Friday, February 27, 2015

Year 5: Week 24 – Settling Down?

I was hired to shake things up.

When I came to this school one of my primary goals was to start a band program. Our school previously had a middle school choir/general music program and my job was to introduce band into the middle school music curriculum.

Along with this I revamped the 3rd & 5th grade general music curriculum. There was a lot of great stuff in the curriculum that I inherited but there was a need to evolve this class to make it more relevant and diverse.

So I got it done. It was crazy and in retrospect I have a hard time remembering how I managed all of that work that year. I was really looking forward to the second and third year being calmer because I would be able to build off work from the previous year. It didn’t work out that way. We added more band classes and I become an even more active member of the community participating on various committees.

Every year I’ve been here, there’s always been something new to focus on, some new club, performance or project to work. Why can’t I just teach?

Part of me really wishes that I could just focus on my lesson planning and teaching, and glide a little bit.  I could work off lesson I did in previous years, repeat a lot of material year to year and enjoy the calmness of it all, but it’s never worked out that way.

Is it because of the expectations of my peers and my administrators? Maybe it’s just because I started my time here to help this school evolve and this has never stopped being something people look to me to do.

After talking about this with Diana, I realized that it’s not my school that has pressured me to work this way. It’s just the teacher that I am. My school has simply embraced the educator that I am and enabled me to constantly innovate and continue to work on crazy projects every year.

Most of the time I love how my brain works, how it’s constantly struggling to look at things from other angles and come up with new ways to think about educating my students. However sometimes it’s exhausting and it really has become a struggle to focus on the present, especially in this past week.

Some of this is fear. I’m looking at things I haven’t done before, and some of it is the fact there is so much to be done.  I couldn't get to sleep last night because of an ever growing to do list in my brain.  I know once I get moving on some of these things and work through the process I'll feel better, but right now it just all seems like more than I can handle.

The reason why I don't think I should worry is that this isn't the first time I've felt this way.  When I started the band program, the reality was that I had never taught middle school band.  I often completely  feltill-equipped for the task that was laid out before me.  However my administrators trusted me, I worked hard for my kids and we got there.

I know I'll get to that point.  I always do.  Until, then I'll try to pause and enjoy the present fruits of my past labors.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Fifth 100 Miles

For the past three years, every time I hit 100 miles of running, I’ve excitedly written a post about the experience of working my way up to that point. The first 100 miles I talked about some basics of running, my second 100 miles, I discussed how hard it is to find time to run, my third 100 miles led up to my first 5K and for my fourth 100 miles, I wrote about returning from an injury.

What’s the deal with my fifth 100 miles?  I hit that landmark mile about a month ago. It was exactly a month since that time that I recently ran again. It took me about 10 months to run 100 miles, which is an improvement from the year it took me to run my fourth 100 miles. That’s good news, but it really doesn’t feel like it.

I’ve been at this running thing for three years and one of the things that I’ve realized is that you have a relationship with running just like the one you have with a life long friend. Sometimes things are great. You have time for each other, every time you hang out it feels great. However just like with a good friend, life has a way of happening. Getting sick, job stress, having a kid drives a wedge between the two of you. You do the best you can to find time for each other and when you do, sometimes it just feels awkward, but you know in the back of your mind that you are there for each other.

That’s how the last 100 miles went. My runs weren’t great but I was making miles happen. There wasn’t a race I was working towards which didn’t help my motivation. Between runs I started a sit-up and push-up routine that got me up to 100 sit-ups, (I’m still working on the push-up part of it), which prodvided an alternative to running that didn’t take a lot of time.

The month in which I didn’t run was filled up with life. Everyone in our house, except for Buffy, got sick (everyone is fine now) and I had grades to do, which took up my weekends and evenings. While I was excited about getting another 100 miles done, it really didn’t seem like that big of a deal.

For the past week I’ve been on break and haven’t had school so it would seem like a perfect time to get back running, but I wasn’t feeling it until tonight (it’s Saturday, the weekend before this post). With the Bunny Rock 5K on the horizon, I really felt the desire to get myself back into shape and go for it.

It’s really nerve-racking to run after taking some time off. You know that things aren’t going to go as well as when you were in shape, but you also know that a lot of it is a mental game. Believe it or not, I had a really satisfying run after a whole month off.

My sixth 100 miles starts right off with a seven-week program to get in shape for my second 5K. It’s going to be crazy but I think I can make it and beat my time two years ago at this same event.

