Wednesday, December 30, 2015

30 Days Dry – Part 3: Drinking Like A Man

Don Draper drank “Old Fashioneds,” James Bond had his martinis, Wolverine drank beer like water, Frank Sinatra loved Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and Ron Swanson loves his scotch. The only manly man that I can think of who doesn’t have drinking as part of their mystique and identity is Batman, who in his Bruce Wayne persona would drink ginger ale pretending he was champagne.

In America to be a man, a real man, our culture tells you that you have to like sports, enjoy shopping for power tools and drink booze. I discussed what it means to drink like a man in this post 

As I’ve grown up as an adult, being able to drink “like a man,” has been one way that I’ve been able to bound with other man and feel more “manly” in conversations and in parties. I’m not a typical man’s man and wile I’ve come to terms with this, I’d be lying if I claimed that I was completely over feeling of masculine inferiority because of the fact that my identity and interest do not fit what most people typically consider as being “manly.”

Knowing the difference between scotch and bourbon, being able to understand the nuances of different hops in IPAs, and being able to not only drink my vodka straight but enjoy it this way made me feel more masculine. All of these actions connected me with the male heroes in our popular culture and provided an entry point into conversations with other guys.

Last week, at a holiday party, I realized that I was the only guy in the room of about 30 people who didn’t either have a beer or glass of wine in my hand (most of the guys had beers), while only about a third of the woman had a drink (only one woman had a beer). I saw for the first time that like make-up, hair care, nail care, whether a person was drinking and what they were drinking was an expression of gender. I’ve been going to these kinds of parties for years but I didn’t make this observation until I took a step away and wasn’t contributing to these trends.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men or woman having a topic that they are more typically interested in that they discuss as a way of bonding. At the same time it’s important to think about these subjects and their implications.  A group of teenage girls who always talk about dieting and how to improve their bodies may be expressing some insecurities that need addressing and a group of boys who bond over making racist jokes need to understand the implications of their words.

Our view on alcohol in our culture is full of gender stereotypes. Masculine heroes often drink while feminine heroes often do not. There are girly drinks and manly drinks. Drinking for men is viewed as a rite of passage, while many people view drinking as not being lady-like.

In this month off, I've realized how much drinking is part of my masculine expression, which is one reason I've missed booze.  I don't understand why I need my masculinity affirmed, but I guess that's part of my biology.

Shouldn't something deeper, more lasting connect me with my feeling of being a man, like being a good father?  Maybe we've focused too much on the imagery and external things like booze to give us a feeling of strength that we really should be getting through our accomplishments and our achievements as loving family members.  I don't mind the idea of drinking beer as helping me feel more like a man, but the idea that alcohol could grow to define what it means for me to be a man is disturbing.

Maybe Don Draper drank to feel like a man because he was an inadequate husband.  James Bond's martini's maybe covered up his guilt for the deaths he caused, Wolverine had decades of pain and regret he tried to escape, and Frank Sinatra was an absent father.  And Ron Swanson, he's not really an example of man but a caricature of the worst stereotypes of masculinity, flaws and all.

And the sober one, Batman is even more messed up than all of these guys, but whatever. . .  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Parenthood: Week 133 – Putting On Christmas For A Toddler

Parenthood transforms a person from being a spectator during the holidays into an active participant.

When you are kid, your parents do most of the shopping, decorating and planning that goes into making holiday events and traditions a reality. When you are kid you “help” but it’s the parents who really make thing happen. When you become an adult and get married you start taking on a more active role in the holidays. You are expected to bring a dish to holiday parties, and with your own place you have to take on decorating, getting a tree and establishing your own holiday traditions with your spouse. While all of this takes work, it’s stuff that you and your partner are doing for yourselves. The consequences are not that great if you mess something up.

Parenthood changes all of this. Without a kid you can show up for family party whenever you feel like it, drink and eat carelessly and leave when you feel like it. You can really party. With a child you have to carefully plan your arrival and departure times around naps and bed times.

At these events you are constantly tag teaming with your spouse to make sure that your kid is doing okay. When you have an infant, you have to watch who is holding your child and make sure your baby are not being overwhelmed. With a toddler you have make sure that they do not run into things, break random things and eat too many cookies.

You and/or you spouse are “on” the entire time you are at a party. You are more concerned about what you kid is eating for dinner and you curb your drinking to make sure that you are in a sound mind to handle the inevitable meltdown as your child’s bedtime comes and goes.

At home you and your spouse are part of the holiday production team. You figure out a list of events and activities, decorate the house and create “Christmas magic.” You try to make something special for your little one because as adulthood teaches you, nothing about Christmas is inevitable; all of what is special about this time of year is a result from careful work and planning.

This was the first year that Ollie really understood and looked forward to Christmas, I felt more pressure this year to make this time of year special for Ollie. Diana did most of the work taking the lead with decorations, present shopping and wrapping. While there was stress involved with this process, there was also a lot of excitement.

After all of the parties and the craziness, we are exhausted.  Putting on Christmas for a toddler is really tiring and having a kid, like with every other part of your life, changes everything.  It's about taking on the work that your parents do for you in a way that feels meaningful.  It's not about obligation but the sharing of joy.  It's about doing work for someone you love and finding joy not in receiving but in giving.  Maybe it's through this process from experiencing the holidays first as a child and then as parents do we truly understand the meaning of this time of year. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

30 Days Dry - Part 2: Drunk History

I was never much for underage drinking.

I think I only had a drink one time when I was at a high school party. It was a wine cooler, didn’t taste very good and I didn’t get the appeal. The sneaking around just felt weird and I felt like I had better things to do with my time.

Did I have a superiority complex in high school? Oh yeah, you better believe it. I didn’t really see my time in high school as time to be messing around. I wanted to get into a good college and prove to my classmates that this music stuff I was doing wasn’t something that make me dorky, but something that made me special.

When my brother turned 21 (I’m three years younger), my parents would let me have a glass a wine with dinner, but I was apprehensive and didn’t really get into it. I’ve never developed a palette for wine. I respect the art and craft of creating wine and the complexities of the flavors, but the snobbery and overall sweetness of most wines didn’t appeal to me.

Then I went to college and joined a fraternity (read more about this in this series of posts). No, the floodgates did not open up. I was at Northwestern University. None of my friends wanted to waste their time being drunk all of the time. We understood and valued that freedom away from adult responsibilities afforded us time to do explore new experience and live life to the fullest. However, for my group of friends this meant join marching band, joining clubs and take extra classes.

Don’t get me wrong. I had my moments. There were emails sent when I was drunk that I regret sending, close encounters with university police and nights that left more of an impression than clear memories. While I had fun, I didn’t really enjoy drinking alcohol my first couple years at college. I just drank to party and to loosen up.

When I turned 21, I really felt like I grew up in my understanding and appreciation of the culture of drinking. I started to develop a taste for beer and drank mixed drinks that instead of hiding the taste of the alcohol, and eventuated the nuances. Drinking at bars legally was far more fun than standing in a crowded dorm room holding a red plastic cup filled with some mystery punch. That type of situation made me feel like a high school student playing pretend. Sitting in a bar made me feel like an adult.

Like most people I went through phases in my drinking. First it was Southern Comfort, than whiskey, than beer, vodka, than back to beer, a weird phase where I was all about Rieslings and lately I’ve been into craft beers.

When I was in high school and early college, I drank because I wanted to fit in. I enjoyed it on some level but I could live without it. It wasn’t until I got to my mid-twenties that I enjoyed drinking for what it meant culturally. There was the tradition, and the history but more anything else for a guy who felt like a sissy for most of his life, drinking made me feel like a man.

Lately, this fact has been bothering me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

30 Days Dry - Part 1: Why?

I’m writing at my computer at home, with a pint glass full of tonic water, just tonic water, no vodka or gin. Right now after 28 days without a drop of alcohol, I could really go a beer.

In mid-November I decided that between Thanksgiving and Christmas I wasn’t going to drink any alcohol. I saw that one of my co-workers was doing this and after some Internet browsing, it became clear that going dry for an extended period of time was something a lot of people were doing. Some people were doing it for their health, others as a social experiment and some were going dry because of the challenge.

I liked the idea that it would be good for my health. I tried to stick with only drinking on the weekends but sometimes I drank during the weekends, when after a tough day, I “deserved” it. Most of the time I felt fine but especially since entering my thirties it feels like a gamble when I drink. Some mornings I feel fine, and others I feel slightly hung over. My body just doesn’t process alcohol like it used to. I wanted to get my body cleaned up.

Every time I get back from winter break I feel like I need a week to get over all of the drinking that happens around the holiday season. Between rewarding myself for stressful workdays and all of the holiday events and parties, there’s a lot of drinking that happens.

