Monday, March 30, 2015

Parenthood – Week 95: Learning To Say “I Love You”

In the past week Ollie has begun saying “I love you,” to Diana and I before going to bed. For the word “I” he points to himself, on the word “love” Ollie gives himself a hug and finally on “you” he points outward to us. He’s even starting to understand these words as a phrase and with some prompting will say “I love mom,” or “I love Bup.”

While Diana and I were intrigued by baby sign language, we didn’t follow a structured curriculum. We taught him a handful of signs like “all-done,” “more,” “read book” and “nurse.” Some of these signs he picked up almost instantly like “read book” and others like “thank you,” he is only now starting to do after weeks of demonstration and teaching.

The basic concept of teaching signs is that you as the parent use the signs yourself, and your child will mimic you. Cause and effect relationships help infants pick up some words faster. Ollie learned that by signing “please” he would get what he wanted and that Diana and me would respond to him more joyfully when he asks for something more politely.

The thing to keep in mind is that as with anything you teach anyone, an infant all the way up to an adult, sometimes the process can take a long time with little noticeable improvement. This was the case with teaching Ollie the sign for “I love you.”

One of the first phrases Ollie heard after he was born was “I love you,” and he has heard this phrase every day of his life, multiple times a day, but he never tried to mimic Diana and I when we spoke this phrase to him.

A couple months ago, I looked up the baby sign for “I love you,” and began teaching it to Ollie. Every couple days, I would show him the sign and help him make the gestures. He got the pointing to himself for “I” pretty quickly, but he couldn’t get his arms to hug himself so instead he put his arms over his head. This was close enough and a couple weeks he got the “you” part down as well.

The next stage was when Ollie could consistently making the signs when I did them along with them. He was inconsistent in speaking the phrase, but he got better and better at signing along with me when I said, “I love you."  This wasn’t something that we could really sit down and work on for any extended period of time, but rather it was an activity we did when he was in the right mind frame to do some learning.

Then something started to click this past week. Instead of putting him arms over his head for “love,” he figured out how to hug himself. He began to voluntarily say and sign this phrase without prompting.  And now saying “I love you” to all of the members of our family has become part of his bedtime routine.  Slowly his pronunciation is also improving with the word "love" sounding less like his previous attempts which sounded more like "buff."

Does Ollie understand the meaning of the phrase "I love you"?  At first, I don't think he had any clue, but now in his own way, he is finding that he receives joy and affection back every time he signs and speaks "I love you," which creates a foundation for the understanding of love.

One of the main reasons to teach infants and toddler signs is to empower them and give them tools to better interact with their environment.  In this process we need to remember that the most important things we learn how to communicate are our emotions to other human beings.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Year 5: Week 28 – Teaching Well Is the Best Revenge

There is always going to be that teacher, wherever you teach, that you don’t think is doing their job as well as they should. This is partially an objective truth but this perception also is mixed up in this insecurities of teachers that are products of many sub-par teaching situations and the lack of respect many non-teachers direct towards educators.

You can’t treat teaching like being on an island. There’s curriculum to align, department teachers to deal with, school events and countless interactions in which the choices other teachers make affect your classroom and your students. Within these interactions sometimes we can’t help feel levels of superiority.

This isn’t all bad. Seeing another teacher do a mediocre lesson sometimes helps us understand what we are doing right and capitalize on these teaching techniques. Also, if a teacher is less experienced and is looking for mentorship, having another teacher around who recognizes their flaws and is willing to help them is essential for the success of young teachers.

Other times, this feeling of superiority is less supportive, and feels more like annoyance. This is the emotion that comes out when you see another teacher slacking off, being lazy, or being inconsiderate. When you work so hard and you see other people who aren’t, it’s a really tough pill to swallow. Especially since many times, it seems that these people face no negative consequences due to their mediocrity.

What do you do with these emotions?

Well, that’s a tough question. These feelings are not easy to get over because it’s hard to not take personally how the lack of effort other people put into teaching effects your career choice. It feels like an affront to this job of teaching, validating the people who think that teaching is an easy job and deserves the lack of prestige this profession has in our society.

I go back to this idea that “living well is the best revenge” and teaching well is really the best way to get back at the people who don’t. There’s a feeling you get when you’ve worked as hard as you could for your students, while working as a community member of your school that is satisfying beyond description. You cannot let your bitterness at other teachers keep you from that feeling.

