Friday, November 29, 2013

Year 4: Week 13 – Understand Parents As A Parent

What’s the big deal?

This week I was part of a 5th grade evening presentation and the 3rd graders Thanksgiving assembly. One of the questions that parents often ask me at these events is where they can sit to get the best view of their child.

Is it that important that you have the in the optimal seat to see your kid speak two lines into a microphone?

Before Ollie entered my life, I didn’t quite understand what was going on here.  I love my kids and they do a great job (of course, I mean they are MY students), but it’s not like these are professional production. Are you really going to re-watch this thing? Do you really think that other people want to see these videos?

Well, after video recording almost ever possible activity Ollie has done from turning over to breathing and showing these videos to people who probably don’t care (but are too nice to tell me so), I'm beginning to understand what is going on here.

I’ve always made an effort to empathize with the parents of my students. Sometimes when they ask for advice on child-rearing, I attempt to give them some perspective. Even though I’ve studied child-development and watching all of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I often feel unqualified to speak to parents about their children.

This year my interactions with parents have felt different. First off, I have received an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm and interest in Ollie from the parent population at my school. They ask me about Ollie and respond with baby stories about their own children. Some of these stories are humorous and others are poignant.

In one conversation with a parent I was talking about how Ollie loves being on his stomach. This mother proceeded to tell me about how much her daughter disliked being on her stomach. When I asked this kid about what her mom said, she told about other struggles she had as a child. While she initially seemed annoyed at the fact that her mother had to told me about her as a baby, it ended up being a very personal and meaningful conversation.

I’ve been putting kids on stage to perform for their parents for the past 8 years and this past week when I looked out into the audience I noticed something for the first time. Instead of simply seeing a sea of smart phones and waving parents I saw in the parents’ eyes a familiar look.

It’s the look that I see in Diana whenever she greets Ollie after being away. It’s the light in her smile when Ollie interacts with her and does something cute. Seeing this energy and love projected at children on stage is one of the most heartwarming things I have every seen in my life.

Parents, I think I'm starting to get it.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

Parenthood Week 26 – Are You Ready?

“How did you know that you were ready to have kids?”

This is one of the hardest questions about parenthood which like “when did you know you were ready to get married?” is a mixture of logic and understanding the unexplainable parts of the human heart.

I’m not exactly sure when Diana and I first started talking about the possibility of having children. It wasn’t something that we obsessed about but it came up before we got married as part of our life plan.

Many family members and friends advised us to not have children immediately after we got married so we didn’t. There were things that we wanted to do that we knew would be hindered by having a child. So in our first couple years of marriage we had our European adventure (read about it here), we raised our puppy and had many experiences as a married couple which really enriched our lives.

For the longest time, having a child, was just one of those things that we would do later, and before I knew it, later was now and it felt like the right time.

Here’s the logical side: before you have children you should have a good living situation, have your finances in order and have a career that you feel good about. Here's the thing: almost everyone I have met either moved right before having a baby or right after. We did that too. It would be idea to be settled down in the perfect house before having a baby but it’s rarely the case.

Finances and the job should be in a good place. However if you wait for these things to be in a perfect situation you will never end up having a baby. Part of having a baby is learning how to reallocate your household budget and that’s something that’s difficult to understand or do before having a baby. Yes, you should be in a better situation with your money and your job, but don’t wait for things to be perfect because that will never happen.

No, we didn’t have the perfect place to bring Ollie home to but our checkbooks and our jobs were doing okay. Then there’s the basic division of labor, which is also a big issue.

One of the things that made me feel most comfortable and made me excited about having a kid was the way Diana and I handled raising Buffy. When Buffy needs to be fed or walked, someone does it. It doesn’t matter if I’ve fed Buffy every day for the past week, if it needs to be done I'll do it. Taking care of Buffy has never been about keeping score. It’s not important who walks Buffy, it’s just that she needs to be walked. We both chose to bring her into our lives and it’s not fair that the care of a living being be thought of as a chore.

When I thought about all of the diapers and feedings, I felt confident that it wouldn’t be about who’s turn it would be to take of our baby, just that we would both step up when things needed to happen and we do.

