Father Kinerk, at my retreat, also pointed out how the Bible was never meant to be a factual account told by a reporter. Rather, it is a portrait: a piece of art which captures the essence of the subject by enhancing, detracting, or coloring certain aspects of the subject.

A portrait capturing the essence. I like that. It’s healing.

The bottom line is that it is not about the words, but about the One of whom they speak. It’s not about the answer, it’s about the conversation. It’s not about the truth, it’s about the discovery. It’s not about what’s right, it’s about the relationship.

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snooze–turn off the alarm

According to the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, there is a gap between the signifier and the signified; in other words, when we say something, it often fails to truly convey the essence of what we mean. In this inadequacy–the gap between the word and what lies beneath it–there is room to play. With that in mind, I’d like to return to playing with another metaphor to talk about education.

On my dark and snowy drive to work early this morning, I listened to a story on NPR about “alarm fatigue.” The story explained the necessity of alarms in a hospital, as well as the detriments.

“Alarm fatigue is when there are so many noises on the unit that it actually desensitizes the staff,” says Deborah Whalen, a clinical nurse manager at the Boston hospital. “If you have multiple, multiple alarms going off with varying frequencies, you just don’t hear them.”

In many ways, a hospital is like a school and vice versa. There are varying tiers of neediness, differentiated staff roles, outside accountability, diagnostic and responsive treatments, budget constraints, and the constant threat of catastrophe hovering heavy on the minds and hearts of stakeholders (at least in a turnaround school environment).

I for one can attest to the escalation of “alarm fatigue” in the education world. Every assessment means everything. Every lesson carries the burden of the world. Every moment with students holds within in it the potential for good or evil. Every piece of data is earth-shattering.

Just this week, after administering another assessment, my colleagues and I were discussing how the students tend to dismiss this test and not put forth effort. To which I responded so quickly and naturally it even surprised me: “Of course not; when you’re inundated with assessments, how do you know which ones matter? Which ones to try on?”

When so many alarms are sounding, how does one distinguish the “real” emergency from the “manufactured” emergency, or the “false” emergency, or…

To address this I’d like to further the hospital metaphor. We all must turn our attention from the alarm–from the data–to the patient–to the student. When my Mom was in the hospital, she had many monitors beeping and clicking and whizzing. I valued those. But what I treasured more was how the people–the nurses, the doctors, the custodians–utilized those machines as a way to serve my Mom, the patient, the person. The brief moment of eye contact, the timely response to the call button, the warm hug, the bringing of a heated blanket, the wet washcloth, sometimes even the switching off of the monitors so we could talk or be in peace, this in the end provided more for us than the endless chatter of alarms.

Whalen says it’s a clear case of less is more.

“I think less is better,” Whalen says. “If you have more and more data, more and more alarms, more and more technology — [it’s] bad data in, bad decisions made.”

Bad data. Bad alarms. Bad decisions.  When we are tirelessly toiling under the weight of the next failed assessment or discouraging data, we allow those to become the means and the ends, rather than the means to the ends. 

I only hope those in power see the liability of “alarm fatigue” in education, and that we return to a renewed focus on treating–teaching–the student. Only then will we all find healing.

with just a word

I spent a night in silent retreat at Sacred Heart in November to process the loss of my Mother. While meeting with my spiritual director for the weekend, I remember vividly her advice “to speak aloud my desires.” This resonated deep within me then, and still does, since I spend so much time in my own head. Often what it is there (besides cobwebs and “that’s what she said jokes”) are negative words built on fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Speaking aloud what I want, rather than dodging what I don’t, gives power to the positive promise rather than the annoying avoidance.

This brings me to a song a dear friend introduced me to by Ben Howard, entitled “The Fear.”

I been worrying that my time is a little unclear

I been worrying that I’m losing the ones I hold dear

I been worrying that we all live our lives in the confines of fear…

I will become what I deserve

(Funny story about this song: until I looked up the lyrics, I thought it said “I will become what I desire.” Either way, it still applies.)

