Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Monday, November 28, 2016

Parenthood: Week 180 – Wash my hands?!?

"Wash my hands?  What's that? You've NEVER asked me do this before in my entire life!" 
- The look Ollie gives me most of the time when he comes home and I ask to wash his hands.
It’s amazing how fast and efficient Ollie is at getting his shoes and jacket on . . . when he feels motivated to do so. One of the challenging things about toddlers is that the combination of their larger size and their stronger will means that everyday processes like taking off shoes and washing hands when you come back home from an outing can become a monumental task.

On one hand I want Ollie to be an independent and thoughtful person who doesn’t just comply to requests without thinking. I like that Ollie challenges me to explain the reasons why we ask him to do things. I want him to do this and work to understand the world around him, even when it’s beyond his capacity to understand. I didn’t choose to be parent so that I could have someone to order around.

At the same time, it can get exhausting to have to deal with his protest to take off his coat and jackets and wash his hands almost every single time we come home. We’ve been doing this routine almost his entire life and most of the time he refuses to do it as he did today and just simply flopped on the ground. Other times when I've told him he could have some crackers when we got home after he took off his shoes and washed his hands, he immediately did all of these things by himself.

It’s not a big shock that Ollie is has some need-based motivational patterns. Most kids do, but most also learn to comply for the sake of being “good” at a certain point. I clearly remember a moment when I was four or five when I decided to just do things that my mom asked without protesting and then my life got a ton easier.

Part of this has to do with our parenting style. We aren’t that hard on Ollie and we do feel that it’s important that he has the freedom to be himself and explore who he wants to be. More important than his ability to follow directions is the nurturing of his spirit. No, we don’t let Ollie go crazy and get away with treating us and others disrespectfully but at the same time we don’t have a lot of issues with letting him dance around and sing a made-up song that delays bath-time, if he’s really into it.

We have a lot to learn from kids, even 3-year-olds. It’s important that we don’t let our frustration with our little ones blind us from what is really special about this age. Yes, he should take off his shoes when he comes home, but it’s also wonderful to see him run in and hug Diana immediately even if it means that he tracks mud into our house. Every time, he doesn’t comply with a request, I realized that maybe I need to ask him to do something in a different way. If you ask someone to do something four times and they don’t do it, there’s a good chance the problem is the way that you are asking the question.

Oh, toddlerhood.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Year 7: Week 13 – A New Kind Of Sharing Night

Every year the week after we get back from our 5th grade Lorado Taft trip, we put on a sharing presentation for the parents and the families. Students in the past wrote out a short reflection, read this out loud in front of the audience and the students perform a couple songs.

We encourage our students to try new things and to challenge traditions. In this same spirit we decided to re-conceptualize this sharing presentation. The Monday after we got back from the trip (we came back on a Friday), we gave the students a choice on how they wanted to follow-up on the trip. The idea was that students could revisit an activity they did on the trip and have time to develop it with more depth. The students could decide between art, writing, making a model of the shelter they built and doing some music work.

In music class a couple weeks before the trip, we began working on contrafacta. This is the process of creating new lyrics for an existing song (e.g. the new lyrics Bernie Taupin wrote for “Candle In the Wind” to honor Princess Diana). I made it clear that we were not writing parodies and that their new lyrics should express similar emotions to the original song.

The students got to choose between three different songs that we had been working on. I encouraged students to choose a song that they felt like they knew well or had an emotional context that they could relate to. Students did really well with this project. I had to put in some structures like the fact that it had to be non-fiction and it didn’t have to have a rhyme scheme which for most students helped them be productive.

During the trip, we gave the students time to revisit this contrafactum project. They were asked this time to use this project to reflect on their experience on the trip. Students could write lyrics about anything from the trip, including the bus ride, eating lunch, and going on hikes.

The extension piece for the presentation gave students time to finish the lyrics, make an edited final draft and record themselves or someone else singing their lyrics with me accompanying them on guitar. We did these recordings on Garage Band, exported them, uploaded them on to Google Drive and shared them with the students.

The night of the sharing each student stood behind tables arranged on our auditorium stage. Among the art work, the writing and the models, the music students had an iPad set-up with two pairs of headphones hooked up through a splitter to the iPad. Then people walked around, and picked up the headphones and listened to the students simply playing them through Google Drive, while looking through drafts of their lyrics.