All of this was great, but there’s one more piece which speaks to the human heart. I asked Diana last night when she felt we were ready and she said it was a gut feeling. I agree. At a certain point I looked at Diana and when I thought about the idea of having a child with her, my excitement overshadowed all of my nervousness and worry about having a kid.

The idea of having a kid is crazy. It’s a journey that you don't have full control over that is filled with uncertainty and extreme emotions. Even in our modern age, the risks surrounding having a child are very high and changes that you have to make when you become a parent are incomprehensible.  Somethings has to help you get over that.  

I’m a worrier and Diana’s always motivated me past my worries to experience life to the fullest. I’m not sure how she helps me get over myself, but she does it all of the time and my life is so much more full for it.

When Diana asked me last year if I felt like it was the right time to have a kid, my mind immediately flooded with all of the reasons not to have a kid and then I looked into Diana's eyes.  When my eyes met hers, things felt right.  My worries didn't go away but I felt safe and excited.

For me, it wasn't so much about knowing that I was ready.  It was about sharing this experience with Diana.  This made me feel confident to continue this next step in my life's journey, knowing that we would take each step together.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Year 4: Week 12 - Stress

This week felt weird. It was like there was a too much stuff to do in too little time but somehow it all got done. There were a lot of issues that I was dealing with that really had nothing to do with the act of teaching but that is how the gig goes sometimes.

There aremany things that fills a teacher’s day. A lot of these things are part of what I do because of a level of involvement that I chose for myself in this community. I volunteered for the committees that I’m on. No one forced me to be a co-department chair and I actively seek out projects and performances to do with my students that often involve other teachers.

So why am I feeling stressed out about all of these things that I volunteered to do?

Eh, maybe it's because I’m an idiot. I don’t know.

Look, sometimes things just stack up in a certain way and they seem like they are overwhelming but they aren’t. I guess part of it is also the fact that I’m the kind of guy who over-worries about things but that’s part of what makes me good at my job.

If you work in a school you become part of a amazing dramatic production. Every day there’s a new plotline and other plots continue over long periods of time. We are having conversations about our schedule that is part of a long project and at the same time there’s the expected student behavior issues that must be addressed. It’s ongoing, it’s crazy but it’s all kind of fun if you take it with the right attitude.

Too bad, it wasn’t until today that I was able to get my brain into that space.

I enjoy the challenge and all of the issues. Well, I don’t enjoy the fact that they happen, because a lot of the time these things could be prevented or helped with better communication. The creative problem solving and the collaboration that these issues often require are some of the most enjoyable parts of the job.

Behind every email is a person who cares as much as I do about our kids and our community. All they are trying to do is make things works better for all of us. These emails are a reminder that people out there in my school really care.
One of the hardest parts of about not only my job but growing up is accepting the fact that there is never enough time. Every day I leave work with something left undone on my to do list. Every night before I go to bed I know there’s something else that I need to take care of around the house.

That’s life.

This is a very difficult thing to accept, but you’ve got to come to a level of peace with this fact or else you will go crazy because it’s never going to change. So what did I do that helped me chill out and realize this fact?

Instead of doing work, for half an hour I hung out with a group of my 6th graders while they ate lunch. It was a lot of fun but it used up time that I needed to spend on other things. But you know what? It was worth it. Sometimes the greatest stress relief, the splash of perspective you need to get over yourself is in the laughter and silliness of the children that you teach.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Parenthood: Week 25 - The Reunion

The reality is that the most meaningful part of going to Lorado Taft was not figuring out how to deal with a bunch a 5th grade boys (which I wrote about in this previous post). It was the experience of being away from Ollie for such a long period of time that will made the trip so unique. I’ve done the long days at work where I leave before Ollie gets up and come home right as he’s going to bed, but I’ve never been away from him for a night.

So I knew that being away for three nights was going to be tough.

While Diana was going to be home without me, I felt good knowing that my mom, who was flying in from Seattle was going to spend the week to help out with Ollie. At the same time, knowing that my mom was going to be visiting only made me want to be at home even more.