I wanted to test myself. Thanksgiving to Christmas is one of the most stressful times of year for my work and in my personal life. All of the holiday performances are difficult to handle and especially now with a kid, the holiday season requires more active planning and participation from me as a parent. Did I really need booze to help me handle all of this stress or was I strong enough to handle this myself?

The main reason that I wanted to go dry for a month was Ollie. One of the unfortunate things about drinking especially at parties is that it sometimes it makes you less present. In awkward situations, drinking can pull you out of the discomfort and this is really helpful at times, but I’m not sure how this affects Ollie. I never feel like I get enough time with Ollie and the time that I spend with him, I really want to be there with him and for him, fully, even if that means I have to deal with more feelings of social awkwardness.

This last month has been hard. I miss the flavor of a good beer, the aroma great whiskey. I miss the ritual of drinking, pouring a beer into a glass, mixing up an old fashioned. I miss the warmth of relaxation and the feeling of freedom that comes when the first wave of alcohol makes the world seem more vibrant and accessible.

I don’t miss wondering how I’m going to feel the following morning after a night of drinking. I don’t miss the feeling of being drunk and I don’t miss the fear that somehow I will loose control.

In the past I’ve taken a couple weeks off to make sure that I can live without booze that I’m not somehow slipping into alcoholism. I irrationally fear this possibility, because taking time off drinking has never been a big issue. The challenge of this month off though really makes me wonder. Why do I miss alcohol? What does alcohol really mean to my life? To all of our lives?

I’m going explore all of this in the next couple posts from my first drink to being the only man at a party without a beer in his hand.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Parenthood: Week 132 – All They Want For Christmas

There’s this bar that we set for ourselves as parents surrounding holidays. We create this Norman Rockewell-eque idea of what the holiday experience should be like for our kids. Then we judge the quality of the holidays more on accomplishing a to do list than the quality of the experiences themselves.

My family was never huge on Christmas. We aren't Christian and most of what we did around this holiday was simply taking parts of the secularized American Christmas mythology that we enjoyed like presents and family dinner and doing it ourselves.

Since I’ve met Diana, through her family I’ve experienced in a many different activities around Christmas time. There is cutting down a Christmas tree, driving around to different neighborhoods to see Christmas light displays, making Christmas cookies, wearing matching Christmas sweaters, caroling, going downtown to see window decorations, seeing the train display at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, seeing the Christmas tree display at the Museum Of Science and Industry, going to Santa’s Brunch (to meet Santa, of course), holiday concerts, Christmas morning church service, Christmas eve dinner, Christmas morning breakfast, fruit-cake toss, white elephant gift exchange, and multiple family Christmas parties.

Does this seem like a lot? Well, it is and even though there was never a year that we did all of those things, there were years which we did most of them.

All of that stuff is fun but it’s time consuming and when you have a toddler, every activity has added prep time. There are naps to schedule around and time is more precious when you are a parent. Also, you start asking yourself, how much your kid is really going to enjoy an activity. Are you doing it for yourself or your child’s enjoyment? While there is nothing wrong with dragging your kid along to do something that only you enjoy, you have to do this carefully. There’s only a finite amount of times in the span of a month that you can do this and often the whole “dragging your kid” part makes it less fun for you.

Then there’s that bar I mentioned earlier. It’s the idea that unless you do certain Christmas activities you are robbing your child of a meaningful holiday experience. While it’s great to be thoughtful about sharing things you enjoyed as a kid with your children, doing this at the cost of your own stress and sanity, may not in fact be worth it. If buying your Christmas tree from a parking lot as opposed to driving two hours to cut one down from a tree farm means that everyone is better rested, than you will all probably enjoy the tree a lot more when it is up.

A certain amount of stress around the holidays is self-generated. If gift giving and the related Christmas shopping is too stressful, than cut back on gifts. If you find large family gathering stressful, than organize smaller ones and if you’d rather not do certain Christmas activities, than just don’t.

Here’s the thing, if you stress out too much about that holiday check-list, trying to reach that bar you set for yourself, than that’s all your kids are going to focus on as being meaningful this time of year.

It’s already an uphill battle, trying to find the any hint of the story of Jesus Christ in most of the secularized Christmas traditions in American culture. So let’s not add to that for our kids. Let’s reflect, take a step back from the lights and think about the time we spend together.

Yes, there was a miracle in Bethlehem, but what seems like even more of a miracle is that in our modern culture, we have an agreed upon time of the year that we can stop, and if we choose, be truly present with our families.

More than anything else that is all our children really want for Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Year 6: Week 16 – The Hardest Day Of The Year

One of my fellow music teachers asked me if yesterday was stressful. In the morning, we had our JK-5 Holiday assembly and in the evening we had our middle school and high school winter concert. I teach 3rd and 5th grade general music and 6th and 8th grade band, so I was involved in both concerts. In addition as one of the department chairs, I had responsibilities to organize and run these concerts.

I wasn’t completely truthful when I told this teacher what I’ve been telling other faculty and administrators all week, “it’s not so bad, it’s just another day.”

Philosophically, I strongly believe that yesterday wasn’t any more important that any other day that I teach. The meaning of music education, the true learning happens every day in the classroom. Performances are opportunities for students to share what they learn and get validation from people in the community. While these experiences can be meaningful and memorable, adding important layers of motivation for some students, they are not an end point but only one part in the process of learning.

If you deemphasize the importance of a performance than your stress level should go down. It does help. Having conducted groups in schools that put a lot of stress on the performances and results from competitions, there is less stress in my current school’s philosophy of music education. However that doesn’t mean that all of the stress goes away.

The performance of the students represents their developmental level and their learning. If a kindergarten student forgets lyrics on stage or a middle school band student plays a couple notes out of tune, it’s not a big deal. It’s what we expect to happen. However the organization, structure and overall experience of these performances are a reflection of our level of professionalism as teachers.

This means that we have clear directions for kids that other teachers can help support and well planned transitions. It’s about having enough programs copied for parents and making sure that we enable our students value the audiences’ time and attention.

In many ways, this is the piece of the puzzle that caused me the most stress. I don’t see stress as a bad thing as long as it helps me focus on tasks. Even with this attitude and my philosophical perspective, truthfully yesterday is one of the hardest days in the year for me.

In the midst of everything going on yesterday, I had the though flash in my head, “would I rather not deal with this day of craziness every year?” And I quickly moved that thought to the side and dived back into what needed to be done.

Hard isn’t bad and neither is stress. Because the kind of challenges I dealt with yesterday, I didn’t deal with alone. I had my department who had my back and the administration and other faculty were constantly asking me what they could to help. These were difficult but manageable. But what makes me embrace yesterday more than anything else is knowing that all of challenges of that day come from a desire to innovate, and create something special for our community. It’s the same motivation we have every day, it’s just cranked up a couple notches because there are more moving pieces.

Yesterday went really well.  A lot of things went really well and one of the best signs of success was how all of us as music teachers were inspired by the work we did yesterday for our work in the future.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that yes, it is a stressful day, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Parenthood: Week 131 – Ollie’s World

I listened carefully as Ollie explained to me the different colors of the "butterflies” (they were actually fireflies) on his mobile that hung above his crib. He told me what colors each butterfly was and how some had stripes and others had polka dots. He leaned his head tenderly on my chest as we lay there together in his crib watching his butterfly friends slowly fly through the air.

After I greeted Ollie after his nap, he asked me to come into his crib. I carefully climbed in. He pated the right side of his pillow and said, “daddy sleep here.” I somehow managed to maneuver myself in the crib and settled in next to him. We talked about his mobile for a little bit, and them attempted to touch the fireflies with our feet.

Ollie then asked me to help him make a tent. He wanted more pillows and an extra blanket. After receiving more pillows, Ollie giggled in joy. I placed a fitted sheet over his crib and Ollie exclaimed, “I’m hiding in tent!” And no, I don’t really understand making a tent requires more pillows either.

I called Diana upstairs and told her that Ollie was hiding. When Ollie heard Diana’s explaining how she couldn’t find Ollie in the closet or under the chair, Ollie spoke while giggling “Ollie hiding in tent. Ollie quiet.” Diana lifted up the sheet to find a little laughing toddler.

Ollie then asked me to come back in the crib and for Diana to put the tent back up. Again, I carefully climbed into his crib and Diana pulled the sheet over top creating a glowing white canopy covering world full of soft pillows, and cuddly blankets.

Ollie rolled around on top of me telling me things about the tent, and his pillows. Some of his words and phrases I understood. What I didn’t understand, I didn’t ask for clarification because I could tell through his energy and joyous expression, what he was trying to communicate to me.

Ollie brought his face close to mine and carefully examined my face with his fingers delightfully observing “daddy’s eyebrows.” He followed up on Diana’s earlier requests that day and practiced giving me kisses on my cheek, some of which were more slobber than kisses but were no less cute.

