Monday, May 30, 2016

Parenthood: Week 154 – Gene Ha’s Super-Ollie

All parents try to pass on their own interests to their children. Often with father’s it’s sports. For Ollie and I, it’s geek culture. While Ollie probably could not look at any sports logos and tell you what teams they represent, Ollie can pick out The Flash from a group shot of superheroes. He know what color lightsaber Yoda uses and on difficult mornings, Ollie is motivated to get moving with the promise of wearing his Superman cape.

One way that I’ve shared geek culture with Ollie is through periodic visits to our local comic books store, Comix Revolution in Evanston, IL. I love this store and I used to visit it weekly when I was in college. Unlike the stereotypical comic book store, Comix Revolution, is well lit, doesn’t have any weird smells and has a inviting and well thought-out layout.

My comic book reading slowed down after college and now with the financial and the time pressures of parenthood, I rarely buy single issues and probably only by a half dozen trades paperback (collections of single issues) a year. However, I still love this art form.

Every couple months, I’ve take Ollie to Comix Revolution. He loves walking around, playing with the Uglydoll display and trying to name all of the different characters he sees in the store. The people working in the story are always nice to Ollie and never seem worried that he is going to wreck the store or break something.

Last week, I took Ollie there as I figured that we hadn’t been there in a while. I saw a poster on the door about a signing, but it didn’t really register as Ollie rushed into the store ahead of me.

After Ollie went through all of the Uglydolls, he started picking up these superhero piggybanks and asking me to identify each character. I answered each inquiry, slightly sarcastically:
“That’s Iron Man, he made armor but he’s real power is being privileged.”
“That’s Thanos, he has an Infinity Gauntlet, and his girlfriend is a skeleton.”
“That’s Captain America, he’s basically on steroids.”
As I was explaining the characters to Ollie, I heard a voice come out from behind the counter, “I love your explanations.” I looked around to the front of the counter and saw an artist making sketches. He looked up at me, “I’m doing free sketches. Do you think your son would want one?”  Ollie came up to me and asked me to pick him up and as he caught sight of the man drawing a sketch, he was mesmerized. “Ollie, do you want a drawing?” Ollie nodded yes.

The man smiled warmly at Ollie and asked Ollie who was his favorite character. Ollie replied, “Superman” and the artist replied, “well, I’m going to draw you, as Superman.”

Ollie leaned closer to the counter wanting to watch the artist draw. I saw a stack of comics next on the counter and read the name “Gene Ha.” This was the same name on the poster on the door and then all of the sudden it hit me. This was Gene Ha, artist for one of the greatest comics of all time, Top Ten. Right before me, he was working on drawing my son’s face (check out his awesome new book Mae).

As I held Ollie up, I explained what Gene was doing starting with pencils and then adding markers. Trying to hold back from geeking out too much, I asked Gene about some of his work and his experiences. Gene throughout this process was warm and open, looking up at my son every so often with a soft smile as a reference for his drawing.

After Gene was done, he handed the sketch to Ollie and he was delighted. “Who is in the drawing?” I asked, and he Ollie replied proudly “It’s Superman-Ollie!”

I thanked Gene and I grabbed his new book Mae and moved to the other side of the counter to check-out.

It still hadn’t really sunk-in what had just happened but I knew that this was something special so before we left, I went back to Gene, shook his hand and thanked him one more time.

Ollie probably will not remember this experience, but I will never forget it. When people do things that are giving to Ollie, I feel a great depth of gratitude.  Comix Revolution's welcoming atmosphere that the express to Ollie will keep us coming back to his store and Gene Ha’s incredible sketch and his generosity will forever make me a fan of his work.

Comix Revolution and artist like Gene Ha get it. In a fandom filled with negativity, this store and this artist are investing in young fans, and reminding those of us who are not as involved as we used to be, that we are always welcome.

We’re going to frame this sketch and put it up in Ollie’s room as a reminder of the wonder of childhood and that in a world that can be so dark, there are individuals who care enough to make the smallest among us feel like superheroes.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Year 6: Week 36 – Students Of Color, Music, and Glory

A saxophone player takes his instrument home for the first time this year to practice.

A band student asks to sing a vocal solo, which has never happened before.

A boy who previously had not shone interest in choir works hard on a vocal solo.

A quiet band student comes out of his shell and performs a rap in front of the entire school.

A girl who expresses little enthusiasm for choir, asks her teacher to come to music class to watch her perform with the choir.