A couple people at work asked me if this trip was going to be the first time that I was going to be away from Ollie so long. And while their sympathetic looks were comforting, they didn’t have really any advice on how to deal with being away from Ollie.

How was it? Well, I think it helped that the trip with my 5th graders was a very busy one. There’s not a lot of down time and I spend almost 22 hours of every day with kids. The fact that I was never off helped keep my mind off of Ollie and Diana. At the same time, my brain keep traveling home wanting to see my little boy and imagining what it would be like to hold him.

I never knew what it was like to miss my mom until I went away to college. When I started having feelings for Diana, I missed her as well when I would go home for break, but this feeling was unique. It was like somehow my heart expanded allowing more people to be close to me but in different ways. And as silly as it sounds, the same thing happened when Buffy entered into my life. My heart got a little bit bigger to let that fluff ball into my heart and the feeling I get when she runs up to me is also unique.

It’s easier to be away from my mom, Diana and Buffy than it used to be. But the amazing thing is that when I do see them after being away, that rush of emotion, relief and love is the same that I felt after missing them years earlier.

When I got home Diana rushed up and gave me a big hug and it was like seeing her after being apart during winter break in college all over again. It felt like my day could finally start. My mom gave me a hug and I felt the comfort that can only come from being close to someone who has known and loved you your entire life and Buffy, with her ears flattened back on her head waited for me to bend down to give her a hug.

Then Diana brought me Ollie, who had just woken up from a nap. As I hugged him I pretend to eat his ears and neck making silly growling sounds causing him to laugh and squeal in joy. Feeling tears in my eyes, I looked at my smiling baby and everything felt perfect.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Year 4: Week 11- Boys Away From Home

For the fourth year, I went to the Lorado Taft Field Campus with my fifth graders. Along with the homeroom teachers, science teachers, the teacher assistants and an art teacher we traveled to Oregon, Illinois for four days and three nights of outdoor education. Every year I've written about different memories from the trip. The first year it was a the campfire, the second year it was singing "Edge of Glory" after the rain and last year it was the the experience of being "on" for the entirety of the trip.

So what was the takeaway this year?  Managing the craziness boys.

We stay in a dorm rooms that have eight beds each. One or two adult shares a the room with about seven kids. Of course we separate them by genders so I have a room with seven boys.

Now keep in mind these are fifth graders that we are talking about. Even the most mature fifth graders need reminders on how to dress and how to share a room and a bathroom with a group of boys.

As someone who never went to sleep away camp, I was shocked at the insanity and the "Lord of the Flies," vibe. The general silliness goes beyond logic as the most quiet kids during the school became giggling messes when they catch the glimpse of another boy's butt when they are changing after taking a shower.

Now managing a group of boys sharing at room, making sure they get ready in huge morning and get to bed at night is the part of this trip I dislike the most. But this year, it actually went pretty well. There was still a level of frustration and it was exhausting but we got it done and it went a lot smoother than in previous years.

Here's a couple things I've figured out:

Set some ground rules: I only had two rule for them. Keep the floor clear so that people can walk and not trip and take care the of the reason that we are here. I don't care how silly they are being just along as they are getting dressed when it's time to get dressed.

Story time: Nothing quiets down the boys more than a bedtime story. At first I was really concerned about finding the the right story. However I've found that even when I read a story that isn't that great, the kids still really got into it. This year I used a collection of short stories. I started reading it with the lights on then turned off the lights off and read by flashlight. Not every kid actually listened to the story, but they were quiet while I read and it really helped them wind down.

Manage bathroom time: Seven boys sharing a bathroom with two stalls, one shower stall and two sinks is utter chaos without some direction. You have to help them create a shower schedules and make sure the kids are going into bathroom for a reason. All I know is that there was far less monkey sounds coming out of that bathroom than in the past.

Now I still don't understand the general insanity pf what happens when fifth grade boys get together at night. They were really into singing "Wrecking Ball" with different lyrics and thought they were hilarious. Part of learning to deal with this is just accepting this silliness and focus on helping them get done what they need to so they are ready and prepared for their experience.

