Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love

The categories of Christmas music includes almost all genres of music. There are incredibly beautiful songs like “Silent Night,” that fill this category of music with musicality and beauty and then there are atrocious and annoying songs like “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Talk show host David Letterman feels the same way about Christmas music except for one exception, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

This was a special year for this song. After performing this song for almost thirty years on The David Letterman Show, she sang it for the last time earlier in December.

Also, this was the first year, I brought this song into my music classroom and helped my 5th graders perform this song at their Holiday assembly.

I was reminded of how great this song was when I watched 20 Feet From Stardom last summer (I wrote about this film in more detail in this post).  One of the most powerful stories in this film is about Darlene Love. She was working as a maid after giving up on her singing career. She heard “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on the radio and decided that she recommit herself to music.

This was the story I told my 5th graders when I introduced this song to them. I also told them about how Darlene Love was not given credit for some of the greatest songs in pop music like “He’s A Rebel,” and how only recently she got her due for being one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music.

I taught them how to sing the back up part and the lead vocals. We explored the form and learned how to play the chord progressions on xylophones. At first some of the students who weren’t Christians were no comfortable singing this song. However after discussions on how other classes were going to sing music from different cultures.  Also, the fact that this song was more about the universal value of togetherness and family more than Jesus Christ, my 5th graders really bought into this song.

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of the greatest Christmas songs and probably the greatest Christmas pop song because it embraces and reflects its genre authentically and beautifully. Like Phil Specter’s other masterpieces like “Unchained Melody” (which I discuss in this previous post), “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), features and unbelievable production featuring and incredible, groove, depth of sound and most importantly, soul.

Darlene leans into the melody with a mixture of Gospel, teenage heartache and emotional depth. Throughout all of this there is joy at the thought of being together with the one that she wishes would come home. It is this mixture of feelings, which reflects not what Christmas used to be about, but what Christmas and holidays in general have become for so many people in our culture.

There’s nothing saccharine, cheesy or campy about “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."  It’s spirited in expression, and its rocks.  What else could want in a Holiday song?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Parenthood - Week 83: Christmas And Then Some

We really enjoyed our time with Ollie this past week of Christmas. For us it just wasn’t one day,. First there was dinner with Diana’s immediate family on Christmas eve, then we had our own family Christmas time on the morning of the 25th, there was the gathering with Diana’s maternal extended family and then a Christmas gathering at my parents house a couple days later. Oh, and I can’t forget the Diana’s paternal extended family who got together the weekend before. So in total Ollie had five Christmas gatherings.

Ollie did really great this year. He can handle staying up pass his bedtime better than he did last year. Now that he can walk, he can more independently through a room and with the words he learns everyday he can better advocate for himself. While we make sure we know where he is at all times, we feel less of a need to be watching him for the entire time we are at one of these gatherings.

Ollie is starting to get the idea of what this whole holiday season is about. He got more excited about gifts then he did last year, but he also got bored of the process of opening them. Ollie met Santa Claus for the first time and cried angrily through most of this experience (though he loved Mrs. Claus). Every morning when he came downstairs and our Christmas tree lights were not on, he got very concerned until one of us plugged in the strip of lights.

This holiday seasons Ollie decorated his first gingerbread man, made his first tree ornament and made Christmas cookies with his grandmother for the first time. He also learned the song, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” figured out where his ears are and learned how to put his dirty laundry in the hamper.

Overall it was a fantastic week. Yes, it was a little crazy but we got through all of the various family get-togethers and still managed to carve outßß some time for us to enjoy this time as family.

This will probably be the last year we slept in on Christmas morning because Ollie didn’t realize the emphasis on opening presents this year. This is probably the last year he doesn’t have specific request Christmas presents. However, we can still emphasize with Ollie what was the most important part of this holiday.

The desire to share life together as a family is at the center of the most important holidays from different cultures. This is why we get onto planes with toddlers and drive hours through snowstorms.

I’m not sure what Ollie got out of this past. I hope he enjoyed the energy and positivity o this time of year, but more than that I wish that he left this past week with beautiful memories of his family.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Challenge Of Atticus Finch

When Atticus Finch told Scout “you never understand a person until you consider things from his point a view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he was challenging his daughter and the rest of the world with an impossible task.

Yes, we can consider things from another person’s point of view but this is limiting because try as hard as we can, many of us cannot climb into another’s skin. A man will never face with the choice on whether or not to have an abortion, someone without children will never understand what it means to be a father, and most Caucasian people will never know what its like to be discriminated on the basis of their own race.

We live in a world where we live in constant tension over critical issues that remain unresolved in our society. There’s marriage equality, health care, the death penalty, abortion, welfare, rape culture, religious discrimination, gender issues and racial inequality.  These issues seep into every facet of our society. They are so present and so pervasive, sometimes we forget that they lie in the back of our minds and the conversations with people we encounter every day.

We play nice with family member and know better than to talk about religion and politics but things come up. We try to steer the conversation to another place or simply walk away but it’s tough, because as much as we try to understand someone else’s perspective, often we fail at this challenge

There is a place in our discussions for accepting plurality and acknowledging that all viewpoints are valid and should be respected. However some opinions that lack reason, that embrace a complete lack of consideration for opposing viewpoints themselves do not deserve the tolerance that they are often afforded.

Almost all modern Americans will not accept Nazis' view on exterminating the Jews as reasonable and the Priest arguments based on Bible quotes that advocated slavery leading up to the Civil Wars. People went to jail, fought wars and died because they would not tolerate the existence of these paradigms.

Are there opinions in our current debates that we will look back on generations from now and will not accept like we do not accept the practice of slavery? I’m sure there are, but it’s difficult to know.

When do we try the impossible and walk a mile in someone else’s skin and when do with do we give up, pick up arms and wage war?  Can we understand those who are unreasonable? Can we accept what we can’t understand? How do we know when to stand up and fight with the courage of our convictions and how do we know what to walk away?  Some look to God for these answers, while others look to history.

There are no easy answers but that's no excuse to not struggle with these questions, but we've got to try.  There are battles being fought every day and we've got to do what's right for ourselves, our family and our country.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Parenthood – Week 82: High Heels, Blush & Purses

Ollie often gravitates toward Diana's shoes when he looks inside the front closet. After picking them up and carrying them around, he sometimes tries on a tan high heel shoe and attempts to put his own feet in the shoe. He took this a step further in my mom’s house and managed to get both of his feet into a pair of her dress shoes and shuffle around the house.

Ollie usually entertains himself when Diana is getting ready for the day and sometimes he gazes up at her as she does her morning routine. One morning I noticed him pointing up at Diana and saying “blusssh.” Diana looked down at him and gently brushed her make-up brush on Ollie’s cheeks.

The other day when Diana was checking out at Old Navy, I was watching Ollie as he walked around the store. Before I knew it, he had pair of hoop earrings in one hand and a small black purse in the other. I only held him back when he tried to grab four purses off the rack at the same time.

In all of these situations Ollie was overjoyed, almost to the point of giggling. So what do we do during these moments? Smile.

It’s not like all of Ollie’s interests are “feminine.” One of his favorite toys is a small play wooden tool set with little screws, nails, a hammer and a screwdriver. Get him near a toddler basketball hoop and he will spend a good chunk of time trying to get a ball through that hoop. He's obsessed with throwing "baaa" or balls. Did we push these toys on Ollie? Not really, he gravitated to the basketball hoop at my mom's house and learned how to use the tool set when we got it for him.

Diana and I are not on a mission. We are not trying to have Ollie be the person to break down gender roles and stereotypes. Our approach is to nurture Ollie’s interests regardless of the gender normally associated with that interest in our society. If that means that we support Ollie’s interest in fashion as well as his love of power tools, so be it. What is most important to us is not that Ollie subscribe to any gender roles but rather that he feels free to pursue whatever he wants regardless of gender stereotypes.

When I tell people about Ollie doing “girly” things, I often get applauded for being open-minded and progressive in my parenting style. I appreciate the support, but for me allowing Ollie to play with purses isn’t really a tough thing for me. Part of this has to do with the fact that I also enjoyed playing with my mom's things growing up. My mom did nothing to encourage this behavior but she didn’t discourage it, either. Do I question my own masculinity because of this? No, actually I think I have a better sense of what it means to be man and love myself because of these experiences.

The other thing that makes it not a big deal to support Ollie in his exploration is because of the support of our friends and family and the how much society has progressed. Once upon a time, parents were told that if they allowed their sons to engage in activities that weren’t stereotypically male, they would become messed up when they became older and worst of all they would succumb to the perversion and sickness of homosexuality.

