Friday, September 30, 2011

Year 2: Week 4 - The Choice

Sometimes you just have to suck it and choose to be extraordinary.

This was a challenging week as a teacher and it was completely my fault.

If I did the bare minimum that was asked of me, teach my classes and take care of my basic administrative duties things would work just fine. Work would be less stressful, I’d feel less pressure and I would be able to go home after an 8-hour day as opposed to a 14-hour day I worked on Tuesday.

As much as it would be nice to have a more scaled down work week, I got to a point Tuesday night where I just decided I’m just going to embrace all of these extra project, meetings and initiatives I’ve chosen to be a part of a and  be awesome.

It simply is a choice and it is this choice, which make great schools great.

The success of many children’s education is built on administrators and teachers going above and beyond their required duties. There’s getting to know other teachers, starting projects, contributing to teacher associations and presenting at conferences to name a few. All of these things are extra but in great schools you find people doing these things all of the time, with little to know compensation for their extra work.

I rarely work my contract hours of an 8-hour workday. There are many teachers who do but that just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t work in my head, I can’t help it. To choose to slide buy, to not put in the extra work to contribute to the community is something that I can’t understand.

Now I’m not trying to make an argument that teachers should get paid more for all of these extra things that we do. I guess I’m just trying to figure out why I chose to take on so much more than is required and so many of teachers I work with do the same thing.

My school is not a workplace. It’s not somewhere that I just punch in and out of. It’s a home and a family. And yes, I get paid to serve that community, but it's my community, and I want to help make it better. I’m not doing these things to get a bonus or to climb up some of kind career ladder. In the same way that I try to make the home I share with my wife a great place to live, I want to make my school a great place to learn.

Maybe it’s my naivety that makes me believe I can make a positive impact on my school. Well, I also believe that I can make a positive impact on the world. Maybe that’s unrealistic or misguided, but I can’t help but be who I am.

Do we really a choice? Are some of the decisions in our lives such a reflection of who we are that we can’t really make a different choice? I don’t think I can just be mediocre. Working with young people have simply made me believe too much in their potential as well as my own.

Choosing to be extraordinary is tiring and stressful but sometimes that's the only choice you can make.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Series of Dream by Bob Dylan

I don't really have a great impression of 1980s Bob Dylan so I was pleasantly surprised by this song from 1989. 

Thoughtful and introspective, Dylan sings with a level of clarity that is sometimes lost with his gravely voice. The melody has these gentle peaks that draw you and open up in some beautfiul and unexpected ways.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No, I'm Not Great At Math & Why This Positive Stereotype Hurts

I have a quick question! I remember when you were at Neuqua, you didn't appreciate when students made generalizations and said that all Asians are skilled in math and science. For the Asian American Studies course I am taking, I'll be writing an essay analyzing this stereotype (among others). I was wondering if you have any other statements or opinions that you would be willing to share, about this stereotype or any experiences you have had regarding being of Asian descent and living in America. Thanks in advance if you do!
- One of my former students

How often are you reminded that you are a woman? How often are you reminded that you are a twenty-something? How often are you reminded that you are a brunette?

In the course of a day most of the time I don’t think about the fact that I’m an Asian American. While I am proud of my heritage, this isn’t something that sits in the front of my mind. I don’t wear my background like a badge and it’s not the first thing I tell people when they ask me about myself. Honestly, it’s one of the last things I talk about. I’m more likely to tell you about my wife, my life as a teacher and my dog.

I don’t look at pictures of my family and think, “wow, we’re all Asian.” I don’t walk down the street and see a Chinese restaurant and think about how it’s “my people’s food” and I don’t bring up in conversation my perspective as an “Asian American.” I simply don’t see my life through that filter.

So when is it that I am reminded about being Asian? There’s positive moments when I cook Chinese food or can understand someone walking down the street speaking Mandarin. Also there’s when people ask me about my background, which I’m happy to talk about. And while these moments do remind me about my heritage, I more think about the feeling of home then the label of being “Asian.”

If you really think about when you are reminded of the labels and categories that our society has constructed it’s when stereotypes get thrown in your face. A blond joke makes someone with fair hair feel bad, and a comment about a father not being as loving parent as a woman makes a person reconsider their masculinity.