I do live my life in the confines of fear: a narrow box of vacillating boundaries, which provides me the illusion of safety and control. In my continuing effort to surrender and live a spacious life, I am trying to let go of those fears. Or at least to not let them define and oppress me. This effort brings me back to the power of words: I will become those desires I speak, say aloud, pronounce with words.

Words hold within them a butterfly’s beauty and an earthquake’s enormity to move the world. The wind carries the whisper of this wondrous truth everywhere.

I hear it whispered in feather-light pages of the Bible, where God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4). How did He do this?

Mere. Words. Throughout Genesis 1’s creation story, the phrases “And God said” and “And God called” thread in and out each time something new is formed. Through spoken word, pronounced desire, and expressed language, what was not once [not ever!], now was. Now is.

In fact, the word is so powerfully portrayed in the Bible, it is even revealed as the Divine personified:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (emphasis mine, John 1).

I hear it whispered in my career. I teach high school English to empower my students with the language–with the power of the spoken word–they long for to criticize their current situation and delineate a different future. It is my students’ understanding and application of language that will allow them the choice and access to upward mobility. I recognize that literacy authorizes my students to question their current status, as well as to eloquently envision a future that is earned by them, rather than predetermined for them. A word can change their lives.

I hear it whispered through experiences I offer: I gave a student of mine a journal to process the loss of a close relative. I encouraged him to write as a way of therapy and discovery. He did. He came in the following week with a renewed light in his eyes. He shyly stayed after class to tell me of his experience writing and speaking the words in which he found healing.

I hear it whispered from experiences I receive: this past week, I ran into a colleague before work at the nearby coffee shop. While genuinely embracing me, she shared the most profound words that spoke to my heart, that broke my barriers, that offered a touch of healing balm for my soul.

What a beautiful and bountiful world of whispers.

Since the word is so powerful, as a way of professing them, allow me to write my desires. And may you do the same. And may the Word whisper strength to you, in you, and through you.

I desire to live a life in love, not fear.

I desire the spaciousness of grace.

I desire a deep connection with God.

I desire for mental and emotional healing, so that my body may be healed.

I desire to accept my brokenness.

I desire the unclenching that comes with faith, trust, surrender.

I

the secret story-truths

Today was a day in the classroom which fed my soul.

Thanks to an identity activity two colleagues facilitated in my classroom, I had the idea to have the students write and share the stories behind an aspect of their identity. For example, I am Caucasian American, but my sister’s in-laws are Mexican, and the church I grew up in was predominantly African-American. So I wrote the story behind my skin color–how it is more than white due to these formative experiences. I think I’ll share that later.

After students wrote their stories on a self-selected aspect of identity, they shared their stories aloud in small groups or the whole group, depending on class size and student comfort-level. In awe, in reverence, in love, I listened to my students. Their vulnerability, their raw voice, their inside-joke chuckle, their dedication to overcome, their successes, their humble apology at a raindrop tear, and their struggles left me speechless. There are a lot of moments which make being a teacher in public education tough…however glistening, goldenrod moments like these make it worth it.

Once we collectively exhaled after sharing our stories, I explained to my kiddos the deeper, intended purpose of community. For this, I referenced one of my favorite books The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien:

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

I recognize that as an adolescent, it is easy to project the happening-truth: words, actions, wardrobe, social circles, gait, etc. And often in my classroom, in my halls, students are so quick to judge and divide based on those happening-truths. But what my students shared today goes so much deeper than those projections. What lies beneath each and every one of them is the story-truth, the truest parts of themselves. Today my students showed such courage in exposing their deeper story-truths.  And I challenged them to ask the questions of each other, to explore and reveal the secret story-truths instead of just relying on happening-truth’s easy assumptions.

Herein lies the rub: the same goes for me, for adults. Behind every offense lies a story. Behind every annoyance lies a deeper truth. Behind every hurt lies an experience. I owe it to my students, to my own heart, to my God to move beyond entitled and arrogant assumptions to seek out the secret story-truths of those around me.