All of these 8th grade students did these unexpected and remarkable things for two different songs “Glory” from the film Selma and Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin.”

All of these students were students of color.

The 8th grade choir teacher and I wanted to do some songs that were about social issues this school year. Studying issues related to social justice is in the fabric of our school and we thoughts that if we did songs that had deeper layers of meaning our students would be more invested in class.

Initially, only the choir was working on “Glory.” This song reflected topic the students were studying in their history class and the kids really like the song. So I arranged a band part to go along with it. “American Skin” (which I wrote about teaching in this post), wasn’t as enthusiastically embraced initially, however the students were respectful and interested in the background. Over time, both the band and choir students came to really enjoy this song.

Then the choir teacher and I noticed that students we didn’t expect were taking ownership of these songs by volunteering for solos, and putting in extra time to work on these songs. All of these students were students of color.

For some of these students, these songs were the favorite songs they had ever performed in their middle school career and they expressed this openly to us as teachers. Their pride in their work inspired their whole grade and us as their teachers.

Today the choir teacher and I agreed that we have to choose some music every year that speaks directly the experience of our students of color. These students like all people of color in America feel degrees of marginalization, and discrimination. This combined with the social issues of middle school and their development of their racial identity, makes their lives challenging in unique and profound ways. These songs validated these students’ feelings and life experiences and music class became a place they felt validated and understood.

I’m proud that we were able to reach these students through music, but more than that, I am proud of these students. They put faith in us as teachers, made themselves vulnerable in front of their peers, and displayed bravery in front of the entire school community performing these songs with meaning and pride.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016

Parenthood: Week 153 – Turning 3

Tonight was the last night I said goodnight to my two-year-old, because tomorrow, he’s going to be three.

I haven’t given a lot of thought to Ollie turning three. We’ve given a fair amount of thought to his third birthday party, but Ollie actually turning three, that hasn’t been on my mind.

When Ollie turned one, it really felt like an accomplishment. That first year was a roller coaster ride and it really felt like a big deal that we had made it to that point. It’s not that the past year hasn’t been a roller coaster ride. It’s just that we’ve gotten used to the twist and turns of parenthood. Even now with new loop de loops, parenthood may be getting harder, but it’s the same ride.

The warnings about the terrible two’s were completely off base. Don’t get me wrong; at age 2, tantrums are pretty epic. So? Ollie also sleeps better than he ever has. No, it’s not all about trade-offs but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Because toddlers present sometimes to have such intellectual knowledge and emotional expression, parents are sometimes fooled into thinking that they are more mature than they actually are, which leads to frustration.

Just because a two-year-old can count to twenty doesn’t mean that he understands what the different between 11 and 18. And just because a two-year-old puts away her toys one time, doesn’t mean that she will do that without a fight the next time cleanup time occurs. Instead of thinking about a two-year-old as a young three-year-old, sometimes we should think of a two-year-old as a simply a one-year-old with better verbal skills. I’m not advocating low expectations for your child, but tempering them, is sometimes helpful.

More than ever, Ollie no longer feels like a new part of our lives. There’s a moment when as parent that you wake up in the morning and your life with kids feels closer to you than your life without kids. For me, that happened around age 2 with Ollie. Being a father was no longer a new part of my life, being a father was my life.

Part of the reason that I haven’t thought a lot about Ollie’s upcoming birthday is that it feels like he’s growing up too fast. I know that this sentiment is so cliché, but there’s a reason that so many parents bring up this idea. The past three years of my life with Ollie have gone by so quickly. I look at pictures of Ollie as a newborn and that seems like it was yesterday.

More than missing my baby Ollie, I am proud of the three-year-old he has become. He’s my special little guy. He’s curious, empathetic, and he’s completely turned my world upside down, but I like it better this way.

Happy birthday Ollie-bear.  You will always be a blessing, never a burden.  I will always be proud of you, never ashamed, and I will always love.  And with this love, you will never be alone.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

Year 6: Week 35 – Twins

This year I’m teaching eight sets of twins. Even with keeping in the mind that this is spread over four different grades, I find this pretty incredible. This is the highest number of sets of twins that I’ve ever taught in a school year.

In my elementary school classes, twins are separated into different classrooms, so I rarely seem them together at the same time. Yes, the identical twins can cause me to mess up names, but it usually isn’t that much of an issue because groups of names in one class become connected after looking through my grade-book over and over. We don’t do very many things as a full grade, so I rarely see these twins interact with each other.

