Friday, September 28, 2012

Year 3: Week 4 – “This Is Exhausting”

Taylor Swift’s newest song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has a spoken part in the middle when Taylor describes how she feels about this constant breaking up and getting back together: “And I'm like, I'm just, I mean this is EXHAUSTING.” This is exactly how I felt after teaching one of my music classes earlier this week.

Look, this blog is not about complaining, so I’m not going to spend the rest of this post explaining about how bad they behaved and how hard it is to be a teacher and all of that teacher-hero stuff. Instead I want to think about what really happened in that class and what was it all about.

One of the challenges that I’ve had this year is that I’ve planned the beginning of this year on how the grade ended, not began. For example, part of me expected my new class to be at the point my class was at the end of the year, not the beginning. The reason this happens is that the incredible growth and change that happens in a school year is so gradually that sometimes you are shocked at the beginning of the next year.

So part of this is me needing to adjust my own expectations from how thing ended last year. Another issue is the class itself.

Yes, every class I’ve taught over the past three years have had similar curriculum, instruction strategies and assessment tools, but every single class I’ve taught has had a unique class dynamics. Sometime finding that groove, the way you need to teach that specific class comes really quickly and sometimes it takes longer, I’m searching with that “exhausting” class.

Now, I’m not alone here. The homeroom teacher and I get along great and we’ve been talking at length about strategies to best help this class succeed. She totally has my back and I have hers. I’m happy to reinforce themes and ideas that strike a chord in her class and she is eager to hear about things that I try in my class.

This kind of professional relationship is one of the things that I love my school. I didn’t have this at previous schools and it really makes me not feel as bad about the issues I’m having, knowing that I’m not alone.

I told this kids that they were exhausting. I told them that I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to help them pull themselves together and I told them that I wanted to help them get to a point where they could have more choices by making better choices about the way they operated in the classroom. That was really honest, because frankly right now, I’m not sure what to do them.

That’s okay though, that feeling of being lost, running out of ideas is not something to fear. When you hit that point that I’m at with these kids, this is when you grow, this is when you become creative and through working with other teachers not only find solutions but also build relationships.

Yes, I’m exhausted, but I haven’t given up and as Scarlett said “After all... tomorrow is another day.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Visions Of Quanyin

Quanyin is the most worshipped female religious figure in the world.  She is a Bodhisattva, a human who has reached enlightenment.  Quanyin is a symbol of compassion and her image is found throughout Asian culture.  On my travels to Taiwan, I took these pictures of her ever-present image and comforting presence. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Day 1 - It Can't Rain All Of The Time.

There was silence as my mom, dad, brother, Diana and I walked into late grandmothers condo in Taipei. We greeted our aunts, uncles and cousins quietly and then stood there. One of my aunts, broke the silences "come on, talk to each other." With that the room relaxed, smiles came to people's faces and we began to talk.

After a settling in we did a prayer ceremony and presented a meal of my grandmothers favorite foods in front of a picture if her. We stayed in the condo for a little longer to let her spirit enjoy the food.

Then we went to the hospital where my grandmothers body was being kept and did another prayer ceremony. Again, there was a muted energy. It was like we all wanted to laugh and enjoy each others company but we felt a need to hold together a feeling of reference. While the prayers were serious before and after different people reconnected, shared stories and laughed.

Afterwards lunch at one of our families favorite restaurants the smiles came were no longer held back and the laughter was let loose. It was liked we all stopped trying so hard to act "proper" and revel in the joy of sharing an incredible meal with each other and being together for the first time in over a decade.

After lunch, my mom finally seemed to exhale. She had been in Taipei for almost a week before Diana and I had arrived.  In the grief of her mom passing hadn't really eaten well. I don't if it was the food or the family that caused to her to finally eat but that lunch was the first real meal she had in Taiwan.

