Thursday, November 26, 2020

Belonging is the Root of Gratitude

Go on any social media today and you will see a plethora of posts, quotes and pictures depicting gratitude in various ways and for a multitude of reasons. I am always amazed at the desire in the hearts of people to yell from the highest mountain about that for which they are grateful. It is beautiful really, and a human trait worth exploring.

What is it that makes us want to share our gratitude? Is it a feeling of happiness created by another? Is it the sensation of completeness that soothes our being? Or perhaps it is the sense of love that we enjoy at the receiving end of a message or sentiment. Whatever the catalyst, the sharing of gratitude holds in its power the healing necessary for our world.

And so today I challenge you to look inside for the origination of the gratitude you feel. Then look beyond the event or person or object and find what it is that is truly rooted in your heart. In almost every case, I believe you will find a sense of belonging has been planted deep within your heart by whomever or whatever brings you that sense of thankfulness. 

Take just a minute (I mean that literally.): Close your eyes and let your gratitude bring you joy. Sit with the thought for a moment and just feel it. fit have a have a purpose...there is a reason for you. 

Then, once you have allowed your gratitude to permeate your very soul, go about bringing to others that same sense of belonging. Thank you for being here, allowing me to share my passion and purpose, and planting in my heart a sense of belonging right here on this journey with you.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

If You Keep Making that Face, it Will Freeze that Way!

My children tonight asked why I always share with others about our foibles...ok, they didn't say "foibles", but they asked why I share all our weirdness and craziness. And I told them that sometimes I really feel that we are led through the experiences we have so that others can know they are not alone. For example tonight Anna, my 17 year-old new-driver, came home and greeted me with, "I know you don't need more to worry about but..." She had driven into the mailbox while attempting to park, knocking the passenger side mirror from the car. Well, not totally knocking it off. To be fair, it was hanging on by the power wires. But the good news is that the mailbox that had been secured (by me) was still intact. Oh, and by the way, the car needs to clear inspection this weekend after having failed three times. 

But this post is not about the mailbox or the mirror or failed car inspection. That was Monday. Nope, this post is about Tuesday and that old saying, "If you keep making that face, it will freeze that way!"  Remember being told that as a child? Silliness, right? And yet, with all this snazzy remote learning, that warning is more true than ever. 

If you are a frequent reader, you already know about Bear, our cute little puppy that we adopted in April. He was 10 weeks and 11 pounds then. He is now a 9 month-old 70 pound puppy. So Monday during period 3, Bear was happily lying next to the piano chewing on something. The dogs, there are three, have chew toys all over the house, so there was really no reason for alarm...until he let out a yelp that sent me jumping from my desk chair in the middle of a discussion about early 1900 immigration with my US History class. Immediately after his yelp, my class had gone black. When I went toward Bear, he was cowering. At the same time, Maccaroni children, who were all supposed to be in classes, began walking toward me saying how the internet had gone out, and it became apparent what had happened. Bear had chewed clear through our modem/router power cord and gotten a shock that scared him more than injured him. Thank God he's huge!

It is rare that I am affected by such seemingly normal Maccaroni-life-occurrences. But anyone who knows me well knows that I don't take teaching lightly. I began to get those feelings of frustration that make me feel I need to fix it...NOW! My kids were awesome...and why wouldn't they be? They got a free pass from period 4. I had them email their teachers with the present-day version of the dog ate my homework, which they really enjoyed a little too much. I went to Staples to see if the cord was replaceable but since it wasn't I purchased a new device and went home to do the set-up. Hopefully this has been fun for you so far. We are not even at the face-freezing part yet...but here it comes.

The kids and I were back in business by lunchtime and ready to take on the afternoon. That is when I decided it might be interesting to see what the Zoom recording showed in terms of the dog-yelp and what my students did in my absence. I went to my Zoom account, clicked on recordings, and that is when the old saying came to life..."If you keep making that face, it will freeze that way!" The recording said it all. Me in mid-sentence, Bear's loud screech, and then, the frozen face...

Maybe someone can explain this to me...frozen faces have become the norm...every day my students freeze in class, they tell me I am frozen, and at times we all share that "frozen in this moment" look, but we never freeze in a flattering pose. Why am I never full smile and bright eyes in that frozen screen shot? 

Then again, maybe that is the lesson here. These crazy remote learning days are just a moment in time. 

