Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Monday, March 28, 2016

Parenthood: Week 145 – Ollie's Love Of Books

“Ollie loves reading. Sometimes in the middle of the day, he will walk over to the book corner by himself and read books for fifteen minutes.”

Ollie’s teachers told us a lot of positive things about Ollie at his conference last week, but this comment made me the most proud.

I remember the first time I read a book to Ollie. He was six days old and the book was a board book version of Are You My Mother?  I somehow managed, still new at this newborn thing, to hold Ollie in my arms and the book at the same time. Almost every since then of Ollie’s life, he has read at least one book, usually upwards of five or six books. Often the same book multiple times.

I’ve always had great respect for people who love to read. I grew up looking up to my older brother Ed, who was constantly reading. I wasn’t as a natural a reader as he was but I wished that I could get into book with the same passion. Ed would read serious of fantasy and science fiction novels and he’s tell me the stories. When Ed wasn’t around I would often go into his room and look at the covers, wished I could get lost in the words.

It’s hard for me to find a book that I can get into, but when I do, I love being able to read before going to bed and talk about books with people. I wish that I could quote Shakespeare, Dickens and have the skills to appreciate Jane Austin, but I am thankful that I have the abilities that I do have to read Steinbeck, enjoy comic books, and dive into non-fiction history books.

Diana is like Ed. She reads as naturally as she breathes. With our passion for reading, of course we would want books to be a big part of Ollie’s lives. Here’s the thing, if reading didn’t have a strong correlation to higher test scores, I would still be reading books to Ollie ever day. That’s not the reason why Ollie has books that he can read in every single room in our house.

I read to Ollie every day, because it’s magical. It’s time when we can be present with each other, thinking about the same characters and the same story. We want books to be present in his life so he can be surrounding by the empowering force that is the written word. When Ollie brings a book to me and asks me to read it to him, I feel successful as a parent because I know that he gets it. To love books is to love life.

Ollie is starting playing around with the alphabet and letter sounds. He asks us what letters are in words that he sees and its super cute. Ollie gets fixated on certain books and wants us to read them over and over again. While this can be tiresome, we understand as Diana and me often geek out about things. As obsessed as Ollie gets with a book, his joy for a new book will bring out even more excitement.

 Ollie’s got an incredible world of books that he has only begun to explore and I’m looking forward to helping him along the way, every single day,
one book at a time.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Year 6: Week 28 – Finding 8th Grade's American Skin

Eighth grade is a tricky year in music class. They aren’t content to do the folk music of 6th grade but they don’t necessarily have the skills to play more advanced music they find interesting. They have strong opinions about the music that they like and it’s take a lot effort to get buy-in.

We’ve tried many different things to get kids invested in music class. Utilizing technology has helped, doing more pop music really hasn’t. Creating a variety of activities has helped make rehearsals more engaging and what has really made the difference is doing music that has meaning and depth.

Last year we did music from Green Day’s “American Idiot.” While the music was exciting because of the genre, what made kids interested were the themes of disillusionment, patriotism and Green Day’s perspective on what it means to be American.

This year, we decided to dive deeper tackling one of the most important and controversial topics of our times: police shootings of African-Americans. To learn about this topic we are focusing on “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen (I talked about this song in this previous post).

This song and this topic are difficult issues but with the work the students are doing studying the American Civil Rights unit in eight grade history and reading books like “Black Boy” in English class, we felt well-supported in this unit.

Last week I summarized the tragic death of Amadou Diallo, connected it with some themes they have studied in music class, history class and their English class. Then we watched this performance:



This last Monday we watched this documentary, which was actually made by students at my school a couple years ago.



We asked the students to write down their reactions to this video and to make connections with other things they have learned in school. It was important that we started there before having any classroom discussions. We needed to get a sense of where students were with sensitive issues related to race and privilege.

The student reflections showed an awareness of what was going on a good level of empathy.  However it was hard to gauge our students’ level of interest in this song and this topic through their reflection.