What about the good stereotypes? What’s so bad about assuming that I’m good at math and science? Why don’t I take that as a compliment? Well, first, I’m not really good at math and science so then I end up appearing less intelligent then what someone thinks. More importantly, good or bad, a stereotype boils incredibly complex and meaningful aspect of who you are down to a single characteristic. This trivializes important parts of people’s personalities, judges entire groups of people and most of all simply hurts deep inside.

It hurts because expressing a stereotype is viewing me as a category first and a person second. Now, the whole colorblind approach to race-relations was a disaster, and I can get into that another time. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge other people’s races. Go ahead, if someone is African-American, you don’t have to pretend that you don’t see that. But to stop there and form ideas about that person based on stereotypes and not through interactions with the person is abhorrent, disrespectful and demonstrates the worst kind of ignorance.

Yes, there’s a grain of truth behind every stereotype. But just a grain. And behind every label, there’s a person who is so much more interesting and so much more beautiful then any preconceived stereotype could ever encapsulate.

Stereotypes effect everyone, including Caucasians. What is most insidious about stereotyping is not what is does to the people who are stereotype but what is does the people who are propagating these broad generalizations. 

I’m an advocate with my students against stereotyping not so they don’t hurt other people’s feelings but so that they don’t close their owns minds down to meaningless and inaccurate viewpoints of groups of people. I can get over someone thinking I’m bad at driving because I’m Asian, but I wonder how much that person is missing out because they don’t go deeper into the humanity that we all share.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Year 2: Week 3 - “We Need To Have A Talk”

Along with the excitement of a new school year comes the “talks.” I’m talking about those moments when you need to take a student aside and let them know why they need to adjust their behavior and the consequences of their actions. There’s a lot of different ways people refer to this but for this entry I’m just going to refer to them as “talks.”

It seems this year I’m having a lot of talks, sometimes multiple ones daily with different students. Sometimes these talks have to be given to an entire class. The tone of these talks are usually serious and while I haven’t made any kids cry this year from giving one of these talks in one instance I came close.

What does this look like? Well, earlier this week I caught a boy throwing a football in the hallway. I confiscated the football and when he asked me when he’d get it back I told him I’d think about it and let him know later.

About five minutes later, this fifth grader came up to me whining about me taking the football away and tried to convince me to give it back to him. Not once in our exchange did this student apologize or show any understanding of the legitimate reasons I had for taking the ball away. So I let him have it. I Playing ball in the halls is not allowed and he knows the consequences. I wasn’t joking around and I tried to impress on him that he needed to take responsibility for his actions.

Understanding the seriousness of my actions he left me alone. A couple minutes later one of his friends jokingly tried to convince me to give him the ball back. Talk #2: explaining how this was an issue that had to do his friend and not him and that his joking approach to me was inappropriate at this time.

Then there was the class that in the first part of music showed great responsibility and ability to follow directions setting up and participating in a drum circle. Every student carried the drums appropriately and I was really pleased with how closely they listened and attended.

After we cleaned up I asked them to sit-up on the carpet towards the front of the room to watch a film clip. Approximately 5 out of 18 students followed that set of directions.

I had kids lying across chairs, lying on the floor and sitting in the back of the room. So I gave them a group talk. They demonstrated they could follow directions clearly, and when I gave them a simple one, they just didn’t follow through.

I told them it was like turning on your television. When you press the on button four times and the television turns on and off you begin to expect that it can do that every time. So when you press the button the fifth time and it doesn’t work, you get annoyed. And I expressed to my class how annoying I was and a waste of time it was that they did follow through on a simple task.

What I was careful to express in both cases was that I was annoyed that this situation happened because I knew they could do better through actions they had demonstrated earlier. I wasn’t talking about them as people; I was talking about choices they were making. The more clear I am with directions and expectations the harder I feel I can come down on students.

I don’t get some evil glee out of having these talks but I feel satisfied knowing that I was able to have a talk with students appropriately.

I tell my students that I can’t help but be honest and if I see something that bugs me I have to point it out. Here’s the thing. It’s not about training students to be perfectly quiet all of the time. It’s about helping them understand the reasons things are done and are expected so that they can take ownership of their actions.

