prepare for liftoff: culture shock

In 2010, I spent three weeks in Puebla, Mexico to finish up my master’s program in ESL. Amid ancient cathedrals and extensive teaching units and luxurious welcomes and late-night plaza dancing and studious students and chocolaty mole dishes and open air markets, I found myself–in the air conditioned safety of my hotel room–having a meltdown. My skin crawled. I was overwhelmed with exhaustion. My brain was tangled between two languages. My body felt like it was walking in the twilight zone. My heart ached for home… for comfort, for ease, for freedom from having to work so damn hard to understand the mere basics of life.

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Culture shock.

I can’t help but reflect on that experience as we prepare to move 5,769 miles south to Brazil.

Like the naive American expat I am, I have been predicting the layers of culture shock and in what order they will fall.

  • First: school culture. One of the reasons I am changing student demographics is because over the last ten years teaching, I have felt my pedagogical craft dwindle more and more into the realm of motivational therapy. In each of the three schools I have taught, I have spent the first year there working my way into the hearts and trust of students; if not, there would be no learning. And though that is exactly where I want to dwell, and also where students remain forever with me, it is utterly exhausting to pour the entire contents of your identity out over and over and over and over, just hoping it will stick. (And of course, I do not in anyway blame the students. I blame their trauma and the system, but that is another post.) When interviewing for my new job, one of the questions the superintendent asked me was: “What are you most nervous about?” To which, I responded: “Having to win over another group of students.” He looked at me, quizzically, and then followed with a statement: “Oh, you won’t have to worry about that; Brazilians are so warm and welcoming. They will love you from day one.” Talk about a foreign language. Huh? Additionally, I have spent the last ten years convincing students what they can do: overcome society’s low expectations, overcome their neighborhood’s low expectations, overcome the school’s low expectations, overcome their own low expectations. Now, I wonder how much of my job is going to be convincing students of what they do not have to do: be perfect, pile it on, extend their resumes from two to three pages, add one more club, avoid mistakes, look a certain way, do it all. I have felt my calling the last ten years as one of inspiration; and now, I think it will be more aligned with the archaic definition: giving students the space to breath.
  • Second, city culture. This feels even more poignant as I have spent the last couple of weeks before departing the country in the country. In the mornings, we sit on the porch and watch the circus-squirrels fly from tree to tree and comically climb up (or fall down) a slinky to get to the bird feeder. We sit on the porch and listen to the echo of morning doves and the call of cardinals and the squelch of black birds. We sit on the porch and watch the sunlight dance in and out of shade. We sit on the porch and feel the caress of the wind. We sit on the porch and rest in the peace of nature. We did that in Evergreen, too. And now, we are moving to the straight. up. city. High rises and traffic and airports and favelas and exhaust and pigeon poop and sirens and constant lights… well, I don’t know what else, because we’ve never done it before.
  • Then, third, Brazilian culture. In Mexico, I could manage the language. But Portuguese? And what am I going to wear on a very-liberal-almost-naked beach? How do I pay in a currency I can barely pronounce? Am I going to be just another fat American? How do I get my prescriptions refilled? How do I follow along in a foreign workout class? Am I going to stick out like a sore thumb? What if I cling my forks on the plate in a restaurant? What other faux pas am I going to commit before I even realize what a faux pas is? (And how do you say that? And is there a word for that in Portuguese?) How do I find someone reliable to wax my privates? What if we can’t even find our way out of the airport? What if they think my anxiety-reducing-poop-provoking-magnesium-powder is crack? The more question marks I type, the more I think this actually might be the first after all.

If I’ve learned anything from my meditation practice, it is that 1, what we avoid, expands and 2, by naming it, something loses its grip. And so, this post.

I will welcome culture shock by its name, a guest to the party of adventure.

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dynamic

Yesterday, Dave and I–along with our best friends the Boyds–explored Glacier National Park. A short jaunt around John’s Lake ended alongside the “dynamic McDonald Falls,” as described by some hiking guru’s map we bought for $11.95 at the gift shop. I imagined loud, obnoxious, energetic water motion–kinda like when I call myself a dynamic teacher. Upon arrival, that was exactly what we encountered. However, when our friends mentioned that the last time they were at these very same falls “it was merely a trickle,” realization dawned on me as to how Jake-the-hiking-guru was actually using the word dynamic:

dynamic: marked by usually continuous and productivity of activity or change

And sitting in meditation beside the dynamic McDonald Falls, I could not help but reflect on our lives. Sometimes still like John’s lake, sometimes a trickle like the McDonald Falls of the Boyds’ first trip, and sometimes–as in now–the powerful and overwhelming current of change forcefully charging downstream.

dynamic: marked by usually continuous and productivity of activity or change

As we are currently homeless and bound for Brazildynamic now holds deeper meaning for us. On July 22nd, we will depart the country and abandon everything that has been familiar in exchange for new lives as expats. Dave will not work. I will work in a completely different environment. And we will live in the city, gasp. And just as the raging current shapes storied-alcoves out of rocks, something new will form in us.

