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.