weight and Light

My heart has been heavy recently.

As Timehop likes to remind me, this week’s history carries its own weight. Three years ago: our cat died. Five years ago: we were cleaning out my Mom’s house to put it on the market after she died. Six years ago: one year before she died, she had part of her lung removed to combat cancer. I carry all this with me, in my bones, in my blood, viscerally, almost as if the years are on parallel planes. And…in the future, this week will now carry the weight of a heavy diagnosis for someone I care about.

I carry the weight of my students. Senior year is not easy. Senior year as an IB student is definitely not easy. Senior year suffocating under pressure of your parents’ expectations is heartbreakingly not easy. I stopped curriculum last week to have a circle with my students as a time to process, to cry, to hug, to sit. still. I asked them the question: how is your heart? Oh the weight. My students are grieving the future they do not have access to while simultaneously mourning the impending loss of their childhood home and comfort. All this with deadlines and fatigue and sports and college applications and rising rates of depression and hard looks in the mirror and… the list goes on. Sometimes the most important thing we can do as teachers is to carry some of our students’ baggage.

I carry the weight of my colleagues. Tomorrow, Brazil will probably experience an election similar to the US’s most recent: where the people elect a man who prioritizes national identity and fiscal gain at the cost of the marginalized. I now carry the weight of my students on scholarship. The weight of my homosexual friends. The weight of the “other” who is, in essence, me. And you. And us. I am tempted to be angry, to be bitter–exactly my response after Trump’s election. But then I think about the energy I put into the world

and so I pick up Light and carry its weight.

 

 

 

 

reflections: my 2nd semester overseas

It is a beautiful day today here in Sao Paulo.

As I sit on my balcony and type this, I can hear the vibrating diminuendo of the Brazilian-ice-cream-vender-flute-call. A small corner of the sky hides pale blue dancing with crisp cloud puffs. The majority is overcast, hinting at the impending showers; they come just like they did in Colorado: furious in the afternoon, then gone. With this wet promise comes the cooling caress of a breeze.

The breeze takes me back to the first ones my skin felt on this Brazilian land. I remember writing about how hard some of the transitions were. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by a list of changes: not understanding the language; why can’t I flush toilet paper; why was that meeting so unclear; what is happening here; where are the systems I expected to be in place; do the kiddos like me; do I expect too much; is Dave ok with this adjustment; how do I collaborate with new people; who will be my friends; I want to be with my new great niece; am I good enough to be here; why is the bed wet; can I just find a restaurant to get quick and easy American food. The insecurities and misplacements and disjointings poured down on my cold (didn’t expect that!) skin.

But now, I am months into my second semester abroad. And it feels different. I feel different.

I am different.

I find myself grateful for this dual culture calendar that affords so many holidays. I mean, I was on winter there/summer here break for five weeks! Only to be followed by another week-long break in February. And all of that on top of an extensive summer there/winter break here. I can get used to this!

I am in awe of how many places we’ve experienced and how accessible travel (both in budget and transportation) is down here. Just the other day in a conversation with my students about travel plans, I heard these words come out of my mouth: “Oh I love Buenos Aires!” And then promptly followed by: “OMG, I am a person who says that kind of stuff!”

I feel like I’ve hit my stride in the classroom. I’ve found (and held tight to) colleagues who push me to be better in reflection and practice. I feel like I offer my greatest gift to my students here as I always have: preparing them rigorously while caring for their hearts. Students linger in analytical conversation in my class, but they also laugh uproariously (sorry next door neighbors). Students ask how to grow academically while I ask how they’re really doing. Students have aha’s in the classroom and say hellos in the hall. I have realized: a rich kid needs the same thing as a poor kid; everyone has his/her own trauma. My job doesn’t change from tax bracket to tax bracket or country to country…it is to teach, it is to love.