Something mysterious.

Something beautiful.

A new story formed by the dynamic watery wheels of change.

breath. earth.

Lately I’ve been stepping on a lot of crap–cords and belts and shoes and brooms and oh, there’s my underwear. This is because the beloved chipping-green-and-red-refuge we’ve called home for the past eight years is currently in the process of being dismantled and divided and donated as we prepare for our adventure to Brazil. I’ve gone to heat water forgetting the microwave is sold; I’ve gone to eat takeout on the plates currently in our friends’ homes; I’ve gone to sit at the table that’s no longer there. We are living in a construction zone: the construction of a new life.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

I am in the process of some heavy goodbyes. Students–who have had way too many people come and go in their lives–asking: Why does everyone leave us? Colleagues who have become friends. Friends who have become family. Family who will become foreigners. Not to mention, the scariest goodbye of all: the adios to urban education–or life as I know it. I wonder if it will be forever. I wonder if there will be regret. I wonder if I’ll be effective with a different population. I wonder how my identity will change.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

We hover near a cliff with unknown horizons. Questions float by like clouds shadowing the reddened landscape. Who will our friends be? How hard will it be to learn the language? What if sickness strikes? What if we hate living in a city? What happens if there is a financial crisis? And dear me, how am I going to look in a swimsuit on a beach in Brazil?!

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

Tonight I meditated. As I have done daily for the past four months and twenty-five days. (If you do not have Insight Timer, download. it. now.)  As I was guided into my emotions, a sense of being overwhelmed rose to greet me. It was not the overwhelmed of Mary past. It was different. I am different. It showed itself as a coiled spring, loaded low to the earth with heavy weights. But beneath those compact spirals, a palpable sense of excitement breathed. A readiness to spring forth into something new and exciting and refreshing. An eagerness for expansion and space and adventure. An embrace of joy and hope.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

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let go. let it flow.

She saw him: beside me, to my right. She described him: a darker man, probably indigenous, dressed in the traditional garb of some ancient culture, regal headdress upon his crown, holding a spear as if standing guard. She said: the minute I declared I wanted to teach overseas, he started banging his spear up and down, in rhythm to some chant I didn’t know I knew. She emphasized: he would not guide me, that was for me to courageously do on my own. But, once I made a bold move, he would open doors for me and ease my transition and smooth the seas.

He has.

She said: it would heal me of my anxious tendencies. She described it: having been designed for vets suffering from PTSD, it has now become widely used in a variety of therapy sessions. She hypothesized: it’s grief; unprocessed grief is tearing you apart. I disagreed…until I tried it. In her chair I sat, headphones on, a binaural beat throbbing back and forth while I recounted trauma from my childhood. Inappropriate adult relationships; fearful encounters; accidents. And then, before I knew it, my Mom was there with me as vivid and visceral as her last trip to Colorado. Memories of her strength drowned my eyes. Gratitude for the joy we’ve shared lifted the corners of my mouth. I had grieved my Mom’s death, but I had not grieved the loss of her fierce protection in my life. I was now on my own, forced to embody her rather than rely on her. She was right: EMDR would help me.

It has.

People ask me often how I’m feeling about upending our lives and starting new in a foreign country. They know I’m prone to panic attacks and paralyzing fear and crippling anxiety. But something has broken open inside of me. I feel like the two aforementioned experiences have released the floodgates on my parched internal landscape, and liquid light is flowing now. I feel resolved. I feel surrendered. I feel exhilarated. I feel inspired. I feel strengthened. I feel encouraged. I feel emboldened. I feel renewed. I feel blessed. I feel like all of the God-Energy is pulsing within me, aligned and free, just as it should be.

 

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to the class of 2016: on the power of thought

When I think about the class of 2016…

I think about Rene’s eye roll and sassy hip sway. I’m so sorry I missed your pole dancing performance.

I think about Bianca’s powerful serve on the volleyball court and confident voice of leadership in class discussions.

I think about how the only thing bigger than Chantel’s mouth is her heart.