Today in music class I have them their parts to “American Skin.” I prepped them explaining that we would do one section at a time and hack our way through this piece. We ran the first eight measures and when I stopped, they immediately started talking and playing. I was about to stop them and explain that they needed to be quiet when I cut them off but I hesitated. The students were asking each other about notes and rhythms and practicing the piece. So I let them work for another minute.

I yelled at them to stop and we played the introduction again. After I cut them off, again they went back to work. We worked this way, going section by section and I let them help each out and practice after I cut them off. No, this is not the way I would like to them to rehearse, but they were invested, working really hard, so I decided to let it go.

With eight graders, actions often speak louder than words and their focus and interest in learning the song today, showed me that they were into this song and that it was connecting with something that made sense to them and mattered.

The next step is to explicate the lyrics, help the students figure out what the phrase "American Skin" means in the song and in their lives.  It's going to be a challenging unit, but the students have already impressed me with their thoughtfulness.

I'll let you know how it goes.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Monday, March 21, 2016

Parenthood: Week 144 - Time

More often than not I’m trying to get Ollie to transition out of an activity before he’s done. On the way to bed, he wants us to read him one more book. When I pick him up from school, Ollie lays down in protest wanting to play for a little bit longer. There’s never enough time during bath to play (even though, I had to negotiate heavily to get him to take his bath) and of course, his time on the iPad most of the time ends in protest.

The only time that I remember in recent memory that Ollie could really direct how much time he wanted to spend on a certain activity was when we were in the house all day starting on his potty training. That day, potty training interrupted Ollie, but he was able to jump right back into his activities.

I feel bad that I often have to move Ollie along, especially when he’s doing really creative and interesting work.  However, if I don’t interrupt him, and get him to eat dinner by a certain, he will get really "hangry."  If we let Ollie read too many books before he goes to bed, he will be up too late, not be able to go to bed and be cranky the next morning. And while it's great indication that Ollie enjoys school, he can't stay there forever.

There is a great deal of negotiation in order to get Ollie to help us out with transitions. Sometimes it's reminding him that he could do that activity the next day, other times we give him something to look forward to like seeing Diana at home and in the most desperate times, we simply bribe him. Ollie responds best to enthusiasm, which I sometimes forget in my frustration as he goes boneless and I'm literally dragging him by his foot across the floor.

Diana and I are don't want Ollie life to be over-scheduled. The modern nightmare of children as young as toddlers only spending time with parents bussing kids from activity to activity. At the same time if you aren't deliberate about scheduling activities and planning ahead for experiences, days can zoom by unfulfilled and opportunities can be missed.

One of the things that I admire about Ollie is his relationship with time. So often in the day, I'm conscious of time and how long things are taking.  I Often curse time for moving too quickly.  I am rarely not conscious about the current time and how much time is left before the next event or task.

Ollie doesn't fight time. He lives along with time and allows time move him through his life faster and slower as he experiences life.  His past is a wonderful mixture of impressions and feelings and the future while uncertain is full of wonders and adventures. Ollie’s experiences time with freedom focusing not on time passing but on life lived in the moment.

I'm going to try to create more moments when Ollie can help us all get lost in time.  Sometimes when you are rushing through things to get to the next event, you end up missing the point of the time we are blessed to share together with people we love.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Year 6: Week 27 – Working Through The Frustartion

“If you are more frustrated for what this school isn’t, than happy for what this school is, than you should move on.”

There’s always something to get frustrated about in any organization. There are things that don’t work as well as they should and personalities that don’t click with. When any group of people get into a group to work together over a period of time, tension is inevitable and conflict, which is built into the nature of human interaction, is going to be an issue.

Schools like many companies go in cycles. Certain conversations happen every couple years. To people who have been in a school for a long time, these conversations can feel like redundancies. Each year there are different students and different parents but the same issues come up just with new faces. This can feel like a lack of forward progress, dealing with the same problems, year after year.