Well, since along with Bill Gates, the geeks have inherited the earth and the consequences for letting your son play with make-up are non-existent.

In many ways its easy for me to be accepting of Ollie playing with purses.

Things will change. At a certain point Ollie will begin to see the differences between men and woman more clearly and he will start categorizing things as being things by gender. This is a stage that that is developmentally appropriate and necessary. At other points in his life he will not care of what is identified as being girly. As my students get older I see this go in waves, as it should.

The bottom line for me is what makes Ollie happy.  I'm not going to let anything stand in the of the joy he gets from exploring the world around him. The world is magical to him, there's a spark, a spirit in him that shines through when he pursues something he is interested in.  There is nothing bad that can come from that—only good.

Ollie can choose what he is into, and if other people in the world don't think his choices are right, that's their problem.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Year 5: Week 16 – Week Of Insanity?

And it’s over.

Like a sandcastle almost completely washed away by waves, the stress, the insanity and the joy of the passed week are almost completely gone, leaving memories of the times that are passed.

In some ways this is the most intense week of the school year for our music department. We have special rehearsals that changed around our schedules this week leading up with an elementary school performance in the day on Thursday and then a middle school and high school concert in the evening.

Yes, it was an intense week and there was a lot to do. Every day it felt like we had just enough time to get done what needed to be done, but we got through it all and we had a good time.

There’s a adage in music education that talks about how the most amount of fun and satisfaction comes from performing great music at a high level. The same goes for teaching.

As a department, we did a great job preparing our students and ourselves for this week. Students weren’t learning notes and rhythms this past week. That work we purposely did in weeks previous. This allowed us to have the students truly “play music,” and enjoy the preparing time we had in the auditorium.

Pushing the kids to have the songs mastered earlier forced us all as teachers to have a better sense of the passing and the process of our teaching. Having this planning done earlier meant that we weren’t focusing on coming up with lessons this week; rather we were following a plan.

The most important thing that made this past week wonderful was the fact that the members of the music department remembered one very important thing: these are all our students. Even though I have yet to teach the first graders, I have a responsibility to them and even though the other general music teacher hasn’t the a taught high school soprano in seven years, she is still her teacher.  Add into a mix one of the best student teachers we've ever had and a Jenga tower and you've got a good time had by all.

I'm looking forward to teaching without having a performance looming in January, but I'm also looking forward to this time next year.  If we can have fun and also work hard creating great musical experiences for our kids during this past week, then imagine the fun we're going to have during the rest of the year.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Parenthood – Week 81: Words

In the past week Ollie has said “Good girl” referring to Buffy, named three books by title: “Hat” for Red Hat, Green Hat, “Hop” for Hop And Pop and “Boom” for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Ollie now uses “mommy” in his regular vocabulary and for the past couple days has been saying “bubbles” reflecting his current obsession. Ollie’s talking up a storm and he’s really been in the mood to imitate sounds that Diana and I make as we interact with him.

I don’t remember Ollie’s first word. Some people take the first sounds their children make as a baby and call them first words but Diana and I didn’t see it this way. When he first said “dada,” we both knew that he wasn't referring to me as he repeatedly made that sound crawling around the house and pointing to almost everything in the room except for me.

In the same way that Ollie’s first social smile was meaningful to us because it showed a level of interaction and affection, parents often look to first words as signs of care, and interest.  Sometimes this causes parents to interpret random sounds as words when the infant hasn't associated the sound with any object or action.

I’ve always loved listening to Ollie explore his voice. Sometimes after we put Ollie down for the night we will here him talking to himself. Diana calls this his “Dear Diary”-time. We will here him talk to himself joyfully like someone going over what they did that day with a friend. Then there’s the time when he walks around and joyfully screams at the top of his lungs the highest pitch I’ve ever heard a human being make.

There are times when it’s clear that he doesn’t have the word for what he’s trying to express and that can be frustrating for him, but he’s doing a good job at working at it. We taught Ollie some sign language and it’s been really nice for Ollie to be able to communicate with us better. Also it’s a way we can teach him to use his words. Instead of pointing to a food that he wants more of, I ask him to make the sign for “more” which gets him focused and forces him to be less demanding.

Toddlers learn words that they can’t actually speak. At certain points the muscles that control speech catch up with what they are trying to say and then you have an explosion of words. Right now, Ollie is giving us a bunch of new words and its super cute.

I remember Diana and I wondering what Ollie’s voice was going to be like when he started talking back when he was an infant. I got to tell you, it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s soft, light, and so full of spirit. When he talks, it’s almost like he’s singing the words.  Sometimes when he's talking I just want to pick him up and give him a hug and make him understand how much I love hearing his voice and proud I am of him for making himself heard.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Year 5: Week 15 – A Different Kind Of Pride

As I stood there watching the before school concert of our extra-curricular choral groups I felt a deep sense of pride. I wasn’t feeling the pride of at teacher because I didn’t help any of these students learn these songs. I was feeling the pride of an administrator who because of behind-the-scenes hard work had made this amazing experience happen for their children and their teacher.

I’ve worked to set up musical groups at my school. I’m the one who started our curricular band program, the extracurricular Wind Ensemble, and a music summer camp. All of these groups took an immense amount of work to get going and it’s all been worth the effort. I was intimately involved in not only he creation but also the running of these groups so while I was setting up opportunities for my students I was also setting up opportunities for myself as a teacher.

These extra-curricular choir groups were a different situation. This year we hired a new choir teacher to replace the teacher who retired last year. The teacher that was retired was involved in the extra-curricular choir groups. We wanted to set up a situation so that the new teacher could inject his own personality and musical interests in these groups while expanding the extra-curricular choir program to be more inclusive.

When you take something that has been successful and you want to help it evolve there are people with great intentions and concerns who want to help guide the future of that thing. This was the case with the extra-curricular choir programs, which engendered a great many discussions, and many email conversations.

We had a vision of where we wanted to see these groups go. It wasn’t that we didn’t like what had been happening previously. We loved it but there potential untapped and a desire for the group to become something different for our community, so I worked towards this vision.

It took months and at times I wasn’t sure if it was worth all of the work, but I couldn’t give up because the vision we were working towards directly reflected our school’s philosophy and we needed to make this happen or our children.

Seeing those kids sing their hearts out made me feel proud that I was able to create this opportunity for them. In addition, I watched my colleague, the new choir teacher, have a blast leading them and seeing the fruition of his hard work. Knowing that I had created a situation that allowed him to be successful made my feeling of pride and enjoyment of that moment overflow.

Yes, it’s a great feeling doing something yourself and being successful, but in some ways its an even better feeling setting up a situation so that a colleague can enjoy a high level of success and have a blast getting there.

I could get used to doing this kind of work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Frat Boy: Thanksgiving - Part 2

I spent a lot of time in my mom’s kitchen growing up. I’ve seen fires in kitchens but I never saw the rolling plums of smoke coming out of every possible part of the oven. I had no idea what to do.

I turned off the oven, opened the oven door letting even more smoke fill the kitchen and the basement like water spilling into a valley freed by an opening damn. I ran upstairs yelling for Kerry.

This is where my memory is a little hazy. Something led Kerry and I to get in a fight. Maybe it was me panicking and being a “know-it-all” or maybe it was Kerry being stubborn. Either way we didn’t quite know what to do and we took this out on each other.

This was a time before smart phones or even cell phones for most of us. When we tried to call our parents for help we were doing this on a landline. Somehow we figured out nothing was on fire and grease had simply hit the heating element in the oven.

The turkey was on top of a foil pan and one of us when rotating the turkey must have ripped a hole in the bottom of the pan and grease dripped down onto the bottom of the oven and hit the heating element.

The good news about grease hitting a heating element is that eventually it will burn off and the smoke will stop. The bad news is that this process creates a lot of smoke.

When we were finally done screaming at each other, we got focused on the problem (even though we were still mad at each other). Kerry said she would see what she could do to ventilate the basement and I would go get a box fan from my room.

I ran back to the PMA house, grabbed my box fan and hurried back to SAI. Back then there was a call box that listed the first initial and last name of everyone that lived in SAI. You would dial the listed five-digit number and it would call up to that person’s room. I called the number and Kerry didn’t pick up and then I called again. After the fourth try I realized that she was probably in the basement nowhere near her landline.

I went around the back of the house to and looked into the window-wells that opened into the basement. All I could see was lots of smoke and there was no sign of Kerry. Desperate to get back into the SAI, I jumped into the window-well and tried to open the window from the outside. To my surprise, the window slid up easily providing an opening that was about a foot high. I squeezed through the opening, almost fell face first into the kitchen sink, and retrieved the fan I had left at the front door.  Kerry in the meantime was on the phone getting advice from her mom (these landlines didn’t have call waiting).