This changes in 5th grade. The classes get mixed up for different projects and we go on a 5th grade retreat.  I begin seeing twins in different contexts outside of the music classroom. In middle school, all the band kids in a grade meet together, so that’s when I observe the interaction between twins in class.

Some pairs of twins completely ignore each other before, during and after class and others interact as acquaintances.  I understand.  Having a sibling in school can be challenging and having a sibling in the same class can add another layer of awkwardness.

Other twins are more affectionate: Two sisters holding each other’s hands and walking down the hallways when they think no one is looking. Two brothers who always sit next to each other at lunch and in class laugh with each other while making jokes at each other’s expense.

Last night, I witnessed one of these heartwarming moments during our Spring Concert. The high school band was on stage and I was waiting backstage with the 6th grade band. The song that was being performed on stage had a danceable beat and right behind me were twin sisters, dancing along with the song. I saw this in the corner of my eye and my initial thought was that I needed to stop them. It was important that we maintain a level of focus before performing and I didn’t want everyone else in the band waiting backstage to join in with this dancing.

I turned around and put my hand up to signal to stop them and then I couldn’t help but smile. Their dancing was isolated, no one behind them really noticed, (they were being pretty subtle).  Seeing the smiles on these sisters’ faces as they danced together was simply too joyful for me to stop.

I have an older brother, but I can feel that there's something different, something special about twins.  Most of the time teaching twins doesn't require any special attention.  However sometimes you need to be careful (I've had a twin be protective of his twin when I redirected his brother's behavior).  On those rare occasions when their guard is down and twins find comfort in each other, it's a beautiful reminder of meaning of family and the beauty of sibling-hood.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Parenthood: Week 152 – Pick-Up

Drop-off and pick-up can be really rough. The feeling of driving away from a school or a day care after you left your crying baby, is one of the worst feelings you can have as a parent. As people who do this on a regular basis know, lingering, actually only makes it worse, so when a caretaker gives you that look, after you say bye, it’s best to just go. This leaves you emotionally wrecked as you drive away crying in your car.

I wish I could say that I was exaggerating.

This year hasn’t been too bad. We’ve had our rough drop-offs, but the confidence we have in Ollie’s teachers makes a big different. But, the main focus for this post, I want to discuss is pick-ups.

Ollie rarely wants to go home when I pick him up. This is a great sign, because this means that he’s enjoying school and feels comfortable there, but it can be a huge pain. His teachers have a schedule to keep that I want to be respectful of and we got things to do at home.

There was one really rough situation a couple months back when I left work early to pick-up Ollie.  I rushed through stuff at work so that we could spend more time together.  When I got to school, he was upset that I was there to get him because his class had just transitioned to another activity he wanted to do. He completely melted down, we ended ups staying in school much longer than I had planned.  My efforts to spend time with him were pretty much a wash. It wasn’t Ollie’s fault, but that one hurt and was really frustrating.

As adults we’ve developed the ability to imagine things to motivate us to move forward in life, like the self-promise of a beer after mowing the lawn. Ollie often doesn’t have these things in his head to look forward to so I give him things like pressing the elevator button, seeing Buffy or on really tough days, the promise of watching a television show when he gets home.

Last Wednesday, when I walked into the door, Ollie ran up to me and gave me a huge hug. I asked him if he was ready to go home and without hesitation, he grabbed my hand and starting walking with me to his cubby to get ready to leave. As we were walking, he said joyfully, “I love you daddy.”

This unsolicited sign of affection is rare, but not as rare as Ollie taking the initiative to take the lead in getting ready to go home. Happily he got his stuff together and asked me to carry him to the car. I asked him the lean in so that I could carry him easier. He responded by wrapping his arm around my neck and kissing me on the cheek and giggling.

As we walked out to a sunny afternoon, Ollie asked “where is the fog?” I replied, “the fog was here this morning, but it went away.” “ . . . but I want the fog,” Ollie sadly whimpered. Before I knew it, Ollie had entered full meltdown mode. He just couldn’t understand where the fog had gone. As I explained that I couldn’t control the weather, Ollie continued to scream with tears streaming down his face.

So that happened. Sigh.

But it’s not actually all that bad. That pick-up is exactly why toddlers are so wonderful. They have the capacity to express such wonderful care and love. Even though his meltdown about the fog wasn’t fun, I understood his confusion about the change of weather.