I think about how we stomped you in staff versus senior volleyball.

I think about Rubby’s laugh and Nana’s immediate departures to the bathroom upon arriving to the class.

I think about those of you I taught during 8th grade: Daniel, Joe, Cindy, Jennifer, Laura, Bianca, Jacky, Naomi, Luis…and the way we would gather in the hall to discuss The Book Thief because we just could not wait until class started.

I think about the mighty four, petite in size but giants in spirit.

I think about bowling, from Joe’s cradle grip to Wheat’s rebellious gym shoes to Chantel just trying to get it straight to the amazing backward shots through the legs.

I think about the moment Noora finally let me into her heart.

I think about how Luke became Lu-uke, two syllables representing a kind gentleman.

I think about Marlen’s brilliant and beautiful way with words.

I think about Edgar in the hall, whose mocking me as “sheriff” shifted into his own role of influence as he put rambunctious middle schoolers in their place. Thank you, Sheriff, for having my back.

I think about Cindy’s quiet strength in the midst of tremendous challenge.

I think about our meeting with Joe, adults upon adults gathered in a circle of support, where the tears flowed as freely as the love.

I think about the losses Jennifer suffered this year, but also the tearful and confident declaration in front of our class of what she found: her voice.

I think about how heartbroken I was to lose almost half of our AP Lit class at semester. But I also think about how the remaining 12 grew into a family woven tightly together by heartstrings. Sitting around a table, sharing our dishes and the stories behind them, I thought about how proud I was to call you my sons and daughters. Sitting around a table, discussing books, I thought about how you were going to blow away other college students during classes. Thank you, AP Lit students, mis hijos y hijas, for what you taught me. Never forget your Daddy Davenport.

I think about these memories, the times I’ve shared with you, the lessons I’ve both taught you and learned from you, because ultimately if I can tell you one thing before you leave:

Thinking is power.

Be the people who analyze everything, who look with a critical eye, who question with depth, who challenge with openness, because this thinking will give you insight into how the world works; remember… everything is an argument. Knowing this means you will see what tries to keep you down, you will see the resources to change that, and most importantly you will see the strength and courage inside yourself to write your story as YOU see fit. Knowing this also means you will see who is on your side, what support is beneath you, and what glory lies ahead of you.

To the class of 2016, thinking is power. But remember and honor and prioritize that the truest and deepest thoughts come from the heart and soul, and from those anchors, I will always think of you with love and pride.

Congratulations!

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sanctifying space for closure

May brings showers, raindrops of tears that roll down the cheeks as I say goodbye and best wishes to students who have melded into the tissue of my heart. And without the protection of umbrella or raincoat, I run directly into the impending storm clouds of emotions. I dance in the rain because I need closure. I dance in the rain because I know my students need closure.

I work with students who are often dealing with trauma of some sort: poverty, abuse, violence, homelessness, illegal status, witness to crimes, gangs, addiction, broken homes and shattered dreams…weights pile atop their shoulders. With trauma comes ambiguity, abrupt endings that bleed into frail beginnings all tainted with confusion and unanswered questions. Always on alert, students who have suffered trauma cannot regulate their emotions:

Shields and Cicchetti suggest that hypervigilance may play a key role in undermining the development of emotional self-regulation. They postulate that, unlike the nontraumatized child, the hypervigilant child cannot shift away from distressing cues in the service of maintaining emotional regulation.

As not only an academic content teacher but a safe-haven-guardian, I need to create the space in my classroom for students to safely regulate (identify, embrace, express purposefully) their emotions…especially as we near a conclusive separation. After all, I have spent the entire year loving my students into greatness, and such a relationship cannot just snap without the time and place to say goodbye and thank you and good luck and I love you and see you on Facebook. So much of their lives is spent with things or people they care about abruptly falling into an abyss; I need to model the ability to say goodbye as an empowerment for smooth transitions instead of a series of sudden fractures. By building the space for closure and modeling goodbyes, I teach my students the language of emotions–not avoidance or hypervigilance, but leveraging emotions for their betterment:

Trauma often impairs the ability of children to use words and pictures to identify their feelings. Children who have trouble using language to communicate emotions cannot always “formulate a flexible response” to situations and may react impulsively. Learning to identify and articulate emotions will help them regulate their reactions.

Closure is not easy, especially in a society that prides itself in ignoring emotions for the sake of independence and/or productivity. But more than ever, it is critical that I both teach and model for my students the ability to transition gracefully, to choose how they say goodbye rather than having it afflicted upon them as one more traumatic event.