After about twenty minutes the grease had burned off and the fan had cleared out the smoke from the house. As the smoke cleared away so did the tension between me and Kerry and we sat on the couch exhausted from the ordeal.

A couple hours later the group had returned from the football game and we were sharing a Thanksgiving dinner. The mashed potatoes were grey because we had cut them up the night before and they had oxidized. We didn’t exactly have fine China, I believe we had paper plates and plastic utensils and try as we might, we could not get the smell of smoke out of the basement where we ate.

A couple things have changed sense then. SAI got smoke detectors that actually work, there is no longer a call box by the front door and the windows to the basement cannot be opened from the outside and can only open about six inches.

Since that Thanksgiving, I’ve shared this holiday with either Diana’s family or my own. In some ways it was strange to spend that day away from my family but I wasn’t alone. I was with my college family.

It was that Thanksgiving that showed me, that this group of people really was my family. Things didn’t go as planned, mistakes were made, disaster seemed inevitable, voices were raised and feelings were hurt but at the end of it all we sat down and shared a meal together.

That sounds just about right for a family get-together.

I miss Kerry.  She moved away to another state, got married and has a beautiful daughter.  We keep tabs on each other over social media but that's about it.  One of the most important things that Kerry did for me was that she never hesitated to call me out when I wasn't being the best man that I could be.  At first I didn't like this directness about her but over time I learned to value this because it came from a belief that I was a better person than I was presenting.  When I met Diana and saw this same quality in her, I knew I had found something special that I needed in my life which had been missing since Kerry graduated and moved away.

No, we didn't burn down SAI and Kerry and I got into a screaming match that day, but we are still friends and I'm grateful that I spent that Thanksgiving with her and my college family.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Parenthood – Week 80: Hold My Hand

The first time I held Ollie’s hand, it wasn’t that special for me. Newborns instinctually clench their hands in tiny fists. Ollie did this so much that we would periodically pry his hands open to clean up the pieces of lint that would collect on the palms of his hand. The only way that I could get my finger in there was to work my finger into his teeny fist. While it was cute and like all newborns he had an impressive grip, those early handholding experiences never meant that much to me.

As Ollie started learning how to sit-up and crawl around, his hands relaxed and he would pull up on things around the house. Around this time, instead of lifting him out of the crib, I would invite him to grab my thumbs. I would count “1” and he would grab my left thumb with his right hand. On “2,” Ollie would reach up and grab my right thumb with his left hand and on “3” I would lift him out of the crib.  I loved doing this. It was cute to see him learn to understand what motion associated with each number and over time he began to smile in anticipation of being lifted up in the air on the count of “3.”

This was the extent of Ollie holding my hand through his crawling stage. Sometimes he would play with my hands when I was holding him, which was cute, but I still didn’t feel a strong feeling of emotion when he held my hand.

Ollie was what some people label as a “late walker.” This simply means is that Ollie didn’t immediately start walking when he turned a year old. In the process of learning how to walk independently he would grab reach up to me or Diana and once he got a hold of one of our hands or simply a finger he would pull himself and walk.  At first he needed two hands to make it a couple steps and eventually he was good with only one hand. Then on that magical day, he let go and walked on his own.

There was something very different about Ollie reaching up to grab my hand. It’s not like I was forcing him to hold my hand like I did when he was a newborn. He wanted a hand, specifically, my hand. Once he got a hold of my hand, it provided him balance and support. Later as he became more stable and it was clear that he actually didn’t need to hold my hand, he still would do so feeling a sense of security.

Now that Ollie can walk independently there are times that he doesn’t want to hold my hand. There are times when I grab his hand, and then sits down on the floor in protest realizing I’m trying to lead him in another direction. Then there are the moments when we are in sync and he holds my hand as we walk. Not because I’m making him, not because he needs me for balance, Ollie is holding my hand because he wants to. The feeling of his fingers wrapped around mine makes all of the responsibility, stress and fatigue of parenthood lift away and life is beautiful.

“All the king’s horse and all the king’s men, could not keep me from holding your hand.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Year 5: Week 14 – Jesus Vs. Zombie Snowman?

Like schools across the country, our elementary school age students put on a Holiday performance before the winter break and like schools across the country we spend time examining what music is appropriate for children to perform for the community.

Some schools take the route of avoiding religious aspects of the holiday season and sing songs about zombie snowman and taking a girl out for a “sled ride.” My school on other hand leans into the religious and cultural traditions associated with this time of year. Here’s a selections of songs we’ve sang is past years: “Silent Night,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” “S’Vivon,” “This Is Kwanzaa, “ “Imagine, “ “Los Reyes,” and this year “Light One Candle.”

We live in a Christian-centric society. There are many parts of our culture where what is Christian has blended into our sense of what is means to be American. The holiday of Christmas itself has taken on a meaning that has little to do with the actual the birth of Christ. When you look back into to the history of this holiday, it becomes clear that Jesus Christ wasn’t even born during this time of year and that Christmas was melded to together with pagan harvest festivals.

We have to reconcile how we honor diversity in our communities while reflecting the predominant culture. Does this mean that you perform a specific number of songs in relation to the proportions of different cultures at your school? Is there a point to singing a song about Hanukkah if none of the student body is Jewish? What if a child isn’t Christian and who has parents doesn’t want their child to sing the word Jesus?

All of these questions are tough questions that speak to cultural difference, religious conflicts and the challenge of living in a nation that claims to be accepting on pluralistic in public but still contains many people who are bigoted, racist and xenophobic.

Instead of steering away from cultural traditions and religions for our holiday program we steer straight into studying, learning and performing songs of different cultures. When I taught my 3rd graders “Silent Night” we talked about the virgin birth. When we performed “Imagine,” we discussed why some people might see the absence of religion as a benefit and for the past week I’ve been teaching about the struggles of the Maccabees and how the story of Hanukkah relates to the oppression of people in the the present.

Have I had complaints from parents about our song choices? Yes.  However, most parents are fine once they realize the way we are teaching these songs and that their culture is represented somewhere in the program or in the larger curriculum. These discussions take time and can sometimes be tense, but we’d rather face the challenges of these conversations and have students have a meaningful experience with the winter traditions of a culture than sing songs about snowflakes.

This isn’t just me and the other general music teacher who is responsible for this approach to Holiday music. Our school's philosophy encourages this level of exploration and inclusion.  I also have administrative support whenever these discussions arise.

I understand teachers who don't have any choice but to sing songs about snowflakes because of their school community, but if you have the chance to be more inclusive and speak more directly to the variety of Holiday traditions in our cultures, it's worth the challenge.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Frat Boy: Thanksgiving - Part 1

I never went home for Thanksgiving when I was in college.

Relax, it’s not like there was some huge fight or drama. Thanksgiving wasn't a huge holiday for my family and since it was so close to winter break, it didn't make sense for me to fly home from Chicago to Seattle twice in the span of one month.

My freshmen year, my parents and my brother came out and we had Thanksgiving in Chicago. It was one of the coldest Thanksgivings in the history of Chicago and my brother and my parents have never let me forget this fact. The next year I went over to my friend Erica’s house and the year after well . . . that was an adventure.

There was a group of people from PMA and SAI who decided to stay in town for that Thanksgiving. There was a football game only a couple hours away that a lot of people wanted to go to so a group of us decided to have Thanksgiving as a college family.

Here was the plan: We would do prep the meal Wednesday and one of my best friends Kerry, would stay back from the game with me (neither of us was that into football) and take care of cooking the turkey and getting dinner set-up.

Kerry was an upperclassmen that I met through NUMB. She was two years older than me and was one of those girls from SAI who took me under her wing. Kerry took care of me like an older sister but not the "responsible" kind of older sister. She was the first person I ever took a shot (it was straight Southern Comfort). Immediately after that I had my second and third shot with her.

Kerry was one of the smartest people I've ever met in her life and while many times she would have great advise for me, often her responses to my problems were hilariously sarcastic. After my friend Chrissie graduated (who I discussed in this earlier post), it was Kerry who stepped up and wouldn't hesitate for a second to stand up for me.

Kerry was honest, almost to the point that it would hurt your feelings as a friend, but it was this clarity that taught me about the nuances of what friendship meant in this crazy place called college.

We decided to cook the food over at SAI so Thanksgiving morning I headed over to the sorority house. No one was in the house except for Kerry and I. Everyone either went home or was at the football game.

