Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #2. 50 Ways To Say Goodbye by Train

I asked my 8th graders to share me songs by their music heroes.  Here are my reactions to these songs.

Sometimes we forget that pop music can be funny. Growing up in the maelstrom of gangster rap and grundge music, I remember music getting really dark and serious. Even now, sometime it seems like pop musicians feel that the only way to be taken seriously is well to have music that is not all really all that much fun.

This is one of the reasons I love PSY's “Gangnum Style.”

People laugh at the ridiculousness of this music video and revel in it. It’s a breath of fresh air, but the thing is, most music videos of the 1980s were just as silly as this one and just as fun. Also “Gangnum Style,” is a great song.

When one of my 8th graders sent me “50 Ways To Say Goodbye” by Train, I was dreading having to listen to this song. Look, I acknowledge the catchiness of Train’s music but the nonsensical lyrics of “Hey, Soul Sister” drive me crazy (here is my post about that song). Well, my student made the effort to e-mail me about this song and it deserves my attention so here we go.

Wait a second, David Hasselhoff!! I LOVED this guy on Knight Rider. There’s a mariachi band and there’s lead singer Pat Monahan dropping any level of pretention and hamming it up for the camera! This is awesome AND the lyrics totally make sense.

Okay, the story is that a guy gets dumped and because of the shame and hurt, he can’t bear to tell his friends the truth so he makes up ridiculous explanations for his ex-girlfriend’s absence including being eaten by a lion and getting hit by a purple Scion.


Look, this is exactly what great pop music is all about. Train is incorporating some cool sounds like a Mariachi band ala Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.” Then they took a very sad and difficult feeling of being rejected and turned in it into a hilarious anthem.

Sometimes the only way to deal with difficult emotions is to make a joke out of it and Train effectively does this helping us work through these emotions by reflecting the ridiculousness of this reaction. At the same time Train makes us feel better about the impulse of hiding the truth by letting us know that we are not crazy for feeling a need to hide being dumped from our friends.

Train, you totally redeemed the nonsense of “Hey soul sister, ain’t that mister mister” with “She'll think I'm Superman, Not super minivan.”

Nicely Done.

. . . but we still got some work to do to get passed "Meet Virginia."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Year 3: Week 7 – To Be Liked

“It’s nice to meet you Mr. Tang. My son really likes you.”
“Thanks, that’s fantastic, but its not my job to be liked.”
Back when I was student teaching I had this conversation with one of my student’s parents. Coming out of graduate school, I had this view that if a teacher’s priority was to be liked, they were misguided. Our job as teachers is simply to “teach” and if we focused on being liked, then we wouldn’t be doing our job.

While I still agree that a teacher’s priority shouldn’t be to be liked, it’s difficult to be an effective teacher if students don’t like you. I’ve had teachers that I didn’t like, but I dealt with it if they were good enough teachers, but that was more of a college thing, especially with middle school and my elementary school students this, “being liked” thing is becoming more and more important in my mind.

It’s not so much the goal of being “liked” that misguides teachers it’s what teachers do to become liked that gets in the way of learning. If you ask students what they like about teachers you hear a variety of answers. Sometimes it’s the fact that the teacher is funny, or because the teachers like sports, but more often the answers are focused on the teacher’s professionalism.

Kids like teachers who are fair, prepared, professional, and who genuinely like their students. While a group of students may request to goof off during a class, letting them do that is not going to make them like you as a teacher. Challenging them to work hard, tuning back homework on time, having interesting and engaging activities and materials and creating a safe classroom environment will buy you more points in the “like” category then any amount of free time.

You don’t want to create a personality cult where students simply do things because they want to please you and also there are lines in relationships between students and teachers that should never be crossed. A students liking you as a teacher is a very different thing than a student liking you as a friend or seeing you as a peer. This is a difficult thing to distinguish which is probably why when I was a rookie teachers I was told to completely ignore the whole “being liked” thing.

It is essential for teachers to like their students as people. Also, it is important that students like something about their teachers mixed in with a high level of respect for their teachers as well. The way we go about creating this relationship is very hard and is different depending on what grade you teach and what groups of personalities make up your class.