After all, our lives are our stories. And every word lived is worthy.

The Nation of Educalculation

I grew up playing school. My friends and I would sit in a room, draw on a chalkboard, take turns playing the teacher and students, and–get this–make, complete, and grade worksheets. (I feel like I should be admitting that at some sort of teacher anonymous meeting.)

Fast forward about two decades–I quit college to attend cosmetology school. I worked in several salons for several years, loving the art and science of beauty. But soon I realized there was an emptiness…an emptiness which echoed of my childhood playing-school days. So I transitioned from behind the salon chair to the front desk so I could finish my degree in English Education. And I became a teacher.

I am an educator educalculator.

To set the context, I’d like to share a few anecdotes which reflect national issues in public education:

  • It is common practice in many schools to create a TCAP-like (or other state-mandated test) environment for an entire day, sacrificing the natural rhythms of teaching and learning for the sake of fostering testing stamina.
  • Because of mandated “data entry” requirements, students can be required to write answers not once, but twice: once on the exam, once on an answer sheet. I believe practice in moderation is essential in setting students up for success on a rigorous exam, but when they have to do double the work…just for data entry…there is something amiss.
  • I spent hours delineating the standards of, creating, copying, planning, and grading a benchmark assessment, in the hope of receiving targeted data about standards in which students are struggling–thereby giving me feedback for future teaching. When trying to analyze the data, it was discovered that the standards were misaligned and misdocumented–muddying, at best, and voiding, at worst, all of the hours spent prepping, giving, and grading this assessment. It is challenging to prioritize data targets when those targets are often flawed, ambiguous, or ephemeral. 
  • In two separate incidents throughout my educational career, in two separate contexts, I have been a part of conversations which have called for an increase in the “productivity” of education; the language during these incidents has been to compare education to a successful business model…specifically Starbucks.

These few things hint at a greater Educalculation Apocalypse. But there are greater warning signs all around this nation; those in the trenches are writing incessantly about the deteriorating landscape of education into educalculation. Just for example, here or here or here.

To beat the proverbial dead horse, I’d like to return to the business model analysis–since so many like to equate education with business. If Starbucks were run like public school in America:

  • Once a week, all shops would be closed, so that employees could become accountants to check the profit margin; in other words, shutting off the opportunity for profit to analyze profit.
  • Despite what the customer wants, several days a week, at least once a shift, all baristas would make for all customers a nonfat decaf soy caramel macchiato at 140 to see how it affects the profit margin; of course, all customers would be required to participate. Each and every time. Too bad for those dairy-intolerant customers.
  • Those running the corporate framework would be professional auto mechanics with a lot of money and even more ideologies, with no coffee experience or education. But, hey, they’ve drunk coffee.
  • Baristas would try to serve the best drinks they can, with the best results for the customers, even those customers who are throwing their drinks all over the shop as well as other customers. After security walks in, and after he/she picks himself up after taking a spill on a spilled latte, he would ask for documentation that the customer is really being disruptive, habitually disruptive. Later the boss would pull the barista in for a conference about what more the barista can do to control the throwing arm of the customer. Never mind that customer’s mom throws vodka at home.
  • Customers would come to the shop with one retail need, but many demands. They would come in hungry, with no money to pay for that yummy scone. They would come in smelly, because their parents are fighting and kicked them out. They would come in ordering from an English menu in Japanese and Mandarin and French. Their currency would be pesos and bit coins and pounds. They would order the most sophisticated drink on the menu, but fail to hold the cup correctly, since they missed that lesson at preschool.
  • Baristas would serve while someone hovers, telling them to add vanilla (because it’s cheaper and thereby increases the profit) when that barista just knows that Jimmy John likes cinnamon syrup (he likes the way it makes his breath smell, and that it turn encourages his productivity).
  • Baristas would take home every night the emotional burdens of their customers, the dirty cups so they could analyze saliva trends, the crumbs left behind so they could arrange tasting conditions, and the receipts so they could detect trends in profit/loss margins. All before the next shift. All while being paid a daily salary that translates to less than a ticket to the local NFL game. But hey, they get summers off, those baristas. Never mind they spend the summer in Columbia, on their own dime, checking out the latest coffee bean consortia, preparing for the new business year.