This was a really great way to give students the time and the freedom to reflect on the trip in a way that was meaningful to them. The technology use for the music students was great and another really special dimension to the whole experience. We did start and end this convention style sharing with the whole class singing songs together.

It’s a wonderful thing when students have the space to follow their own passions and their own interest. It was a tough thing to do organizationally, but it was well worth it. The students work made this feel less like a sharing and more like a celebration.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Monday, November 21, 2016

Parenthood: Week 179 - Raising a Good Guy

An’ you be a good guy, Jesse. You gotta be like John Wayne: You don’t take no shit off fools, an’ you judge a person by what’s in ‘em, not how they look. An’ you do the right thing. You gotta be one of the good guys, son: ‘cause there’s way too many of the bad. 
Preacher #9 - Garth Ennis

I believe that all people are inherently good. There are many people, too many, whose insecurities, fears and darker emotions lead them to do and say mean, prejudicial and horrible things. These are people who are sad, and lonely and unfortunately hurt others in a vain attempt to get that universal meaning that only comes from learning to love others and to be loved.

I look at my son, and I know he’s a good guy. He’s a wonderful guy. There are frustrations when he refuses to do things like take off his shoes or wash his hands, but these aren’t signs that he’s bad. It’s just him learning to work through processes and not fully understanding the “why” behind our requests.

We work hard to make sure that he is surrounded by models of people who are good. There will be times when I will have to introduce him to the horrors of humanity. Ollie will know about the genocide in Cambodia, he will know about the Holocaust, he will know about the Trail of Tears and he will know about the atrocities in the Congo in the late 1800s. That’s for later. Right now, Ollie needs to be exposed to people who are loving and kind and a world that includes the different facets of his identity.

Ollie regularly watches Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Tumbleleaf. We’ve worked hard to make sure that the books that are in our house show Ollie a spectrum of diversity, racially and in other ways. Musically, Ollie’s favorite singer is Elton John, and he deliberately has been exposed to a variety of artists including Brandi Carlile, The Supremes, and The Beatles.

Ollie has heard speeches by Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama. One of the most important books in his collection is Of Thee I Sing, A Letter to My Daughters. This is President Obama’s beautiful children book that expresses the history of our great nation through important historical figures including Jane Adams, Cesar Chavez and Abraham Lincoln. Ollie has also watched videos of Secretary Clinton speak and we have talked to him about her work.

None of these people are perfect human beings, and we shouldn’t look to role models for perfection. We should look to them for traits that they demonstrate and admire them for those traits. As these traits come together, they help us understand what is good and right in the world. It provides a compass, a path to go on, and a way to see the good from the bad.

I’m saddened that there are no traits about the president elect, that he has demonstrated that will help Ollie understand what it means to be good. Titles aren’t always given to the best of us and sometimes the most positive leaders have no titles. When Ollie needs to understand what it means to be sad, lonely and insecure, we’ll have the president-elect, but for the rest of the time when Ollie needs to know what it means to be good, I’ll make sure to continue to surround him with shining light from the best of humanity.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Year 7: Week 12 - The Work Ahead

Usually every year this post is about my trip to Lorado Taft with my 5th graders. This trip wasn’t insignificant this year. This was the year that I went to the trip after four days of being sick with a cold, rallied and made it through the week. Lot of cold medicine, thankfully great weather and other supportive teachers helped get me through the week. However I don’t really feel like embellishing on the tribulations of being sick on a trip and honestly, the trip hasn’t really been on my mind.

It’s been a week and half since the election. The results felt devastating for my family and me.  I’ve looked for affirmations that the Republican leadership doesn’t accept or subscribe to the sexist, and racist things that the president-elect said during the campaign, and those reassurances are few. In their place are atrocious, offensive and um-American ideas like discussing the Japanese internment camps of WWII as a precedent for Muslim registration. You may say that this doesn’t represent the view of the president elect or the Republican party. If that’s true than why does this ignorant and racist person get to speak on television and why isn't the Republican leadership calling this out for as being ridiculous and chastising the individual who made this assertion?

As a teacher, this election has realigned my focus. There’s been a gradual shift from focusing on music education as my primary focus as teacher to primarily focusing on social justice and educating about democracy. When I first started teaching ten years ago, I didn’t think about how the songs that I taught affected the way students saw themselves, each other and society. I didn’t think about how I was educating my students to be citizens. Over the years, I shifted towards thinking about music as a way to teach about student identity, social issues and their place in an inclusive and diverse American society.