No need for alarm. No need for constant battling and worry. Some day in the not-so-far-future, these days will be nothing more than the memory of a moment frozen in time. What will your face look like in that memory? Let it be one of calm and serenity. Let it be one of happy childhood memories when your students look back and say:
  • "My teacher was awesome!" 
  • "He made sure we were OK everyday when we got on." 
  • "We had so much fun!" 
  • "She greeted me by name each day." 
  • "She was beautiful inside and out!" 
  • "This one time when his face froze, he was laughing so hard that he was smiling from ear to ear...that's how I remember him."

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Letter to Teachers...We Know You Care!

Dear Teacher Who Cares, 

Recently I wrote myself a message on a post-it note.  It sits on my desk and says:

 "It only bothers the teachers who care.  We all care."  

The first sentence was a snarky snide comment someone made regarding their perceived failures of  those attempting remote teaching. The second sentence was my mental rebuttal. Anyone who thinks that simple realization is enough to quell the teacher-heart is ridiculously mistaken!

You are a teacher. You went into this profession in order to be around children, relay your curriculum and by doing so, change the course of the future for the better. But now you are being asked to make that commitment to the future without the means with which you were initially equipped or promised. What you are accomplishing is nothing short of miraculous and yet, even that realization is not enough to quell the teacher-heart.

Let's face it, you signed up to work your magic face-to-face with your students. Here we are, nine months into this craziness and we are doing our job in ways we never signed up for, and in ways that we know are not conducive to what we need to accomplish. But we still show up each day. I find that interesting.

My dear friend, as you continue along this path, keep your head up! You are doing incredible things and touching students without being physically near them. That is incredible! You are encouraging families and helping them to embrace this situation in ways that are new and exciting. You are amazing! You are a strength and support for your colleagues even from your distance. That is empowering!  You are getting up each day, maybe feeling lethargic and apathetic, but you are not letting your students know that. That is compassionate!  You are relaying your curriculum, keeping kids' minds nimble, making sure they are getting all that they would get if you had the optimum circumstances, even though you don't. That is impossible! So impossible that anyone else would have given up by now, said it was time to throw in the towel and cut your losses, wait until this thing passes, but you are still moving forward, one step at a time...that is commendable!

And so I say, "Thank you!"  Thank you for being amazing in a job that requires books, contact, pencils and paper, interaction, clear communication, glances, touches, all kinds of tools that we are not afforded at this time, yet we still are here, we still are teaching, we still are serving. That is awe-inspiring!

Please, please, please, stay away from negative comments!  Keep this in mind especially now...When someone says something negative, determine if there is any truth to it's condemnation.  If there is, fix it.  If there isn't, let it go. If you have the strength, tack on a positive rebuttal. For that, my dear teaching friend, is what we need to do. Are there times when you might be slacking or taking the easy road instead of diving in full force? If yes, determine to do better. If not, know that you are doing all you can in a world that is anything but conducive to teaching children! I know you care. You are amazing, performing the impossible and inspiring others to grow forward, one more step, one more day.  We can do this!  Thank you!  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Fun With Homework: Sasquatch or Someone I Once Dated?

I'm sitting here staring at a pile of mail that needs my attention as well as lesson plans that need tweaking before tomorrow's classes, but I just can't help myself! I need to try to get this smile to you before tonight's vice presidential debate...or maybe I'll show some restraint and write it tonight but reread it in the morning before posting. Sometimes my nighttime-after-a-whole-day-of-online-teaching humor and thoughts are not completely appropriate to share. We shall see. Either way, please know that you were on my mind tonight as Bernadette and I muddled through her Language Arts homework.

You see, her homework asked her to take notes, something she swears she was never really taught to do, on two articles regarding mythological creatures. When I came upon Bernadette after getting dinner started, she was already in tears and giving up on the assignment, feeling that she was not prepared to tackle it, and wondering what the point was anyway. 

Let me stop for a moment to say that I DO NOT fault her teacher. This is the fifth pre-teen with whom I have shared a house. I know the script, and I do not allow my children to coerce me into thinking anything negative about their teachers. 

And so as I approached her, tissue in hand, she was gripping the soon-to-be broken pencil, proclaiming that the directions made no sense and the articles she was being asked to read were, and I quote, "stupid". That was it. Challenge accepted! You know I just had to read them now. Not to myself, but aloud and in every possible voice impersonation and accent I could muster. 

And so we began: Our main character (I forget his name) was in his sister's backyard when he saw a huge creature and ran into the house to get his brother-in-law, Bud Jenkins (that name stuck). That's when I knew that it was a Bigfoot story. With that newfound knowledge, I dutifully started in my best news-caster-serious tone. But after reading about Bud Jenkins, we switched to my best accusatory see, the article was trying to say these men were just hanging out when they saw the creature, but something about the backyard altercation in Fort Bragg, California was screaming to me, "a little too much to drink". And that's when it hit me...what if parents took it upon themselves to have a little fun with the homework?  What if we put our own little twist on the assignment? 