Professionally, I feel like I’ve prioritized what matters to me: leading by example and not by title. How can I contribute to a positive adult culture? How can I be above reproach in my instruction? How can I be at the top of my game? How can I be reflective and improve? How can I be trustworthy and true to my word?

I’ve made friends and so has Dave. We have more friends than time (partially that’s the innate preservation of my introverted side; I am a homebody at heart). We have several different groups we run with. And yes, though I deeply miss my besties, I don’t feel the aching sense of loneliness anymore.

We speak the language. A bit. But a bit measures a long way in the hearts of warm Brazilians. We feel comfortable in restaurants, in Ubers, in hotels. We still have a long way to go, but a language foundation helps a ton.

Our apartment is more decorated. We’ve hung up treasures from the US, memories of loved ones, and collected moments of our new life.

I guess, in the end, as now I type inside because that impending rain has arrived, I think…

I am home.

And it is beautiful.

 

 

 

 

when the tables are turned: what I learned about my instruction while being a student

This January, we’ve spent three weeks in Rio doing a Portuguese course at a local language school. Now, as I head home to the kiddos that I miss and the job that I love, I cannot help but reflect on what I learned while being an emerging bi(tri)lingual student.

  • The Teacher. When I think back on my educational experience, it is people I remember…not lessons or curriculum. The teacher matters. Humanity matters. The same goes for this experience: I felt much more engaged when I connected with the teacher; I felt much more motivated when I respected the teacher. What created this dynamic? Patient, present, and authentic listening. A remembering of details. Facilitation rather than sage-on-the-stage-look-at-me-showmanship. A sense of humor. Well-timed feedback that corrects but doesn’t interrupt. Intentional lessons that are relevant to my zone of proximal development. Attention to all modes of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. An encouragement of beneficial resources and a caution against resources that in the end undermine learning.
  • The peers. Since learning is never in isolation, peers have a critical influence on achievement as well. As I was learning a second language, I was slow at times to formulate what I wanted to say. Nothing irritated me more than when a peer would jump in to save me, or steal my struggle, or finish my thoughts. I also was highly annoyed by those who dominated air time. Of course, this goes back to the teacher’s role as well. How do I build community? How do I honor struggle? How do I regulate participation? How do I ensure all voices have air time? How do I equally challenge the “know-it-alls” while supporting other levels?
  • The space. It is hard to learn in uncomfortable chairs in a room that doesn’t feel cozy. It is hard to learn when sitting for hours on end. It is hard to learn when I have limited space. Of course, it is not impossible. But as I think about my role as a teacher, I wonder how I can create the space for optimal learning…especially when I don’t have my own classroom.
  • The learner. Ultimately, my experience in Rio learning Portuguese was up to me–the student. I had to practice. I had to do homework. I had to take risks. I had to struggle. I had to make mistakes. I had to ask questions. I had to engage. In my last week when things shifted to a different classroom, a different level, a different teacher, I didn’t engage fully. And though I may criticize the root of this, in the end… it’s on me.

As I begin my second semester teaching abroad, these are the things I’ll keep in mind.

 

 

an open reflection on my practice: semester one of teaching abroad

“As I draw the curtains on the sleepy eyes of 2017, my mind turns to the power of reflection. It is my first semester teaching internationally. How has it gone? What are my strengths? What are my next steps?

At the end of the semester, I presented a survey eliciting student feedback. It is a survey provided by my school leadership that I modified for what matters to me most as a teacher. Here are the results (prompts are at the top). Some thoughts:

  • I need to improve in clarity. 1, “In this class the expectations for assignments, quizzes, tests, homework, summatives are clear.” 2, “In this class I am clear about the goals, standards, objectives.” In both of these categories, I scored an average less than 4. As I have wrestled with before, my current school is adopting Ken O’Conner‘s approach to grades: that is, no grades. Or accurate grades. Or standards-based grading. Or… well, you can see why my students are unsettled with this aspect of my instruction: so am I! As with all initiatives, it is not the theory with which I am at odds, but rather the annoyingly messy implementation. I think this also ties into the below 4 score in “My teacher is fair” category. Here are my plans to address this: 1, more class models and collaborative scoring of work 2, student self-assessment and reflection 3, soliciting continued feedback from students about this aspect of my teaching 4, deliberate introductions and thorough explanation of assessments and 5, being targeted with and explicit about the alignment among homework, formatives and summatives. Those are the easy ones (insert giggling emjoi here). More nuanced but nonetheless necessary: the intentional offering of opportunities for ambiguity (never accidentally). I know that students need to tolerate and negotiate ambiguity to be successful in the real world. But sometimes this is at odds with grading policies, especially in a competitive school like mine. I want to work on transparency regarding this. And yes, well, that is ambiguous. Hopefully, I’ll work through it like my students will!
  • I am proud of the level of rigor I have maintained this semester. 1, “My teacher challenges me to think critically and analyze information.” 2, “In this class I feel challenged.” This has always been the hill I will die on. [bctt tweet=”I will not insult my students by lowering expectations for them. ” username=”eternitymod”] They deserve better. And yes, it is shreddingly painful while I’m establishing that 1, yes they can 2, no I will not back down 3, this comes from a place of love and 4, that’s right, now here we go. One of my greatest points of pride as an educator is the number of alumni who have told me my class prepared them for the intensity of college. I may not be liked, but I make a difference. 

But therein lies the rub: I want to be liked. And this has been the dominant reflection in my mind this break. Today marks two weeks since I have last seen my kiddos; and I won’t see them until January 23rd. I miss them. Do they miss me? Am I a part of their lives more as than just a taskmaster?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s about being liked. That is superficial. But it is about a connection, which is exactly why I asked this question on the survey: “I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport.” This also scored below a 4 average. And out of all the other numbers, I am NOT. okay. with. this. average. And really, connection shouldn’t be about average: it should be percentage. 100% of my students feel connected to me. I am connected to each. and. every. human. in. my. charge. 

And so, more than anything else, this is what I want to work on next semester. And it has a face. This student doesn’t do well. And this student sits in class, quiet, anonymous, hidden. I do not know this student. I am annoyed by parental blame on me rather than student ownership. And I have probably taken it out on this student. And I know this student probably rated me low on so many aspects of the survey.

I have failed this student. I have let it become personal instead of professional. I have neglected our connection. But that was 2017. Look out, this student, I am coming for you.


To all my teacher readers: I’d love to hear your reflections. What went well for you this past semester? What are you working on? What’s your “this student” story? What questions help you reflect meaningfully on your practice? 

 

holidays: the rhythm of life

I sit here in the glow of a twinkling tree. It is my in-law’s tree. It is Dave’s parent’s tree. It is the tree of the only parents I have anymore.

My eyes feast upon the bird feeders that gather feathery visitors of brown, yellow, blue, and grey. Flashes of red draw my attention to a couple-eternal of cardinals.

Acoustic Christmas music caresses my ears, wrapping my heart in a bow. A melody of holiday angels.

It is the first time this season I have let myself feel Christmas. Nostalgia drips from my eyes and rolls down my cheeks. My folded hands are now wet.


Back “home” in Brazil, the ocean calls to me.

I hear its thunderous heartbeat from miles away. I feel its rolling cadence kneading my spirit. I meditate on my breath, thinking of concentric inhales and exhales, waves kissing the sandy shore of my soul. I bathe in the monthly light of the moon, a recurrent concealing and unveiling of a divine mystery–the slow, secret wink of a goddess.


Our modern-day technology deceives us.

There is no calendar app to sync with the ancient, enduring, authentic meter of life. There is no alarm that vibrates when it is time to reconnect with nature, family, death, or–worst yet–ourselves.

There is so much noise and very little listening. Cars and radios and TVs and fireworks and honking and cranes and complaining and evasive eyes and white noise and racist poses and Pavlov’s bells and to-dos and exhausted yeses and meaningless nos and.

and


The holidays are an anchor, tethering us to the rhythm of life.