Between moments of great grief, frustration and fear, I got to planning. I don’t care who says it, a man on the street, a student or the president. Language that is not inclusive and respectful of the great plurality that is the American experience is not going to be welcome or tolerated in my classroom. I will continue to teach about social issues.

I’m not talking about politics. My students should not have to wonder who will take care of them if one of their parents dies because they have two dads. My students should not have to wonder whether their grandparents can visit from out of the country to come watch them in a concert because they are Muslim. My students should not have friends and family who have been unjustly shot by police because they are black. And my girls should not be made to feel inferior, objectified and limited in their opportunities.

These are issues that have been politicized, but at their core they are civil rights issues. I will continue to teach about these rights and someone thinking that this places me in one side of the political spectrum isn’t going to stop me, because my students and my son being valued and accepted as an American goes way beyond politics.

Time to get to work. I’m putting together a woman in music unit for my 5th graders to discuss the underrepresentation of woman in the music industry. I’m organizing a president’s day assembly focusing on America as a diverse and inclusive country and I got Civil Rights music coming up in the Spring with my 8th graders.

It’s go time. The time is now. The work is hard, the conversations will be challenging, but it’s the job. More than ever I’m proud to be a teacher and hopeful that out of all of this, I can make the world a better place one students at a time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Parenthood: Week 178 Part 2 - Dream Deferred (The Post If She Won)

I wrote this post on Tuesday 11/8/2016, anticipating Secretary Clinton winning the Presidential Election. 

"This may not have been such a good idea."

I sat there in my driveway, with the chills, sweating and trembling, while the pain in my head throbbed and my throat felt tight. I had been sick for four days with a painful head cold. It felt like a hangover every morning and evening without the inconvenience of drinking. I decided after taking a sick day and a long weekend that I would head to school and go on the four day/three night fifth grade outdoor education trip.

I hesitated before turning the key in the ignition, and then I said to myself, "If Hillary had the strength to make it through this election and hold her head high while being the most sexually harassed woman in America, then I can rally and make this trip happen."

As I drove to school, I thought about my mom's struggles immigrating to America, facing racism and sexism and never letting these encounters effect her belief in herself and her dignity. I thought about the struggles of my wife trying to balance out expectations of parenthood and career that people often judge her about and rarely consider with me because I’m a man.

Then I thought about my son.

Before getting into my car, I walked into Ollie's room to say goodbye. I watched him sleep peacefully. Then I whispered to him, "Daddy is going to go now, he needs to say bye. You are my special little guy, I am very proud of you and I love you very much. You exist because you live in a country that values you, that loves that your mom and dad came from different places and through love brought you into this world. There are people around though who don't value who we are and tonight people are gong to vote and show us that those people are wrong. You are loved and important to our country and I'm never going to let anyone make you feel differently."

As the morning sun began to rise, I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by emotion when I remembered my mom’s words from the previous night. I asked my mom about the election and how she voted. She told me how excited she was to see that a woman of her generation could do something that she couldn't. She saw Hillary struggle and fight and deal with the worst society could throw at her and made it through.

I told my mom how excited I was that I was going tell Ollie that there was going to be a grandmother in the White House. I started feeling tears of joy as I explained how incredible it was that Ollie was born with a mixed-race American as President and will come to know a grandmother as President. Ollie will know that there is a little boy and girl, whose visit to Grandma's house will be a trip to the White House.

I walked into my school, with my wife, my mom and my son with me, determined to be strong. Feeling in my heart that they were with me and that we were stronger together.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Parenthood: Week 178 - Dear Ollie, 2016 Election

Dear Ollie,

I am so sorry. We failed you. We let you down. We tried to push back against the forces of fear and hatred and this time the darkness won.

I'm scared, your friends are scared and many other people all around the world are scared. Fear is a hard emotion, but we can't let it paralyze us. We have to be strong. We have to be brave.

There are people who didn't see the meanness and the hate as disqualifying. They didn't see that these horrible words were about your mother, you and me.

One of the greatest characters in literature is a Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. He is one of my inspirations for being a dad.  One of his most famous quotes is, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."  It's hard to do this work, but we have to try.  Sometimes people don't make any effort to do this, so you've got to make the extra effort.  It's exhausting, it's a burden, but you have to try.