Managing groups of boys and trying to get them going is still not my favorite part of this trip, but I'm getting better at it.  Maybe this will all make a little bit more sense when Ollie is older or maybe I just need to stop trying to figure out the craziness that is fifth grade boys.  Maybe I just need to stop trying to figure these boys out and try to find some joy in their fascination with deodorant, the inability to organize their clothing and the joy they get from the adventure of being away from home.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Parenthood: Week 24 – The Bottle

Much in the same way that people have unrealistic expectations about the ease of breastfeeding (which I discussed in this post), I had no idea that learning how to eat from a bottle would be such a challenge for Ollie and I.

In the first week of Ollie’s life he had a combination of breast-feeding and getting formula from a bottle. He took the bottle with minimal effort. Then we dropped the formula and had Ollie exclusively breast feed.

After breast-feeding got established we wanted him to start getting used to a bottle once a day so that other people could feed him. This did not go very well. I would get the milk warmed up, get a bib on him and proceed to try to get him to eat from the bottle. He would immediately start screaming in frustration and any milk that came out of the bottle would dribble down his chin.

So we tried different bottles. At some point we had  five different bottles we were rotating through. One time I kept switching bottles during one feeding in the vain hope that one would click. That was a bad strategy that only produced more tears from Ollie.

Our doctor told us to stop trying different bottle. He said most of the differences are gimmicky, just choose one and stick with it.  So we did.

Slowly things started to work. We figured out a couple things that helped. If Ollie was very hungry then a bottle would be a bad idea. He needed to be hungry but not to the point that he was really uncomfortable. The process I started to use with Ollie was to stick my finger in his mouth and get him to suck on it. Then I stuck the nipple of the bottle in his mouth without any milk flowing in it and got him to suck on that. At this point I gently tilted the bottle so a little milk filled the nipple.

At first, he got like two or three sucks, then couldn’t deal with the speed of the milk so I would tilt the bottle the other way to stop the flow of milk. Sometimes I could only get two or three good sucks before he got frustrated so I just stopped.

I did this every day, for about a month before I could stick the bottle in the mouth and he would immediately start eating.

No one told me that this process was going to be so arduous. There was a lot of crying from Ollie and a lot of frustration from me but we worked through it. One of things that was especially hard for Diana was that she would not be in the room. Usually she would be on the other side of the house while I gave Ollie a bottle so she wouldn’t distract him. Diana had to resist the urge to intervene when Ollie would scream as I tried to feed him.

She stayed away every time, no matter how frustrated Ollie got, she wouldn’t get involved until I asked for her help.  This was tough for her but the space she gave me meant the world to me as a father and a partner.

Teaching Ollie how to take a bottle seems like a distant memory.  It was so hard at the time and so stressful, but all of that is gone now when I feed him.  That's the greatest reward as a parent.  Something about Ollie and what he does now, makes the struggles of the past evaporate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Year 4: Week 10 - Taking Care Of Fee-fees (or Social Emotional Learning In Music Class)

When I first started teaching I didn't think about social emotional learning. I was so caught up in teaching my kids music and getting them ready to perform that I didn't really have the space in my mind to consider their social emotional needs.

It wasn't that I lacked empathy for my students. I spent hours after school talking to my high school students about job problems, boyfriend issues and social issues. However this wasn't a deliberate or thoughtful part of what I did I the classroom.

Like the progressive style of teaching that lay deep inside or me, actively addressing social emotional learning as part of what I taught didn't come up until I saw it in action at my current school.

In the first couple weeks while observing other teachers, it all started to make sense. Teachers took the time to have conversations with students. Things that happened in recess and in the lunch room were as important as the learning that happened in the classroom. The way that teachers about talked students at my school was not based one their academic progress or test scores, but who they were as people and where they were socially and emotionally. Whenever I would ask someone about a student their academic progress would come up later in conversations or sometimes not at all, because their SEL simply mattered more.

Part of what made me feel comfortable diving into SEL was the fact that I was backed up. When I told one of my third grade classes about how we respect each others' opinions in small group work, the homeroom teacher echoed my sentiment. The fact that I felt like I was part of a team that was concerned with SEL made me feel that it really was my place to take the extra time to teach about so much more than music.