Of course I took creative license in this metaphor. But the point remains: education is not a business. Business is choice. Our students are our customers by context. In fact, we have to keep “shop” open despite their choices.

I know it is bad form to complain without offering solutions. I also know this is not the fault of anyone in my school–or in any one school. This is not a question of who-done-it. The system holds the blame, and needs renewing change. This is also not a call to renounce data-driven instruction; rather, it is a hope that we can broaden the definition of data, and fit it rightfully in its place as one among many other essential aspects of quality instruction and learning.

What this is about is survival. I remain dedicated to teaching, to caring for students, in this educalculated world. How do I survive in this nation of educalculation?

In a recent meeting, I shared a professional goal along these lines:

I want to be an advocate for my students. I want to protect them from the avalanche tumbling down the political-educational mountainside known as <insert booming Morgan Freeman voice here> Data Peak.

To further the avalanche metaphor, it appears we have no way to stop the impending force. But I can create for my students a pocket of air, an emergency kit for when we are all suffocated together under the white weight of numbers. I can stand up for them against over-testing. I can treat them like people, not statistics. I can be a human in front of them, not a robot. I can honor their hearts, not just their minds. I can implement a joke, and not just an objective. I can make my classroom a haven, not just a laboratory.

Because in this avalanche, they are just as much my air pocket, my emergency kit.

I am more than an educalculator.

I am an educator.

unresolutions

I know, I know. I’m going there. It’s that time of year when the majority of people resolve to do things differently, be kinder, lose weight, laugh more, stress less…yada yada.

I use to be real into that as well. I’m pretty sure at one point I even had a journal, The New Year’s Journal (yes, it is entitled to propercase font), where I’d list my resolutions each year so that I could keep track of them.

But the past couple of years have felt like an unwinding and an unlearning of that mentality. Not to mention how easy it is to fail at those resolutions 35 days or 35 hours in, and the pervading sense of heaviness, frustration, and quitting which tags along. This year, from now on, I want to be different. Or at the very least, I want to approach the blessing of a new year differently. So as a reflection of where I am today–which just happens to be the 1st day of a 2014–these are my two unresolutions.

Live an unclenched life.

f801b3844bd9f6b981d0cd0362fa9502Several happenings in my life as of late have revealed to me how tightly and deeply I foolishly (and falsely) hold on to my life. I harbor it. I worship it. The loss of both my parents in two years; the feelings of confusion, unanswered questions and deep wounds which surround that loss; my mental imprisonment to panic attacks; the immediate tension in my body, racing in my heart, and assuming in my mind I feel when someone I love comes down with the slightest of coughs or aches; the physical knots in my body; my toxic sense to control others’ beliefs and actions–all these reveal my obstinate clenching.

Somewhere along the lines I became God and took over my life. And it has not served me well. With clenching comes so many complications: stress, illness, paranoia, depression, anger, bitterness, judgment, frustration, joylessness, weight, isolation, fear.

I want need to live life openly, spaciously, in surrender.

Treat every day like January 1st.

I need to get over this idea–this boundary–that January 1st is THE best day to start anew and make commitments. I hold to one of my favorites from Lamentations here:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.

With God, every day is January 1st. In grace, every morning is a new beginning. I’m sure this walks hand in hand with my need to let go. My desire for control leads to my obsession with perfection. And where a goal or plan or day is tainted…well, it’s just much easier to shut down and wait for the proverbial New Year. How much more gracious, spacious, joyous to wake each day with the Happy New Year mentality.

So on this January 1st, these are my unresolutions. May they be nothing more, nothing less, than a faithful friend who walks beside me daily, in light and laughter.

And may the friends on your journey be just as much a blessing to you, each and every perpetual New Year’s Day.

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