They demand us to stop.

They force us to grieve.

They invite us to connect.

They remind us to breathe.

They demand us to remember.

They urge us to reflect.

They inspire us to be.

 

all about the bump: promoting positive adult culture in schools

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Here is the link to the edited post as it appeared on Edutopia.


I cannot count the number of times I have heard a colleague advise a student to “do what makes you happy.” Yet ironically, I wonder often how many teachers are happy in their jobs. Research indicates job satisfaction was at a 25 year low in 2012, turnover trends are alarmingly high and costly, and morale is consistently demeaned by societal and political commentary. Moreover, who needs statistics? Just look around during a staff meeting to see the weight educators carry.

In an effort to counter these patterns, stakeholders need to put into place systems of support for each other. Even better when those support systems are grassroots efforts instead of mandated. One such way I have done this for the past several years is through the “Hump Day Bump,” which is a weekly compilation of staff-to-staff notes of gratitude and compliments emailed to staff each Wednesday. I started the “Hump Day Bump” as a way to spread much needed positivity in my first urban school. Poverty, violence, and limited resources overwhelmed the students. A sense of defeat pervaded the staff, compounded by low scores, exacting evaluations, divisive cliques and grueling hours. Internal and external pressures strained the tensions already present between administration and staff. The “Bump” gave all staff the chance to read good news in their inboxes, observe good things in each other, and share those in a non-threatening medium.

However, the “Hump Day Bump” is not just a tool to counter pervasive negativity in our field. It is also a way to build capacity. First and foremost, a viable adult culture based on mutual respect is critical to a school’s success. It is nearly impossible as an educator running on empty to give the absolute best to students; a healthy adult culture helps keep our tanks full. Additionally, hearing affirmation for what part of our pedagogy and professionalism is effective boosts teacher efficacy, another critical component to both the happiness of teachers as well as the achievement of students. Most importantly, to capitalize on the aforementioned benefits, our field is in desperate need of teachers who are in it for the long run. A revolving door of teachers benefits no one: neither students nor schools. Teachers who feel valued for their contributions are more likely to stick around; I know I am.

If you’re looking to implement your own “Hump Day Bump,” here are some easy-to-follow steps:

Plan and send your inaugural “Hump Day Bump.”  (Or pick a different name; I have a colleague who calls it the “Bump-Ups.”)

  • In your email system, set up two folders: one titled “Fishing” and one titled “Hump Day Bumps.”
  • Pick a small group of colleagues across a variety of configurations with whom you already collaborate frequently. Send them an email that describes how and why you plan to implement the “Hump Day Bump.”Ask them for their notes of compliments and/or gratitude for their peers. I call this the “Fishing” email.
  • As your colleagues respond, keep all those emails in your “Fishing” folder.
  • When you have some time (it usually takes between 10-30 minutes depending on the quantity of “bumps”), copy and paste all fishing responses into the body of an email. Format them so names stand out and they are bulleted for easy access. Delete emails as you copy and paste for organizational purposes.
  • Send your inaugural “Hump Day Bump” to the full staff. It is best to use BCC for this. Give an overview of what it is, why it matters, and how you’ll approach it each week.

Set a routine.

  • I usually send “Fishing” emails on Friday for the following week’s “Bump.” If I don’t get adequate responses, I will send a reminder on Monday or Tuesday.
  • Either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, I synthesize those “bumps” into an email as I did for the inaugural edition.
  • Email out on Wednesdays. I typically end each “Hump Day Bump” with a call for shout-outs for next week’s “Bump,” as well as some kind of funny image, meme, or video.
  • Keep all “Hump Day Bumps” in your designated folder.

Make it work for you! Here are some modifications and precautions.