After lunch, we split up and my immediate family hit the hotel bar and then the mall.  Diana has small feet which makes shoe shopping in America difficult, but in Taiwan she has more average sized feet so instead of there being a couples of shoes that fit in a store like in America, everything in the store fit Diana.

We got back together as a family for a magnificent traditional Chinese dinner all twenty-one of us sat around a huge table experiencing a meal, full of toasts, amazing food and lots of laughter.

What are you suppose to do when you grieve? How do you act around your loved ones? I'm not sure any of us knew. We were all trying to do the right thing. In the middle of dinner it all started make sense. Grieving for the death of grandmother was about living in the moment, being present and enjoying life.

Today was a reminder of why we grieve. There is no joy, no comfort that is like spending time with family. When someone in a family leaves, we need to be serious and respectful, but we also need to live life to honor the joy that person continues to bring to our lives.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Year 3: Week 3 – Since I've Been Gone

During my eight-day trip to Taiwan, I missed six school days: Wednesday to Wednesday. I came back to school Thursday still jet-lagged but excited to be back. Simply walking into the school building gave me energy to make it through the day.

 The kids didn’t seem to miss me or really care all that much about the fact that I was away.  When I was a kid, I don’t remember really thinking much about a teacher when he or she was gone, I was just excited that we would have a substitute and probably get to watch a movie. Honestly, I would prefer it that way. This means that student see the teacher as just that, a teacher and not a friend or buddy.

What I didn’t expect was how much I missed my fellow teachers and how great it would be to see them.

We are apart all summer, and we miss each other then but this was different. A school is more about the people than the building and when someone is gone during the year, the feeling of the school changes.

Being away when the year is going on for as long as I was is tough because you feel like you have a role and these people during this time are part of your life. You expect this, you rely on this and when this changes unexpectedly, it can be tough.

One thing that is comforting is that when I was away everything kept going without me. Yes, we are all important as teachers but we are all replaceable and while that’s sometimes a scary thought, it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

My school survived many years without me and it is going to go on many years after I leave. That’s a uplifting thought. It means that the things that I care about, the values, and the work I put in this school isn’t just for myself and for my current students, but it’s there for the generations.

When I realized that I would have to be away from my school after my grandmother died, I was worried about how things would go at school without me, but everything was fine.  It’s a reassuring thought knowing that if anything ever happened again that would make me be away from school, that I have don’t worry about it the way I did last week.

I feel like I’m starting the year all over again with my students. In the first week, I was barely able to establish classroom procedures but it’s okay. We’ll catch up and if we don’t, well it’s not the end of the world. It just means there’s one less song that we’ll get to.

One less song vs. feeling spiritually enriched from an important life experience, which made me a better person for myself and my students. 

Yeah, I think it's worth it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Dreams Of Sushi

Last weekend my family went to my late grandmother's favorite sushi restaurant.  This was one of the greatest meals I've ever had in my life.  The sushi chefs prepared one piece at time with incredible artistry. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: On The Plane To Taiwan

To honor the life and the passing of my grandmother, my wife, Diana and I journeyed to my parents homeland of Taipei, Taiwan.  This post is the first part of the journey I wrote on the plane. 

"Diana, my grandmother died."

As those words left my mouth, I felt a sudden intense pain.  It felt like something crushed my heart filling me with an overwhelming feeling sadness.  As I collapsed onto my bed feeling tears blind my vision, Diana's arms surrounded me in strength and love holding me together as I felt myself falling apart.

Then it was over and the reality that my life was forever changed began to sink in. 

When I heard the news about my other grandparents dying it didn't hit my this hard.  There was more of a dull pain that lasted for a longer period of time.  I don't know why this was different with my maternal grandmother.  Maybe it was because she was my last grandparent or maybe it was because no one expected her to pass away.  

I'm writing this sitting on a plane on the way to Taiwan.  My grandmother passed away last Tuesday, eight days ago.  The funeral is this Saturday (9/15).  Thankfully the funeral was arranged for a week after her death so that we had time to to get prepared for this trip.  