Being liked isn’t something to be put out of your mind as a teacher. Sometimes we need to make choices and do activities to create connections with students.

Earlier this week a parent came up and told me that her son liked me.  I replied, “Thanks, I really like teaching your son.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Buffy's Special Lady!!


Monday, October 22, 2012

8th Grade Playlist: #1. Give Me Love By Ed Sheeran

I asked my 8th graders to share me songs by their music heroes.  Here are my reactions to these songs.

She really likes One Direction.

The first couple classes of this year she asked repeatedly if we could play a One Direction song. I have a suspicion that the One Direction photos that have cropped up around the middle school may have something to do with her. So when she mentioned that her musical hero was Ed Sheeran, an artist who co-wrote a One Direction song, I was expecting something similar to the One Direction songs that I knew (like this one I've wrote about earlier).

What I got was something very different.

Ed Sheeran is a English singer and songwriter. He is in his early twenties and had his breakthrough song with “The A Team,” which charted on the British charts giving Adele a run for her money. Like Adele, there’s a sense of musical tradition and authenticity in his music. Sheeran sets lyrics with an Elton John like ease with musical arrangements that sound comforting in their acoustic quality but surprisingly fresh.

“Give Me Love” like Spain’s “Spiritual,” is a heart wrenching song. The expression in this song has glimmers of hope but lives in a world full of sadness, regret, pain and desperation. Every way you could imagine someone expressing the words “give me love,” are revealed here in a musically simple but emotionally complex composition.

The song pulls no punches like Elton John’s “I Want Love.” The first verse sets the tone beautifully with the Bob Dylan-esque line “Paint splatted teardrops on my shirt.” He’s made a commitment to fight for a girl but this leaves him empty as he drowns his sorrows, simply wanting to hold this person that is beyond his grasp.

The sadness of the first verse is brushed aside as Sheeran tries to convince his love to give him some time or “burn this out.” He wants a chance to fix this relationship or he wants her to simply let it collapse in on himself. We get a sense that there is something unsettled in this relationship as he tries to “turn this around.” While there is hope in these words, in the second verse, he is taken back to the pain of how much he needs her.

Ed Sheeran ends the song boldly, repeating a statement of want. This is the kind of thing that is really tricky to pull off. Sheeran makes this work by going through a range of emotions by getting softer and then getting louder, growing in intensity. It almost becomes uncomfortable to at a certain point as he sings “love me” with a mix of rage and pain. Right when you feel like you can’t take it anymore he arrives at an optimistic almost spiritual singing of the words “give me love.”

The repetitions of the words give us musical space to think about what these words really mean not only to Sheeran but to all of us as the listener. This song is a reminder of how painful the want for love can be. More than that, what Sheeran expresses is that the want for love is only painful because of how great it can make us feel and how central it is to the human experience.

Don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge someone's musical taste on one song or artist that they like.  Don't disregard someone's musical taste because you don't like one artist they are into.  You never know what you will discover if you simply ask and listen.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Year 3: Week 6 – A Sound Only A Teacher Could Love

What’s the worst sound that you can imagine?

How about a class full of 3rd graders trying to play recorder? Or how about this one: a mixed class full of saxophones, flutes, trumpets, trombones and clarinets playing their instruments for the first time as a group?

I’m not going to lie. As a elementary and middle music school teacher, I hear a lot of sounds that aren’t exactly musically pleasing. It’s funny. Sometimes listening to kids play instruments, especially when they are first learning how to play gives me a headache but most of the time it doesn’t. How do you learn to not get bothered by the sounds of developing musicians? Well, there’s a couple things that help.

Sometimes I’m not really listening. There are times when a kid plays something and I need to ask them to play again because my attention was somewhere else. Sometimes it’s another student being distracting and other times I’m focusing on a kids fingering or whether a student is holding an instrument correctly. These things are important to watch for and like my students, I can’t always attend to everything about a kid’s playing at the same time.