Ollie, it's not enough to be kind, we must helps others be kinds. It's not enough to be respectful to woman; we have to insist that others are good to woman. And it's not enough that you embrace the wonderful facets of humanity including diversity in race, religion, sexuality and gender, we need to make sure all people do this. This is what it means to be a good person. This is what it takes to make the world a better place.

Your life, the wonderful experiences and joy that fill your day, exist because others before you fought for the rights of others. The way we show gratitude to those people is by continuing their work. We bring meaning to our lives when we work for others as others have worked for us.  With this work, you can change the world.  I know this to be true, because you have changed my world.

Because you are not Caucasian, you will not see yourself in leadership and authority figures, so you will use your imagination to remind yourself that these roles are open to you.  Because you are a man, you will enjoy privileges that woman do not, so you will spend your life making sure that you use these advantages to bring sucess to women.  Because you are a person of color, people will look at you as an "other," and question your place in America, so you will be strong, go high and never forget that those who would make you feel as an "other" are the least American of all of us.

When I'm at work with my students, I promise that I will spend every moment helping them develop the tools that will allow them to create a world where you are valued. I do this work for you. I will never give up on making this world for you as I will never give up on you.

I promise you that I will give you a President that deserves to serve you.  Maybe not today, but someday.  And I promise to spend the rest of my life working to make a world that honors you as my mom and I love you.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Year 7: Week 11 – Teach Like A Man

I remember the first teacher I had in school that was a man. He was our PE teacher. Mr. Gowan. He wore a tight t-shirt tucked into 1990’s style warm-up pants. He was bald, wore glasses and whenever I picture him in my mind’s eye, he has a whistle in his mouth. He spoke in short sentences, wore glasses and always carried a clipboard.  Mr. Gowan always spoke authoritatively which seemed at odds with the fact that he was a short man. Basically, if you were to make a cartoon character of a PE teacher, it would probably look like him.

The next male teacher I had was a music teacher in second grade (oddly, he also was my drivers ed teacher years later). He was one of those music teachers who would have rather been playing music professionally. It wasn’t 5th grade that I had another teacher who was a man. In my kindergarten-5th grade school, with three classes per grade there were only three male teachers. All the administration were woman and the only other adult man in the school was the janitor who I remembered because he shared the same name as the football player Joe Kelly.

In middle school, I don’t think changed. I had maybe one male teacher a year. It was still mostly woman teachers. It wasn’t until high school that male teachers started making an impression on me.

I’m really happy about the the fact that my school has teachers who are men, not only in our high school grades but all way down to our kindergarten level. Most of the homeroom teachers from grades 1-5 are woman, but many of assistants and many of the department teachers including myself are men. I would say that almost every student, almost every day interacts with teachers of both genders at my school.

What makes me really proud about the male teachers at my school is that they aren’t all the same kind of “male.” There’s the 5th grade teacher who has Boston sport paraphilia plastered on his walls and the 6th grade teacher who has 1960s music posters all over his front wall. Our 8th grade English teacher loves college football but also loves poetry. Then there’s the middle school choir teacher who plays Pokemon Go, has immaculate handwriting, enjoys watching professional basketball but also geeks out about great choral music.

I look at my male students flailing, trying to figure out what it means to be a man. I have boys who graders wearing sport jerseys, Star Wars t-shirts, capes (on regular school days), and ties. No we aren’t helping them find an answer by presenting them with a plurality of models in masculinity, but we are helping in their journey to creating and develop an authentic masculine identity, based not on insecurities but rather on pride.

Also, it is a important reminder to our boys, that teachers of all subjects, can indeed be men.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Monday, November 7, 2016

Parenthood: Week 177 – Hope In The Park

It was the late afternoon and the unusually warm fall weather made me feel both refreshed from the wind and warmed by the rays of the setting sun.

Ollie jumped out of the stroller and ran towards the slides. He knows this park well.  The play area has different playground equipment for different ages and it’s suited for little ones who can barely walk, all the way up to teenagers.

I looked around the park and saw a woman in a hijab with her husband chasing around their school-aged kids. A group of older boys wearing Yakamas on their heads with Tzitzit coming down from their shirts chased each other nearby while their parents sat on a bench and enjoying the sounds of each other’s laughter. A blonde girl, dressed in a flower-printed summer dress twirled around, watcher her skirt extend up giggling as she became dizzy and fell over.