Sometimes when you meet up with a friend that you haven’t seen in a while there’s an awkward period of time when you catch up and get used to each other all over again but other times you don’t miss a beat. The latter is how my run felt today. It’s good to be back with running, my old friend. We are going to have a fun seven weeks and I promise, we may spend some time apart but I’ll always come back to you.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Parenthood – Week 91: Toddlerhood

One night I was eating dinner with Ollie at home, just the two of us. I asked him if he wanted a banana and he pointed at it enthusiastically. I peeled it and broke off a small piece and handed it to him. Ollie looked down at the small piece of banana and tried to push it away.

Ollie’s pointing isn’t always very accurate so I brought over each dish of food that was on the table. Each time I brought something to him, he would wave it away and cry. After a couple minutes of this, he was screaming and waving his hands around while tears were literally shooting out of his eyes.

Then I realized that he was pointing at the looking and motioning at the banana, but he already had a piece of banana. I figured why not try the banana again. Without thinking I just handed him the rest of the banana, peel and all. He grabbed the bottom of the banana with both hands, started eating it and calmed down in seconds.

Ollie's tear-soaked face was now calm in a gentle smile as he sat there eating his banana. Exhausted, confused and spent over this ordeal, I put my head down on the dinner table. Ollie tipped his head over to the side and looked confused. Slowly he leaned his head down onto the table and started giggling as he tried to mimic me.

Being the parent of a toddler makes you realize that you really are on the roller-coaster and not the marry-go-round. (If you don’t get this reference you have to watch this clip below from the Parenthood movie that describes life as a parent perfectly).



Parental amnesia makes a lot of us forget the struggles of raising an infant as we face the frustrations of living with a toddler. Yes, Ollie sometimes makes a mess when he eats, but it took me a month of daily sessions filled with Ollie’s frustrated screams to teach him how to take a bottle. The wide range of emotions of a toddler can be hard to address but you get so much more out of these interactions than with a infant who has yet to learn how to smile.

I say all of this stuff not to argue that toddlers are better than infants, but to provide some perspective on our struggle with toddlers. The challenges seem worse and harder because these are challenges that are new to us.

I loved being a parent of an infant and I’m loving sharing my life with a toddler. It’s a exhausting and difficult, but it’s a ride I’m enjoying because I get to share it with my special little guy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Year 5: Week 23 – Institutional Memory

Now that I’m in my fifth year of teaching, I’m finding more and more that there are people who have been at this school for shorter period of time than I have. When we do projects or put on presentations, the conversation of what we’ve done in the past has begun to rely on my experience and perspective.

It’s been really interesting to be in this place. People new to our community often make assumptions about tradition that aren’t necessarily true because of the way people talk about the way we do things.

All of these conversations have revealed a lot of about my school’s collective institutional memory. One of the most interesting realizations that I’ve come to is the fact that people at my school don’t remember great musical performances.

At other schools I’ve been at, I’ve heard people talk about great student productions or performances. People don’t do that around my school. I’ve been involved in some truly incredible student work that has received great adulation from students, faculty and parents. When I bring these performances up in conversations, people barely remember them.

The part of me that’s an artist gets a little offended when a teacher doesn’t remember a song that their students sang last year. I put a lot of work and craft into that performance. One of the things that helps is that it’s not just me, people barely remember what musical was put on two years ago and this has nothing to do with the quality of the work that was done.

The teacher part of me is really happy that this is the way that people think in my school. We talk about process over product in every grade and every subject and this idea has seeped into our collective memory. While the product doesn’t stick in our minds the process does.

It’s in this process of working with other faculty members that I’ve built bridges that have lasted well passed a specific performance. There’s a relationship that is built when two people work well together that sticks in the memory and in the way that you interact with that colleague every single day. A great performance comes and goes but a relationship reinforced by a positive collaboration is built upon every single day.

I don’t really care about performances for the sake of them being remembered and I’m glad that my school feels the same way. The institutional memories’ focus on relationships is an important reminder to how we should help our kids work through projects. It’s like I tell my students when we are up to our last rehearsal before a performance: the feeling you take away from a sports game is more based on how you practiced as a team. You can feel great if you lose a game if worked hard leading up to it and you will feel hollow if you win a game and know that you didn’t give your all in practice.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everybody Has A Dream by Billy Joel


Writer’s block has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From the point I started studying the act of musical composition in middle school through college as a music compositions major and now writing this blog for the past seven years, the search for inspiration has been a constant struggle.