And so I design ceremonies in order to sanctify space for closure in my classes. Food parties. Reflection projects. Card signing. Verbal storytelling. Gifts. Personal mementos. And once I’ve done it with the seniors who leave next week, I’ll break my heart all over again for the freshman to whom I also have to say goodbye this year so that they can also have closure.

The rain pours down from closure’s clouds and steals my breath and dirties the hem of my pants and blurs my vision; it is soul-soaking.


But after the rain, the glorious aftermath. The way the sun sparkles on one lingering raindrop on a leaf. The smell of newness. The opening of a flower that is no longer thirsty. The parting of the clouds to reveal Heaven’s smiles.  The hope that hangs on the air.

My students deserve that.

the art of transitions

There are some images that just resonate so deeply, they never fade. This 3 and 1/2 minute video is one such image. Once the senses move past the the scantily clad woman, the stunning cityscape, and the soft sultry music, what is left is asana that is so captivating…it steals the breath.

On my mat, I want to move like this woman. Not (just) because she is sleek and strong, but because there is not a singular pose visible in any of this. Rather it is a river of transformations, inhales and exhales that do not just move the body from one position to the next, but rather–and more importantly–keep it present to the moment at hand. Present to the change. Present to the transition. Present to the subtle and magnitudinous shifts. As a yoga instructor once said:

The transitions between poses are poses themselves.

Last week, I shared this concept with my seniors, who are in the midst of a large transition of their own. We just finished reading Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, a novel which sanctifies the space of shifting. I related to them the story of the video and its beauty. I stressed that we’re so busy thinking about our next pose (graduation, college, job, marriage, parenting, etc.), that we miss the glory IN the change.

The transitions in between poses are poses themselves.

I would be a fool to admit my own transition doesn’t weigh heavily on me. Changing job titles. Changing curriculum. Changing schools. Leaving behind friends with whom I’ve learned and students in whom I’ve invested–that’s a lot of love to leave in a pose. And it’s easy to be bound in thought by the next pose. How will I stand? How will I look? How will I relax into it? How will I ground myself? But in doing this, I’m already forgetting the most important part: the here and now, the present, the transition.

The transitions in between poses are poses themselves.

It takes enormous strength to change with grace,

leaving behind something that glows.

It takes deep rooting to transform with ease,

leaning into something that grows.

It takes daring courage to transition with honor,

so that on my mat, and off, it shows.

 

on confidence

Don’t you love those trainings that actually get you thinking? Not the ones that waste your time, the ones that leave you with a kink in the neck because you’re constantly glancing at the clock, but the ones that hit you… “in the feels?” (as my kiddos would say). Yesterday I had the blessing of just such a training about leadership in presence and presentation. And what crystallized in mind was moment of clarity about my year.

I am a good teacher. My presence in the classroom is at once formidable yet also friendly. I know, so deep in my core it is a part of my anatomy, that what I have to offer matters to students’ lives: it is a source of empowerment to them. I believe truly that kiddos will leave my classroom better than they arrived…and not because of my endless stream of knowledge (dead end) or my wealth of facts (it’s poor) or the sound of my voice (eww), but rather because I know without a doubt that I have the ability to help students unlock their own knowledge, their own wealth, and their own voice. Because of this deep and authentic sense of assurance, my presence in the classroom is grounded and anchored…confident. And with confidence comes success.

Now, coaching, on the other hand. For all my career, I knew I did not want to be an administrator. But leadership came naturally to me; it always has. And I thought due to this, I could easily transition into a role with a title that made a difference on a larger scale. But in reflection on this year, I have always felt on shaky ground in this new role. Sure I had good intentions. I had good ideas. I had good insights. But none of those qualities fused together, anchored together, in a deep assurance that what I had to offer mattered. I lacked the confidence, confounded by a number of other internal and external challenges (that beg more reflection in another post at another time). And without confidence, my authentic presence suffered, hindering the presents I could offer.

It is hard not to feel like a failure. My heart breaks for all the could-ofs and would-ofs and should-ofs. But, ultimately, I know the greater value lies in non-attachment: replacing self-evaluation with self-reflection. And the lessons I learned this year solidify and fertilize the ground in which I will root myself upon return to the full-time classroom.

the fault lines of leadership

For all of my career, I have sworn til I was blue in the face that I would not, could not, should not become an administrator. No sir-re-bob, that is not for me. After taking on more of a leadership role this year at school, that stance has only been confirmed.