Pick-ups and drop-offs are an adventure. Sometimes not an adventure you are in the mood to take on, but it’s part of the parenting gig, and while it’s not always fun, somehow we get through it.   Ollie may not always be happy to see me or ready to go home, but I'm always happy to see him.  And having someone in your life that makes you feel that way is worth the tears about the weather.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Year 6: Week 34 – Love Train

I work at a school that likes crazy ideas.

Since we are a JK-12 school there is a fun extra layer of insanity since we can do things across grades. Last year we joined my 3rd graders with the 7th grade choir and sang selections from Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat. This year we decided to continue this tradition and have the 3rd graders perform “Love Train” with the 6th grade choir.

The medley from Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat matched perfectly with the 7th grader'ss study of show tunes and my 3rd grader’s study of telling stories through music. Also since Joseph has a children’s choir part in the original production, making it musically appropriate to have the 3rd graders sing this song.

This year, we went through a bunch of different ideas and landed on “Love Train” by the O’Jays. My brother introduced this song to me. He got into soul music through my father’s love of Motown. I remember being bewildered about my brother’s fascination with this song and thinking that this song was really corny. But my brother’s enthusiasm for this song won me over and soon I began to appreciate the incredible singing, and instrumental background in this song.

So I was sold immediately.

I introduced this song to my students with this video:

I explained:
In the 1970s, before the internet people heard music from the radio and saw musicians on television shows. Unfortunately, a lot of these shows didn’t show African-American performers. So Don Cornelius create this show Soul Train and featured African-American music, musicians, fashion and dancing. Soul Train gave African-Americans pride and showed other people who weren’t African-Americans, the beauty and fun that was part of soul music.
The 6th grade choir teacher came in and helped teach my 3rd graders, which they loved.  I reinforced the work the 6th grade teacher did and as I taught them, most of the 3rd graders could not help dancing as we sang this song. So our high school choir teacher came up with a dance, which our kids loved.

Yesterday we put the 3rd graders together with the 6th grade and it was a blast. My 3rd graders brought really great energy to the song and were very attentive in a different teaching situation.

The 6th graders sang well and had a pretty good class, but they weren’t perfect. There was a moment when the 6th grade choir teacher had to discipline on of his students, they didn’t start the class with a good level of energy and they were a little chatty. My 3rd graders noticed these things and later when we talked about it, they asked questions about how the 6th graders worked. I explained that while they are older, they are students too and we work on the same things. “Sometimes we are a little chatty in 3rd grade music, and sometimes I need to help you stay focused, right?” I explained.

As we continued to talk one of my students asked why we are doing this project with the 6th grade. I turned this question around and asked them why they thought we are doing this project. They came up with answer related to the music and singing with different members of our community and I added, that one important reason we are doing this is because of this conversation we were having.

Next week is going to stressful with not only the performance of "Love Train," but also with all of my middle school groups performing as well.  It'll be crazy, but I don't think I'd want it any other way.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Parenthood: Week 151 – Warmth

Every night before I go to bed, I check in with Ollie, who we put to bed a couple hours earlier. I give him a kiss, tell him that I love him and that I’m proud of him and I tuck his blanket over him, which is usually half on him or tangled underneath him.

Keeping your child warm is one of those primal needs we feel as parents like making sure your kid isn’t hungry or protecting your child against others.

As infants, we try to keep little hats on their heads and socks on their feet, (which never seem to stay on). Whenever you feel a cold hand, you immediately try to warm it up and somehow by wrapping up your little one in blankets, you feel that they will be safer in that warmth.

Then these babies get older and it’s harder to keep them dressed appropriately.  It’s really hard to get toddlers to where gloves, hats, snow pants, winter jackets and boots. First off, they can’t really put on most of these things by themselves and when they decided they don’t want to put on a hat, a true struggle begins. It seems like the only time that Ollie would willingly put on a winter hat was during the spring.

With the winter there’s the whole juggling act of making sure that your kid doesn’t get too hot in the car, but doesn’t freeze on the way to the car. This usually requires warming up the car beforehand, mostly dressing your kid, rushing them into the car, and then taking off layers so that they are comfortable in the car. It’s not like they can take off their jacket themselves when they are under car seat straps.

Every parent tries and tries to get that hat on and get gloves on. I mean we are talking about below freezing wind-chill where we live, and Ollie will still fight us, but we try.