Even if that mediocre teacher never gets fired, he or she is not going home after school with that good feeling and in this way, the people they are hurting the most are themselves. They don’t get to say I worked hard to be part of my community and worked well with my kids. And even if they do feel this way because of illusions and a lack of intelligence, then so what? It’s their sad life.

Embrace your insecurities, acknowledge feelings of superiority and inferiority, allow yourself to be annoyed and mad, but also let go of these feelings through focusing on your own good work.  Instead of letting other teachers drag you down, be the example, be the light and let them rise to you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Monday, March 23, 2015

Parenthood – Week 94: The Book Sale

Last week my school had a used book sale. Parents and other community members donate books to this sale and the proceeds raise money for the school. It’s an awesome opportunity to buy kids books. They sell board books for $0.50 a piece (which is a steal when you realize that many of these book are over $5 when bought new) and regular hardback children book for $1.

In previous years, I ignored the books sale. I really don’t need more books that I own and plan to read but never get around to reading. However every since we’ve had Ollie, it’s been an incredible opportunity to get children books. Yes, some of the books are a little chewed up, literally, but most are in great shape.

After buying a bunch of board books, I came back the second day to look at children’s hardcover books. After about twenty minutes of shopping I came across a really cute book in which the main character expressed his love to his mother. Then I noticed that the boy in the book was caucasian with blond hair. I quickly looked over the other 10 books I had already picked out and almost all of the books featured caucasian main characters.

I put that book down and furiously started looking through the books for any books that featured people that looked like Ollie. I found one book that featured Chinese characters and ended up replacing a couple of the books I had chosen that had caucasian main characters with books that featured animals.

It is a privilege to go to a used book sale and expect to find books that feature characters of your own race. A caucasian male would have had no issues finding a book from his perspective at the book sale. However, there were no children’s books that featured a mixed race character.

Would Ollie notice if all of the characters in his books were all caucasian? Probably not right now, but if this persisted, you never know.  Would the same shameful and disturbing developmental processes that led to African-American children preferring the caucasian dolls in the research included in the Brown Vs. Board of Education could appear in Ollie?  Probably not because of other factors, but that doesn't mean this isn't something we need to be conscious of as parents.

Ollie is a minority. While there are a growing number of mixed race children being born every day, his specific brand of mix-raced will always be in the minority. Some day he will understand this and it's important that we help him recognize that his background and his perspective is valued by making sure that the literature and media that he is surround by includes people of color.

I was really upset when I realized that there were no children books that I could find that had a characters that was Asian-American. I know that there are authors who are doing the best they can to address this need, but it’s still tough. It’s hard to know that my son enters this world with less than others (at least in the children’s book a category), because of nothing he has done but because of the reality of the world he was born into and for a moment, this made me really sad.

Here’s the thing: I have grown over the years to love who I am, which has a lot to do with my wife Diana’s support. I know that being a minority has contributed significantly to me becoming the man that I am. I know that being mixed race will help Ollie become an amazing person, and that while he will have unique struggles, all people do. I just want to make sure that he knows that he’s not alone, so I will keep looking for books that remind him of that fact.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Year 5: Week 27 – Tales of The Third Grade Nothing

But. . . .

My 3rd graders have been working on adding musical sounds to the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. It’s been a really fun project so we decided to prepare this activity for a performance. While rehearsing this song, one student asked “ Mr. Tang, "what do after 'but'?" referring to a part in the book. First there was a single giggle and before I knew it there uproarious laughter throughout the room. After seeing that this girl who asked this question was laughing, I allowed myself to laugh at the fact that she said “but.”

I calmed everyone down and explained that after “but” I would cue them and they would play their instruments for three beats. Then I said “Let’s practice what happens after ‘but'.” All the students were completely quiet looking up at me, and then I couldn’t help it cracked a smile and we all erupted in laughter one more time.

What do he have against pants?

We are learning songs from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 3rd grade. Our curriculum focuses on the way that music can help tell stories and after finding out that the 7th grade choir was studying broadway music the idea came up that my 3rd graders could perform with the 7th graders. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a perfect musical for this project. The songs are catchy, the show tell a great stories and there are children choir parts in the original music.

I wanted to show them clips from the musical to help them understand the songss, so earlier this week I showed them the film version of “Close Every Door.”

All of my students started watching with very serious expressions on their face as I explained the injustice of this moment in Joseph’s life, but as the scene started unfolding, little giggles started spreading throughout the class.

“What is he wearing?”
“Where is his shirt?”
“What does he have against pants?”