We all try to create our own world in this life, a smaller part of this bigger world that we can understand. To a toddler, the world is big, confusing and often scary. Ollie has to spend so much of his day trying to interact with this larger world. I can see in Ollie’s eyes how difficult this can be when after trying to explore the world, all he wants is a hug.

There are times when our little ones invite us into their world. Sometimes it’s a tent, other times its a playhouse or at the trunk of a tree. If you enter their world with an open mind and let them share their world with you, there is great beauty to be seen. You may not understand their little world, but you don’t have to. Toddlers find joy in the wide world filled with things they don’t understand but they find happiness in that wonder because of what you show them and teach them about that world. So let your toddler do the same and enjoy their world.

It’s a beautiful place to visit.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Year 6: Week 15 - Thoughts Before Concert Week

Next week is going to be crazy.

We have our middle school and high school music concert on Thursday night and our JK-5th grade Holiday program i Thursday during the day. All of our teaching schedules will be different, there will inevitably be last minute issues that will arise before the performances and logistical concerns will distract us from the business of making music with our students.

It’s going to a week full of hard work and challenges, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun at the same time.

Yes, we are progressive teachers. We all believe in process over the product. At the same time, we are part of a school community and it is important that students represent themselves and the work they do in class at a high level during these performances. No, the performances aren’t the point of what we do, but they are a window into the process and its important that this glance reflects the best of our preparation, care and musicianship to our community.

In this swirl of activity, stress and worry, here’s a couple things to keep in mind.

We will always get further with the carrot than the stick. Yes, there is a time to let kids know where the boundaries and to have stern conversations. But for the vast majority of our kids, genuine and specific compliments will motivate them far more than any punitive feedback. The most powerful teaching tool we have is a genuine joyful smile that comes from helping our students make great music. So let them see you  that smile.

Make the rehearsals meaningful. If there was a massive snowstorm the day of our concerts would the rehearsals leading up to the performance feel like a waste of time? Every rehearsal has the potential for students to grow, have new and interesting experiences and to find personal meaning in their work. Pride of a successful performance starts with pride in a productive and satisfying rehearsal.

Have fun. Every day, we have the privilege of working with great kids and exposing them to the joy and wonder that is music. Next week, we get to share what we do every day with our community. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. So don’t forget to take a moment next week to just enjoy the music and our students' energy and enthusiasm.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Monday, December 7, 2015

Parenthood: Week 130 – Coming Around

My relationship with Ollie is starting to turn back around.

Like with any relationship, my relationship with my son has ups and downs. During October and into November things were going really well. He would seek me out to do read books and do activities. Then I went away for a week in early November for my 5th grade trip and since then things have been a little rocky.

Over thanksgiving break when we traveled to Seattle, he was very clingy with my wife Diana. If she was in the room he would immediately want her to hold him. In order to give her some space and time for other people to play with him, she would have to go to a different room.

When we got back from Seattle, he started doing this thing where he would protest “no, dad NO!” when I would offer to read a book with him or take a shower with him, an activity, just a couple weeks earlier, he would ask for enthusiastically. There were even times in the car, when he would just scream, “no, dad, NO!” in response to nothing.

This has been a difficult one to decipher. Having me be away for a week obviously threw him off, which is understandable. Ollie doesn’t have the language skills to express how that made him feel, so even though he seemed fine right when I came back, it makes sense that there may be some other feelings that later came out about the trip that he is working through.

Ollie’s language is developing at a rapid pace and there’s a good chance that he doesn’t actually know what the meaning of what he’s saying when he rejects me. At the same time, it’s important, as we have been doing, to let him know that this is not the way to talk to people that we love in our family.

It’s frustrating and it’s hard not to have my feelings hurt when Ollie protests against spending time with me. At the same time, I know he doesn’t fully understand the meaning of what he is saying especially when he feeling different emotions or dealing with being tired or other physical issues.

Last week has been good though. We had three nice bath times and he happily let me read him a book without insisting that “mom do it."  It’s not like we had some long talk followed by hugging it out. He’s two years old and I don’t know what helped, but things are better.

Maybe it was the fact that I didn't loose my patience with him (though I got close at times).  Or maybe he just needed time to work out his emotions.   Either way, I really enjoyed some really nice moments with him last week.

One thing that helped was sending him "love bombs."  I continued to do things to take care of him, many of which he didn't notice like cleaning stains out of his clothing.  This allowed me to feel good about what I did for him, which made it feel like, that Ollie coming around was inevitable.

I know that things will continue to go with waves with Ollie, and that things once again will get rocky between us, but more importantly I know that things will eventually get better.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Year 6: Week 14 - Lessons From A Muslim

I was going to write about how I was inspired by one of my fellow teachers to really pour on meaningful praise on my students and how much this has changed the feeling in my classroom. However, with all that has been going on in the world, there’s something much more important that I need to address: Muslims. 

After the Thanksgiving weekend we had a teacher in-service day on Monday. Theses days can sometimes be very meaningful and other times less so. The time between Thanksgiving and the Holiday break is one of the most stressful times of year as preparations for Holiday concerts go into high gear. Entering this week, I was feeling stressed and part of me was feeling resentful that we had this in-service day instead of a productive day of teaching with my kids.

I didn’t really look closely at the agenda thinking, “well, it’s not like I can do anything about it, so why bother think about it.” I must have saw the topic about Islam, but it didn’t really sink in until I walked into our first meeting and saw our presenter Chaplain Omer Mozaffar, a Muslim Chaplain from Loyola University Chicago. His warm presence made me reconsider my attitude about the day and as he started speaking, I was immediately engaged.

Chaplain Mozaffar gave us a beautiful overview of Islam. He talked about how his father would point out that the architect for Willis Tower and the John Hancock buildings was Muslim. The statistics he provided helped us understand that stereotypes about violence being central to Islam was illogical. There’s no way a religious tradition could have survived for so long and be so widespread if it was based on violence.  Chaplain Mozaffar broke down every single negative stereotype about Muslims with patience and a lack of anger.

Chaplain Mozaffar confirmed facts that I knew.  More importantly, he framed Islam in a way that showcased the beauty of the soul of what it means to be Muslim.

At the end of his talk, I asked the Chaplain how the Islamic community is dealing with hateful rhetoric being expressed towards Muslims.  He talked about how Muslim leaders are studying the struggles of other minorities from the past for perspective like Catholics in early 20th century America and Jews in pre-world war II Germany. He said that they expected more hate in the coming months. Omer had every right to speak with anger and sadness but he didn’t.  Instead there was a strength and faith in his voice.

The talk didn’t have anything to do with pedagogy. There was no discussion in how we would talk to kids about Islam or how to use this information to make our curriculum more inclusive.  What was the point of having this presentation at a teacher in-service day?

Things seem pretty bleak right now.  Politicians are using hate speech to pander to the worst part of our souls turning fear into racism. Muslims in America are suffering as many minority group in America have experienced and they are suffering in ways that no other group has had to endure.

How is this knowledge about Islam going to help me be a better teacher?  I don't know right now but what I do know is that I've been thinking about this question the entire week.  With this question in my mind, I've been more conscientious to authentically teach my third graders about Hanukkah and have set-up a visit from a Rabbi to talk to my students.  With this question in my mind while reeling from another shooting that involved Muslims as suspects, I had an honest discussion with an African-American student about how the word "boy" can hurt.  And with this question in my mind, I have embraced my responsibility as an educator to rise above the ignorance and hate and be a model of understanding and empathy for my students.

Chaplain Mozaffar has every right to express anger at the injustice and prejudice Muslims are experiencing every day in our country.  But instead, he embodies one of the central tenants of Islam, the belief that deep down, all people are good.  This gives us hope, because if a Muslim can face a world so filled with darkness with this belief, than the rest of us can surely look past the fear in our own hearts to the goodness inside of Muslims in our community and in the world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Missing Buffy

“I better make sure to close the front door as we unload, so that Buffy doesn’t get out.”

“Oh boy, Ollie is eating grapes, I better hold Buffy so that she doesn’t eat one that he drops.’

“It’s still dark, but it’s morning so I should get out of bed to walk Buffy.”
Each one of these thoughts this past weekend were followed by a forgotten fact, “Buffy is not here at my parents house, she’s back in Chicago.” While this meant that I didn’t have be extra careful or have to take care of her, instead of feeling relief, I felt sadness.

Most of the time when we travel to my parent’s house in the west coast we take Buffy with us (here’s a post about taking Buffy on a plane). We decided while flying with Ollie, that we would not take Buffy with us on shorter trips, like this past trip over Thanksgiving weekend that we would not take Buffy with us. Buffy spent a fun weekend with my mother-in-law.  Having one fewer kid to worry about on the busiest traveling weekend of the year is helpful. However this reasoning as sound as it is, doesn’t make us miss Buffy any less.