This is why I take the time to have talks and not just throw consequences at kids. Yes, getting a harsh talk from a teacher is a consequence in itself, but taking the time to really explain to student and get their impression of the event is what’s important.

The reason I refer to these encounters as “talks” is because I want them to talk to me about what happened and how they feel. I want to understand how I can best help them to make better choices in the future. This takes so much more time, but it’s worth it.

There’s nothing more valuable then taking the time to creating and developing relationships with students. That’s really at the core of what teaching is all about.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Now that the military "Don't ask, don't tell" is no more, we have some inspiring stories like this soldier telling his dad that he is gay.

This video reminds us that the implications of homosexuals serving openly in the military go far beyond military tactics to the lives of the some of the most dedicated and honorable Americans.

While this is amazing news, the news of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year old in Williamsville, New York committing suicide also entered the public consciousness (click here for the news link).  A victim of bullying based on his sexuality, Jamey's suicide continues a heartbreaking trend of teenage suicides related to this type of bullying.

Jamey made an "it get's better" video last May, describing his bullying but also his hope for a better future.

But thing didn't get better and now Jamey is no longer with us.

We're making progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.  Gay marriage, homosexuality and all of the related issues are not topics of discussion for political posturing.  This isn't an issue about "left" or "right," this is an issue about our lives, our friend's lives and the right we all have to live free of prejudice.

Both of these videos make me cry but for very different reasons.  I am proud of the progress we have made as a country, but we're not even close to where we must be, not "in the future" but right now.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

What it means to be a Northwestern Football Fan

With the first loss of the season upon us, it's made me reflect on my experience as a Northwestern football fan and made me realize one reason I love my college the way I do. 

At my four years at Northwester University I performed as a member of the “Wildcat” marching band at every single home game and one away game a year. Through this experience I became connected with the tradition of Northwestern Football. I would probably never gone to a football game if I wasn’t part of the band, but I’m glad I did.

Northwestern University is not the kind of place that shuts down for a football game or a basketball game. If you went to the library during a football game you’d find people studying. During away games I would often be practicing in the music building and there would always be other people practicing as well and I love that about Northwestern.

Let me explain. 

This is a place where there is a wide diversity in the student experience in not only accepted but also is celebrated. If you are someone who never goes to a football game but is actively involved in other organizations, good for you. For every person who never goes to a football game, there are sports fans who never go to a concert at Pick-Staiger. Are both of these people missing out? Yeah, kind of, but is it something to get annoyed at? Of course not, people connect with Northwestern in different ways and the fact that this campus isn’t singularly focused on Northwestern sports throughout the year allows for this great diversity.

It’s a beautiful thing.

When I first got to Northwestern, there was a lot heard about the football team not being very good. This is the team that has the record for the longest losing streak in Division I history which was 34-games. I mean in 1981 season they were outscored 505 to 82 points. However after experiencing a 8-4 season and a trip to a bowl game I didn’t really know what people were talking about.

Then in the 2001 season in which we went 4-7, and in 2002, it got worse and we went 3-9. Many of these loses were heartbreaking. The team really earned the nickname the “cardiac cats.” It was in these two seasons that I started to understand older Northwestern fans. For generations, fans of this team saw them lose, so it meant that much more when they won. And I felt that the next year in 2004 when the ‘Cats went 6-6.

Since then Northwestern has had winning seasons except for 2006, but even with these wins, Northwestern hasn't one a bowl game since 1948 and hasn’t been the outright conference champion since 1995.

Northwestern University is not a school of die-hard football fans and it’s a not a team that is well-respected by people outside of the fandom because they don’t win championships. While some people may see these two things as negatives, I don’t.

If everyone on campus were rabid football fans I don’t think I would have ever really been able to get into the games. The fact that there was a range of casual fans allowed me to feel comfortable cheering on a game that I still barely understand.

People who are fans of Northwestern football aren’t doing it to be cool. They aren’t random followers who just want to hook on to a winning team. If you see a person cheering on Northwestern, it’s because they have a meaningful personal connection to the school.