Perspective helps too. The amazing thing about teaching students how to play instruments is how quickly most of them improve. It’s like watching a kid learn to throw a baseball. Throwing a ball 20 feet may not be a big deal, but for a kid who a week earlier could barely throw the ball at all, that’s shows a lot of growth. The same goes for musicians. I got kids who may not sound great to you, but compared to how they sounded last year they are doing amazing. If you focus simply on the music a child is producing you will always be bothered by how they sound but if you focus on the child who is playing the music, it’s amazing what you can hear in a student’s playing.

Kids sound good and bad in the context of their experience. A trumpet player who has been playing for one week can sound bad or good. Good for that player is different than good for a college trumpet major but there is still good and bad. That’s something that’s you come to learn with experience.  Knowing what is “good” for a certain level of experience like knowing what is developmentally “good” spelling for a first grader versus and 10th grader is essential to teaching.

I started my 6th grade band student with their instruments this week.  As I listened to the squeaks and squawks, I had to take a moment to think before responding.  Yes, they didn't sound very good, but they were here.  These students chose to be in band and they are excited about learning how to play their instruments.  So as I looked up at my students, I smiled, pushing aside how they sounded and felt excited to be part of my students' musical journey.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Buffy's Goes Apple Picking!!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Day 4 - Reflections

When I was a toddler, I figured out how to slide down the stairs on my stomach. One time I was doing this, I took hold of the end of a toilet paper roll and went down the stairs with it in my hand.

My aunt laughed as she told my mom and my wife this story as we sat in a Starbucks in a food court. My wife shared some similar stories with my aunt and mom like the time one of her younger brothers sprayed baby powder all over the room explaining, “I didn’t know I wasn’t suppose to do that.”

Our last full day in Taiwan was spent with family . . . shopping.  My mom took my wife and I, first thing the morning, to a gold smith shop where my aunt met up with us and then we went to a mall. We bought some baby clothes for my niece and I found a nice sports coat.  Through it all, we shared some great stories.

That afternoon my wife and I met up with my cousins and we explored the shopping area at the bottom of the Taipei 101 Tower and later went up to the top of that building. While the view was nice, going up the world’s fastest elevator really isn’t that much fun.

Hanging out with my cousins was a lot of fun. Diana and I had met up with each of those cousins in the past couple years but this was the first time we all got to hang out as a group. We had a great time, mostly being silly and pointing out odd things that we saw in stores and randomly sharing a box of macaroons.

When I think about the past four days, I feel admiration for my family.

You look at people outside your family for inspiration and you wish you could emulate them. But when you see your family being strong in difficult situations, you come to believe that you share these same qualities. 

The good in my family is the good within myself.

The death of my grandmother is not an ending for my family. Through the lives that we lead, new unions of marriage, and new generations being born, the story of my family continues.

I’m not saying that the last four days changed my life, but they meant more to me than I can express. It may be a while before I can fully understand all that I’ve experienced, but I know it all felt right.

When I hugged my mom goodbye before leaving for the airport, that simple gesture that once felt so ordinary, felt special.  It was like the spirits of my grandparents and my ancestors came together and surrounded us with love.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Year 3: Week 5 – Giving Them A Voice

It seems like there’s one in every class.

 I’m talking about that kid who is disrespectful, disrupts the class, makes jokes at inappropriate time and doesn’t seem to care when you address his or her behavior. It’s the kid you sometimes wish would be absent so that you could actually focus on teaching.

So how do we deal with these kids? There’s immediate consequences like detentions but this negative stimulus really only hits the lower reptilian part of the brain and in my experiences doesn’t really change behavior.

Sometimes what kids really need is to simply have a voice.

Helping students develop a voice so that can express their thoughts is one of the most important goals of education. This is skill that students develop in every subject and contribute not only to the financial success of a student but also their emotional development. One of the signs that someone is well adjusted is that they can speak or write about how they feel.

Let’s break this down for a minute.