The thing is that I could teach music without weaving SEL into my lessons.  They could be motivated to sing a certain way simply by my intimidation. If they weren’t given freedom to work in small groups, create music and share their art there really wouldn’t be a great need for SEL.

Instead I ask my kids to be creative. They work in small groups and they are expected to share what they create with other students. Also, I want them to enjoy performing music.

All of these things require that I integrate SEL into my classroom. They can’t work in small groups if they aren’t guided in how to interact with each other, and given tools on how to settle disagreements. The only way that students are able to share their compositions is if a level of care and empathy are created in the class so that they act as respectful audience members. Yes, children can perform amazingly well when they are motivated by fear. However, if you want genuine and joyful musical performances, teacher intimation doesn’t really work. Students need to value their own contributions to the group as well as the contributions of others.

Sometimes I’m explicit when I’m addressing SEL in my class. When I talk about being an audience member, we disucss about empathy, closing your eyes and imagining what it feels like to perform. I have students reflect on moments when they felt really supported by their classmates and what specifically they can do to create these moments. These audience to-do lists are much more effective than a list of what not to do because it communicates to students that they have power to make a positive difference in the class.

More often SEL is interwoven into classroom activities. For example, if a student laughs at a joke when I’m giving instruction, I’ll tell them how it made me feel and let them communicate to me that it wasn’t their own intentions. When we are working on singing as a group, I make sure everyone is singing, not by punishing kids who aren’t but rather by expressing value in their contributions. It’s because as I tell them “everyone is important and everyone matters.” During small group work, I let students work out their own disagreements, and when they need my help, I’m happy to intervene, but I’m careful to guide them to a compromise as opposed to simply telling them what to do.

While I try to address SEL in my class I don’t know how to deal with many issues. I regularly ask the classroom teachers and the school counselors for help in addressing these types of issues. I care about my students enough to know that I don’t always have the answers and guidance they need.

It is more important to make a group of students feel valued than to learn another verse of a song. It is more important that a student feels safe to share his or her music with a class than to have a polished performance and it is more that students learn to know their own feelings and the feelings of the people around them better than to know the great musical composers of the past.

Integrating SEL learning into your instruction, your curriculum and your assessment is a choice. It’s also a challenge. It asks incredible emotional maturity out of teachers, a great deal of patience and a willingness to take a chance and put aside a lesson plan to address what is most important to your students, not the subject you teach, but the emotions they are feeling.

The most important thing to do with SEL is show and tell your students that you care about the way they feel and the way they treat each other.  They need to see it in the way that you listen to them and they need to hear that you care.  All the SEL seminars and programs are useless without communicating this level of care.


Take the time to address SEL is taking time to treat your students as full human beings with dignity and respect.  It's the least we can do as teachers and at the same time the most powerful and meaningful action we can do for students. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Parenthood: Week 23 – Date Night Or Divorce?

One of the common pieces of advice Diana and I received before Ollie was born was to make sure that we have date nights. Once a week or so get a babysitter and do something fun without the baby. Time away from the baby will remind you to focus on each other and also why you wanted a baby in the first place.

The implication is that by doing these date nights you will keep your relationship healthy through the process of raising a baby. However, if you don’t, you may end up being part of a disturbing trend.

The divorce rate has steadily gone down since hitting a peak in the 1980s but the divorce rate amongst couples 50 and over has doubled in the past two decades (this article goes into this issue in more depth). Not all of these divorces have to do with kids leaving the nest, but it’s an important factor.

Diana and I were together for 5 years before Ollie was born. If we have another kid in a couple years that would be 20 years of having kids in the house. This leaves a solid 25 years as empty nesters. Half of our time together will be without our kids in the house.

That’s a huge part of our relationship so I get why people encourage Diana and I to spend time focusing on each other even when Ollie is an infant. However I don’t think that date night a couple times a month are enough.

It’s in the process. Diana was looking for winter clothing for Ollie. She picked out something that was great but made sure to ask my opinion on the color. Chances are that asking me only made the process longer and I think she probably got the color that she initially liked better, but it was nice that she included me.