There are so many different things that go through your mind when a grandparent dies. You have your own grief to work through but even more challenging is your parents grief.  When you are kid, your parents are superheroes and you think they can handle anything.  That illusion disappears in the teen years.  Even though you know your parents are human beings with flaws and imperfections, part of you holds on to the idea that they are invincible, and moments like this remind you of their humanity.

My parents never stopped being someone's children.  Even after my brother and I were born.  This isn't something I thought -bout growing up, but it's true.  We all hold different roles to people in our lives.  We are friends, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and cousins.  But now my mom has no one in this world knows her as a daughter, and now there is no one alive who calls me their grandchild.  

Yes, I'm loosing this part of identity, the part of me that is a grandchild, but last Spring, my beautiful niece entered this world who looks at me in a way no one else in the world does: as an uncle.  

No, this doesn't even things out and it doesn't bring comfort but it feels like somehow, this is what life is all about.

I believe that endings are what makes things meaningful.  That doesn't mean I don't dread them and that doesn't mean I don't fear death.  Death is the one inevitable in our lives.  It's an experience that we all share.  It touches all of our lives.  However, the universality of death doesn't make it any easier to cope with and understand.  

There's so much in this world that I don't understand.  And I try to make sense of everything that happens because it feels like if I don't try, it will all slip away.  This isn't a rational fear, it just how I deal with life.  Trying to find meaning doesn't always lead to answers but the struggle always helps us know ourselves.

Right now as this plane flys over the pacific, my mom is waiting for me in a hotel in Taipei.  I'm not sure what I'm going to say to her when I see her.  But I know there will be a hug, probably a couple tears, and the feeling of home and family being in the presences of my mother as her son.   

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Year 3: Week 2 - Leaving It All Behind

I hate being away from my kids.

I rarely take personal days and only if I'm bedridden or if the nurse forces me to go home will I take a sick days.  However, sometimes life happens.

Last week my grandmother passed away and after the initial wave of grief passed my mind went to the fact that I would have to go to Taiwan and take a week off of school.

One of hardest things about death is that it never happens at a convenient time and this was definitely true this time around.  I started the school year last week.  I barely got to know my new students and I'm smack in the middle of our band/choir selection process.  But that didn't outweigh the needs of me family and my own personal needs.

So I had to get ready to go.

My principals and my human resource person were amazing.  They were accommodating, supportive and very helpful.  I folding together bereavement leave and my personal days to give me the time off that I needed.  Now I just needed to figure out what to tell my substitute to do.

One of the main reasons I hate leaving my kids is that it takes more work for me to plan for a substitute then to plan for myself.  Some substitutes are competent and can follow a plan and some are barely capable of putting a DVD in and pressing play.  When you are teaching music, this issue gets even worse.

Once in a while I have a sub that I know can actually teach music, so I can leave music and stuff.  Even though the substitute I got has music teaching experience the timing of the year meant that the students barely learned how to operate in the classroom.  So I left some DVDs for the kids to watch and told the sub to do some music activities that she knew and felt comfortable teaching.

Is it a cop-out to just let kids watch movies?  Kind of, but I swear that the DVDs that I chose were educational.  And chances are, some of the kids will pay better attention to the DVD then they ever would with me.  One of these days I'm going to just video tape myself teaching a lesson to the kids and play that and see if the kids pay better attentions to me if I'm on a screen.  (Can you tell I'm writing this when I'm on a plane?)

I feel like I have so little time with my kids sometimes.  I'm constantly trying to figure out more times to hang out with them like during lunch time, before school or even during math class.  Even if they are watching movies, I want to watch movies with them so we can talk about them.

One of administrators in my first teaching job told me that you can't take care of your students if you don't take care of yourself.  I truly do believe this and as hard as it is sometimes to be away, if you truly want to do what's best for your kids, do what's best for yourself.  Even if that means going to Taiwan during one the busiest times of the school year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Buffy at the Beach!!