In my time sitting in a practice room with a blank piece of manuscript paper in front of me in college and during the times when I can’t figure out anything interesting to reflect on in the past week of my life, I find my greatest inspiration in the people in my life.

“Everybody Has A Dream” by Billy Joel isn’t really about dreams like we normally think about the,. When you hear that phase “Everybody Has A Dream,” you think of career goals, an exotic vacations and some material possession someone hopes to own. That is not what Joel is singing about. He says that his dream is to spend time alone at home with someone he loves. Why? Because the most powerful inspiration he has found in his life is in this person that he loves.

It’s not a coincidence that most of the Billy Joel songs I’ve written about have come from his masterpiece, The Stranger. This album is Joel's greatest work and one of the best albums in the popular music canon.  There’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” a magnificent Abbey Road-like reality check for high school students (and the rest of us), “Only the Good Die Young,” a hilarious commentary on Catholicism and the trade-offs we all make and “She’s Always A Woman,” a beautiful statement on the nature of femininity (click on the links to check out these posts).

All of these songs including the other tracks on this album blend together Joel’s 1970s cynicism he views love and relationships with the romanticism he grew up with in the 1950s. Even in his darkest moments Joel is an optimist. He believes in love he just doesn’t believe in all of the crap that gets in the way of love which is why it’s not a big surprise that he ends his masterpiece with “Everybody Has A Dream,” a song of thanksgiving.

“Everybody Has A Dream” has a slow gospel feel to it.  Joel's idolization of Ray Charles comes shining through from the chord progression to the laid back feel of the groove.  Echoing blues lyrics the verses speak of searching for inspiration. The world is so bleak he “relies of my imagination,” to get him through his life. The second verse affirms his believe and optimism “and if a word from you can bring a better day,” holds him up and keeps his hopes alive.

The second verse ends with lyrics that are resigned:
So let me lie and let me go on sleeping,
And I will lose myself in palaces of sand.
And all the fantasies that I have been keeping
Will make the empty hours easier to stand.
The bleakness of these words is followed by a the chorus which states that his dream is simply to be “with you.” He doesn’t want anything else in his life, he just wants to be with the person that he loves. When you find a person that brings you inspiration, the motivation not only to create art, but to get up out of bed in the morning, to believe in yourself, to give life your all and to stand up in the face of adversity, there is nothing that you want in life more than to be with that person.

This song is about the journey, the struggle to find inspiration and the strength in we find each other.  Sharing life with others is what gives life meaning and feeling that power is the greatest dream of all.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Parenthood – Week 90: The Nightmare

Last week I had the most horrible nightmare, I've ever experienced: Ollie was kidnapped, I desperately struggled to get him back, we eventually recovered him but he was permanently damaged because of the experience.

For days after experiencing this nightmare, images flashed in my head too horrific to recollect in this post. Even now after almost a week after the nightmare thinking about that dream still makes me shudder.

I hesitated to tell Diana about this dream because I didn’t want to put the story and images from my nightmare into her head. This was a strange feeling because there’s really nothing that I think or experience that I hesitate to tell Diana on a daily basis.

As part of our Valentine’s Day date we went out for drinks before dinner. We talked about what was on our minds and I couldn’t deny the fact that this dream was still haunting me. When I told Diana why I wasn’t sure about telling her about my dream, she looked straight into my eyes and told me that she could handle it. Like so many times before when Diana has told me about her strength, I believed in her  immediately.

I had been reliving this dream in my head for days but it was even worse describing the nightmare to Diana out loud. The more emotional I got in the retelling the more understanding and empathetic Diana became. I knew that Diana would react emotionally to this nightmare the same way I did but actually hearing her say out loud that she felt the same things I did validated my feelings.

Diana and I have similar ideas about psychology. We both subscribe to the Freudian idea that feelings and dreams can have meaning but we don’t agree with Freud’s strict dream symbolism and the idea that every emotion can and should be explained. Not every feeling means something and sometimes logic needs to override feelings that are irrational. What’s more important about dreams are the emotions not the events and images.  This is what we talked about.