If we get too focused on the product, decisions about the baby and don’t include our partners in the process, we are setting ourselves up for problems. Yes, it’s less productive, but if you’re not working with your partner in raising your child, the same way that you want to address other issues in your life as a team, than it’s going to catch up to you. Yes, it’s important that Ollie is taken care of, but it’s equally important that Diana and I feel good about how we care for him.

Then there are the priorities that sometimes gets confusing. Sometimes Ollie feels like the most important person in my world, but he wouldn’t exist if not for my relationship with Diana. As much as Ollie has changed my perspective on my life, Diana is who brought meaning to my life. My love for Ollie, all that I do for that little boy grows out of my relationship with Diana.

It’s not a question of who is more important. Diana and Ollie are both important to me in my life but in different ways that both require my attention and consideration. What I do for Ollie benefits my relationship with Diana and what I do for Diana benefits Ollie. For example, if I change my share of diapers Ollie has a clean butt but Diana also feels less stress, which in turns gives her a better focus when she is being a mother to Ollie.

Couple’s shouldn’t make decisions to try to prevent divorce. They should do for each other and themselves so that they can be happy together (for some people, this actually leads to a necessary divorce). This can be hard when a kid enters the picture, but it’s got to be done. Don’t give everything you got to your child, you may not have anything left 18 years later.

Go on date nights, but also find time to honor each other every day, even if it’s only for the five minutes before you go to sleep.  Date nights don't guarantee a thing if they don't reflect the love and respect that is shared every day.

Find joy in caring for your child, laugh at the mistakes, and don’t make it a big deal if your partner does something with the baby in a slightly different way than you would. Moms, if your husbands want to dress the baby, let him, no matter how bad it turns out and Dads, do whatever silly outing your wife wants to do even though you know that your baby will never remember it. Do these things for your baby, do them for your partner and do them for you.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Year 4: Week 9 - Playing the Emotion Card

My instincts as a teacher are to not make conversations around students making error judgments focus about my own feelings, while I often express my own positive feelings when complementing my students.

 I think my students would respond to me saying that I am disappointed with them, or that they hurt my feelings or offended me. I’ve gone there a couple times, like when a student made an Asian joke in the middle of class, but that’s rare that I pull out that card.

Part of my hesitation is that I want my students to work hard, enjoy learning not for themselves. The thing is that if you make goods connections with kids, be authentic and work hard for them, they will like you. Many students will feel motivated to learn because of your presence. This is a great thing, but it can become a mess if the focus becomes focused on pleasing the teacher and not other internal motivations.

If my kids aren’t doing things simply to make me happy, then it’s not going to make a big difference if I tell them that you are disappointed in them. Also, if there’s not a strong connection or teacher-student bond, then saying that you are disappointed in a students action ends up disingenuous as your relationship with them isn’t at a point where this is an honest statement.

My students don’t do things to offend me personally when they misbehave. To them I’m not a full human being. They don’t relate to me like they do with their parents or their peers. Most of the time when they misbehave it’s nothing against me personally and the rare times it is, there’s usually another issue going on that has nothing to do with our relationship.

However, I think there’s a place for that tough talk, when you tell a student how their actions affected you personally. This is a card that has to be very carefully played, because it has to come from an honest place and genuine place. This conversation can’t be about what they meant to do, but how it made you feel. These feelings have to be articulated clearly and not be focused an expression of anger, but rather an expression of vulnerability.

Students need to learn that their actions create certain emotional responses from the people in their lives. Teachers can play a role in this by helping them understand this but these reactions have to be controlled. I’ve seen teachers snap at kids or express anger at students. Sometimes it works but other times, it only makes things worse. You have to be in control of your emotional reactions as a teacher. If you do snap at a student, it has to be a calculated action, not an impulse.

Maybe an expression of feelings as a teacher should simply be a way for students to learn about you as a human being and not a card that you use to correct a students’ behavior. I’m not sure.  How we use emotions in our teaching is a question worth asking.  Sometimes in teaching thinking about the question is more important than finding an answer.