We put the turkey in the oven in the basement kitchen and went back upstairs to the living room to watch television. We had set-up the turkey in one of those self-basting plastic bags so we wouldn’t have to check on it as often but we figured we should keep tabs on the bird.

After an hour or so Kerry went to check on the turkey and she said everything was fine. Some time later Kerry asked me to check on the turkey. I whined a little bit not wanting to get off the couch but eventually headed downstairs. As I opened the basement door a billow of smoke entered the stairwell. I made may my to the kitchen and saw smoke pouring out of the sides of the oven and up through the cooking range and I panicked.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Parenthood - Week 79: Feeding Mr. Ollie Part 2

I guess Ollie throwing food I cooked for him on the floor is part cosmic justice.

 Diana and I were both picky eaters growing up. I was born without a fully developed stomach, which meant that I could only eat very small quantities of food growing up. This developed into some very picky eating habits and me rarely finishing the food that was put in front of me. I remember a break-through in middle school when I finished a bowl of noodles for the first time and how shocked my mom was when she saw the empty bowl.

The stories about Diana are different but similar. She didn't like her food to mixed together. So if she got served a casserole, she would take apart the different parts and only eat specific ingredients of the dish and usually not that much of what she was given. Diana as a child didn't like sauces and would rather eat bland things like raw oatmeal and milk.

We were both picky eaters when we were kids and we both caused our parents frustration with simply getting us to eat food. The thing is that we both turned out to be adults who have a healthy relationship with food, so as much as it concerns me at times that Ollie is being a picky eater, I know he'll be fine.

The first person I regularly cooked for was Diana. She is extremely appreciative of my efforts in the kitchen whether its Chicken Fricassee or boxed Mac 'n Cheese. Even though I welcome Diana's feedback on my cooking, it sometimes hurts my feelings when she tells me that she doesn't like what I cook. However in these situations, she is very careful with her words and she always speaks with respect and constructive criticism.

The second person I prepared meals for was a different situation.

Dogs' ancestors did not eat regular meals. This meant that when there was food, they would eat as much of it as possible and also they got used to not eating very often. For modern dogs, this means that a dog will eat the food they are given quickly (sometimes so quickly it causes digestion issues) or with Buffy, little interest in their food.

This was one of the biggest worries I had about Buffy when she was a puppy. At least half of the time when we'd give her food, she wouldn't eat it immediately. We were assured by our veterinarian and other people that she would eat when she was hungry, but still it was concerning. She was such a little puppy. At a certain point I crushed up some treats and seasoned her food with those crumbs, which did get her to eat her food. Later we mixed in a little wet food or Parmesan cheese into her kibble to peak her interest and eventually we got to the point where we are right now where Buffy eats her food as soon as we put it out.

Buffy was a picky eater and I think part of it had to do with her personality and her growth spurts. She's a very smart dog and at some point she figured out that if she held out and didn't eat her food I would eventually give in and do something to make her food more delicious. Like me and Diana, Buffy ended up being fine. Her weight has been fine her entire life and a couple years ago, she was even a little overweight (which has since been rectified). Now with the regular scraps of food flying off of Ollie's high chair, I know she's getting plenty of food.

So now I got a toddler who sometimes rejects my food. There’s a multitude of reasons that he might not want to eat what I give him. He might have had a snack too close to dinnertime or he's just not in the mood to eat what I'm serving. It's not like he can articulate to me what he's in the mood to eat for dinner the day before.

Even if Ollie is simply being moody and irrationally temperamental, he has no idea that there is an emotional component of rejecting food that someone has prepared for you. That's a lesson for him to learn in years to come. For right now, he is reacting to the food based on instincts.

After Ollie had a several instances when he rejected food that I cooked, I realized that cooking for Ollie was a unique and at time, fun challenge. I've figured out through trial and error how Ollie's food palette works. Sometimes I cook food for him, like a vegetable pasta sauce and other times I cook meals that I enjoy that I know Ollie probably will not.

Over time I'll learn to deal with Ollie as he will probably become a pickier eater. While I know this is going to be difficult, Diana and I want to make sure that this doesn't lead to eating becoming a battle. Yes, Ollie needs to learn to take polite bites of food, and show appreciation to the people who prepare for food for him. However we are not going to make Ollie sit and finish a plate if he's not hungry and we aren't going to fight him to eat. Yes, this may go against our instinct to make sure that he's fed, but he'll be fine and he can always eat later.

Food is an adventure, a cultural experience, and a way to understand the world. Ollie's experiences into the world of food has been difficult at times but it's always been an adventure and I'm looking forward to helping him along as he continues his journey.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Year 5: Week 13 – Tannnnnnnng

One of the other teachers in my department leads a extra-curricular before school choir. Many of my third graders are in this group and the teacher one morning said my name emphasizing the “n” sound and the kids mimicked him and giggled at his silliness.

Now whenever I see these third graders in the hallway they greet me as Mr. “Tannnnnnng.” It’s funny, they get a kick out of it and I don’t really mind.

I’ve always been a teacher that students feel like they can joke around with. When I was student teaching I was constantly reminding students to call me “Mr. Tang” instead of simple “Tang.” I’m that teacher who walks into a lunchroom and is greeting by choruses of students greeting me and screaming my name. And as much as I admonish the practice giving out high fives for no reason, I can’t walk down the hallway without students trying to high five me.

I’d be lying if I told you that part of me didn’t love this adulation. However the fun outside the classroom often brings up challenges in the classroom.

Yes, some of the third graders figured out not to chant “Tannnnnnng” in the middle of class, while others did not. This required me to react sternly to help them understand that they needed to make an adjustment with how they interacted with me in classroom.

The same issue has been present with a couple of my 5th graders. During the Lorado Taft trip, I would eat meals with the kids and joke around with them in the cabins. While this was a lot of fun, some students tried to carry that into the classroom during the past two week. This led to conversations about timing and thinking about the classroom agenda.

I find my middle school students generally have less issues switching from joking in the hallways to respecting me as a teacher in the classroom. By 8th grade, many of the kids who enthusiastically greeted me in the past have started pretending to not see me in the hallways. These kids will greet me if I say “good morning,” but they don’t make as much of an effort to engage with me. However, there are still a couple students who through 8th grade and into high school scream my name when they see me coming down the hallway.

It’s not all easy with 8th graders because sometimes out friendliness leads to them forgetting that I am an authority figured and at times I need to put them in their place when they take my relaxed approach for granted. With my 8th grade band I don’t have a structured beginning of class routine, because I want to challenge them to take care of their own business. Some years this works great, but this year, it has led to tardiness, which means I have to be stricter in the coming weeks.

There are times when I’m really feeling this issue of trying to teach my students how to code switch from how we interact in the hallways to our classroom relationship and it can get very annoying as a teacher.  I could avoid all of this by being less approachable to my students and not having as many informal outside of the classroom interactions.

I would rather struggle with this and have these talks with my students than have them feel less comfortable interacting with me.  It is more difficult to have a nuanced relationship with your students that changes according to the circumstance than to simply be an authority figured.  But it's worth the struggle.  Striking this balance is based on mutual respect, a desire to have positive interactions, and a willingness to let students step in these puddles and help them work through these mistakes.

Also, if you are going to call me "Tannnnng" you better not get annoyed at the way I distort your name. . .  

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Parenthood: Week 78 - Cooking For Ollie: Part 1

There are instinctual, almost primal responses that parents demonstrate when taking care of their children. When parents hear their baby cry, without thinking, they reach to pick up their child to comfort the baby. If a baby has a dirty diaper or is cold, parents immediately act to address the issue. One of the most primal urges as a parent is make sure that a child is fed.

It makes sense from an evolutionarily stand point that we as parents react with such urgency to address the basic needs of survival for our children. These instincts are what keep our species alive, but they also present challenges in our modern world.

The deal was when Ollie was a baby that Diana would be in charge of what goes in Ollie and I’d be in charge of what came out of him. This is a joke that many people make when the wife in a couple breastfeeds. When a couple chooses that their child is breastfed it often puts the vast majority of responsibility for feeding the child on the woman’s shoulders (or more literally, the woman’s breasts). While it may make sense from a “splitting child care duties” perspective that the dad would do his share by changing diapers, taking care of the “output” doesn’t fulfill, the primal desire to be involved in feeding the child.

One of the ways my parents have shown their love and care for me has been through of food. I have fond memories of growing up and watching cooking shows with my mother and whenever we get together we are often all involved in the joy of cooking together. I wanted to create these memories with Ollie.

When we got to the point of bottle feeding (which I wrote about this post) one of my motivations that got me through this difficult process was my desire to feed Ollie and show him I cared for him through food. It was a process but it eventually clicked and even now, almost a year later, I love feeding him a bottle.