For example, when the article exclaimed that what's his name and Bud "saw it. In the shadows lurked a giant figure-over six feet tall and covered in hair." , the next bullet point could be: *"I dated a guy like that once." (This, by the way, was the breaking point for Bernadette, when tears turned to laughter.)

Please don't misinterpret my comments.  I get it. This was a lesson in notetaking, and a good one at that! But really, it lent itself so beautifully to a parent having a little fun to put a smile on the child's (and teacher's) face. Mermaids... sailors... dragons... Bluff creek...and, wait for it,  a nineteen foot long tentacle of a Giant Squid! Oh wow! the possibilities were endless! We went through the British accent, the bored tone, the speed reader and the coffee-clutch-ritzy woman before getting to the end of the assignment, and boy did we have fun!

Look, I'm all for taking school seriously. I think education is one of the most important yet overlooked basic rights of the American citizen. I don't take lightly what our teachers are trying to accomplish right now in the midst of impossible situations. In fact, I am happy to recall this quote that I used in one of my sociology papers in Grad School about teachers, "We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, that we are now qualified to do anything with nothing." These words have become even more meaningful over the last six months of educational acrobatics. So how can we, parents of the students, let teachers know we are right there with them? Do the assignments, that's how! Not for the child, but alongside the child. Come on, a parent doing some Algebra II or Physics to the best of his/her ability could be just the boost the student and teacher need. It's all about showing appreciation and gratitude for the sharing of gifts that we as parent do not possess. 

I shall stop there. It is a challenge for you. I will look forward to hearing about the assignments you decide to take on sitting next to your child. Let them see you struggle. Let them see you have fun with it. Let their teachers see you are invested. And let the laughter flow. By the way, Bernadette is now dancing to James Arthur singing "Say You Won't Let Go". When asked about her fancy, carefree moves, her response, "Because...I feel good...I had fun...and my homework is done."  Nice!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Case of Mistaken Reality

I told my kids I would try to put this into print. I am not so sure how it will go or if it will be more funny or sad. Given the present remote teaching situation, the humor in what I am about to share runs the risk of being overshadowed by the soberness of the times. But let's try to go for the laugh...shake it out, relax, and enjoy a chuckle at my expense.

Let me set the stage, the same stage under the feet of teachers worldwide as we attempt to play our part in a script we could not have imagined a year ago. Each morning as I enter stage right, I make sure I am in full teacher garb at least from the waist up. Instead of opening my classroom door and turning on the lights, I open Zoom after turning on my computer. Instead of hearing the cacophony of voices coming through the hallways I hear a monotonous chimed warning that someone is in the "waiting room", followed by the predictable 'ding dong' of their entrance into my fantasy classroom. They don't run through my door saying hello, racing to their favorite desk, needing to be redirected from peer conversation. No. They enter with muted voices. They speak to me only if spoken to. They pretty much ignore each other. I write this it's Monday morning, no school today, and yet the description of this reality feels so intense. It's the same sounds, the same empty feeling, the same lacking atmosphere entered each day of the school week. Believe me, I am making it as fun as possible, causing laughter and making my students feel loved. I know that I am doing all I can to make it more fun, more interactive, more acceptable....but it falls incredibly short of the desired teaching reality each and every time.

But here is last week's story that might help to bring smiles to our tired teaching faces...or not. With the stage set as usual, my students and I were ready to watch the pre-recorded announcements, led by our principal and co-hosted by our librarian and two students. Let me say it again...PRE-RECORDED. In my mind this shared watching is a bonding time...a time when, as the school enjoys the announcements within the same class period, we can remember that we are all together in this world of detached teaching. As I'm sure you can imagine, I thoroughly enjoy sharing this special time. 

OK, so now it's confession time...Some would say, I 'get into it'. When those announcements come on, I feel connected and like I am still a part of something bigger than me, not just the main actor in my own, one-man Zoom Room. And so, at the end of the recorded announcements this week, as my principal and her co-hosts waved goodbye, (recorded, remember!) I found myself waving to them. I waved for quite a while before realizing I was waving to a front of my class. I had mistaken the recording for reality because my reality has become so bastardized that it has taken on the identity of something that used to so clearly not be real-time. 