Being a Northwestern football fan has taught me to not take good things for granted, to never give up and that winning is NOT a measure of success. You don’t give up on a team because they have a loosing season the same way you don’t give up on a friend that makes a mistake. Most of the time life isn’t winning game after winning game so you’ve got to know what it means when things don’t go your way.

One of my favorite Northwestern football memories is marching out of Iowa’s stadium after loosing 27-17 holding my head up high with pride as Iowa fans heckled us.

To me that’s what being a Northwestern football fan is really about.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Year 2: Week 2 - "Dealing" With Parents

When I mention to people that I’m a teacher, people often assume that one of the difficult parts of the job is “dealing” with parents.

When you think about parental interaction with teachers two extreme stereotypes seem to materialize. There’s the “crazy parent who is asking for unreasonable things for their students and is irrationally angry at the teacher” and the “insane, under-qualified teacher who is not doing the best thing for the students and ignoring the reasonable request of the parent.”

What is this parent-teacher relationship about and why does it seem to carry this negativity in our minds?

In my six years of teaching I have had some rough conversations with parents. However I’ve also had some delightful interactions with parents that have motivated and inspired me to continue to be a teacher. When I think back at being screamed at by a parent over the phone at my first job for half an hour, I don’t really wish that on anyone. It was REALLY hard to take, but it’s part of thegig that happens sometimes and parents, sometimes you run into teachers who are not doing what’s best for your child and that’s really difficult. No one deserves to feel that way about his or her child’s education.

I feel like I spent most of my prep time this week on the phone with parents and initially when I wrote down the list of parents I had to call I was terrified. I don’t know why, I just felt that they could go bad and I wanted to prepare myself for the worst.

What I found out was that I was being completely irrational.

As a teacher you can never forget that parents are your partners. They are the greatest supporter of the students that you dedicate your life too. Almost all of time their frustrations demands and concerns come from wanting to do what is best for their child. That can come out in ways that are hard to receive, but one of things I forgot this week that I was taught is that you should never questions someone’s motivation.

If you believe that someone is doing something that you do not like from a good place it helps you share their perspective and work with them. And if that person you think has a great motivation, but doesn’t, then your positive approach to them will be far more constructive and your belief and determination to do what is best will shine through.

I’m not a parent.  I have my puppy, but that’s different. Sometimes I feel unqualified to advise parents about what is best for their child. Don’t get me wrong, in reality, I am quite qualified to do this, but it’s hard at times.

Parents put so much trust in their school and their children’s teachers. I mean, over a hundred families believes that when their child comes to my class I will take care of them and help them develop into a happy and healthy human being. The amount of faith my parents have in me is almost too much for me to comprehend. Whenever I’m feeling the slightest bit unmotivated to do something for a student I just think about their parents and how much that child means to their family and I’m back to work in a second.

I feel indebted to the parents of my students for providing the opportunity for me to do what I love. While there are some tough interactions, mostly they are positive and while nothing makes me happier as a teacher then helping a student learn, getting a hearty handshake and a gesture of gratitude from a parent comes pretty close.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I remember watching this as a kid and it's still as awesomely-consfusing and transcendentally silly as it was back then.

God Bless Jim Henson.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Relaxing on a sunny field in Wisconsin, I eagerly drank the cup of water in my hand trying to relax my muscles from the first part of the marching band rehearsals that morning. Along with the rest of the Northwestern University Marching Band, I was at George Williams College preparing for the football season. As a sophomore in the band, I was beginning to get into the groove of what marching band was about and knew what to expect: a day a drilling, rehearsing, and some random silliness to help the group bond.

It was just another day at band camp.

For some reason the radio of the equipment truck the band rented was on and it was through that radio that we found out the about the attacks on 9/11.

I don’t remember listening to the radio, or what facts about the attacks I found out then. It blurs with the knowledge that I know now. But I do remember at some point someone turning off the radio and all of us sitting in silence.

Something felt wrong.

It was like there was imbalance in the universe and I could feel that there was a shift in the world. I had never felt something like this before and I didn’t really know what to do or think.

One of the band directors broke the silence and said a couple things. I don’t remember what she said, but it seemed to make things feel a little better. After a couple more minutes, we got up and starting drilling marching band steps.