A 2nd grade boy is confused during math class. Instead of asking for help, he disengages and makes distracting jokes. The teachers express anger to this boy and he gets punished. As the kid gets older, this continues to happen. In 5th grade, he is now behind his peers in his ability to self-advocate so instead to get attention he makes inappropriate comments during class. The school has developed a systematic way to deal with discipline so this student gets detentions and looses other privileges.

No one ever asks this boy, what he is thinking or how he is feeling, instead every teacher and authority figure simply punishes this student for his disruptive actions. He has things to wants to say, and whenever a teacher talks to him, which is usually when he is getting punished he is not allowed to speak in his own defense.

Have you ever disciplined a kid and not let them speak about the way they felt about the situation? I’ve done that a couple time, but now I make sure to let the kid do most of the talking when they get in trouble.

The problem is that most teachers have too many students and not enough prep time to have these conversations with students. But we have got to try.

Yes, when you ask them how they feel, they may say things that are immature, they may make things up and they will probably exaggerate but let them finish. Instead of trying to tell them they are wrong, help them express the truth inside of their feelings.

Having an open and honest discussion, not a lecture, but a real two-way discussion about a student’s feelings is one of the fastest ways to build a relationship. No, having one of these talks probably will not immediately change behavior, but it will help.

So next time a kid is disruptive, don’t go on the attack. Of course you need to put them on notice that what they are doing is not okay, but follow up the situation with a talk. Don’t start by asking them how they feel about their behavior. Ask them how their day is going and how they feel about the class in general. You’ll be surprised at what you find out and how it’s impossible to dislike a student no matter how disruptive they are in class when you have heard their true voice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Euglogy For My Grandmother

On Saturday 15th, 2012 in Taipei, Taiwan, I shared my thoughts about my grandmother along with my cousins.  While the experience was difficult the writing and sharing of these words was important for my family and I.

I've started this school year talking to my students about choices. Every day we make thousands of choices, from what pants to put on in the morning to whether or not we acknowledge a homeless person who asks us for money as we walk by.

Like children, we don't alway put a lot of thought into our actions and the effect they have on the people around us. In the same way we often overlook the way that other people's choices effect us. For me, this is what this day is about.

The choices my grandmother made resonate in all of our lives. From the seemingly insignificant to the immediately profound, she chose for herself a life full of love and family and through these choices taught us all how to be a family.

I love how I have a cousin who is half Swiss and an aunt in Taiwan, and while the miles between us make it more difficult to stay connected, it's makes it that much more meaningful that we choose to be hear today as a family.

When I was in elementary school grandmother chose to come and help teach me and me classmates how to make paper cranes. When I was married she chose to come to our wedding and share in that amazing day, and whenever my mother visited her she would chose to go shopping and make sure to have a gift for my mom to bring home to Diana.

I think about these things and I know that I'm a better person because of them, and while she may not have not thought too much about these choices, they changed my life. In this way her choice to foster relationships with all of us has sent ripples throughout our lives and led to us making the profound choice to share this day together as one. In this way, grandmother is always with us and through her life we are all connected.

So like my grandmother, choose to love, choose to be a family and choose to remember and honor the ones that come before. Because it is in understanding how the choices of the past effect our lives can we be mindful of how our choices can change the lives of the people around us for the better.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Day 3 - Grateful

What happens to your possessions after you die? The ancient Egyptian Pharaohs packed all their stuff away with them in their pyramids but most of us don’t have that luxury.

As we started going through my grandmother’s positions, it felt weird and almost sacrilegious. But then it started to make sense. What was my family going to do with all of this stuff? What would my grandmother prefer, for the family to take things of her that they wanted or for this stuff to be given away to charity or thrown away?

So all of the women in my family went to my grandmother’s bedroom and looked through her clothes trying things on and claiming clothes to take home. My cousin and I started looking through the curio cabinet in the living room.

There was a lot of really interesting things in that cabinet. We found a metal toy car from the early 1910s, honorary gifts for my grandfathers years of service in various organizations and souvenirs from all over the world. I found a small stone carved into two dogs playing with each other that reminded me of Buffy that I took for my own.