Monday, September 10, 2012

Waitin’ On A Sunny Day by Bruce Springsteen

One drop.

When it hit the top of my head, I ignored it thinking that it was just my imagination. But as Bruce continued to sing “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” a fine mist blanketed Wrigley field.

I stood there Saturday in the second of two concerts Springsteen put on in Wrigley field. The concert had started with Springsteen laying into his harmonica blasting “Promised Land” across the city. He continued taking the audience on a journey that was the American experience.

We had seats on the field. The view of the stage was incredible but even better was the view of the stadium. You could turn around and see thousands of people rocking out in unison to the stories that Springsteen sang and the values that he preached.

I instantly recognized he opening chords to “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.” I had played them countless times as I have made this song part of my 5th grade curriculum for the past two years.

“Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” came from Springsteen’s album The Rising.  This album dealt directly with the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. This light hearted and hopeful song uses about rain as a metaphor for life’s difficulties and the hope that is a sunny day.

It wasn’t lost on Springsteen as he played this song that the rain got harder and harder. Instead of hesitating in the weather, he leaned in and gave the audience even more. He pulled a girl up on stage and gave her the microphone to sing once through the chorus and joyously ran around the stage getting soaked along with the rest of us.

Before transitioning into the next part of the concert he played a solo version of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” This was the only song he played without the band, which means he probably decided to play at that very second.

As the entire stadium sang the chorus “yeah, I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain,” it became clear that the rain may not stop and that wasn’t necessarily going to be a bad thing.

My wife and I found shelter in the back of the second deck of seats and watched Bruce perform the last half of the concert in the pouring rain. Rain has a way of dampening spirits and draining the energy out of a person but for Bruce it seemed to have a different effect. It was like the rain gave him even more energy and after and incredible twenty-seven song set, he left the audience with a renewed energy to believe.

Sometimes in life you can’t wait for a sunny day. Sometimes you just have to go out there and make the best of a rainy day.  Bruce showed us all last Saturday, that the hard times can become the celebrations that make life worth living. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Year 3: Week 1 – Facing The Inevitable

One of my students will cry. A piece of technology will stop working at a critical time in a lesson. A situation with a parent will cause extra work and stress. And my life outside of school will impact my work life as it did last this week when my grandmother passed away.

There are things that we can count on in the course of a school year and in the community of a school. When we think about inevitability, the negative connotation of the word often overshadows the great things that will happen in the year as well.

Maybe we think of the bad things that happen to us with a negative feeling of inevitability because we don’t feel like we can do anything about them. Over the weeks of summer, sometimes the negative, the moments of stress override our sense of hope and optimism when our concerns about starting a new school year arise.

More than anything, I entered this first week with a sense that all of these things good and bad would happen this year. I mean this is the third year I’m at this school. There certain things that are “normal” at this school that will happen. Right? Well, maybe not.

My feeling of inevitability has been in conflict with the fact that in general, I don’t like to believe that there is anything in life that is in fact inevitable and the things that are, like death, aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

If we allow ourselves to believe that negative things in a school are simply bound to happen then we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be creative and make something better. You have to choose your battles and you can’t fix everything at a school, but you should never stop fighting for your kids just because something has always happened a certain way.

So how about the things we can’t control? A student crying is difficult but it’s a natural response, which helps students grow and adults to better understand children. Technology breaking down, forces us to respond quickly to the students and rethink what we are doing which can lead to innovative and creative teaching. Difficult parent conversations are some of the most important parts of a teacher’s job, which provide a critical and often enlightening perspective.

So what positive effect does my grandmother passing away have on me as a teacher?

I don’t know, only time will tell.  

I had a fantastic first week of teaching, but right now, my enthusiasm is overshadowed by feelings of loss and grief.  Yes, I am a teacher, and even though now I no longer have any grandparents who are alive, I will always be a grandson.
Teaching has made me a better person and that my life has made me a better teacher.  As I face a loss that is out of my control in my personal life, I find strength knowing that teaching has taught me that in the inevitable there is always hope.      