While it may have seemed insensitive for us to just go about our day, I do believe as my mom told me later that the best way to truly honor this day is to continue to live our lives to the best of our ability and not let fear paralyze us.

After lunch we rehearsed the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I had played this song all through high school at football games and never really gave much thought to it. That day was different. As we rehearsed it, there was a sense of duty and respect that I felt to that song that has never left me since. The performance of this song is not just another routine, it’s a representation of the history and spirit of what it means to be American.

I don’t remember the speech that our director gave us that instilled that feeling into that song for me.

I fear that my recollection of that day ten years later doesn’t really have anything to add to the remembrance of that day. So many facts have left me memory and any broad statements of how this day changed America don’t seem all that meaningful to me. The only thing that seems to hold any significance to me is the feeling of sitting on that marching band field.

When I think about that day, I still feel tears welling up, so I don’t let myself sink all the way into that memory for fear I’ll fall apart. I didn’t see the pictures until four or five days after the attack and honestly, I have yet to see the video of the second plane hitting. It almost seems too much to handle.

I worry about what I’m going to tell my kids about this day because while I understand America’s historical relationship with Osama Bin Laden and some the reasons that this day happened, I don’t get it and like the question of why people are born into certain situations, this is something I can’t comprehend. But I think that’s ok and I believe it’s in admitting this that we understand the difficulty of that day.

As younger generations are born who have not lived through this event and for those who did but are too young to remember it’s important that we try to figure out what this day meant. 9/11 for me was a moment of connection to humanity in a beautiful place, surrounded by a community of people that I love.

Think about what this day was for you and pass that on.

That is what future generations will gleam meaning from more than a news report or an article in a history book. The specific facts of that day continue to diminish in my brain but the feelings are just as strong in my heart.

True memory does not lie in facts but within the emotions of the heart.  It is there that we find the connections that link us together as one and in this time of remembrance unites us. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Year 2: Week 1 - The Reminder

Thursday morning I woke up exhausted from going to bed too late and not being able to sleep well with too many things on my mind. Coming to school I had that “not enough sleep headache” and my eyes were not happy about having contact lenses in after such a sleepless night.

I got to school, did my morning routine and got ready to teach my first third grade class of the year. In my classroom, I tuned my guitar, put down name cards on the seats and still not fully awake, attempted to get my mind in a place that I could welcome this class to their first day of school that started right off with music.

“Mr. Tang would you like us to come in?” one of third grade teachers asked drawing my attention from the place on the floor I was staring at to the crowd of little people waiting patiently at the door.

 “No, have them line up, I’m going to come over and give them some directions,” I replied.

As I walked to the door and enthusiastically greeted the teacher I looked at the kids who were standing, perfectly silent looking up at me. Some of the students looked apprehensive, others looked excited but most had a look of wonder, waiting to find out what kind of teacher I was and what this school year had in store for them.

Then something happened. The pitch of my voice raised to third grade level, I started talking slower and my usual sarcasm melted away as I instructed these students through the lesson. That headache I mentioned completely disappeared and for forty minutes my class and I had a great time getting to know each other through music.

As the class left, the headache returned, my energy level dropped and I tried to figure out a way that I could have naptime.

In my school we talk a lot about being a responsive teacher. This is about adjusting in the moment to the needs of the students. It’s about being receptive, and truly open to the experience the students are having. If you do this, really work with your students in that moment then it can change you.

This is one of the things that makes teaching a joyous profession and well, honestly makes it possible to be a teacher. There’s a lot of things that get in the way of enjoying being a teacher and it truly is the kids that get you through the rough days and reminds you how much beautiful it is to share your life with children.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Confusing Old Navy Commercials

Old Navy bringing back "Sister Christian"!!


And then there's:

which is a version of this:

This just feels kind of wrong.  I really can't explain why, but it just doesn't . . . um . . . sigh

Monday, September 5, 2011

Busy Being Fabulous by The Eagles

Since The Eagles got butchered by the ‘Cats last Saturday I think the Eagles could use a little love.

Let me explain.