I explained that the story was set in Egypt and it is very hot over there and what he is wearing is the Egyptian version of shorts. Also, I pointed out that part of this story had to do with the fact that he once had an elaborate colored coat which made him happy and the simple clothing he wore represented his sad feelings.

I started the clip again, most of kids were calm, but a couple girls just could not stop giggling as the shirt-less Donny Osmond was working his charm. Yes, they were missing the point of the video, but I didn’t choose wisely by showing them this clip. So I simply enjoyed the sound of their cute giggles.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


On November 11th, 2008, I published my first blog post.  It was a simple 250 word introduction.

Six years later, after writing more than 450,000 words, here I am with my 1000th blog post.

It all started as a way to keep my mind active when I was a teacher assistant with the mission of writing about pop music. I loved my work but that job wasn’t as intellectually challenging as my previous job or my years in academia. I started with a post on “Since U Been Gone,”  a song I still hold up as one of the greatest pop songs ever and have gone to places in my writing that I never imagined when starting this blog.

The blog followed the twists and turns of my life and leapt outside the world of music. The first major departure was Buffy, then my life as a teacher, and finally parenthood.  I am proud that in 1000 posts, I have stayed positive and not added to the negativity and darkness of the Internet.

I’ve written this blog on my last three personal desktops, my iPhone, my iPad, on construction paper, napkins, post-it notes, in margins of newspapers, and on the back of student worksheets. I’ve written in our beloved condo, this new house, in the middle of a forest, in hotel rooms, while riding on airplanes and in hospital waiting rooms. And I’ve written during wedding receptions, while pumping gas, watching The Sopranos, walking Buffy and while cooking.


Part of it is habit, and a desire to keep a journal.  More than all of that is that writing this blog has helped me find meaning in my life through self-exploration and the connections I’ve made with people through my writing.

Thank you for reading.

If it’s every post, only the posts about Springsteen, or just the parenting post, I appreciate your time and attention. I have no plans on stopping any time soon, so let’s see where else this road takes us.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Parenthood – Week 93: The Best Part Of My Day

Today was one of those days at work, when I was busy the whole day but ended up not getting anything off of my to do list. It wasn’t a bad day of teaching, it was just that other things going on required my attention and made it difficult to focus.

When I got home from work, like on most days, there’s a feeling that I have to hit the ground running. Buffy needed to be walked, work stuff needed to be put away and dinner had to get on the table. Today wasn’t really that bad with the time that I got home, it was just that there was a lot going on in my mind.

Diana had got home around the same time as I did which made getting dinner going a lot easier. After dinner was ready to go, I felt a lot more relaxed but at the same time I wanted to make sure we got eating.

If Ollie is going to bed around 7, that means he needs his bath around 6:30, we want to give him some chill time so dinner needs to happen between 5-5:30. No, it’s not a disaster if we do things later than we would like but in general the evening goes smoother if we can manage to stick to that timeline.

I went upstairs to tell Ollie and Diana that dinner was ready. As expected he had asked Diana to read through a pile of books and now he was done he was flipping through a Harry Potter book.

Diana brought him downstairs and I headed to the kitchen. I heard Diana go back upstairs so I called out to Ollie not hearing him or seeing him. I stepped out of the kitchen and he walked up to me reaching his arms up, asking me to pick him up.

I hadn’t put the dinner on the table yet and I wanted to get everything set-up as soon as possible but I figured he needed a hug.

When I picked him up, he wrapped his arm around my neck to the back of my head, grabbed a tuft of my hair and snuggled his head into the side of my neck tightly. As I supported his legs, he pulled them up into a tight fetal position as he cuddled into my body. I carried him over to an armchair and sat holding him listening to his soft breathing in the quiet of our house.  

After a couple minutes, he suddenly pulled away, smiled at me, wriggled out of my arms, slid out of the armchair and quickly toddled away. After our hug encounter, there was a still a lot to do, but somehow it all seemed more manageable.

Maybe Ollie knew I needed a cuddle, or maybe it was the act of giving that lifted my mood.  All I know is that for a moment Ollie made all my fears and worries in the world disappear.

That was the best part of my day.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Year 5: Week 26 – The Results We Don't See

Earlier this week I was standing in the hall about to give one of my 5th grade classes the introduction to their lesson. One of the first grade teachers walked by and commented on how she was sure that they were thinking about what I was about to say and being respectful learners. She explained how she had taught some of these students’ years ago how to participate in class discussions appropriately.

It took a lot of effort at that moment to not burst out loud laughing.