  • Include students as recipients or authors of “bumps.”
  • Start a “Bump” activity in your classroom.
  • Use a verbal version to start collaborative meetings.
  • Elicit specific “bumps” for certain educational holidays e.g. Secretary Appreciation Day.
  • Keep track of who is not receiving “bumps.” Reach out directly to their colleagues for something to add in the next edition. If there is a downside to the “Bump,” it is that it has the potential to highlight those staff typically highlighted and ignore those typically ignored. Tracking involvement can help mitigate this.

Have any other modification and/or implementation ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Eleven years and four schools later, the “Hump Day Bump” is still going strong. In fact, not only have I carried it to all my schools, but so have several of my colleagues. The “Hump Day Bump” has now spread beyond state and continent borders! I hope now it can provide some positivity in your schools.


To see my first post on Edutopia about Socratic seminars, follow this link.

the untethered expat: culture shock

I’ve been a bit off lately.

I’ve seen it coming, and I recognize it for what it is, but nonetheless, it’s unsettling.

I felt it on our school trip to Belem. The last presentation–the culminating speech–was in Portuguese. Again. Chaos erupted across the room as Brazilian friends leaned in to translate for their foreign peers. Someone leaned over and began translating for me. I was hot. I was itchy. I was tired. I was annoyed by an earlier rude interaction. I couldn’t focus on the speaker, I couldn’t focus on the translator, I couldn’t focus. My skin crawled. I left the room with a wet face and huddled in a bathroom stall, a secret fight with my tears.

Culture shock.

I felt it on our twelve-hour commute home from Ihlabela. The sky leaked, the traffic crawled, the language blurred–all closing our access to “normal” road trip conveniences: a bathroom where I can flush the toilet paper, a restaurant where I can read the menu, a map where I can navigate the alternative routes. No one looked like me. No one talked like me. I was trapped in a car on a road going nowhere, literally, in a foreign land.

Culture shock.

Those moments were sudden and striking compared to the undertone of malaise I’ve been experiencing lately. A sense of floating pervades my daily experience. A lack of connections confounds me. A tangled web of “what was” and “what is” and “what will be” constricts my access to air. And I already wrote about the plague of insecurity.

Culture shock.

1_8NUOaTClmFPvDi9U4HpscwRecently during some circle conversations and mindfulness moments in class, I’ve asked kiddos:

What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for?

Like always, I was moved by their responses. However, unlike always, I was also moved by my response. Not in a good way: it took me so long to think of who or what I was grateful for. For a while, my mind was completely blank. This is not like me. I’ve written about gratitude often (see: here or here or here or here). It is important. It is foundational. It is me.

But there I sat, a silent vacuum.

Culture shock.

All of this–my response to and experience with culture shock–has been on my mind constantly. It guides my meditation practice. It is the source of dinner conversations with Dave. And I’ve come to realize that my lack of gratitude is rooted in, well, my lack of being rooted.

It honestly hurts my heart to call to mind people or things or experiences back in the US. I’ve “left.” My heart aches with a sense of abandonment.

It’s as equally challenging to root into what is new and express gratitude for the here and now. My heart aches with a fear of surrender.

And I know it doesn’t make sense.

Culture shock.

And so, as always, I am left with my breath. Gently noticing this experience, observing what it feels like from head to toe, from heart to soul, and ultimately letting go.

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expat insecurities: how moving overseas turns you into a middle schooler

This post has been marinating a while in my mind (often around 1 or 2 middle of the night: time to wake up and worry about things you can’t control. yippee!).

A variety of factors have appeared on the radar recently that I’ll attribute to a storm of culture shock brewing off the shore. An extended commute where I was stuck in a car in a land where I don’t speak the language (where is a restaurant where we can stop for a quick meal where we actually fully understand the menu without a million Google acts of translation?). My dear niece having a baby (whose cuteness level should be legit illegal). Video chatting with my best friend (oh right, your life goes on without me). The stupid fantasy that it would be easier to get healthier here (look at all those fresh, local fruits! where? well, you just have to walk past the bread and cheese aisles. what?). Texting with my godson (I shouldn’t be crying this much).