I went in and checked on how Diana and the rest of the women in my family were doing. Diana had found a couple sweaters and a old fashioned but very nice wool suit jacket. As I was looking through this stuff my aunt started pulling out my grandmother’s numerous handbags and I instantly recognized a small brown one as my grandmothers.

I never really thought about her handbags or even consciously noticed them but seeing that bag immediately brought and image into my minds eyes of my grandmother holding that bag.

My mom took this bag into the main living room and started going through the bag. She explained to my wife and I that my grandmother always made sure to have certain things in her handbag. There was a small container of tiger balm, a small packet of tissue, three of four plastic bags just in case there was extra food from a restaurant she wanted to keep, and emergency money hidden away in some corner of the purse.

My mom explained how she learned to carry most of these things in her purse all of the time from her mom. As I thought about the kleenix packet, lip balm, and emergency money hidden away in my work bag, I realized that I was as much my mother’s son as my mom was her mother’s daughter.

That evening we went to my grandmother’s favorite sushi restaurant. It was a authentic sushi bar that only had about twenty seats. As soon as we walked in one of the sushi chefs asked my uncle where my grandmother was and he pointed up and explained that she had passed away.

At the end of the meal we had miso soup. This soup was authentically made with random pieces of left over seafood creating and fresh and subtle mix of flavors. My mom explained to me that this was my grandmother’s favorite dish. As I inhaled the aroma of the soup and tasted the smooth broth, it felt like she was sharing her world with me.

For that experience and that day, I am truly grateful.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Year 3: Week 4 – The 190

Let me introduce you to my students this year, all 190 of them.

My youngest student is 8 years old and my oldest one is 14. I’m taller than some of my students and many of them are taller then me. They come from some of the wealthiest communities in the Chicagoland area while others come from some of the poorest. I have a student who regularly travels to Europe for vacation and I have another one who has never been outside of America.

My students have parents, adopted parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all doing their part to help raise them. Even though some people in this country don’t value some of these families because there are two moms or two dads, I am proud to have these families in our community. If you really think being raised by two people of the same gender harms a child then you clearly haven’t met my students.

My students have faced the tragedy of cancer and the senselessness of violence. They go home and comfort loved ones with terminal diseases and cradle babies just beginning to know the world. Some of them walk to school; some are dropped off by parents while others have a much longer journey.

My students are coming to know who they are. My 3rd grade girls are trying to figure out what it means to be in a group of friends, not so unlike the way my 8th grade girls are dealing with social issues. I have 5th grade boys who value humor in social interactions and 7th grade boys who are trying to break out of the role of the class clown which they now find limiting.  As my 6th graders confidently assert themselves as new middle school students they are finding that the freedoms they are enjoying come with even more walls then they had in 5th grade.

My students are remarkable athletes, scientist, mathematicians, musicians, writers and artists. What’s more impressive is that they are nice people, respectful citizens and caring friends.

My students have weaknesses and they struggle. They have senses that distract them, hormones that betray them and emotions that leave them conflicted and confused. Behind smiles there are tears and in anger there’s a longing to be understood.

My students are my kids. They come to my mind when I’m cooking at home or running along the lake. They frustrate, delight and never cease to amaze me.

I hope that one day you will meet my 190. They would love to share their world with you. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cultural Weirdness in Taipei

To the left of the toilet in our hotel bathroom was this panel.  My favorite button was "oscillating."  I actually didn't use any of the buttons except for the ones across the top.  It was all just so intimidating.   
Mom, two kids, and cups of hot soup, all on one scooter.  I know Americans can sometimes go a little overboard with safety things, but really Taipei? 
That's a normal size tea cup and a normal sized fork.  Those little glasses are Chinese shot glasses.  They were about the size of thimble.  When I use them I felt like a giant.  It was awesome. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Taiwan Travelogue: Day 2 - The Service

As I positioned the chopsticks between my fingers, I looked down at the steel tray holding my grandmothers cremated remains. I always imagined that cremated remains were a fine grey powder but instead they were white and in pieces.  Some of these fragments were the size of a coin while others were the size of a rosebud.