Confused? hell yes. This story of mistaken reality is confusing because this whole world right now is upside down. But in the end, here's the great students were cracking up, my children were rolling at dinner when they heard the story, and hopefully, just maybe, you got a little chuckle.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Making Sure All Belong in the Community; lessons from a large family

Some names and events were changed to protect the identity of the child depicted in this story. Usually my children are immune to my musings, but this time my subject asked me to make her anonymous. The same child though, in listening to my journey, understood the parallels and importance of the analogy drawn below. (I think that makes me prouder than any part of this.) Check this out...

Last Saturday we went to Barnes and Noble for the first time since March. Barnes and Noble is this Maccaroni child's favorite place to go. I also made a special trip to Wegmans to purchase the frozen pineapple and new carafe she needed in order to attempt a recipe she had found for making a refreshing fruited water. When I returned home with it, I sat with her to spend some extra time talking with her to bring her calm. You see, that morning this Maccaroni had gone for her run and returned in tears. She had timed herself and was well over the expected mile limit for an athlete headed toward tryouts. This particular child has asthma, and although it is prohibitive in what she is able to do, she loathes using it as an excuse for anything. She was determined this summer to get her time down, she had failed at reaching that goal, and she was incredibly disappointed. Here's the thing though. She wasn't being the squeaky wheel. She wasn't asking for attention or gifts or time. She just needed; quietly, humbly, sadly; needed her people to surround her.

So what did this family do? As a unit, we took the time to make her the center of the universe for a while, to help ease her unhappiness and to encourage her to keep trying her best. As we did so, nothing was lost for anyone else. None of the other four was put out or ignored or made to be any less important by the attention directed toward the one who needed to be pulled in and loved extra. 

In fact, quite the opposite occurred. 

As she felt better, the child in question made her refreshing concoction and gratefully shared it with everyone around. At the bookstore, she chose a book of scary stories to share with her siblings and friends at a fire pit that night. Her healing brought happiness and new strength to the clan. Even Rebecca, the self-proclaimed social skill failure, was able to talk to her sister about team expectations and the fun her teammates would have partaking in the impending endurance training. Everyone went up a few pegs that day because together we decided that this young lady needed to matter more. We brought her to the fold and held her up until she was able to independently stand where she the midst of a community that cared about her. No one whined, "What about me?" or stated, "We all matter." or screamed, "That's not fair!" Those types of comments weren't even entertained. On Saturday it was that one child who mattered, and because we all embraced that challenge and figured out how to make her well-being a priority, the family was stronger in the end.

Recently at a Lawrence Township Board of Ed meeting a wise woman proclaimed, "If one person in Lawrenceville is suffering, we are all suffering." Thank you, Erika Smoots, for summing up the journey we all share. I am proud and excited for the path laid out before us all. I am ready to make sure others matter until they too can independently stand where they belong, right here next to me and you, belonging in community.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Packing for Disney, But Ending Up In Europe

I am very excited to enter the new school year! Just as ever year of my life since I entered Kindergarten back in 1977, the promise of September brings with it anticipation for the school year ahead. Yes, think about that...I went to college right after high school, then began teaching the first September following my graduation. Sure, I took some time away from the full time classroom in order to parent my children, but even in those "off" years, I remained closely connected to the ebb and flow of the school calendar by staying within the school system. Then my son began preschool immediately following his 3rd birthday, and my feet were fully immersed in the system again, albeit from the other side of the desk. All that is to say that in my mind, the anticipation, the excitement and the just-plain-fun of the beginning of the school year is the same for me this year as it has been for the past 43 years.

I am disheartened by seeing the many posts lamenting the start of this year...not sure what good that does.  Imagine the messages it sends to new teachers and to students and their families. 

When has it ever served you well to look to the future with trepidation and misery?  Here, let me get that answer for you, I have it right here...NEVER! I remember long ago reading a reflection from the parent of a special needs child, equating the finding out what her parenting life would be like to having plans to go to Disney, but ending up in Europe, or Hawaii or Canada. Not a bad swap...just different. Different itinerary, different items in your bag, different expectations, but wonderful just the same! That's us this year, and I believe we need to adopt this viewpoint not just for ourselves, but for our students, their parents and for our new staff. This year promises to be different, yes. This year promises to be challenging, of course. This year promises to be life altering, as it should be. And if you pack for this year as though it was typical, you will be unprepared, true.


This year does not promise to be bad, or a let-down, or a 'wash', as I saw someone say. Who are these people??? Are they educators??? Because they sure don't sound like educators!  At least not the ones I want by my side or the ones I want to see leading my children into this school year. We are here to care for each other. We are on our way to an amazing school year!  Not Disney, (sorry, Jess!)  but someplace just as amazing and beautiful! Pack up, gather your students, welcome all the new teachers in your building, get your smile on, and let's go!