The other parents traded pleasantries as Ollie and I walked by and there was a calm feeling of peace in that park as we shared the space and the time together.

When you become a parent, you start to view the world differently. Certain things, like going out to bars, don’t hold as much meaning while other things like the cuteness of baby socks make you sentimental. You become less tolerant of people being unjust when you see the potential for this harm on your own child. However, you also start seeing and experiencing special things that we share as human beings.

It’s in the common experiences of childbirth and parenthoods, but it’s also in the places that our children take us. In libraries, parks and zoos, there is rarely strife. Instead what you see in these places, are people, all kinds of people sharing time with each other, co-existing, and agreeing to respect this space and time.

We talk about division and polarization in our country. We see footage of people screaming at political rallies and we’ve suffered at a country listening to a political candidate tap into people’s deepest fears and prejudice.s  One of the reasons that hasn’t gotten to me is that I don’t see any of this when we take Ollie places. I don’t see this at museums, I don’t see this at Ollie’s school and I don’t see it at the grocery store.

How we view our government is a reflection of how we view ourselves. If our insecurities lie in our bonuses that only serve to heighten a level of privilege, than we see the worst in our politicians as we are not ready to see this dark part of ourselves. However, if we choose to see the world through the experiences, hopes and feelings of our children, we will see hope in politicians and our government. This isn’t blind ignorance. This is a choice to believe in our politicians as we believe in ourselves and our children.

Parenthood is all about hope and optimism. If you don’t believe that your child’s fever will break or that your baby tomorrow night will actually sleep and not keep you up all night, you’re not going to make it as a parent. Luckily, there are moments like the park yesterday when I see Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive and well. It is these moments that fill us with hope.

Look at the world. If you want to find pessimism and selfishness, well, you’ll find it, but if you want something to believe in, look at our children.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Year 7: Week 10 - Halloween & The Cubs


Halloween was on Monday. It’s kind of cute, but it’s also very difficult to handle as a teacher. Many schools do parade and then a party in the afternoon leading into dismissal. My school does the parade in the morning, followed by a short party and then back to work. My son’s school simply avoids Halloween all together and let’s the parent organization put together a Halloween party after school.

I’m a fan of what my son’s school does. It doesn’t disrupt the day very much and avoids awkwardness that often comes up with costumes and Halloween. Some kids wear store bought costumes, others have parents who help them make interesting and creative costumes, some students don’t have the financial means to buy a costume and other simply don’t celebrate Halloween. There are social problems when groups of students coordinate costumes, and most schools render some costumes pointless by not allowing masks or weapons as part of the costume.

There are a lot of issues going on here with Halloween and school.  It’s important that we really think about what it means to bring Halloween into the school day. Even if the vast majority of the families and students are good with spending a lot of time in the school day celebrating Halloween, that doesn’t mean that it’s right.


In addition the Halloween this week, teachers in the Chicagoland area had to deal with the World Series. Students came in Thursday morning exhausted from staying up to watch the final game of the series and our school, since it was near the parade route, cancelled classes today.

Thursday was awkward because I tried to teach, but many students were really out of it, having only slept a couple hours the night before. Many kids were really excited and bouncing off the walls, and when they asked me about watching the game and my own excitement, I felt it was important that I was honest. I didn’t watch the game, and I don’t care at all about major league baseball, the Cubs, or the World Series. I love how happy my friends are and my students are about this win, and this joy is really great to witness. However, I made the choice that I was not going to pretend to care more than I do, because that would be disingenuous.

Last week during a transition in one of my 3rd grade music classes, one of my students asked a question about the Cubs and clearly had no idea about the playoffs or the series. A group of boys started making fun of him for not knowing what was going on, and laughing in disbelief about his ignorance, meanly questioning, “How do you not know about the World Series?” I interrupted the boys and said, “I don’t know what’s going on either, I don’t watch baseball.” One boy in a Cubs hat looked up to me in disbelief asking, “You’re joking, EVERYONE watches the Cubs.”

I replied, “No, you are wrong. Not everyone is into baseball. It’s great that you enjoy watching sports. But I don’t and that’s okay. There are many things that I’m into that you aren’t but I don’t get to make fun of you about that fact. You don’t get to make people feel bad for not being into what you enjoy.  The best fans, don't make others feel bad for not being fans but rather try to include non-fans by being kind and explaining things.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2016