After seeing Ollie play in the snow, I actually think he’s tougher than I am. He’ll be rolling around in the snow and there’s snow all up in his boots, and his gloves and hat will be covered in snow and he will be having a grand time and I’m freezing wearing as much if not more cold weather gear than Ollie. Along with Buffy’s simply astounding ability to be out in the cold weather, I am always the first person who wants to come inside.

One of the first things we give our children is warmth, holding them close to us, keeping them protected against a coldness they do not have the ability to withstand. Maybe that’s why the feeling of warmth brings us such comfort, because it brings us back to that gift we get from our parents so early in life. As parent we hope that warmth never leaves our children and they feel safe and embraced throughout their lives.

I know that I can't always protect my boy from the cold, but for now, I can make sure that he's warm, feeling the comfort of his blanket in the dark of the night.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Year 6: Week 33 – Voice

One of our goals at our school is to help develop in our students their personal voice. We put a priority on making sure that students feel heard and that they play an active role as a member of the school community.

This comes out in making sure that students listen to each other during class discussions but it’s more than that. It’s allowing students to have choices in what they want to study, ways they that they work and creating an atmosphere where students can speak their mind.

For students to have a voice in the school takes a lot of work by the teachers. It would be easier to run our school and our classrooms closer to a dictatorship, but we lean into the challenge. Instead of telling students that their opinion is wrong or inappropriate, the conversation is usually focused on timing. I’m always open to hear a student tell me about how they don’t like a song that we are learning, but I’m not going to let them blurt this out in the middle of class.

This gets really tricky at time because students don’t always understand what things are debatable or what things they need to do without discussion. Because even with things that aren’t debatable, our students still deserve an explanation they can understand, like why we need to be quiet during fire drills.

While this can get clouded with expression of entitlement for a couple kids, for most of my students our efforts to help them have their voices be heard is really appreciated. But man, this can make for some rowdy classrooms and some frustrating moments, but it’s worth it.

After watching my son go from communicating with his crying, then facial expressions and baby sign language to finally words, I’ve realized how much of a struggle it is for children to feel understood. This is a struggle that doesn’t stop and without having the space and time to work on this, children feel marginalized and undervalued.

Are we teaching students information or are we teaching our students how to learn? If we are truly invested in students having an educational experience that helps them learn how to learn, take ownership of the process of their growth and develop tools to be successful agents of change in the world, nurturing their voice is central to education.

In the cacophony of a classroom, sometimes it’s hard to hear all the voices. So we find time during recess, in the hallways or during lunch to make sure that we hear each voice, no matter how quiet and validate their thoughts with our attention.  When we show that we care about their voice, our students feel that we care for them and it is in this feeling that students find themselves and feel safe to let their voices be heard by the world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Parenthood: Week 150 – The Dedication-Part 2

I watched to make sure the needle of my speedometer didn’t go too far over the limit as I raced home. Something inside of me felt an urgency to see my son, to confirm that he was home and that we was in fact okay.

It wasn’t that I was worried about Ollie’s well being, but my heart needed some kind of affirmation, something to balance the feelings I felt from the dedication, the deep love but also the deep sorrow from talking to a father who had lost his son.

It’s not that I had an empathy gap between myself and other parents before Ollie was born. But the reality is that even with the most open hearts, empathy can only go so far. There are feelings that I cannot explain and I do not understand completely that have experienced only after becoming a father.

It was always unimaginable for me to fathom the idea of being a father who has to bury his son, but now as a father, this incomprehensible situation is accompanied by a frightening coldness in my heart. You can’t walk this back once it hits you. All you can do is steer into the feeling, find comfort in your loved ones and remind yourself that the dark feelings are only there because of the love in your life.

When I got home, I greeted Diana and Buffy, put my work stuff to the side and ran up to Ollie’s room. Most of the time when I come home late, I do my best to not bother Ollie. Sometimes it’s not worth waking up Ollie just to say goodnight but tonight I didn’t hesitate. I carefully climbed into his crib and lay there next to him face to face, feeling his soft breath against my face.

As I watched my son sleep, I started feeling calm and centered. The uncertainty of the future didn’t scare me. Because knew in that moment that everything was right. That was enough.

Diana came in after some time, and I managed to get out of Ollie’s crib without waking Ollie up. We both stood there looking at our son and then Diana took my hand and led me out of his room.

I’m really glad that I went to the dedication. It was important for me as a teacher to be there but it was also important for me to go as a father.  Sometimes the stories of parenthood are hard to hear, but these feelings of discomfort bring us closer together in understanding and binding us together as parents.