We arrived in Brazil in July (three months!), and so I expect this on some level.

But what has taken me by complete surprise is how completely insecure I am around other adults (eck! I am that adult).

It’s like my mind has been usurped by a middle schooler:

Do they like me?

I don’t fit in.

How come they didn’t invite me?

Where do I belong?

Do I look ok?

Where is the cool group and how do I get in?

Nobody likes me.

What am I doing wrong?

Gross.

Of course, as I reflect, it makes sense. I am a new country, alone except for Dave, everything is unfamiliar, nothing is easy, the majority of those around me are also in some form of transition, my family and soul friends are on another continent, etc.

Yes, a healthy social structure is essential to surviving in a foreign land.

But, a healthy social structure takes time to find.

Time to build.

So in the meantime, I will try to accept this part of the process, this part of myself.

You too, Middle-School-Mary, are welcome here.

 

 

mindfulness in the classroom: for them, for me, for the world

This past summer, I took the course “Mindful Educator Essentials” from Mindful Schools. I knew from personal experience the power of mindfulness to steady myself, as well as to benefit students coming from traumatized backgrounds. But I was also looking ahead.

My future students–now my current students–would largely represent the opposite demographics of my entire teaching experience: wealthy, advantaged, political, prominent. And those kiddos have parents in the same category. And with such privilege comes an enormous amount of weight: the strongest drive to get the best grades and the most extracurricular sports and activities to get into the elit-est schools. Just typing that sentence stresses me out, much less living beneath its sagging reality on a daily basis.

Screenshot (5)

On the left: all the mindful practices I’ve incorporated so far in my classes. On the right: the guidance for “metta mindfulness” we are practicing this week.

And so, in an effort to provide my students with tools–and also because I like a classroom that feels like home for the heart and not just school for the mind–I’ve incorporated mindful moments everyday since the beginning of the school year. It is entirely new for me; yet it also feels uniquely ancient. And no, it isn’t exactly the Mindful Schools curriculum; however–better–it is that plus what works for me minus what is cumbersome adapted to the personalities of the students seated in front of me, breathing next to me. So much so that on a regular basis I hear:

Miss, aren’t we going to do mindfulness today?

I really need a mindful moment right now.

Guess what Miss, I did mindfulness before my game!

Um, yes please to all that teacher-soul-goodness.

This week, in alignment with the school’s kindness drive, I introduced the practice of metta mindfulness which offers loads of benefits. Metta mindfulness entails a dance of breath and phrases offering goodwill, starting first with ourselves, and then extending outwardly to those we love, those of neutral interest, those with whom we have contention, and eventually the whole world. At first, we only started with ourselves and with those we love. But today, with hands on our hearts, I prompted those who felt comfortable to call to mind someone with whom they have tension: an ex-friend, a challenging family member, or a politician.

Afterward I checked in with kiddos about their experiences. I asked about the level of difficulty in offering goodwill to someone with whom they feel tension.

One kiddo’s brief, but passionate, response said enough:

Yeah. Temer.

And never have I felt so connected to a kiddo. Because here I was:

Yeah. Trump.

It is no secret I am no fan of Trump. But today, I mustered up all the deepest parts of me to send him goodwill:

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you be happy.

May you leave with ease.

And while parts of me revolted, screeching NO to such an offer of goodwill to someone I just… well…

the light in me, the love in me, the peace in me recognized that in my vitriol disdain for “the other,” I contribute to the problem.

In conclusion, I mindfully surrender to Martin Luther King Jr’s words:

veutgiyyhqox

 

 

 

photo journal of field trip to Belem

Day 1: Travel and arrival to Belém

Day 2: Travel and exploration of Marajó

Day 3: Travel from Marajó back to Belém

Day 4: Boa Vista, Para

Day 5: Belém to Sampa

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