In talking about my nightmare this is what came out: I’ve always wondered if Buffy’s attack permanently damaged her psychologically and part of me feels guilty that I wasn’t able to protect her. I’m afraid that something similar will happen to Ollie and there will be nothing I can do to stop it. I feel ill-equipped to raise a child who is mix-raced. I’m worried that he will struggle with his racial identity, face racism and deal with challenges of not having the same level of privileged as his peers.  I have feelings of anger towards people whose values are contrary to what I believe is most important to our society. It’s very difficult to validate my feelings of struggle in my life while maintaining perspective and remembering that my life is blessed.

Diana didn't have answers for my thoughts but by being there for me, Diana reminded me that she would always be there to help me bear the load.

The images from that nightmare are fading and so is the intensity of the emotions that I felt during that dream and the days after, but its still there, because the emotions will never leave me.  I will always be afraid that something will happen to Ollie but that fear comes from love.

Sometimes it's in the darkest emotions that we find our light.     

Friday, February 13, 2015

Year 5: Week 22 – The Delay

Last week we had a snow day on Monday, which meant that my 8th graders' band assembly performance was, reschedules for this wee on Wednesday. This seems like good news right? With another week and a half of class we could rehearse more and play better. Kind of . . .

Performances, especially with younger students don’t necessarily get with time, but with my 8th graders we managed to keep the momentum going, which was a challenge.

About two months ago I displayed my lesson plan chart so they could see how many classes there were before the concert. We discussed very carefully what we had to get done in the time before our performances and with some direction, my students created the lesson plans leadings up to the performance.

I was really impressed with their plans and we had a really good couple weeks leading up to our performance date. As the students rehearsed we made some modifications to the plan and with the performance looming, they focused in and got down to the business of making great music.

The Friday before that Monday snow day, when we were originally scheduled to perform, we ran our rehearsal in the auditorium. We tried some different things in the space, ran through our pieces and all felt really good for the upcoming Monday performance.

After finding out about the snow day and working out a time that we could make up the assembly, I struggled to figure out what to do with my kids. Could I really make major improvements in the coming week? Maybe, there were things that could be fixed and worked on but I worried that trying to do so with kids who were already started to get tired of the music,

I decided that first off I had to keep their chops in shape and I also had to keep the pieces fresh. We did some technical work, did some spot work, and reminded them of things we had worked on while purposely not introducing new things for them to think about correcting.

The energy wasn’t great during that week of rehearsals but they understood what we needed to do and when the performance finally came, they brought it. I told them today that the they should appreciate from each other is that every single one of them did their best to make the performance as good as it could be.

The delay was tricky but my kids handled it really well and as proud as I am for their musical performance, I’m even more proud that they gave it their all despite things not going as planned.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Monday, February 9, 2015

Parenthood – Week 89: Parent Training

Dogs don’t need to be trained, owners do.

There are services that take your dog away train them for you. Then there are instructors like the one that we had for Ollie who trained Diana and me how to raise Buffy into a happy and confident member of our family.

The bare minimum is getting your dog trained by someone else, but if you’re doing that then you are missing out on the most challenging but also the most meaningful part of dog ownership. However, everyone’s got their own path and for us, we wanted to be the ones to raise our puppy.

If you really wanted to and you had the means, you can get someone to pretty much raise your kid for you. Between nannies, and boarding schools you can have a kid without the child actively being in your life. Most people would say that this is not as good for the child as having a more active parent, however if the parent is disinterested, it may be best to let someone else handle raising the kid.

How did my puppy training help me know how to raise a kid? There’s a lot of little ideas. If you give a dog a direction multiple times and the dog doesn’t respond, don’t raise your voice; try to communicate in a different way. Aggression engenders more aggression and if you a hit a dog, eventually it’ll bite back. A dog only behaves a bad as you allow them too.

All of these points directly apply to kids. But more than these tidbits, there’s a paradigm that being trained to raise Buffy carried on to my experience as a dad with Ollie.

Dog training came easier to Diana. Buffy would pick up commands from her faster and was far more responsive to her during exercises. It was frustrating, but here’s the thing. Even if things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, Buffy was happy simply to have my attention. Once I started to focus on that, not trying to “teach her” but rather be with her, things started to click.

Being a parent or a dog owner is meaningful and powerful not only because of what you do for another but also how this experience changes you. When you teach a dog to sit you are teaching yourself how to express care, how to communicate, how to be present and how to love. In training your dog and parenting your child you are teaching yourself how to be a better human being. Great parenting requires this of you.