Lately, instead of just waving goodbye to Buffy in the mornings, I’ve been giving her a hug and a kiss. Also, I’ve been giving her extra walks more often in the past couple months. In any relationship, there are times when you feel closer to someone you care about than at other times and for some reason, I’ve been feeling closer to Buffy lately.

Some of this is guilt. I know that sometimes I take Buffy for granted. When someone you love, is so consistently supportive and is always there for you, this can be overlooked as a habit, when in reality, it’s a result of consistent effort and care. Dogs unlike most humans have an incredible well of loyalty and care to draw from that even when unreciprocated, will keep coming and coming. This is one of the most amazing things about dogs, but it’s also a blessing that we should honor through our own actions.

The turning point for me was a stressful day towards the beginning of the school year when I realized that my only interactions were Buffy were doing things to care for her that all felt like chores. Yes, I was being responsible and taking care of my dog but I was missing the entire purpose of having one.

I started talking to Buffy more, and making sure that my time with Buffy was not just about chores but enjoying and fostering our relationship. Buffy is no longer a puppy that demands our attention, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need or deserve our love any less. With an older dog, it’s more on us to initiate interactions. This is what makes the arc of a relationship with a dog meaningful and special.

Missing the ones you love is bittersweet. While the longing can be painful, it is a result of true care and time spent together. Unlike the chores of being at home, I miss my Buffy because she is so much more than a chore. I’m embracing how much I miss Buffy because I know its because of how deeply I feel for my little puppy.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Parenthood: Week 129 – Toddler On A Plane

Ollie went on his first plane flight when he was about six months old (I wrote about this experience with this post).

Last weekend, Ollie went on his 18th flight.

In retrospect, those first couple flight weren’t really that bad. It was stressful, but a lot of that had to do with my own anticipation and worry. After we got through a that first flight, I realized that we could handle having Ollie on a plane.

Then things got worse.

As Ollie got passed a year old he was moving around a lot more on the plane and sleeping less. With his more developed senses, he required more stimuli. This meant that we spent a lot of time walking Ollie up and down the aisles and attempting to entertain him. He was too young to pay attention to an iPad or iPhone so we ended up having him play with things like plastic cups and scotch tape. As weird as this sounds, there were flights that he would spend almost an hour playing with this kind of random stuff.

We’ve had a number of rough moments. One time I went to the back bathroom to change Ollie’s diaper. When I got out, we ended up being stuck behind a beverage cart being pushed by a not-so-accommodating flight attendant. I ended up standing in the back of the plane trying to keep Ollie entertaining and calm for forty-five minutes before I could get back to my seat.

Diana and I would take turns holding Ollie and trying to keep him entertained. We did this in half and hour chunks of time so that we could each get a break. Before a kid is two years old, he or she can be a lap baby and we did that for as long as we could.

Now that Ollie is almost two and a half things are a lot different. He is comforting eating most solid foods and he know has the attention span and the interest to watch a television show or a movie on an iPad. I bought Ollie a used iPod touch and put it in a case designed for a toddler but of course he wanted to use my iPad instead, so now I watch a show on my iPhone while Ollie enjoys the glow of the larger screen of the iPad.

We don’t feel great having Ollie watch an iPad for most of a plane flight but it keeps him calm and entertained. Also, it allow me and Diana to relax ourselves for part of the flight more than we ever have since Ollie started flying.

Yes, flying with your kid does get easier. It was tough when he was 6 months old, really hard when he was a 1 year to a year and a half and it has gotten steadily easier ever since then.

Here’s some tips for flying with a toddler:
  • Bring a cheap umbrella stroller to the airport and gate-check it. Baby carriers are great, but once a kid gets a certain size, a stroller is more practical. Getting a toddler to walk through an airport is really tough, so just use a stroller. You don’t realize how much walking you do in an airport until you have a toddler in toe.
  • If you fly a lot get this harness for your kid. If you need to bring a car seat, consider checking it. It’s a lot to handle on a plane. This harness works great and takes up very little space in your carry-on.
  • Load up a video device with something your child likes to watch. Most likely they will want to watch the same thing over and over, but you never know.  I recommend multiple shorter shows if your child doesn't have a current obsession.  These headphones are key. They are a good size for kid and have a volume limit to protect your child’s hearing.
Taking Ollie on a plane is still challenging.  He still had some minor meltdowns during these last two flights, and I'm sure we will hit other challenges flying with Ollie in the future.  Children grow up really quickly and while a lot of things get harder when kids move into different stages in their lives, sometimes things get easier.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Year 6: Week 13 – Being Married To A Teacher

Why was I shopping for fruits and vegetables that had seeds 9pm on Monday night at the grocery store? Because I’m married to a teacher.

Diana’s third graders were doing a science project exploring different kinds of seeds and I decided to pitch in and help by going out to buy some fruits and vegetables. I like going to grocery store anyways and we needed some other food. And it’s a good feeling knowing how my contribution will benefit Diana’s students.

While I’m in my tenth year of being a teacher, Diana is in her first year as a teacher. Throughout my career, Diana has provided incredible support. There is no way that I would still be a teacher without the hours of conversations we’ve had about school and my students and the countless number of tasks she has done to help me with my job. Every school that I have worked at owes Diana a salary as an educational consultant. Her ideas, insights and expertise consistently enrich the educational experience of my students.

Diana’s efforts as the spouse of a teacher while meaningful and special to me are not unique. Supporter partners of teachers are the unsung heroes of education.

There are teachers who can only afford to be a teacher because of their spouse’s financial support. Spouses of teachers do extra housework as their spouses grade paper late into the night due to an unreasonable amount of preparation time. They make bulletin boards, sift through stakes of used books, put together bookshelves, make costumes, clean classrooms, pack snacks, edit emails, help create lesson plans and more, making the overwhelming job of being a teacher manageable.

Now I know first hand, after being the recipient of Diana’s support for a decade, what it’s like to be the one on the other side. There’s always something I can do to help Diana. We talk about her lessons, problem-solve concerns and we laugh about the things that kids do that only teachers find hilarious.

I support my wife’s career because I love her but also because I know that my help is positively effecting Diana’s students. There is great satisfaction in the work I do with my own students but there is a different type of gratification knowing that I am able to assist Diana in doing the same thing. Empowering the people that you care about is one of the most meaningful way to show love.

So, to the spouses: Keep at it. Support you wife or husband who is a teacher. Be their strongest ally, and be their most enthusiastic supporter. Every little thing helps.  No job is too small.  In sharing this work, you will more acutely experience tribulations of being an educator, but you will also find more meaning in sharing the joy of teaching.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Monday, November 23, 2015

Parenthood: Week 128 – The Real Message In The "Big Boy" Compliment

Alex: Well, the boys and girls are, like, afraid of each other. They're acting like a bunch of…
Lisa: Kids?
Alex: I know! What is up with that?
Lisa: It's because they are kids! And so are we! Come on, Alex, we've only got nine, maybe ten years tops where we can giggle in church, and chew with our mouths open and go days without bathing! We'll never have that freedom again.
-from The Simpsons, Season 10, Episode 1: "Lard Of The Dance"

When you listen to teachers and parents compliment toddlers, one of the things you often hear is praise associated with being more like older kids. For example “wow, you put your shoes on all by yourself, just like a big boy” or “good job, you used your potty like a big girl. Now you can wear, big girl panties.”

These kinds of comments come out of myself as a teacher. Since I teach grades 3-8, I’ve found that positively comparing my younger kids as doing something as well as my older kids as praise that many of my students find motivating, but does that mean it’s right?

If we consistently praise positive behavior and actions, as being indicative of being an older age, then what are we telling our children about the age they are currently experiencing?

Kids already have this idea that adults have it made. They don’t see the responsibility and the stress that restricts our actions and our choices. Kids see a magic plastic card that can buy anything, which represents this unrestricted freedom in life.

So we work off of this idea and work to keep out kids going by making them feel like their positive actions are making them more like what they idolize.  If we are not careful, and our children focus more and more on acting older, than I fear that they are missing out on enjoying their current age.

We don’t want our kids wishing that they were taller or that they were a different race. We want our kids to learn to accept and love who they are. Why not extend this to their age? It would make me really sad if Ollie spent a lot of time, wishing he was older as opposed to taking pride in his age and reveling in the glory of being two.

Aren’t we working against this idea of self-acceptance if we use being like an older age as praise?

I believe strongly in praise.  In order for children to develop a strong sense of self-esteem and positive inner-dialogue they need to hear loving and supportive comments all of the time.  However we need to be careful how we are helping construct this internal dialogue.  What do we really want out kids to think when they do something good?  "I'm proud of myself because I cleaned up my toys like an older kid" or "I'm proud of myself because I cleaned up my toys all by myself."