Within all of this sometimes teachers slip into pessimism. This is understandable with the constant grind that is teaching, but we need to watch ourselves in these moments. If this is simply a bad day mood, that’s fine, but if it’s something deeper, then maybe it’s time to move on.

The things we love about our school need to overtake the frustrations. Because if they don’t, they drag down the other teachers who are trying to fight the good fight. More importantly, a lack of optimism is a disservice to the students.

If you get frustrated that conversations need to happen in meetings that you feel are redundant, just zone out or doodle. You aren’t a new teacher anymore, and not everything in a meeting has to apply just to you. Yes, it seems like we are having the same conversations to students and parents year after year when you teach the same grade. This is actually a good thing because it shows that you are present and have preparation to deal with issues that come up.  And don't forget, for a student or parent, probably these are brand new conversations to them.

To be completely honest, I feel frustration at my work.  However I feel less over time because I’ve learned to set my expectations in a way to be more accepting. A lot of frustration is due to the fact that individuals who are feeling frustrated cannot accept circumstances around them. There are so many things I love about this school that these frustrations really feel less significant and that’s why I’m still teaching at this school.

One day that may change and then it will be time to move on. Until then, I’m going to to hear the same talks, have the same conversations and teach some of the same songs every year.  At this point, the new faces, the students' energy and the spirit of this school makes it all feel more like a blessing than a burden.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Monday, March 14, 2016

Parenthood: Week 143 - Driving Mr. Ollie

In his car seat, sometimes Ollie is quiet. He will listen to whatever I happen to have playing from The Gaslight Anthem to This American Life. Since he entered toddlerhood, I have been more cautious on what we listen to in the car, saving hardcore rap music and the Savage Lovecast for times when I’m in the car without Ollie.

Lately Ollie has become more opinionated with what we listen to in the car. While his language skills are fast developing, he doesn’t always know how to tell me what song he wants to listen to, so sometimes it’s a struggle to find the right song for him. Like myself, when he likes a song, he wants to hear it over an over.  Fortunately, most of the songs that he wants to hear repeatedly are not that annoying like “Puff, The Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary and “Wonderful Crazy Night” by Elton John. However, after a week of hearing the same song over and over, even the greatest song can loose its charm.

If Ollie has something to say, he will chirp up and ask me a question. We don’t often have conversations in the car, but when we do it’s usually me prepping Ollie for where we are going and what he needs to do when we get there.

From a safety standpoint, it is absolutely insane to put a car seat in the front passenger seat of the car. However, the sound and logical placement of a child in the back seat makes for some challenging situations. I’ve had to drive helplessly as Ollie has sneezed all over himself. I haven’t been able to hand him something that he wants that is out of his reach, and even though I have a mirror that gives me a peak at Ollie, sometimes I feel helpless, not really knowing what’s going on with him.

One of the important things for Ollie is making sure he doesn’t fall asleep in the car at the wrong time. If he falls asleep in the car seat close to a nap time, sometimes this means that Ollie will not take his nap, even if he just nods off for 5 minutes. To keep this from happening, I will reach back with my right arm and play with his hair. This usually wakes him up.  He responds by whining and swatting away my hand. It’s not fun to purposely aggravate a tired toddler, but it’s better than having a toddler skip a nap and be a mess for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

A couple days ago on the way back home from school, I reached back to touch Ollie’s hair and instead of feeling him swat at my hand, he giggled and grabbed onto one of my fingers and held on. I did the best I could to relax my shoulder and arm in this twisted position so I could keep my hand there while pain and tension built in my arm.

When I came a light I took my hand away to help me make a turn. I heard Ollie ask quietly, “hand?” So I reached back again and Ollie grabbed my hand and he cooed in satisfaction. For the remainder of the car ride home, he held my hand and somehow the feeling of his fingers holding mine, overcame the pain in my arm.