As Ollie started to be able to eat solids, we got really excited. Like most parents I was worried about the right order to introduce foods, choking, and allergies. On a breast milk diet you don’t worry about balanced meal, but with solids, there becomes an extra level of thought and responsibility attached to taking care of the “intake.”

Like many people told me, it was so much fun introducing solids to Ollie those first couple months. We steamed food, made purees, cooking meat and rice down into soft mush and watch him learn how to eat from utensils. It was adorable and the sense of exploration and wonder Ollie approached every new food was inspiring and something that we as adults often forget about.

As Ollie got older and more and more foods were introduced, we got to the point when we didn’t think as hard about what foods to give him. We kind of went with a baby-led weaning technique. He had purees but also had solids pretty early on and we for the most part let Ollie pick up his own food and eat with his hands. Why this approach? It’s felt right and worked with our lifestyle and with Ollie.

I started cooking him all kinds of foods including mini-omelets, meat loaf, veggies, and pasta dishes. At a about year old he would stick almost anything in his mouth and try to eat it joyfully. Ollie would swallow handfuls of vegetables without hesitation and look up at as with pride.

I had so a lot of fun adapting whatever I was cooking for Ollie. Most of the time that meant cooking a little bit longer so that it was softer or cutting things into smaller pieces. However for the most part I did not have to dramatically change what I would normally cook. Ollie would be excited to eat whatever I placed in front of him. I loved cooking for my whole family and introducing the world of food to Ollie.

Then things started to change. As Ollie made the transition into being a toddler and walking around, he started refusing to eat certain foods. Instead of joyfully trying whatever I gave him, sometimes he needed coaxing. Then there was the night I cooked a nice meal for our family and he refused to eat it. As much as Diana showed gratitude for my efforts, I was frustrated and annoyed.

I felt like a failure and I didn’t know what to do.  Were the days of cooking joyfully for Ollie over?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Year 5: Week 12 - Why Taft?

For the past four years I’ve went for a four day/three night retreat with my fifth graders to the NIU Lorado Taft Field Campus. This is an outdoor education facility. After my first trip, I reflected on my first campfire.  After my second year, I wrote about raising spirits during a particularly rainy day at Taft with some Lady Gaga.  The year after that I discussed the “teacher marathon” aspect of the trip and how you needed to be on for 24 hours a day.  And last year I talked about finally figuring out how to manage groups of boys in a cabin. 

What’s my takeaway from this year?  We could get away with doing a lot less on this trip.

If we wanted to, at Lorado Taft we could simply be chaperones. They have a staff there that is trained to lead a wide variety of activities. Instead of sitting back and watching other people work with our kids, for the majority of the activities, we are actively teaching our own kids.

Why? Because we feel it is best for the kids. Over many years, we have developed a curriculum that integrates the classroom experience with the trip. The best way we have found to make sure that the experience at Taft is meaningful and builds off our work in the classroom is by taking time to teach our own kids during the trip.

Here’s the thing. We don’t get paid more to put in this extra effort. But over and over, I saw my fellow teachers at Taft going beyond any administrative expectations or board approved curriculum in an effort to make this trip a meaningful experience for our students.

What kind of person pushes himself or herself to work to a standard of excellence without any hope of monetary award?

Great teachers.

There’s this idea that if we can quantify students’ achievement, than we can provide financial incentives for great teachers. A teacher who produces higher test scores like a car salesmen who sales the most cars, should get a bonus.  This seems logical enough.

Without getting into the absurdity of measuring student and teacher effectiveness and success quantifiably with tests, this idea is fundamentally flawed and goes against what makes some of the greatest teachers in America so amazing.

The teachers I spent the past week all have salaries based on our union-negotiated pay scales. There’s no resentment or competition amongst the teachers based on bonuses and raises. There is not a lot of space for upward mobility. Yes, there are committees and department chairs but that’s about it. My school also has a tenure system, which doesn’t guarantee employment but places a high level of confidence in job security.

With all of these factors wouldn’t people become complacent and allow mediocrity to settle in?

While there are a lot of people for whom without financial motivation would not work hard, there are also other people who because of a sense of responsibility and a passion to help other people live fuller lives, find deep within themselves a reason to push themselves to great heights.

It’s in schools that you can find these people every day.

Taft bring out the best in my fellow teachers.  This desire to do the best for our students is an instinct with these professionals and it's amazing and inspiring to work with such amazing teachers.

There's a lot of great things about Taft but it all starts with the great teachers of the past who developed this trip and current teachers who for the love of education and teaching come back with me to this special place year after year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014

Parenthood: Week 77 – The Best Laid Plans

We had it all figured out.

Diana was going to do some work in the morning, while I took Ollie grocery shopping with me. Then Ollie would take his nap after lunch and I would get some time to do some work. After he woke up from his nap, Diana would watch him so I could do some chores around the house. Finally in the evening we would spend time as a family.

 It was the perfect plan for a Sunday.

Usually Ollie takes his afternoon naps around 12:30, so I figured I had plenty of time to get to the grocery store as we left the house around 11am. As we pulled into the parking lot I looked at Ollie through the car seat mirror that reflected into my rear-view mirror and saw that Ollie had fallen asleep.

Ollie isn’t one of those babies that falls asleep as soon as he hits the car seat. Most of the time he stays awake when riding in the car unless its late at night or after an outing like going to the children’s museum.

As I opened the back seat door I figured that he would get up on his own as I picked him up, which he usually does in situations like this. I didn’t want to forcefully wake him up so I carried him carefully into the grocery store.

Ollie didn’t wake up as we entered the bustling grocery store. He didn’t wake up as we walked down the aisle. He stayed asleep as I picked up a couple things and checked out.

As I put him back into the car and felt the tension release from my arm, Ollie still remained asleep.

I had a choice. I could get the second grocery store as planned or head home and try to get Ollie to sleep in his own crib.  The timing of the nap was off since he feel asleep before he ate lunch, which would probably mean his nap wouldn’t be as long, so it might make sense to wake him up and keep him moving. But then again, he was SO tired and Ollie taking a nap now would screw up our day’s plan.

I texted Diana and we agreed that if he was this tired, we should really get him home and scrap our plans for the day.

The day turned out fine, somehow we got all our work done and Ollie got his nap in. No, the day didn’t go as planned but’s okay. The longer you become a parent, the less value you put in “things going as planned."  You plan things in life to help organize your priorities, not to create a cage that limits your ability to respond to the needs of the people around you.

The day didn't go as planned but it was still a good day and there's something so adorable about carrying a toddler around a grocery store that is THAT tired.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Year 5: Week 11 – Letting Go Of The Ones I Let Down

I consider myself a pretty good teacher but I’m not really confident about how I rank up with my peers. One thing I am sure of is the fact that I am a much better teacher than I was when I first started almost a decade ago.

My instincts for how to handle situations are much sharper now, I am far more productive during my prep time and I am more responsive to my students. I teach with more confidence because I am more sure of who I am as a person and I am able to navigate politics now whereas in my early years, I felt completely inadequate in this area of teaching.

Many times, my improvements as a teacher make me feel proud but other times I feel guilty.

In my first month of teaching high school band, two seniors dropped my band class. These were two great boys who had been in band since fifth grade and my class just wasn’t as fulfilling as their previous experiences.

During my first year as an one-to-one aide, I had no idea how to manage the kid I was assigned. I had never worked with a student with special needs in this way and I had never worked with a fourth grader before. Instead of having a plan and an approach for this kid, I learned on the job.

After my first performance at my current school, one of the students came up to me and told me how she had no idea what the song they had just performed was about. I was so concerned with putting on a good performance; I forgot to spend time, teaching them what the song was about.

It’s really difficult for me to think about these moments. I feel that in some way I failed my past students for not being the teaching I am now. Yes, I acknowledge that this sounds silly and that there is nothing I can do about the past. I know I did the best I could with my knowledge and experience and that's what’s most important, but that fact doesn’t take away this feeling of guilt.

Because the students I taught in my early years deserved better.

Teachers learn on the job. Some kids has to sit in a class with a first year teacher and deal with their mistakes and tribulations in order for that teacher to become great. Is this fair to the student? In some ways no, but in other ways, if this new teacher is truly passionate about not only teaching but knowing students, a teacher can inspire learning even in there’s some issues with the teaching itself.

I wish I could go back in time and give my past students a better version of me. I know I can’t and even if I could, I don’t really need to. Dwelling on the past isn’t going to change anything, but reflecting on my early years is important.