Though I was coaching last year and assisting another coach with our department, my leadership was, in essence, lateral. I’d like to believe that those I helped because of an official “title” were few, but those I helped because of a desire to be a great teacher were more–hopefully the majority.

This year, though, with more of a presence on and duty to our larger, systematic leadership configurations, I cannot seem to find the good in what I’m doing… whether it’s the good in my teaching, the good in my coaching, the good in my facilitation, the good in my thinking, or the good in my outcomes. I am discouraged by my inability to affect change where I think I should have that capacity. I am overwhelmed with hearing over and over the frustrations from those I care about deeply–the very frustrations that mirror my own–while not being able to do anything to influence the context which perpetuates those frustrations. I am disheartened by the systematic revolving door of external pressures that weigh our administration down, thus weighing down our internal building processes.

All of this sharply reminds me that the problem with education today is not people. Those teachers I am honored to coach; the colleagues I work side by side with in the trenches, who keep me sane; as well as the leadership I follow; these people all weave threads of joy and inspiration and light throughout my days. Rather to blame are the systems that shackle those people. Systems of evaluation. Systems of accountability. Systems of turnarounds and move overs and reach arounds. And we wonder why national teacher attrition is so high and moral so low!

And the straw that breaks the camel’s back is my missing students. Daily I split classes with two remarkable co-teachers, and after 50 minutes of the block, I just walk right out of the door–an exit that feels more emotional than physical. For those of you who have followed my writing here on lifeinthedport, you know that my students are my lifeblood, my purpose, my ministry, my joy. And so to struggle with systematic constraints while simultaneously missing quality time with my own students in my own classroom is literally. killing. me.

And because my career teaching is my identity, the tremors echo throughout all other areas of my life. I have noticed a rise in my anxiety, in my depression. My appetite is ferocious and my clothes tight. I am negative and critical and cynical and complain way too much. I have stopped writing.

Which explains this post, the one that breaks the two-month silence. Not happy, not pretty, but real. And hopefully the beginning of my mapping a way through this new land.

growth vs. fixed mindset: it’s not just for the students

Allow me to step into the confessional.

One thing I struggle with is loving people unconditionally, accepting them in their weakness. I expect the best from people, immediately, consistently. This is a universal application that haunts my students, my friendships, my colleagues, and my marriage.

Of course, I am not off the hook. I am my own worst critic, my most insistent demander, my harshest judge. I live in an internal world where it is hard to accept grace for myself…and thus–either as a cause or an effect–hard to offer it authentically and organically to others.

I am no blind fool: this leads to a lack of peace within myself…and with others.

At school, we’ve excitedly moved into a focus on rigor. Many voices expressed the idea that there can be no rigor without risk, and no risk without struggle. I wholeheartedly agree. At the most foundational level of this struggle comes the idea that it is worth it, that struggle can lead to something better. This conviction grows and blooms only in the soil of a growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset; for more information). Educators today are very familiar with these concepts and understand the critical value of fostering not just information in students, but a kind of mindset, a mindset that is pliable rather than set, questioning rather than settling, seeking rather than content, hopeful rather than definite. Only when we encourage this in students can they grow beyond their potential–which is really just a euphemism for fixed mindset.

mindsetBut, as always, what happens in the student cafeteria is mimicked (perhaps pioneered) in the adult lounge. I have come to realize lately that though I approach students in a growth mindset paradigm, I do not extend the same courtesy to my colleagues. For whatever reason, something in me operates under the idea that adults in schools have arrived, are set in their ways, are settled into their potential, are who they are, well, because that’s who they are. The end. This ugly monster rears its head most frequently in the realm of assumptions. I make assumptions about people… and by doing so, I limit them to a quaint box that is formed nicely and neatly in my own finite head. How arrogant! How presumptuous! How fallacious!

A few times lately, I’ve been surprised by colleagues–a delicious and humbling and didactic surprise. And in reflection, I wondered why I was so surprised? And of course, it was rooted in my faulty assumptions.

Ultimately, both my perspective of others and myself as well as Carol Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets distill down to the idea of absolutes. For all my life, I have felt more comfortable existing in a worldview of absolutes: good or bad; black or white; holy or profane; worthy or detestable. Just like it’s easier to shop in a supermarket where everything is labeled, it is more convenient to live in a world where everyone is categorized. But…though easier…it is more limiting. And more destructive.

But thankfully, I don’t have to stay here. I can change, grow, evolve. And so can anyone and everyone around me.

I just have to perpetually cultivate the gracious space for that personal and communal shifting.

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