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

The First 100 Miles

When I first started this blog, I told myself that I wouldn’t do two things: do posts about cute animals and write about exercising.

Well, since I got Buffy, the whole cute animal thing went out the window and now I’m going to break the second rule and talk about running.

Friends of mine know how annoyed I get when people talk about exercising. Here’s the basic rant:
I don’t care that you are training for a marathon. If you want to do something for your own benefit and your own health, fantastic. But don’t do it expecting me to praise you. Just because you choose to spend a certain amount of time exercising doesn’t mean that you are a better human being than me.

Like people who are vegetarian, people who exercise but don’t get all high and mighty about it, I respect. It’s the people who express their insecurities by lording exercises over people to feel better about themselves that annoy me.
My negative feelings about hearing people talk about exercise has to do with the fact that as a child I was never good at sports and the fact that as someone who is not interested in mainstream sports culture, I often feel like an outsider.

So, what am I going to do about this? Well last year I decided to stop whining and run. I started up the “Couch to 5k” training program. It seemed easy enough. I got about 4 weeks in and gave up. I tried again later that summer and stopped out again after a couple weeks.

Why did I stop? I’m not sure, I think, I pushed myself too hard, trying for speed over endurance and I just didn’t make it a priority.

So last spring, I started again. I read a tip to run at very slow speeds and just keep track of the intervals, not the distance covered. This worked. After about eight-weeks of following this program, I decided to just keep going after one session and completed a 5k in 49 minutes.

The first person I told about this (besides my wife, who has been incredibly supportive) laughed, and couldn’t believe how slow I ran.

That hurt.

There’s plenty of people out there who can run a 5k without thinking about it. But there’s a lot of people out there like me who can’t comfortable run a mile. It’s hard, because people who run a mile in 15 minutes, like I did when I first got up to a mile don’t talk about it. All we hear is about people doing marathons and five-minute miles. It gets really discouraging because, our society sometimes is too focused on comparing people as opposed to focusing on individual growth. When you compare me to other people my age, my running speeds are pathetic, but compared to why I used to be able to do, I’m really proud.

So after I did my 5k in 49 minutes I resolved to not tell anyone I knew about the fact that I was running besides my wife. I ran about 4 or 5 days a week alternating between long run and shorter runs working on getting my time down. During this time I came up with the crazy idea that I would run 100 miles by the end of the summer.

While running websites aren’t always directed at novices there’s some really good advice that made running possible.

1. Get good shoes: I went to Fleetfoot and the shoes they fit me with made a world of differences. Also, if you have any foot pain when you walk or at end of the day, see a podiatrist. It’s not normal. I have podiatrist made orthotics which have changed my life.

2. Bodyglide Anti-Chafe Balm: I cannot run without this stuff.

3. Treadmill: It’s a lot easier to keep track of speeds and not run too fast, too quickly with a treadmill. Yes, it’s more boring but with the right music/podcast/TV show, it’s not so bad.

The greatest thing about being a beginning runner is that the improvement is quick. In the 100 miles I ran this summer, my 5k time went down 16 minutes to 33 minutes and my one-mile time went from 18 minutes to just under 10. Is this impressive to other people who run in my age group? Not really, but this improvement is an achievement that give me a great sense of pride.

Start with the Couch to 5k program, jog as slow as possible until you work up to a 5k and then turn on the speed slowly. Don’t skip weeks; let your body slowly adjust and the pay off will be tremendous. I’m not talking about weight loss, I’m talking about your energy and your spirit. If you push through the early workouts and the days that you just don’t feel like running, you will get to a magical day when you actually want to run.

Do it, and be proud of what you run, no matter how slow it seems to other people. Because if you keep at it, if you don’t give up, you will be surprised how far you can go and how much you will grow in 100 miles.