Thinking about the students that I felt like I “let down,” because of my inexperience has helped me stay focused and work hard for my current students. I know that years from know I will look back at some of the things I’m doing with my students and be embarrassed. I hope that this continues to happen because this means I’m growing as a teacher.

Remembering those kids and those moments from the past where things didn’t go great reminds me to give my kids my best. I can’t give my kids the teacher I will be in the future but I can give them the best of what I got right now.

To my past students I let down: You deserved the best teacher in the world but instead you got me. I like to think that I gave you the best that I had all of the time but I know that there were times when I couldn’t give you that and I’m sorry. While it may only be a small consolation, know that you have never left my mind and I am thankful to have had the experiences that I had with you.  I'm proud to have been your teacher and I am proud to call you one of my students.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Parenthood: Week 76 – Snot & Awe

The first time I saw Ollie sneeze it was adorable. He was three days old when it happened. His body stopped moving for a second and the cutest little sneeze puffed out of his nose shaking his entire body. Afterwards Ollie had the most incredible look of confusion, exhaustion and relief.

Ollie’s sneezes aren’t quite as cute anymore . . . because of the snot.

There are a lot of things that people don’t tell you about raising kids. I heard about the tar-like newborn poo and the streams of urine but I wasn’t quite prepared for the snot.

I knew that stuffy noses were an issue for toddlers but I didn’t realize to what extent. I’ve watched parents wipe toddler’s noses and seen kids sneeze without covering up their noses but I had no idea how much toddler snot would be a part of my life.

Toddlers probably don’t sneeze anymore than adults do but when they do they completely lack the social manners of sneezing. They don’t cover their nose or grab a tissue. They just let the sneeze go, uncovered. While this is gross, this really isn’t the worst part of the situation.

If an adult sneezes and for some reason can’t grab a tissue in time, he or she will immediately wipe their faces and/or any affected surfaces immediately. Adults find the feeling of having snot and boogers on their faced uncomfortable socially as well as physically. Toddlers don’t.

The other day I was in the car with Ollie and he sneezed. I glanced at my rear-view mirror and saw in the car-seat mirror a one-inch thick stream of snot hanging out of Ollie’s nose past his upper lip. As much as I wanted to pull over and wipe his face off I couldn’t. Instead I watched in horror as he proceeded to rub the snot around his entire face with both of his hands, while licking his lips.

If I had kept looking, I probably would have crashed my car so I pushed away my rear-view mirror, turned up the music and tried to forget what I had just seen.

As I opened the backseat door I saw snot EVERYWHERE. It was in Ollie’s hair his eyebrows, around his eyes, by his ear, on his lip, dried up by his nose, underneath his chin and between his fingers. I knew that as a bad I would be picking snot out of my son’s nose but I never imagined I’d be picking his snot out of his hair.

I’m not even going to get into the torture device known as the Nose Frida. This thing is actually incredibly effective, just make sure to use saline nose spray beforehand and prepare for your baby to be screaming during the process. And no, you never get used to literally sucking your kids snot out of their nose through a tube. Yes, there’s a filter, but it’s still incredibly gross.

Of course I wipe off Ollie’s nose, pick away his dried up booger and suck out snot with the Nose Frida without hesitation. You do what you got to do for your kid and like changing poopy diapers; you got to clean up the snot.

One day years from now, Ollie will do something without thinking and I'll get frustrated with him.   I’ll just have to remember to remind myself that at least he’s not rubbing snot all over his face.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Year 5: Week 10 – To Be Fair

Fairness is a fascinating concept. It’s something that kids are obsessed with but very few kids if any understand.

To a 3rd grader, fairness means that everyone gets a turn and the teacher treats every student exactly the same way. In reality, fairness is actually about giving different individuals what they need to reach a similar goal. For example, I would hold a door open for a student in a wheelchair but I may not for a different student who can walk under his or her own power. I’m not treating these kids the same way, but they both got through the door. That’s what fairness is all about.

This concept goes way beyond my students’ heads, even with some of my 8th graders. It’s the same reason why kids have issues understanding that a math problem may have more than what correct solution and that the “good guys” in world conflicts aren’t always good.

Developing minds needs to view the world without nuance and subtlety so that they can better categorize their surroundings. Some kids hang tight to their own illusion of fairness, the idea that everyone gets the same thing, to help them understand the world around them.

As a teacher you have two choices. You can try to get them to not focus on fairness through discussion or you can do what I do: use their obsession with fairness to your own advantage. If I convince my students that I make choices partially to be fair, then they interpret this as me validating their concerns.

I’ll tell a group of students that in order for everyone to get a chance at playing an instrument, so it’s fair, they will be quieter during transitions. If I tell a student that he can’t have two drums because everyone else has one, he will immediately put it away. And if I tell other students to be quiet during someone else’s solo because they were quiet for them, it makes sense to them very quickly.

There’s a balance between playing into our students’ worldview and helping them grow beyond their own perceptions. It’s important that students are pushed to understand the nuance of fairness but developmentally students need to be older to have these kinds of conversations.

One of the fastest ways to loose a student’s trust is to do something that a student perceives is unfair. A teacher who unfair doesn’t seem to care about the students and make kids confused and upset.

To be fair sometimes means that you have to be stricter. Other times it means that you have to spend more time with organization.  These adjustments are worth it.

Talking about fairness helps make students feel that you are fair.  Once students see you act in a fair way then you can begin helping them understand what real fairness all about.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

Parenthood: Week 75 – Halloween

I never really liked Halloween growing up. The dressing up thing never really turned out being as much fun as I imagined. I did like the candy part but I wasn’t one of those kids obsessed with candy, so even that part wasn’t that big a deal.

Most of the time Halloween was cold and rainy and even if you had an awesome costume you’d end up having to wear a coat over it. I just never got into Halloween and as soon as the social pressure of the school Halloween parade and party disappeared I stopped dressing up for Halloween altogether.

In college I discovered the fun of dressing-up in silly costumes through marching band. We would have dress-up days for our Thursday night rehearsals. Most of these dress-up days were in-jokes and they were a lot of fun (e.g. “Avril Lavigne in Adult Diaper).

About the time I got out of college, what Halloween now is for college students was just beginning. I missed out on that craziness for the most part.

In my twenties, I went to a couple Halloween parties. Mostly I didn’t dress-up much, it just didn’t seem like it was worth the time or the investment.

When Buffy came into our lives we realize that we had to dress her up (I discussed this process in this post).  Not only was it adorable, but also getting her a costume meant that she would be allowed into the Chicago Botanical Gardens for their dog Halloween event. The gardens would be paradise for Buffy so we got her ready for that and had a great time. Every year, we’ve had Buffy she has dressed up and enjoyed one afternoon of romping around the Botanic Gardens.

The only thing more adorable than dogs in Halloween costumes is, you guessed it, babies in Halloween costumes. My Facebook feed for the past week has been overloaded with babies in all sorts of costumes. This alone is making this one of the more enjoyable times of year for me.

Of course, Ollie had to dress-up for Halloween last year, and Buffy’s costume had to coordinate.

Mind you, Ollie could barely sit-up straight at this point. Trick-or-treating was not happening for this little guy. Dressing up was just for our entertainment and getting a cute photo.

This year we settled on Ollie and Buffy both dressed up like koala bears. We bought Buffy’s costume and Ollie’s hat and then made the rest of Ollie’s costume. This required a trip to Michael’s which was only slightly more painful than watching Iowa’s football team demolish Northwestern University at their game last week.

Our neighborhood does Halloween on the Sunday before the actual Holiday in the mid-afternoon. I didn’t really understand why they did this until I had a toddler myself. There’s nothing fun about taking kids out on a cold, fall dark evening to go door to door. Especially since this year on Halloween it snowed AND hailed.

Instead on a Sunday afternoon, Ollie and his toddler friends made it to one or two houses in our neighborhood and then ran around and played in our backyard.

 It was a great Halloween.

Ollie and the other toddler’s had no idea that the colored small things were actually candy. They were just happy to pick up them up and drop them in their bags, then take them out, and then put them back in their bags and then take them out. . . okay you get the point.

Yes, someday Ollie will realize that Halloween is all about candy and later he may not want to dress up like some cute animal and that’s ok.  However for now instead of a Holiday that is about what you take, scaring people, playing pranks or getting a date, we can bask in the cuteness of Halloween and the enjoy the innocence of Ollie being happy to simply be with his friends.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Year 5: Week 9 – Assessment #1

Assessment along with instruction and curriculum create the trifecta, the “braid” as one of my graduate school professors referred to, which is teaching. If any of these three factors are misaligned or don’t support the other factors, than truly effective teaching cannot happen.