I used to think that things would be easier as Ollie got older.  This attitude translates into parents complimenting their kids for being like older kids.  Now I know that while many things are easier, as whole, parenthood is actually more difficult.  Once you accept this fact, enjoying your time with your children becomes about accepting their age and not wishing they would be older.

Youth is wasted on the young when they spend their time wishing to be older.  So let's help our kids enjoy being kids and let's look to other ways to compliment our children, not based in acting older but rather based in independence, pride, and joy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Year 6: Week 12 – Seeking Shelter From The Storm At Taft

Click here for a link to last year’s post about Taft that has links to previous posts about this trip.

Right on cue, the rain started to come down.

We were planning on going on a hike in the evening but we knew a storm was coming. Rain, we could handle, but lightning and thunder and sideways rain was a whole different deal. Around lunchtime we made the call to stay inside that evening and figured out a plan for the evening.

Half the kids (about 30 kids) were working with in one space and half the students were in another building.

As we finished up our time, the rain really started to come down. The other groups weren’t there yet, and my kids were starting to focus on the storm and the lightning. So I thought, “what would Bruce Springsteen do?”

When I saw Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field a couple years ago, it started rain and the way that he got his audience through that moment was by standing strong in the rain, not ignoring the storm but rather embracing it leading the stadium in singing “Who’ll Stop The Rain.”

After a couple quick searches on my iPhone to get some lyrics down, I placed a chair down at the end of the room, gathered the kids around me and asked them to repeat after me “yeah, I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?” And then I started playing my guitar and I began to sing. Every time I we got to the end of the verse I reached out and I heard my students reply “yeah, I wonder. . . ”

We sang a couple more songs and as I noticed that the art group was joining us, I started “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” again and finally for the first time this year, we sang together as a whole class.

Every class I teach has a group vibe, a group energy that doesn't really reflect individual behavior, intelligence, or kindness.  It's just that magic something that makes a group click.  This year's 5th grade has a harder time clicking as a large group.  I've known this ever since I had them as 3rd graders.  I value all these students as individuals but when then are working in larger groups, they can be really challenging.  Classroom teachers don't really have to consider how they work as a group of 60, but as music teacher, I do.

This moment when I heard them all sing together "yeah, I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?" was really important for me.  When you work for a group of students, sometimes you forget the magic of how amazing students can be.  This trip was a great opportunity to think more clearly of my students as individuals and not as a challenging larger group.  It was great to remind myself of that and then to hear their voice singing out to me in a beautiful unison was inspiring.

Yes, I was exhausted after the trip, but I was more excited to get back to working with my 5th graders in the classroom the following week than I've felt all year.  We got a lot of work to do with my 5th graders, but I know we again share a feeling of being together, seeking shelter from a storm.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Parenthood: Week 127 – Another Reunion

This past week, I spent most of my time away from Ollie. I went on our yearly fifth grade outdoor education trip, which was from Tuesday through Friday.

Two year agos, when I first went on this trip as a father, my mind kept coming back to Ollie and wanting to be at home to help Diana (I wrote about this in this post). I knew that Diana and Buffy would miss me but I didn’t worry at all about Ollie missing me. He was only a couple months old and he didn’t have a developed concept of time.

Being away from Ollie, now that he is older is easier and harder all at the same time. It’s easier to be away from Ollie because I know he is more independent and his ability to advocate for himself has continued to grow. It’s harder to be away from him because he is much more aware of when I’m away and the amount of time that we spend together. Also, while toddlers are stronger and more durable, they can also get into a lot more trouble than a newborn (newsflash: toddlers do not innately know to not run into traffic).

I told Ollie that I was going on a trip the Sunday before. At first he assumed that he was going to go on the trip with me. When I explained that Ollie was going to stay home and that my parents were coming to visit at the same time, he had a meltdown. Later, Ollie and I had a Facetime conversation with my mom and explained the situation again and this time he didn’t have a meltdown and seemed excited to see my mom.

Part of me would rather leave without having these tough conversations but I know that it would make it harder for Diana. Having your kid meltdown about a situation before it happens means that they are having time to experience these feelings, which is important as they process their emotions.

Ollie did pretty well being away from me. He didn’t seem to outwardly express that he missed me that much.  I missed him a ton and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. But I was able to focus and I had some really nice moments with my fifth graders.

When I got home on Friday evening, Buffy ran up and licked my face when I picked her up, which is something she only does after I come back from a trip. Most of the time when I greet her, she looks up at me and allows me to pet her before walking away. After Diana said hi to me and gave me a hug, Ollie ran up to me, noticed that I had my guitar and requested that we play together. No dramatic hug or greeting, he just wanted to get down to having some father-son time. And that’s exactly what we did.

I was exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated, but as Ollie strummed my guitar, I felt content, happy and for the first time since I left for the trip, complete.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Year 6: Week 11 - Looking The Part

I've given up trying to look like a teacher. 

At my first teaching job, where I taught high school, we were instructed told to dress business casual and then on Fridays, we could dress down in jeans and a polo shirt.  The idea was that it was important to dress-up to distinguish ourselves from the students.  So I would wear khakis, a dress shirts and sometime I wore a tie.  Yes, this did separate me from the students but as most of the kids were taller than me and a lot of guys had more facial hair than me, simply dressing fancy didn't really help me get authority as a teacher. 

More than anything I was uncomfortable and I felt like it I was putting on an act.  This only added to my feeling that I couldn't authentically be myself at this job and I think that many of my students sensed this. 

When I entered elementary school land at my second job, more than the abundance of scarves, I noticed that teachers dressed my pragmatically. Teachers wore clothing that allowed them to comfortable sit in little chairs, and sit on the floor.  At this school teachers still dressed up but there was more individuality.  One teacher always wore varying colored converse sneakers and there was one teacher who had matching earrings, vest and sock sets for every single has holiday.

On my first day, I was told to wear comfortable pants like jeans and athletic shoes because the student I was working with was a flight risk (a kid who 
previously tried to run out of the school) and I needed to be ready to chase him if he ran.  I went with jeans and a nice shirt and this felt more natural.  

My current school is a JK-12 school.  While the administration dresses formally every day, the faculty dresses in all kinds of different ways.  Some teachers dress formally, others in t-shirts and jeans while others like myself are somewhere in-between.

Faculty members' dress seems to reflect the individuality we value in our students.  One English teacher wears suits with quirky shoes, one teacher only wears purple clothing and some of our teachers dress in traditional ethnic clothing.  

For me this means this means that my earring is in, I got jeans on, I wear colorful dress shirts and matching colored Qalo silicon wedding ring (my current obsession).  In years passed I wore friendship bracelets too, which I'm getting interested in revisiting.  

We still need to have a certain level of professionalism in our dress but that doesn't mean that we can't be individuals at the same time.
My school doesn't place high value on us looking like teachers.  This is clear in the way that teachers dress.  For us, it's more about helping students know us as people than seeing us as authority figures. It's interesting that while this has never been explicitly stated during my time at the school, the teachers and the community have picked up on this. 

Teachers are at their best when they are able to be themselves in front of their students.  For some of us, what we wear helps teaching become an expression of who we truly are, which helps our students embrace their own individuality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

Parenthood: Week 126 - 10,000 Frames


That’s a conservative estimate of how many photos I’ve taken of Ollie. That’s about 10 photos for every day Ollie’s been alive. Mind you, this is a estimate is on the low side, since I’ve deleted thousands of photos of Ollie that were blurry or out of focus.

Ollie’s generation is the most photographed and video recorder of all time. The digital camera cut people loose from the restrictions of film and the smartphone added a level of accessibility to cameras that most people had never experienced.

I wasn’t all that into photography. Even after getting my first digital camera, a Canon Powershot, I didn’t use it that often. What got me really inspired with taking photos was Buffy.

A puppy is the perfect model to learn how to use a camera. They look good at almost any angle; they are constantly doing things that are interesting and cute. As much as they run around, they also can be very still.

I learned a lot from taking pictures of Buffy. There was no need to limit the amount of shots I took so I started taking a ton of pictures and got comfortable with only having a minority of the shots turns out. Since Buffy’s eyes didn’t respond well to flash, I focused on utilizing the light in the room, which made for much better pictures. Buffy’s size as a little puppy forced me to take many pictures lying down the floor, which taught me a lot about perspective.

My brother, Ed started getting into photography and I was really impressed with the quality of shots he was getting with a higher end digital camera. With the SmartPhones on the market, point and shoot models were becoming less relevant so camera companies started making DSLR cameras which combined the ease of use of a point and shoot with the functions of a higher end camera. A couple years before Ollie was born I got a Sony DSLR and my photography world exploded.

Shutter speed, white/black balance, and aperture became parts of the way I thought about photos. The possibilities of this camera seemed overwhelming at first but like a larger palette of colors, the control I had over the images became liberating.