That was super-cute.

I don't love spending so much time in the car, but as with having Diana in the car, there are some pretty awesome moments when I'm driving Mr. Ollie.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Year 6: Week 26 - Alone

But you are alone.

There’s the smile that you show your students. The excitement the enthusiasm and the wonder of music and then there’s what’s really going on with you on the inside.

In teaching you put on an act. You pretend to be engaged when you feel apathetic, you pretend to be excited when you are tired and you pretend to be present at times when your heart could and your minds could not be further away. In doing so, you are giving more to your students but pushing them away from who you really are at the same time. Surrounded by students, you are alone.

If you are in a bad mood for reasons that don’t have to do with school, then you have to suck it up, because you students don’t deserve your crankiness. You have to keep it together when things feel like they are falling apart. Unlike when you are with your, friends and family, you cannot be fully open and you cannot allow yourself to be fully venerable in front of your students. While you are human, it’s more important that you are a teacher.

Sometimes when you fake it, it changes how you feel, but more often than not it’s a roller coaster ride. You give yourself a moment, find that reservoir, and just go. For that class, you play your part and you feel the challenge, the dynamic exchange of energy and ideas. This drives you and propels you. The faces of the students draw you in, and their ideas make you think,

Then the students leave and once again you are alone.

This separation is essential. It reminds you that when students misbehave in class, or are disrespectful, that it’s not personal, because your students don’t know you. They should know things about you. They should know that you have a family, that you care about your job and that you care about them. If you feel so compelled, other things about yourself can be very powerful to share like your experience as a minority to a student feeling marginalized and alone.

You go home and share your day with your family and friends. Sometimes you have people close to you who are teaching, but more often than not you are a minority within groups of people you love.

These people cannot understand what you do. They will never get what it means to not have enough materials or resources to do your job right. They will never understand how much harder it is to not give 100% to a client that is a 8 year-old than a business associate half-way across the world. They will never understand these factors drives you to spend your own money on pencils for your students.

Late at night, while you are correcting papers and writing lesson plans your students are with you in your thoughts.  When you close your laptop, and finally decide to go to sleep, it’s not because you are done, it’s because even though you haven’t gotten nearly enough tasks off your to do list, you did the best you could.

Once again you are alone, finally having let the needs, and dreams of your students leave you as you prepare to sleep.  You are too tired to dream and there are too few hours to sleep until you rise before the light of the morning sun.

You do it again and again, because it is who you are. It is pride, joy, work and struggle. It’s about dedication to people over profit and individuals over self.  Feel alone, but don't forget that we are all out there feeling alone along with you fighting the good fight changing the world for the better, one lesson at a time.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

Parenthood: Week 142 - Center Of The Conversation

Sitting at the dinner table the other night, Diana and I were deep into a discussion about learning differences with our students and how to best address them. Ollie said, “daddy, stop talk!” and after we both paused, Ollie begun telling us about his day. He explained how someone had a potty accident during snack time at his school. Ollie was really proud to share this story with us and he repeated the story when he saw that he we were receptive asking follow-up questions.

First off, let’s just talk about the story itself. Ollie was not distressed about the story nor was he telling it in a humorous way. These kinds of potty accidents are a daily occurrences in a classroom where students are at different stages of potty training. Yes, it’s hilarious and kind of strange, but it’s Ollie’s reality. The matter of fact way that he told this story was a great reassurance that Ollie’s teachers were approaching potty training in an open and supportive way.

Now back to the real topic of this post . . .

Diana and I have always valued conversation as an important part of our relationships in our lives. We have prioritized nurturing Ollie’s voice sense the day he was born. Both of us talked to him all of the time as an infant and any way he communicated to us was met with great support.

As a toddler Ollie’s ability to express himself verbally is becoming more and more powerful. His vocabulary is exploding, he can speak with a variety of emotions and most important to me is that he is eager to communicate.