It’s not that I didn’t believe that first grade teacher. I’m sure she got some of these students to a place where they were able to have respectful class discussions. However the reality is as with all of my fifth grade classes, I explicitly teach and continuously reinforce expectations for classroom discussions and behavior. The reason I have to do this is not because this first grade teacher is not effective. In fact, this particular first grade teacher is one of the greatest master teachers I have ever met. The reason I have to re-teach concepts has to do with the nature of learning and our job.

Whenever a single-grade classroom teacher asks me how one of their former students are doing (I teach grades 3, 5, 6 & 8), if it’s a good report they are happy, if it’s not it can be frustrating for that teacher. There’s a hopelessness that comes out when you work with a kid and find out that not much has seemed to progress a year or two later.

This is one of the tough things about being a teacher. Learning doesn’t happen in a straight line and often the work we do with students produces results that only become visible years later. At that point you as a teacher are not around and only with the years and your work combined with other teacher’s work in that students life have real lasting growth occurred.

There are things that we teach that have objective improvements. For example, at the end of 6th grade my band students know more notes and sound better on their instruments. Next year in 7th grade band they walk in the door retaining most of that work. However no matter how good I get my 6th grade band to be as community members and respectful musicians to each other, all of this has to be deliberately reintroduced every single year.

Yes, it’s frustrating to be teaching literally the same lessons to my 3rd and 8th graders about being good audience members and how to not interrupt others during discussions. It’s exactly the things that we have to reteach, the things about what it means to be good human beings and a community member that are the most important things that we instill as teachers.

I don’t remember the great lessons and many of the amazing teachers who helped me become the man I am today. That doesn’t mean that their work doesn’t matter and didn’t have a profound effect on me.

The most important kind of growth in our students is the hardest to assess. It’s in the immeasurable that you find what is at the core of what great educators teach every day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monday, March 9, 2015

Parenthood – Week 93: The Choices We Make

I talk to my students about making choices all of the time. On the wall of my classroom there’s a piece of paper, which in large letters reads “choose _______.” The idea is that whatever they are going to do in class is an active choice. They choose to participate, they choose to be a positive member of the class or they choose to be disruptive. It’s actually not that simple as many of my students are in developmental stages where their words and actions aren’t really active choices, but this mantra, this idea of choice and self-determination is empowering for many students.

The thing about choices that I didn’t realize until becoming a parent is that decisions limit other choices in life. The fact that Diana and I chose to have Ollie, meant that we had fewer choices that we could go out to eat as a family. The fact that we chose a certain type of residential arrangement gave us fewer choices financially, which led to less choices around our careers and childcare options for Ollie.

The common response to the complaint “I don’t like the daycare my son is going to,” is “well, you chose that daycare, so simply choose another one.” The reality is that it is never that simple. First off, finding the right daycare or a nanny is very difficult. Often parents aren’t choosing between many good options, but only find one or two that are feasible. If this is the case, then shouldn’t a parent have been aware of all of these issues before choosing to go to work necessitating daycare?

There’s the rub.

You do the best you can to prepare for all of these issues as a parent but the reality is that you don’t know the consequences of all of your choices until it’s right in your face. Generation gaps, parental amnesia and our societies’ refusal to openly discuss or address most issues associated with economical, emotional and societal challenges related to parenting, leaves too many of us jumping in the deep end that is parenting, barely knowing how to swim.

Maybe we can’t know all of the consequences of our choices as parents but we should be made aware of more of them. Yes, it could be worse, but it could be a lot better.

I'm choosing to deal with all of the consequences of my choices, but sometimes I feel lost, sometimes I want to complain and sometimes I want a break from it all.  I also choose to deal with all of these feelings, choose to focus on the joy of parenting and choose to be for my own son.

Becoming a parent isn't just one choice.  It's a cascade of decisions, interwoven together into the fabric of our lives.  Sometimes it takes all you got to keep your head about the maelstrom.

Choose to not give up on yourself and your child.  It may be the most important choice you make in your life.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Year 5: Week 25 – Tangents

We had a game that we played with our 7th grade biology teacher. At the very beginning of class, one of us would raise our hand and ask a question that had nothing to do with the class. Sometimes our teacher would answer the question and then start the class but other times, with the right question, asked the right way, it would send our teacher off an a tangent that had the potential to last the entire class period.

As a student I never understood why he would even entertain our off-topic questions. But now that I’m a teacher, I get what he was trying to do.

One of the challenges about teaching middle school students is that in order to have a productive class, sometimes you need to let students talk about things that are on their mind. With my third graders, if they ask me about an assembly earlier that day, I can tell them that we are not going to talk about it and then redirect their attention back to music class without much effort. I’ve found that this doesn’t work as well with my older students.