I loved the way that people reacted to my photos and I loved how the world looked through my lens. The stillness of the photos allowed the meaning of moments to express themselves in ways that memory overlooks.

When you are taking photos, you are pulling yourself out of a situation. For a couples seconds you are no longer participating in the moment. While there have been many magical moments I’ve captured on photos, there have been others that I’ve purposely not photographed (often through Diana’s suggestions) that live in our memories.

Some photos bring back memories but others don’t. They are just reminders of things that we’ve forgotten. In this way the memory of the photo itself sometimes takes over the memory of the event.

Yes, I partially take photos of Ollie to show off to people. He’s pretty damn cute. Photography is an important way that my mom, family members and other friends who aren’t local, stay involved in Ollie’s life.  I don’t think I’d take as many photos of Ollie if the only people who saw them were Diana and me but I would keep taking photos.

It’s true, kids grow-up really fast. Looking at photos helps you take a moment to reflect. Pictures of Ollie help us remember how much he has grown as a child and how much we have grown as parents.  They are documents of the blessing of parenthood, the ultimate adventure in our lives.  I don't know how much these photos will mean to Ollie when he is older but they mean a lot to me.

The hope for the future is motivating and the present is an exciting ride, so much of the meaning of parenthood comes from the past.  Our memory is imperfect and photographs don't fill in all the gaps, but they help a lot.  

But 10,000 frames?  Really?  Well, that's what happens when you take a weekly photo of your kid and your dog . . . more details about this with a later post.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Year 6: Week 10 – Being A Teacher Of Color

I was hired to be a music teacher. A couple years ago, I took on the role as a co-department chair. I have explicitly stated responsibilities with these two roles. There’s another role I have at this school that is not in my contract, a role I don’t get paid any extra money to fulfill, and a role that it feels like it is becoming more and more vital to my job: being a teacher of color.

Race is a clear and present issue in America. Anyone who discusses “moving past race” is trying to placate people who desire an America where the white majority enjoys the benefits of racism without dealing with people of color advocating for equal rights. Issues around race in America are like cancer in this way. You can ignore it and refuse to address this issue but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there eating away at the soul of our country.

When I started as a teaching professional, I knew that Asian-Americans like other racial groups were underrepresented in education. Every time I was the only teacher of color in a meeting or a conference, I was reminded of my race and I felt a slight twinge of marginalization. This really wasn’t all that different than my life outside school, as in almost every situation in my life, I am a racial minority, and when I’m not, like when I’m around my extended family, I’m a minority in another ways.

Being reminded of your race, and having this reminder not always feel good is part of life as a person of color. It’s draining and I never realized how much this would be part of my job as a teacher until I started at this school.

This is the first school I taught at that explicitly talks about racial diversity. I appreciated this but I didn’t really know what to do with this fact. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to Asian kids confiding in me. I’ve come to really enjoy when students who aren’t Asian ask me about my racial heritage and I’ve become more at ease expressing my own Asian heritage in classroom conversations.

When issues surrounding race come up in my school, I get drawn into conversations with administrators and faculty. I enjoy problem-solving and discussing most issues at this school so why wouldn’t I want to talk about issues surrounding race? Because dealing with race in my own life, and facing racism in the wider society is sometimes more than I can handle.

At these moments of fatigue and frustration, being a person of color feels like a burden.  But then I think about my kids and I'm reminded that what may feel like a burden to me is a blessing for them.  Their exposure to a me as part of a diverse teaching population is important in my students' lives.

So I dig deep and lean in.

I've learned to embrace my role as a teacher of color and while it's taxing, it's important.  While being reminded of my race as a teacher is challenging at times, when a reminder is accompanied by a 7 year-old's excitement to find a teacher who is from Taiwan just like her parents, I realize how proud I am to be a teacher of color.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

Parenthood: Week 125 – Levels Of Giving

My high school senior English teacher taught me about the idea of three levels of giving. The first level of giving was when you would give something to a person but only if you were sure that they would know if was you and would acknowledge your gift.

The second level of giving was when you saw the recipient feel joy from your gift as validation but you didn’t need that person to know the gift was from you. The third level is when you give something to someone but you don’t require any validation from that person. You are motivated not by any feedback from the other person but simply by the feeling of knowing that you are doing something for someone else.

I feel like most of time, I’m at the first level, sometimes I hit the second level and rarely I’m at the third level. That’s the case for most people. It’s hard to do things for others and not get recognition or even see the positive benefits of your actions. Giving for most of us, most of the time really isn’t about the other person, it’s about what we have to gain. Our baser instincts are selfish and it takes a lot of reflection and effort to rise above this.

Parenthood whether you are ready for it or not, places you squarely in the second level and often in the third level. An infant gives you little to no recognition for the time and energy you give to it. Most toddlers have no idea that after they go to bed, dishes are done and houses are cleaned. The reality is that most of the hard work we do for our kids contributes to their life-long development which has many results we will never witness.

Toddlers don’t understand gratitude intuitively and infants have no memory of the times that we scrub their clothes and spend hours rocking them to bed. Because of this lack of awareness, it’s actually not that hard to be a mediocre parent.

If you’re ten minutes late to a kid’s first birthday party, she won’t notice. Your kid will not remember all of the times that instead of reading a book to her, you got lazy and turned on the television. So what is it that keep you going, that gets you to that third level where you do things for this little person who doesn’t say thank you and sometimes doesn’t realize that these good deed are coming from you?

When we do things for our kids, we are nurturing a relationship. When you put in the extra effort to get a stain out of a onesie, you are exercising that part of your heart that gives. Each time you do a small action for your kid, it makes you care that much more, and it motivates you to stay involved. It’s a feeling of pride, it’s a lack of regret and it’s the emotion of love.

We cannot look to our children for gratitude. Yes, we need to raise our kids with a sense of graciousness but we can't look to them for validation. I wasn’t getting it from Ollie when he was an infant, I’m barely getting it now that he’s a toddler.  I don't expect that this will change any time soon.  It’s frustrating at times, because I yearn for that first level, the recognition, but then I have to calm myself and remember that I’m a parent and I need to find a deeper sense of the goodness inside of me to keep myself going.

Push yourself to give all that you can to your child.  Go beyond your comfort level, and make the extra effort every day.  It is aggravating and exhausting, but each time you give, it gets you closer to that third level, where we are at peace with finding the meaning of giving not in what we receive but in the act of giving itself.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Year 6: Week 9 – Getting Better

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and enjoy what’s going right.

I was trained at college to be a “reflective practitioner.” After every sample lesson we taught and after every conducting experience we were assigned to write a reflection. At a certain point felt like I was writing reflections on reflections. While this was annoying at times, I’m grateful for this work because it has hard wired into me to be reflective with every single thing I do as a teacher.

The only downside with this approach is that sometimes this mentality ends up putting you a mind space where, ever after great successes instead of enjoying the moment, you instead spend time being self-critical.

So let’s take stock of what’s been going on. In the past two weeks, two majors project have come to a close: the acquisition of a new instruments and a performance that I helped bring to my school. I’ve made great strides in two other major projects.

While those things are awesome, what I’ve realized this week is that my kids are really doing well. Yes, my 8th graders are still, well, acting like 8th graders, but musically they are further along than any other 8th grade group I’ve taught. Even though there are bumps in the road, as a group they are really started to get “it.”

My 6th graders are slowly making their way from making sounds on their instrument that only a band teacher could love to produce real quality musical sounds. Their enthusiasm throughout this whole process is really inspiring. Most adults would not last through the process of learning an instrument with the same level of grit and determination that my 6th graders are showing.

My 5th graders are responding well to me giving them feedback after every activity we do in class. I write a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 as an assessment of their ability to work through the activity as a class. There’s no reward for a class with all 5’s but they are seeing concrete feedback, which helps them see what they are doing well and what we need to work on.

Then there are my 3rd graders. They are so excited to perform “Simple Gifts” at the upcoming Thanksgiving presentation. Sometimes the amount of energy it takes to reel them in is exhausting, but they are really into what we are doing. Yes, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to performing as a choir, but it’s clear that they all want to do the work and get better.

Yes, things are still crazy, but things are going really well. The work I’m doing is challenging because I continue to reflect on my practice as a teacher. But it’s good work, and as stressful as things get, the one constant is that I have great kids who inspire me every day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Parenthood: Week 124 – Option C

“Ollie, do you want to wear your penguin pajamas or your stripey pajamas?” 
“Ollie wear pajamas with cars!”

Choice is an important part of developing independence in our son. From before Ollie could really make choices about his clothing I would let him choose between two shirts. At first, I would simply interpret which shirt his eye would go to first as the expression of his opinion, but now that he’s older, he is much more verbal about what he wants.