The chopsticks were larger than normal, almost a foot in length. I carefully gripped a piece with the chopsticks and used my other hand to brace the middle of the chopsticks. I methodically moved my hands towards the urn and gently placed the remains inside, put the chopsticks down carefully and took a step back to join the rest of my family.

All of my grandmother's children, grandchildren and spouses who were present took part in moving the remains. Then the person working at the crematorium placed the rest of the remains into the urn, sealed it carefully, place the container in a embroidered bag and carefully gave the package to my uncle.  It was now the late afternoon and it was time to leave the place of worship where my grandmothers service was held and her remains were cremated for one more important trip to go on with my grandmother.

My mother waiting for the service to begin.
We arrived earlier that morning in a funeral service facility in Taipei. There were many different rooms in the grounds where numerous services were held. As we got there, workers were bustling around moving flowers, chairs and carpets setting up services in a hurry. Once we got organized, the person presenting our service showed us our part in the ceremony.

We were split up by gender and put in a specific order according to our station in he family and birth order. The family stood in the front facing the audience for the whole ceremony acting as hosts.

After a speaker talked about my grandmothers life, different groups of people lined up in the aisle facing a portrait of my grandmother and bowed to her spirit in prayer. First they bowed with incense in their hands three times. After the incenses were collected and they vowed three more times, then at the the end people bowed all the way to the ground touching their foreheads to the ground three times.

The groups went in order of closeness to my grandmother starting with her children and their spouses, then grandchildren, cousins, family friends and so on.

Waves of people in different groups came up to honor my grandmother. There was not enough room for all of these people to sit in the room so many people lined up outside to pay their respects. After each of these groups bowed to my grandmother, they bowed to us.

My grandfather was active in the Taipei Rotary club and served as the president. My grandmother and him made many lifelong friends through this organization. They had a sister chapter in Japan and one member wrote letters back and forth to my grandmother. My uncles were concerned about him finding out about my grandmothers death because he was very old and they weren't sure he could travel and they knew he would try. He found out and flew in barely making it to the ceremony on time.

Even though I didn't know who he was at the time, I knew there was something special about this man when he paid his respect to my grandmother. He was the oldest man there and had a profound look of reverence on his face. As he left the room, my uncle chased after him and handed him an envelope.

Inside the envelope, there was a letter my grandmother had been writing to him that she had not yet finished. In that letter were the final words between life-long friends.

After the ceremony my family was led to the back of the room where we viewed my grandmothers body. The guest followed our family around the room and once the guest were done, my family lined up. Then we followed the coffin as it was wheeled to the crematorium.

We held another small ceremony in the lobby of that building and then the coffin was wheeled into another larger room with ten cremation chambers, five on each side of the wall. We stood in the entryway and watched as the coffin was carefully pushed into the chamber.

For the next couple hours, we sat in a waiting room as my grandmother was cremated. We ate some lunch, talked a little bit and tried to pass the time. We weren't as loud and energized as we were the night before at dinner but we managed to enjoy each others company after such an intense experience.

I wasn't really prepared to be so close to the process of the cremation. I had seen bodies at funerals but I never saw a coffin enter an cremation chamber or had handle remains. While this was difficult, there was a high level of respect involved. The fact that we witnessed these parts of the process meant that the people working there had to take great care in handling my grandmother. It felt like we were truly taking care of her in death to remember how she took care of us in her life.

Our whole family took an hour bus ride to our families' Buddhist temple. The nuns received the urn and after a ceremony of chanting and prayer my grandmother's urn was placed below my grandfather's. They shared a cabinet in the wall of the building. As we walked by my mother told me that her parents were finally together and to say goodbye.

Looking to the urns, I said goodbye and felt for the first time that day, a feeling of happiness. Part of it was the calm serenity of the nuns and the beauty of the temple but more than that it was knowing that my grandparents were finally back together.

Standing outside the temple, the grey overcast skies didn't seem so sad and as I heard my family talking, I felt ready to live the rest of my life.