Part of this has to do with the fact that when students bring up off-topic questions to me at the middle school level they are often personal and meaningful. Last week, as we were about to start playing, one of my students told me about how her dad told her that she was mixed-race and how she didn’t feel right about this because she had always identified as Caucasian. Other students heard this comment and as a minority, I felt it was important to help her unpack her feelings and talk about my own struggle with constructing my racial-identity.

Yes, it took up some class time but at the same time taking time to validate her feelings and help other people understand her struggles and my own put us all in a better place to work together as a band. Kids need to feel safe and valued in order to be creative in a music class and it takes moments like these to build this environment in a classroom.

Not every off-topic conversation I take time on in class is deep and personnel. We spent ten minutes last week talking about this whole “what color is this dress?” optical illusion thing. I decided to talk about that because a couple people in the class had no ideas what the other students were freaking out about and I didn’t want people to feel left out. Also I saw a way to make a connection between accepting different perspectives with what we were doing in class.

Is there other times when kids are trying to do what my classmates and I did in middle school? Probably but not that often because I’ve never gone off on a tangent for all that long.

It’s important that we connect with our students in discussions that have nothing to do with curriculum but reveal something about ourselves as human beings. Some of my fondest memories of teaching are embracing these moments and helping my students think about something in a deeper and more meaningful way.

I’ll never forget one of my 8th grade flute players who asked me in the middle of class, “There’s someone in my group of friends that I don’t like hanging out with. How do I spend time with other friends in this group with out hurting that one person’s feelings?”  This led to a ten minute discussion.  I remember the insights from other students and the really interesting discussion we had about what it meant to be friends and how to deal with people we don't like without being mean.  But I have no idea what musical concept we were working on or what song we were rehearsing.

I'm okay with that and I'm thankful that my biology made the effort to be more than a teacher.  Honestly, I don't remember anything about the biology I learned from him but I'll never forget the the feeling of warmth in his classroom and his wonderful stories about being a marine, and growing up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

Parenthood – Week 92: Bup

Early last week, Ollie was sitting on my lap as I read a book to him. At some point, Buffy stood up and started chasing her tail. Suddenly, Ollie pushed the book away and started spinning in circles, emulating Buffy. Eventually Ollie stopped spinning, plopped down on his bottom and started giggling. As Buffy decided to start chasing her tail again, Ollie got up to join her.

From the first moment Ollie reached out and grabbed a handful of Buffy’s fur as a newborn, it’s been adorable watching Ollie interact with Buffy. Every developmental milestone and stage in Ollie’s life has been marked with some kind of interaction with Buffy.

One of Ollie’s first words was “Bup,” not, Buffy or puppy, which he uses to refer to Buffy. His first phrase was “good girl,” and Buffy was with him to “help” him learn to roll over, crawl and walk. Though Buffy was often weary of these developments and would often bark in concern about his new levels of mobility.

When Ollie started to eat in his high chair, Buffy was right there with him, eating the pieces of food that inevitably fell off the floor. Ollie got used to her presence and would often try to sneak Buffy food. If Buffy doesn’t happen to be at his feet when its time to eat, he will look down, point below him and say inquisitively, “Bup?”

A couple months ago we introduced Ollie to his first toddler pillow. Ollie was a little skeptical so Diana pressed the pillow against her head and she exclaimed “the pillow is so soft!” I did the same thing, but it wasn’t until we brought Buffy into the room and had her lay down on the pillow that Ollie wanted to try it himself. Every night for the next week, Ollie insisted that Buffy try out the pillow before he would go to sleep.

Probably the most adorable interaction between Ollie and Buffy is the hugs. Ollie’s current favorite book is Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell. It’s about a cat who goes around the world to hug different things. After Ollie got into this book, he wanted to give hugs to all of us. He started with Diana, then me and finally Buffy. Ollie toddled up to Buffy, put his arm around her and rested his head on her back.

I’ve written about how my relationship with Buffy is like no other relationship in my life. It’s becoming clear to me that the relationship between a boy like Ollie and a dog like Buffy is truly unique as well. They are not inseparable. Buffy isn’t always in the mood to play with Ollie and Ollie isn’t always interested in Buffy.  However, when they are in the mood to interact, when Ollie asks for Buffy to come up on the couch and watch television or when Buffy whines because she is separated from Ollie by a baby gate, I feel warmth and happiness knowing that they are there for each other.