For those of you with toddlers you may think that the term “verbal” is a euphemism for “dictator-like” and yes, this is the case a lot of the time. Life for toddlers can be very confusing. They understand so much more about their life and their environment every day, but their verbal skills don’t always equip them to interact with the world in a way they would like.

Toddlers don’t have the capacity to understand choices made for them everyday. So they can get a little bossy. You would too if someone was making hundreds of choices for you in your life and you didn’t understand the reasons why.

I believe toddlers like all humans are innately good. I also believe that interacting with the world in a polite and productive way is not innate. Without proper guidance and instruction, toddlers again like all humans can act really rude and annoying running contrary to their innate goodness.

One of our primary jobs as parents is to help our toddlers express themselves in appropriate ways. I believe, (through anecdotal experiences and no research), that kids learn how to polite when they are given the chance to express these opinions.

A toddler is going to express his or her own opinion no matter what you do, so instead of steering way from providing a choice that may lead to a meltdown, lean into giving your kids more choices about things less consequential, to help them feel more control over their lives and get important praise for being polite.

What does this look like? There’s a fair amount of me giving Ollie two choices between something and him choosing an unstated third option. More often than not, I just go for the third option. If Ollie doesn’t want to get into the car, asking him which car he wants to ride in, “mommy’s or daddy’s” will provide a little sense of self-determination that gets him going.

Something new (and amazing) that we’ve started using this week is giving Ollie choice as a way to defuse coming tantrums and combat stubbornness. Example: Ollie insists on Diana reading him a book. It’s my turn to read to him, so Diana leaves the room. Ollie starts melting down, then I quickly give Ollie the choice between too books. He thinks about it, chooses one and settles in my lap. Another example: Ollie was getting upset because Ollie wanted to watch more television, Diana then offered Ollie the choice between two snacks, and he immediately moved his attention to the snacks and settled down.

Choice is a powerful thing. Most adults would rather choose a situation where they have more choices than stick with a situation they feel powerless. Ollie had no power to make that television turn back on, so he picked the path that gave him back some power in a productive way.

If a student is struggling with math, you don't lean away as a teacher and put less attention on math.  You lean in and do more math work.  Toddlers struggle with making choices and expressing their opinions in a productive way and in order to help our kids through this we need to lean in and provide more productive opportunities for choice, not less.

I'm not advocating letting your child completely run his or her own life, but see what kind of power you can give to your kids while maintaining very necessary controls over your child's life.  This may mean that you let your toddler pick their own clothing and wears a horribly mismatched outfit a couple days a week.  Ignore the clashing colors and focus on your child's expression.  That smile and sense of pride is more beautiful than the most perfectly coordinated outfit.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Year 6: Week 8 - Ghosts Of Kids Who Quit

I see them in the hallways. They say “hello” to me in the lunchroom. Like a ghost whose spirit is not at rest, when I least expect it, I’m reminded that while I’m through with them as their teacher, the memory of how I taught them is not through with me.

These are the students who put their hope in me, embraced the experience of learning an instrument and then later said no. These are my band students who quit.

Like other teachers, music teachers put their heart and soul into what they do. It is such a difficult thing to teach students how to play instruments. We see so much growth, so quickly. We teach for the present but we also try to prepare students for a future in music. So when they quit, it can be hard not to take it personally.

I still remember how horrible I felt when my first two students quit on me. It was during the first month of teaching high school band. This school was enormous and I was given the two lower 10-12 grade bands (there were a total of five 10-12 grade bands). Two seniors approached my department chair with a class drop slip and after they cleared it with him, I was informed that these two kids were quitting band.

I was completely caught off guard and I know that I was doing the best I could with a difficult job but I really wish that I could have done better for these two guys. Maybe it didn’t have as much to do with me as I thought at the time, but I’ll never really know and that’s what is so difficult about kids quitting.

Sometimes you know the reasons and sometimes you don’t. Even when you think you know, it doesn’t stop your brain from thinking about what you could have done better. Over time, you learn to let these thoughts go. The longer I teach the more easily I get over it but there’s a sting, a feeling of failure that lessens in intensity but never leave you when you see that kid in the hallway or think about them.

The amazing thing is that all of the band students who quit are really warm and nice to me after they leave. The ones who aren’t and give me a little attitude are clearly looking for me to affirm that I still value them, which I do. These students compliment their ex-band mates after performance, they share with me good memories they remember from band and sometimes they even tell me how they regret quitting and much they miss band.

Not all ghost are bad, and sometimes in life all you need to do to find the positive is to look outside of yourself. Yes, they quit band, but that one fact only defines your memory of that student and how you feel about them as much as you allow it too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Monday, October 19, 2015

Parenthood: Week 123 – Sick Day

There’s this moment in a classic Daredevil comic book when he approaches a stone slab with Elektra’s dead body (his girlfriend) laying on it and through a mystical force of will, he tries to bring her back to life. Daredevil passes out and when he awakes her body is gone. Later in the book, we see Elektra standing on a mountaintop standing strong. While it is later revealed that a character named Stone is the one who resurrected Elektra, it is told that Daredevil purified her soul.

Any parent who has cradled their sick child understands what Daredevil was trying to do. When your child is sick you would do anything to make them feel better. You would take your kids’ sickness on yourself, go on midnight drive to the drug store and even sit in a bathroom with the shower blasting at its highest temperature at 2am in the hope that it would loosen a cough.

Like most toddlers Ollie has had his share of sicknesses. Part of this is from the fact that last year he was in daycare and this year is in toddler school. Anyone who says that being in these situations allows kids to get sick and have stronger immunities later in life has no idea what they are talking about. There is no benefit to kids getting sick from daycare. That whole “immunities” reasoning is just false rationalization.

If all you had to deal with was your child just being sick, it would be tremendous amount of stress but in our society, there’s the issue of taking time off of work or finding childcare, which adds layers of work stress on top of what is already a challenging and emotionally draining situation. Once you get that piece settled the real work begins.

When a child is sick at a young age, it is of some comfort to know that they will not have long-term memories of being sick. The bad thing about kids being sick at such a young age is that you can’t explain to them that they will get better soon. Ollie has a sense that Tylenol will make him feel better but he’s only beginning to understand that he will better in the future.

There’s a feeling of powerless when your child is sick. You can take your kid to the doctor (deciding when to do this is a trial all by itself). Even when you do, often it’s just a virus that needs to work itself out so you are left there holding your child whose sad eyes fill you with a mixture of guilt, desperation, and anxiety.

It’s easy to forget in these moments that all of these feelings that give you that hollow, lonesome feeling deep inside is an expression of love. To feel so much for someone else, to be want to give part of your own life energy to make someone feel better truly is love.

Parenthood makes you feel this mixture of emotions so deeply that you feel alive and it is this experience that brings life meaning.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Year 6: Week 7 – My First Asian Teacher

I still remember when I realized that for the first time I was going to have an Asian-American teacher.

It was a week or two before the start of 7th grade (might have been 6th). I received my class scheduled in the mail. This little index card sized print out listed our classes, our locker number and combination and our teachers’ names. Next to the title “language arts” was the name “Naganawa.”

I was really surprised. I never had a teacher in all of my years in school up to that point that I identified as a racial minority. I asked my mom about this and she confirmed that I was going to have a teacher who was Asian-American and this realization changed my assumptions about life.

I grew up on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle and there were always other students of color in my classroom, especially other Asian-American students. I was aware of this and I remember conversations from my elementary school years like “are you Chinese? I’m Japanese. Let’s play and be friends.”  My family was Taiwanese, there were other Asian families that we spent time with and my teachers at school appeared to be Caucasian. That was the way things were and I never imagined that anything would or could be different.

Walking into school that first day, I was nervous about many things but I was excited about meeting Mrs. Naganawa. On that first day, she took attendance verbally and went around the room saying everyone’s name and making eye contact. When she said my name and smiled at me, it didn’t feel like a stranger saying “hello” for the first time. Because we were both Asian, I immediately felt a connection. She understood what it was like to be Asian and in that way she understood what it was like to be me.

Over the year she made us write weekly “Reading Responses.” This was a two-page, typed reading journal. She wanted us to think about books that we were reading and reflect. They papers have to be book reports, and we could go on tangents if we wanted.

At first I wrote the way I was taught. I had topic sentences and supporting body sentences. I got good grades on these assignments and slowly I started writing in a freer journal style. To my surprise, Mrs. Naganawa was enthusiastic about this because she valued how I was more freely expressing my thoughts through writing. It was this support that over time made me in love with writing. And it is this love of writing that I’ve returned to through the years as one of the most important parts of my life.

Would I have learned to love writing the way I do if Mrs. Naganawa wasn’t an Asian-American. I’m not sure but I know that her race helped me feel more comfortable which led me me to take more chances with my writing.  More importantly having an Asian-American teacher broke me out of my world view and expand my idea of what I could accomplish as an Asian-American.