Last weekend the Northwestern University Wildcats played the Boston University Eagles at football. Since most of my friends are from Northwestern there was a flurry of Facebook posts Saturday morning in support of the Northwestern. Most of them were some variation of “Go ‘Cats beat the Eagles.”

Facebook grouped all of these posts as comments about the rock band The Eagles. So on my feed it says “_______________ and 30 friends also posted about the Eagles,” with a hyperlink on the word Eagles, linking to the Eagles Facebook fan page. Now if you go to The Eagles fan page you will find a long list of posts celebrating the ‘Cats victory.

Since there’s all this misdirected negative energy against The Eagles, I feel like they could use a little love.

When hell froze over and The Eagles reunited in 1994 the accompanying album and concert special was incredibly successful and introduced a whole new generation including myself to one of the greatest and most successful band in the history of rock. For fans of The Eagles this reunion seemed like something that would never happen and in 2007, The Eagles answered the prayers of their fans again and recorded an album of new music.

During at time when CD sales were plummeting the Eagles release of “Long Road Out Of Eden,” their first album of original music since 1979, ended up selling over seven million copies. This double album featured some great songs but the one that always stuck with me is “Busy Being Fabulous.”

Busy Being Fabulous

Eagles | Myspace Music Videos

One of the things I love about artists who record music past middle age is that they are able to sing about things in a way that younger artists can’t. “Busy Being Fabulous” is about a person telling someone how much they missed out on because they were out partying.

This songs has a refreshing and beautiful blend of rock and country which instantly brings us back to the feeling of California rock which the Eagles so beautifully defined in the 1970s.

If you read the lyrics off the page this song may seem full of bitterness and anger. However Henley’s singing and the beautiful back-up vocals transforms the lyrics. While the songs exists as an “I told you so,” message telling someone they messed up, it is also a celebration of the great things in life the protagonist didn’t miss out on.

Like the Eagle’s greatest music, this song has layers that go beyond the surface with a surprisingly layer of maturity and depth.

So check out this song and the accompanying album. It’s really great stuff. The ‘Cats aren’t playing anyone who could mistaken by Facebook as a band again this year so hopefully this sad/hilarious instance of school spirit gone wrong will not happen again.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Year 2: Week 0 - Clueless

I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing.
Next week I start my second year at my school, which I can no longer refer to as my “new school.” Thinking back on last year, I’m not really sure how I got through it all. If it wasn’t for my lesson plans and my blog posts I wrote last year, I really wouldn’t be able to tell how I managed to have such a successful year.

Well, that’s probably not sure, but it feels that way.

Last year, I braced myself for a rollercoaster of a school year and that’s what I got. Like a roller coaster I was warned about certain things but also some drops and turns came when I least expected it and all I could do was hold on and make it through.  But I did more than survive, and if you ask anyone who worked with me they would agree that I had a fantastic year.

I know that’s true but it’s kind of hard to know how to handle a comment like that. Even though I was new last year it was my fifth year of teaching and entering my sixth year, I haven’t fully accepted that I’m more of an experienced teacher than a rookie.

It feels safer to tell myself that I’m a rookie. This means that I don’t know what’s going on and if I believe that then maybe other people around me will feel the same way and my risk of failure will be less, but that’s probably not true. I guess I’m just worried about being overly confident.

I guess I’m just bracing myself like I did last year but in a different way. I know the roller coaster track now, so I have a lot more on my mind to think about. I’m trying to not just get through the curriculum this year, rather I’m committed to involving myself in it and really make it meaningful.  I can only blame myself for the additional pressure, but hey, that's the only way I know how to work.

My feelings really are irrational. I have a masters degree in music education, I know how to teach. What’s intimidating are my almost two hundred students more that half I’ve never worked with before. But I know that once I get through the first week, that will not be as big a deal, because they will change from a number to kids that I will grow to love.  Even though I am preparing myself for the worst, I got to make sure not to forget to expect the best out of my kids.

I had an amazing year last year honestly not really knowing how a lot of things worked at my school last year. So this year, knowing the school, teachers and staff I’m going to be unstoppable.

Maybe the feeling of not knowing what you are doing isn’t such a bad thing. It just means there’s exciting discoveries for you to make, people to know and things to learn. That’s the feeling that makes education a challenge and an adventure.