Ollie wants to be part of the dinner table conversations, and when we forget to ask him to join in, he will let us know that he wants to share something. During car rides, sometimes in moments only filled with music, he will start talking to me about something. There are very cute times when I hear him playing in another room explaining what he is doing to Buffy.

Many times when he is confused, he will resort to speaking to us in a tone that is not respectful and ultimately unproductive. We are careful when helping him calm down and try again to focus on him communicating more effectively while not discouraging him to express himself. This is difficult mid-tantrum, but with deep breathing exercises (done by myself and Ollie), we are making progress.

It’s important to remember that while toddlers sometimes sound like they know how to talk, they really have not developed many language skills we take for granted. They don’t know that they do not need to ask for something multiple times, they don’t realize how loud they are speaking and they don’t know that interrupting people is rude. There’s so much that we need to teach them, but these skills are some of the most important lessons they will ever learn.

I remember wondering what Ollie’s voice was going to sound like before he was born and hearing him talk is more wonderful than I imagined.  Ollie has so much to say and I'm so excited for him to have a voice at our dinner table and in the world.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Year 6: Week 25 – Cleaning Up After Politicians

The day after Barack Obama was elected to office of the President Of The United States, there was a fight at my school. Before school started a group a students were talking. Two students had opposing political positions and when their discussions escalated into a physical altercation. The students were using language that they heard somewhere else, from pundits, parents or other adults, that represented the worst of political rhetoric and not understanding the meaning and context of these words, they let each other have it.

These were 9-year olds.

In that moment I felt a feeling of shame at our country.  Is this what we have taught our children about politics?

As teacher, there are things that I enjoy about teaching during a run-up to a presidential election and things that I dread. As teachers it is our job to help students understand the world around them. When it comes to discussions about politics we have a responsibility to hold back our bias and make sure that we are not influencing students with own our personal political positions.

In past elections cycles, this hasn’t been that difficult. It’s not that difficult to explain different philosophical views on welfare.  This year has been different. When one of my eight graders came into my classroom dressed up like Donald Trump on Halloween and wanted to give a speech in front of the class, I told him no. I couldn’t risk him quoting one of Trump’s offensive racist or sexist comments in my classroom. While this could be interpreted as a partisan move, for me it had to do with the overarching goal of maintaining a safe space in my classroom.

Earlier this week, I had this conversation with a middle school student:
6th grader: Mr. Tang, what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to make America great again? 
Me: I honestly don't know. I can't think of another time I'd want to go back to that is better. 
6th grader: You wouldn't want to go back to time? Is there a time you would want to time travel to? 
Me: Maybe for a really short visit, but I don't really want to go back to a time when my marriage would be illegal and my son would be the only person of color in his class. 
6th grader: Yeah, that's a good point, I understand what you mean.
I hesitated to be this honest with this student, but I felt that he deserved an real answer. For me, this discussion was about being thoughtful and reflective on what this statement means for myself and many other people in this country. This discussion for me really wasn’t about politics but rather who I am as a human being and the important need to express this genuinely to my students.

Teacher have to play janitor for American children, cleaning up after the messes that our culture leaves behind. I’ve had to explain to students why people still buy Chris Brown’s music after he beat Rihanna. I’ve helped students understand why sexist jokes from Family Guy cannot be repeated in school. I’ve explicated misogynistic rap lyrics and I’ve had discussions with Asian students who don’t understand why no one is making a big deal about Chris Rock’s horribly offensive Asian jokes at the Oscars.

And now, I’m dealing with this disgusting mess of xenophobia, racism and misogyny that Donald Trump is expelling into our culture.

It’s the job and I’m glad that I can be there for my students, but I'm also annoyed, and irritated that people aren't being more conscientious in how this immature and irresponsible political rhetoric is effecting our children.

My students deserve better, your children deserve better.

This isn't about right vs. left.

It's about right vs. wrong.    


Wednesday, March 2, 2016