Thanks Mrs. Naganawa for showing me that an Asian-American could be a teacher and opening up a world of possibility that has led me follow in your footsteps.  What your example meant to me motivates me every day as a teacher.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Monday, October 12, 2015

Parenthood: Week 122 - Banana & Stars

Banana Meltdown
“Sure, you can have a banana.”

I peeled back the top part of the banana and handed it to Ollie. Then I turned my attention back to Diana and we continued our conversation. Before I could finish responding to Diana’s questions, Ollie let out a loud and mournful cry, “banaNAAAAA!!!

In one hand Ollie had a piece of banana that had broken off and in the other hand, he was holding the remainder of the banana. “Banana broken!!!! FIX BANANA!!!” Ollie pleaded as tears rolled down his cheeks and seemed to spray outwards from his eyes. Diana and I looked at each other barely able to hold in our laughter.

“Ollie, daddy can’t fix your banana, can I get a you a new one?” I explained holding back laughter. “Ollie, wants NEW banaNAAAAAA!!!” Ollie responded, maintaining a high level of sadness and tragedy in his voice. Diana quickly handed me a banana, I peeled it and handed it to him. Ollie dropped the “broken” banana, and took the new one. He immediately stopped crying as he started eating the new banana while walking away from us.

“Two stars, no more stars!”

I saw Ollie’s little hand point at the night sky as we gazed up at the stars on a warm fall night. I had spread a beach towel on the sidewalk in front of our house and was lying down while Ollie lay on my chest. At first we both only saw a couple stars but as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, more and more stars appeared in the blackness of the night sky.

I asked how many stars Ollie saw and first he counted two, but then there was more and after a moment, he stopped counted and silently pointed up at the sky. I explained that the stars were suns, just like our sun but were very far away. Ollie quietly whispered, “far away sun,” as he contemplated the meaning of what I was saying.

I watched Ollie’s hand in front of me move around gliding from star to start like a conductor leading an orchestra through a flowing legato passage. A plane came into our field of visions and I told Ollie that a plane was flying over us, and he softly echoed “flying over us.”

Ollie’s hand turned into a wave and he said “stars, goodnight” as he slowly began to sit up. I carried Ollie into the house as he continued to say goodnight to the stars.

As I lay Ollie in his bed, Ollie said “Ollie sees stars,” and I replied, “the stars are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Stars bootiful” Ollie agreed.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Year 6: Week 6 – “There’s a special place for you heaven"

The day before our first day of beginning 6th grade band, I was sitting at a table with a representative from our rental company helping parents get their children instruments for the first day of band class. One of the parents after finishing up told me that there was a special place in heaven for what I do. It didn’t really occur to me why she was saying this until the next day, the first day of 6th grade band with instruments.

We’ve spent the first couple weeks of school helping the sixth graders decide between band and choir. We firmly believe that choosing between band and choir as the 6th graders curricular music class is an important decision and should a valuable experience by itself. Instead of having kids elect whether they want to try a band instrument, we have every sixth grader learn how to play every band instrument for about twenty minutes. This is kind of a crazy experience and it’s difficult to organize. It also means that we don’t start band and choir until about a month into the school year but we believe it’s worth it.

When students learn these instruments, we focus on giving them the basics of how to make a sound and hold the instruments. Most kids within the twenty minute lesson can get a pretty good sound and play a couple notes. It’s noisy and a little chaotic, but it’s actually not that bad, because you are getting students directly to the magic of making music.

The first band class with instruments is completely different. It’s an “beginning of the year” kind of lesson, in October. The kids have moved passed these kind of set-up lessons in every other class so its jarring for them to have me teach them about where their music folder is located in the cabinet. Combine this with what we need to teach in that lesson and you have one of the most challenging classes I teach all year.

I’m not joking when I say that I need to teach the kids which side of the instrument case is up and how to lay it on the ground before opening it. I need to go over how to breathe, how to place this little wooden, incredibly fragile reed on a mouthpiece, and help kids understand what side of the mouthpiece to blow into. You’d think that this intuitive, but its not.

The kids are so excited to play but you got to hold them back because if you don’t go over these basics they will probably break their instruments within the first five minutes of trying to play. The first sounds that come out of these instruments have rough edges and like a sculptor you need to find the beautiful tone inside that block of sound and help them find them. It’s confusing, it’s loud and it’s exhausting.

I'll be honest, after last Wednesday's  band classes, the first with instruments, I was done.  The day went well, but I had absolutely nothing left and I was glad to be to done for the day.

Thursday we had our second day of band.  The kids remembered a lot from the previous day.  It was still chaotic but the kids had a better idea of what to do so it wasn't as crazy.  Everyone wanted to play but I had to work them in groups and as individuals so I had to spend a lot of energy stopping people from playing.  And then towards the end of the lesson, something amazing started happening, kids started playing with a great tone.  It wasn't consistent but it was happening.  The awkwardness of holding the instrument started to melt away.  My kids were really doing it.  The improvement over the first two days of band class is truly remarkable.

At the end of class, I had each kid play one great note.  I got to Mary and she played and squeaked.  I told her to make sure that she wasn't pressing any of the palm keys on her saxophone and to go through the embouchure formation process.  Again, she squeaked.  I told her to slow down and focus, I demoed the note on my saxophone and asked her to try again.  Then she hit a really nice warm note on her instrument.  I told her that, I loved the dark wooden sound she made.  Mary replied, "really?"  "Yes, I'm proud of the improvements you made and you should be proud of that sound," I affirmed.  She walked out of that band room, walking a little bit taller and I couldn't help but smile.

I'm not going to lie, band teachers have to withstand some of the most horrendous sounds created by human beings, and listen closely to these sounds as opposed to shutting these sounds out.  But these sounds get better, every single day and with that improvement, comes a feeling of pride and satisfaction, that's a little slice of heaven.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Monday, October 5, 2015

Parenthood – Week 121: Follow Your Child's Passion Or Why My Dad Listens To Broadway Music

For the past week, I’ve learned a lot about the moon. This satellite takes 27 days to orbit the earth. Because the way the earth rotates and orbits the sun, from the same point on earth, you can’t see the moon every night. I’ve downloaded an app on my iPhone that keeps track of the moon’s cycles and helps locate it at night.

I’ve never really had an interest in the moon or other celestial bodies. This is why I’ve only recently discovered these basic facts about the moon. So why the sudden interest in this subject? Ollie.

Last week I wrote about Ollie’s new fascination with the moon and after a couple days where we couldn’t find it in the night sky, I did some investigating. While Ollie doesn’t fully understand my explanation of why we can’t see the moon, he seems receptive to my efforts to explain the rotation and orbits involved in our moon’s visibility.  Ollie concludes "moon hiding."

I was talking to someone recently about having kids. Her husband was looking forward to have a kid to share his interests in sports. She had no idea what they would do if they had a kid who was into books or music instead of sports.

I told her, “Don’t have a kid to have someone to share your interests, that’s what friends are for, kids are something different entirely.”

I understand the desire to have a kid that shares your interests. We sentimentalize the idea of a father taking a son with to a baseball game and passing on a generational interest in sports. I would enjoy if Ollie shared my interests and some of them, he already does. But I would hate for Ollie to pretend he likes music more than he does to gain my approval when in reality he would rather be doing something different.

I got really into Broadway music when I was fourth grade. After hearing part of The Phantom Of the Opera CD at a friend’s house, my mom got me my own copy. My uncle got wind of this and got me a half dozen other Broadway CDs. I got really into Broadway music and started watching as many film musical as I could get my hands on and asking to go see Broadway musicals.

My dad has always been into music but mostly 1960s rock music (I wrote about his significant musical influence on me in this post). This fascination was a little strange for him. He wasn’t as into classical music but he understood its value but show tunes was something different altogether. So my dad made a choice. He listened to Broadway music with me and along with my mom made the effort to take me to see The Phantom Of the Opera. I don’t know how much my dad understood what he was watching, but he got that it was something that I was interested in and that was enough for him to make the effort. Now if you ride with him in his car you are as likely to hear songs from musicals coming out of his car’s sound systems as you are to hear some oldies.

Given the choice, would your rather have a kid whose interest mirrors your own or have a child that introduces you to things that you never imagined as being part of your life? Personally, I would prefer the latter.

Parenthood about creating an environment where a child’s interests is nurtured.  An atmosphere where a kid likes things not to please their parents but because they find inspiration in a subject is critical in child development. This is about providing your children the freedom to be themselves.

As parents we need to let go of this idea of “the baseball game.”  Passing along our passions and our interests is helpful in helping your kid know you, but more importantly following your child's passion is essential in helping them get to know and love themselves.