If you have a fantastic curriculum, but do a poor job with instruction your assessments tools will suffer. If you have amazing instruction skills and great materials to teach but your assessment tools are poorly developed, it undercuts all of the other work you do in the classroom.

In order for these things to be truly aligned teachers need to think very carefully about all three of these aspects as they plan and teach.  If one of these factors is too weak, if one ends up leading the other too far too strongly, learning suffers.

This is the case when a teacher is given an outline to a standardized test and he or she feels pressured to “teach to the test.” This ends up creating an imbalance forcing curriculum and instruction aside that can rob students of meaningful learning experiences.

Music teachers can sometimes get away with focusing less attention on assessment. Our subject is not included in standardized testing and often doing things like playing tests can be cumbersome, but in my view point, this is no more challenging than grading a stack of essays.

This week I gave my band kids there first formal assessment of the year. We decided early on in our planning that we wanted to align these major assessments across band and choir. While they were different there was similarities between the quizzes, which we felt reflected the different musical disciplines.

I assess my students every day. Sometimes it’s informal, listening to them warm-up and often it’s formal through Smart Music. This quiz we did last week was a written quiz, which assessed their knowledge of certain musical concepts but also evaluated their ability to translate their thoughts into words.

Whenever you ask a student to put a pen to paper you are assessing the student's writing ability. Teachers have to be very careful that they aren’t intentionally assessing things that may not be relevant to the class. If I truly wanted to just focus on their musical knowledge, for many students, short answer essays would hinder their ability to demonstrate that knowledge.

The reason that I was comfortable with this quiz assessing their writing skills is that it teaches me a lot about our students. There are some kids who play really well but struggle with putting their into writing. For that student it’s critical that I balance this student’s writing with his or her playing. Also, I find that some students who aren’t the strongest musicians write really well about music. This gives me an important insight to their minds and what they are getting out of class.

As I grade these quizzes I’m modifying future lessons and instructional techniques. Every assessment is an important reminder of not only my student’s learning but my own teaching. If every student gets the same question wrong, it’s probably my fault for not utilizing effective instruction techniques.

The other important thing about having formal quizzes and tests in music class is that it legitimizes the class as not just an activity in the eyes of the students, parents and other teachers in the building. While this is not a central reason to give a quiz, it is an important one to consider.

You’ve got to keep that braid strong. It’s a constant struggle to make sure curriculum, instruction and assessment are balanced in our teaching. When we think deeply about what we do, when we dive deep into the meaning of our curriculum, the depth of our instruction and the effectiveness of our assessments, we address students’ whole experience as a learner and a student.

Within this trifecta, we find truly great teaching. In this way we make learning feel organic and relevant and most importantly personally meaningful to our studends.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shopping at Michael's

- Michael's is the worst. I would have an easier time finding finger paints if I went to O'Hare airport and asked the person at the United ticket counter for help than asking the worker at Michael's.

- You know the best part of shopping at Michael's? Do you? Because I have no idea. Everything about that place is horrible. Like

- Shopping at Michael's is like re-watching Rocky V. You figure it can't be as bad as you remember, but it ends up being worse than you could possibly imagine.

- Do you know what makes me feel nostalgic about the time I ate a Gyro and got food poisoning? Shopping at Michael's.

-If shopping at Michael's was a girl group it would be All Saints. "Never Ever"

-One time I tried to watch Caligula. That was kind of like shopping at Michael's.

-Shopping at Michael's made me yearn to watch Starlight Express.

 -Some people actually enjoy shopping at Michael's and some people actually enjoy listening to Nickelback.

-If shopping at Michael's was a boy band it would be LFO.

 -Shopping at Michael's gives you the same warm feeling you get when reach into a bag and touch a banana that you left there weeks ago.

-Watching an Al Snow match sounds like more fun than shopping at Michael's.

 -Shopping at Michael's is like trying to defend Mase as a good rapper. There's no point.

-Shopping at Michael's is like my new leaf blower. It both sucks AND blows.

-There are some things in life that everyone should try at least once. Shopping at Michael's isn't one of them.

-If shopping at Michael's was a cologne it would be called "Shame & Regret." It would smell of cloves and 8th grade boys, with a hint of star anise.

-Shopping at Michael's is as satisfying as eating a poorly prepared Hot Pocket.

-If George Lucas made changes to Michael's it would actually make the shopping experience better.

-Shopping at Michael's is like dressing up as the Marvel Super Hero Speedball for Halloween. It's confusing and embarrassing.

-Star Trek V: The Final Frontier makes more sense and has more charm than shopping at Michael's.

-Do you know what makes Carrie Underwood as Maria seem like a good idea by comparison?

-Shopping at Michael's. Hate-watching? Try hate-shopping.

-Billy Joe Armstrong wrote "American Idiot" about himself after he chose to go shop at Michael's.

-Do you know what's the worst part of shopping at Michael's?
Shopping at Michael's.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Parenthood: Week 74 - Missing Ollie

I thought that leaving Ollie and coming to work this fall would be easier than last fall.

I was wrong.

Last fall when I returned to work Ollie was about five months old. We were still getting the hang of the parenting thing and after spending all summer at home, I wasn’t sure how I was going to fare being away from my family.

It was bad. I missed Ollie a lot but more than that I worried about Ollie and Diana. It’s not that I didn’t trust Diana but Ollie was such a little baby at that time and I didn’t want to leave Diana without the support I had providing all summer. I got through it. I learned how to refocus on work when I was at school and I learned to embrace the pangs of missing Ollie as a reminder of how much I loved my little guy.

It’s one year later. Ollie is a toddler. Diana and I have been through many more situations with our little guy: plane flights, long drives, nights alone with Ollie and even shopping trips to Michael’s. I was blessed to have time at home with my little guy but I figured going to work would be easier this time around.

It wasn’t.

I actually worry about Ollie less this time around. He’s much stronger and he can advocate for himself better. The problem is that with every month he becomes more expressive and while it melts my heard to heart him call me “da, doo” (his way of saying daddy), it almost breaks my heart when Diana tells me that he calls for me when I’m not home.

It’s hard because many days, I leave before Ollie wakes up and I don’t get to say good morning to him. In the same way that my day didn’t feel like it really started in college, until I met up with Diana in the dining hall for lunch my day doesn’t feel like it has really started until I see Ollie. Not seeing him in the morning makes me miss him even more.

While I can compartmentalize at work better than I have in the past, my family is almost always close to the front of my mind. Every day it’s a struggle trying to decide how long to stay work knowing that there’s work to be done but that I want to get home to see my Ollie-bear.

When I get home after work sometimes Ollie is happy to see me, but other times he’s upset for some reason. It’s like he gets a wave of emotion realizing that he has missed me all day long and when I pick him up he pushes me away. Usually after a little time, he gets over it and eagerly tells me about his day.

The fact that Ollie misses me makes me want to be home with him even more. This makes my feelings of missing him even more intense. At the same time, the fact that he wants to be with me as much as I want to be with him makes me feel love.  Knowing we both want to be together means that we are truly there for each other.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Year 5: Week 8 – "That's Racist"

I was sitting in the back of the classroom as one of my colleagues was leading a review session. While one of the students went up to the board to draw a diagram of the lungs and the diaphragm, one boy jokingly called the drawing “racist.” Another boy next to him repeated the joke while a different boy a couple seats down joined in their laughter.

As the seventh graders left the classroom, I asked these boys to hang back for a second because I needed to talk to them. Here’s what I had to say:
This is one of those things where I talk and you listen and maybe, hopefully you will apologize when I’m done. It is never okay to joke about racism. People have died because of racism. Not just people like Martin Luther King Jr. forty years ago, but people last year. People have died and continue to die because of racism.

People you know in your lives, teachers in their school and friends of yours face racism. Racism hurts and scars. It’s one of the biggest problems in our society.

To joke about racism is to say that the suffering that people feel every day because of racism is not important, that their pain is not real. That is not insensitive and offensive.

You live in a world that is less racist than times past. You enjoy the sacrifices that people have made fighting racism, every single day. You cannot make a light of this and turn one of the most important issues in American history into a joke.

Here’s another thing: Racism is serious. If I joke that one of the other teachers at Parker is being racist, they would be investigated seriously. Even if they find out that I was just making a joke. The investigation would damage their career and my job would be in jeopardy. 
Make fun of something else about each other. Mock how the sports team they like is bad, talk about how they dress funny, pick something else. I get that you make jokes about each other sometime. That’s fine, that’s part of being a man.