We are the ones who have to learn, not our dogs, not our children. We are the ones who have to change our behaviors, our actions, the way we talk, and the way we think about life itself, so that our dogs and our children can be raised right. Yes, the ones we raise have to do a lot of work, but at the end of the day, we are the ones who do the heavy lifting.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Year 5: Week 21 – Let It Go

5th graders start the year with enthusiasm about the recorder at an all time low. It’s no longer new and for some students the challenge of reading music has created negative associations with the instruments.

To combat this, I decided to take a different approach to recorder. As I mentioned last week, I put together a packet of pop songs and wrote the recorder notes underneath the lyrics, “Some Nights,” “We Will Rock You,” “Let It Go,” “Shake It Off,” and “Rock and Roll Part 2.” These songs are at a wide variety of skill level and purposely appeal to different genders. Along with the packet I made a fingering chart that only shows the notes the students need for the individual songs.

The idea is that kids will be learning songs that they like and want to learn and will be willing to work through the newer notes.

Fifth grade is an age when students yearn for independence and choice, but not all of them can handle the responsibility that comes with this added freedom. This doesn’t mean that we don’t give them the chance.

It’s easier in many ways to teach them all the same song at the same time. This can be tiring for kids who move at a faster pace and for frustrating for students who do not have a high aptitude for music. Giving the students the choice of songs means that they have to be able to work independently. This is what I explained to my students. More choice meant that they needed to be more responsible. I have to be trust them to work alone or in small groups and be productive in order for them to get the choice that they wanted.

So how did it go?

Kids gravitated towards the songs that I expected them too. The highly motivated students went crazy and worked really hard. Some of the students on the lower end got more excited because of the song choice while others without the framework of working in the larger group floundered.

This is where things got tricky. I set up all the students with the tools and the opportunities to be productive, and for the students who just couldn’t find the motivations to get going, I had to just let it go and focus on the kids who really wanted to get work done. Those kids who didn’t want to work have to deal with the consequences of their actions, which I tried to make them understand. If they don’t get how they wasted their own time, it doesn’t change the benefits other students who were really into the project got out of the experience.

Sometimes we need to give our kids a chance to explore further on their own.  Sometimes we need to take a chance and give them more choice and sometimes when some students succeed, others fail.    

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Monday, February 2, 2015

Parenthood – Week 88: One-Way Conversations

One of my favorite moments in the day is sitting in our bedroom and listening to Diana talk to Ollie as she puts him down to bed in his nursery. Usually she recaps the day for him or tells him about exciting things that will happen in the future. Nowadays Ollie comments back to her but that wasn’t always the case.  For most of the first year of his life, Ollie would listen without responding to her soft, loving voice.

This all started with Buffy.

Does having a one-way conversation with a dog feel weird? Yes, at first but it this can be one of the most therapeutic things you can do for yourself. While we ponder and think through challenges in our lives, often it’s verbalizing our thoughts that help us work through and make sense of what we are thinking. While you can do this alone, it’s feels better having this conversation with someone close to you like your dog.

I remember feeling strange that first week that we had Buffy trying to communicate to her. I would talk to her and try to explain things to her without getting any response back, verbal or otherwise. Diana encouraged me to keep talking to her and I started telling her things about what was going on in her life, and later what was going on in my life. As Buffy got older, she really showed that she understood what we were talking about. She may not always comprehend actually words and sentences but she gets the emotion of what we are saying.

The same experience happened with Ollie. It was months before he smiled at us, let alone give us any kind of verbal response.  And just like with Buffy, this didn’t stop us from talking to our little guy. We knew that if was essential for his language and emotionally development to hear us talk to him and so we did. It was also important for us so to have these talks so that we would feel closer to him through these one-way conversations.

With Ollie and Buffy, there are times when it’s silent and I don’t feel like saying anything to them. Sometimes I enjoy this silence but other times I push through this feeling and start talking to my kids. Every time I do this, I feel closer to my them. Even though neither of them really talk back like an adult, there’s a look in their eyes that shows me that they are listening and that they care.

Embrace the awkwardness and talk to your kids and your dog. It doesn’t have to be anything deep or meaningful, but figure out something to share with them through your voice. The amazing thing is that for a lot of the time you will get no response, but every once in a while you do and that’s a truly special moment.

Talk to your kids and your pets. They need this as much as you do.