Don’t ever make a joke about something being racist ever again. It’s offensive to me as an Asian-American, the people in history who died because of racism and your friends who identify as being a person of color.
People your age have died because of racism. There’s nothing funny about that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

Parenthood: Week 73 – The Lonesome Man

I barely noticed him when I walked into the dining room.

The entry to the restaurant led into a small foyer. To the right was the bar and up ahead was the dining room. We were late to a birthday dinner for Diana’s grandfather.  We spotted Diana's family in the back corner of the dining room and walked over quickly so that we could get Ollie settled down and get him something to eat. That’s probably why I didn’t notice The Lonesome Man at the small table sitting alone to the left of the entrance to the dining room.

Ollie was delighted to see his great-grandparents, his grandmother and all of his great aunts and uncles. However, it was pass his usual dinnertime and was Ollie starting to get fussy. We started getting him fed and ordered something off of the children’s menu quickly.

As I settled down I first noticed The Lonesome Man. He was a large man, in his 60’s or 70’s. He sat leaning far back in his chair glaring around the room with a look of disgust and disappointment chiseled into his face. I though it was a bit odd the way he seemed to be looking so angry but I didn’t pay it much mind.

After Ollie ate a couple pieces of bread, he started whining a little bit. He needed a change of diaper so I carried him out of the dining room.  I caught in the corner of my eye, The Lonesome Man glaring at me.  My focus was on Ollie so I brushed it off  and took care of his diaper.  This put Ollie in a much better mood and I helped him walk back into the dining room.

As we entered the dining room Diana’s mom came up and asked if she could play with Ollie so I could get something to eat. I thanked her for the offer and left Ollie toddling around with his grandmother.  I sat back down at the table and watched Ollie fall on his butt, like all toddlers do. His grandmother crouched down to help him and at this point I saw The Lonesome Man, lean over and say something nasty to her. She quickly lifted Ollie up and carried him into the foyer away from his anger.

Now I was getting mad.

Then The Lonesome Man started complaining, first to a waitress that came by, then to two other waitresses and finally to the manager. I was out of earshot but I could see him making gestures like a crawling baby, motioning over to our table, the floor and over to the foyer. He spit as he talked angrily fuming over the Ollie.

As I watched him complain I became furious.  I wanted to get up in his face and yell at him.

No, Ollie wasn't being a perfectly quiet toddler, but this wasn’t a super-fancy restaurant. It was at the level of Olive Garden. There bar was making plenty of noise that was leaking into the dining room and the dining room itself was pretty lively. I get that not everyone loves babies but to spray such venom and animosity towards my mother-in-law and my son was repugnant.

The waitstaff and the manager understood this because no matter how much the Lonesome Man complained they never once came up to tell us to quiet down or to control Ollie.

I told Diana about what was going on and she mentioned it to everyone at the table. After a couple sarcastic jokes about how we were such horrible parents, one of her uncles told us, “if you need to leave because Ollie is tired that’s fine, but don’t leave because of that man.”

This comment helped center me and Diana’s calmness helped me to start thinking more logically. She told me that she was sympathetic for The Lonesome Man sitting by himself all alone in a restaurant full of families. Diana was right, there was something depressing about the Lonesome Man, but that wasn’t an excuse for him to be so hateful toward my son. I was not going to start a fight with this guy, but there was no way I was going to take Diana’s aunt's advice to simply ignore him.

It was time for us to go.  Ollie was fading fast. We packed up all of his stuff. I carried him around so he could say goodbye to all of his family and giggle as he received goodbye kisses and hugs. As Ollie said goodbye, I glanced over my shoulder and I could see The Lonesome Man staring angrily at me.

There was no way to avoid this man as we walked out.  I wasn’t going to ignore him. The Lonesome Man didn’t deserve the courtesy of my tolerance.

Something had to be said.

I held Ollie in my arms and started toward the exit with Diana next to me. As we approached the Lonesome Man, sitting at his little table, I met his spiteful eyes with a gracious smile.  Then with a voice dripping with sarcasm like an annoyed waiter inviting someone to eat a tainted dish, I told The Lonesome Man, “I hope you enjoy your dinner.”

Diana and I giggled to ourselves as we walked into the parking lot.  We were proud that we made it to the dinner and got to celebrate Ollie's great-grandfather's birthday.  As I drove away with my wonderful wife and my beautiful boy, we left behind The Lonesome Man, sitting alone at his little table with only his bitterness to keep him company.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Year 5: Week 7 – Teaching What You Love

One of the reasons that we decided to hire our DJ for our wedding was because he told us that he plays music that he doesn’t like.

His general approach was that during cocktail hour he wanders around, gets an idea of the demographic and the vibe of the guest and starts creating a playlist from those observations and the songs that we suggested. Then during the dancing part of the reception he starts putting on music. If the song doesn’t get people on their feet within a verse and a chorus, he will switch songs. There is no part of the process of deciding what to play where his personal preference for music comes into play.

Teachers have a similar process that they go through. Especially with music and English teachers, we study pieces of art in our classes. Often we get to choose literature and music that we like but this should not be the primary way that we make decisions on what we include in our curriculum.

Sometimes teachers become engaged in “vanity projects.” This is when a teacher chooses to read a book or teach a piece of music because they get personal pleasure out of experiencing the piece of art that to other people is clearly inappropriate for their students. For example, making a group of third graders struggle through Hamlet or having a 6th grade beginner band play an entire Beethoven Symphony. “Vanity projects,” are the opposite of being student-centered.

Artistic people who are teachers need to be mindful that they are not looking to their teaching experiences for their own personal artistic fulfillment. That’s not what teaching is about. Now, it’s great if once in a while your students create great art and you get artistic fulfillment from that but that should be an extra bonus, not the purpose of the teaching.

Of course, we shouldn’t only teach songs we don’t like. That would make our jobs miserable, but it’s part of the gig. I’m really sick of hearing “Hot Cross Buns,” on the recorder or a beginning band instrument. However the song is pedagogically sound and the kids like it, so I suffer through it.

There are times that what we are passionate about lines up with what works from an educational standpoint. For example, I do “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs with my fifth graders. I get to share my passion with my students and do a song that teachers them important musical skills and concepts that are part of my curriculum.

Like my students, some songs that I don't like initially often grow on me.  Sometimes its because of the positive experiences I have with my students that I learn to love a song.

Keep an eye on your audience.  Be that DJ and see what really helps your students learn.  There is far more satisfaction in bringing music to your kids that you don't like that they learn from than pushing a song upon them that you love that they do not connect with. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Parenthood: Week 72 – Super-cute

Last week Ollie was being super-cute.

The other day we taught him the baby sign-language gesture for “read.” He picked up this sign in under an hour and during our family story-time he made this gesture as soon as we finished a book. Did we repeat certain books multiple times? Yes. Did story time last far longer than planned? Yes. But it was just so cute.

Ollie’s ability to walk has really taken off this past week. At the beginning of the week he could walk but only if he had something to pull up on. Now he can go from sitting to standing all by himself, though half the time he falls back on his butt.  It’s incredibly cute.

During the short window of time when he couldn’t get up by himself he would reach his hand up and grab my finger to pull him up. After a couple steps he would full and then look back and reach out for my finger. He didn’t really put a lot of weight on my finger; he just squeezed it to make sure I was there. Yeah that was pretty darn cute.

Ollie thinks its hilarious to put things on his head. We were outside in a playground and there was a layer of leaves on top of the woodchips. After swishing them around. He started picking them up and dropping them on the top of his head. Ollie thought that this was the funniest thing he had ever done. The leaves ended up going down his jacket and into his onesie. Even though this led to a minor-melt down because he was upset that there were leaves in his shirt, the time he was sprinkling them over his head was hilariously cute.

It wasn’t the first time that Ollie had eaten food from Chipotle but it was the first time I had gotten him the kids meal. I ordered him a chicken quesadillas. He didn’t really know what to do with it so I ripped off a small piece. Once he tried it and liked it, he wanted to rest of the quesadilla. Instead of taking small bites like when he eats a piece of toast, he balled it up and shoved into his mouth. The whole thing didn’t fit into his mouth but he managed to take bites and somehow that ball of cheeses and tortillas disappeared in one of the cutest ways possible.

I brought Ollie upstairs to hang out with Diana. He walked over to his bin of toys and books and brought over the Belly Button Book. He sat down with the book and proceeded to try to find his own belly button. Because he was wearing a onesie that snapped between his legs he couldn’t find it. He was very concerned as he poked himself trying to find his little “bee bo.” So I lifted up my shirt.  Ollie smiled up and me crawled over and giggled as he poked at my belly button. Seriously this boy is super-cute.