The Labels We Carry

When I was a girl, I was a dancer. Even before I was big enough to take ballet, I was twirling in my sister’s hand-me-down tutus. Once I started taking classes, I continued with many forms of dance all the way through college, with only a few years off when I labeled myself a gymnast instead of a dancer.

I remember when I first let the “dancer” label form as a word in my head. I was probably around nine years old when my park district dance director decided that instead of participating in a regular recital, all of his classes would work together to create the ballet Coppelia. The pivotal moment happened during dress rehearsal, when I saw the cast list up on the wall. There were a few people in the cast who were not dancing at all, and their names were listed under the word ACTORS. And the rest of us, well, we were listed as DANCERS. Oh! I’m a dancer!

One high school summer, I split my time between scooping ice cream and taking classes in the “carte blanche” program of a studio that was well-known for their professional adult dance company. Each day, I took a bus to Evanston, dance bag on my arm, and took as many classes as I wanted. By this time, I already realized that I wasn’t all that good — I needed more time than some others to pick up a combination, and I wasn’t really physically built for dance. And I’d been passed over for some dance opportunities at my high school. Didn’t matter. That summer, I was taking classes nearly every day, and besides, when I was nine and in Coppelia, my name was listed under the word DANCER. I can still remember what it felt like to walk down the long hallway to class, while girls chatted their dance-chat as they changed their shoes. The label worked for me: I was a dancer.

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I’ve been thinking about the power of labels recently. We’ve learned to view them as troublesome when we talk about students, not wanting kids to be limited by what we say about them. And I agree with this; we need to be awfully cautious with our language when it comes to children! We are especially carefully when referring to students with disabilities, using person-first language such as “child with autism” rather than “the
autistic” (it is hard for me to even write that — it now feels so wrong!), making sure that we label someone first as a person, and then describe a disability. Disabilities aside, we can do a lot of damage when we carelessly slap negative labels on young people (ANY people): trouble-maker, bully, liar. A mentor of mine likes to remind, “We don’t define people by their worst acts.” These wise words apply to so many situations, and are especially powerful when we think about the twists and turns of the days, weeks, and years of childhood. Because a child has made trouble, is she a trouble-maker? Because he has lied, is he a liar? We can address the behaviors without labeling the person responsible for the action. You never know… he might make a completely different choice tomorrow! Let’s let him re-define himself.

However, giving students certain labels can be positive. I believe there is power in giving students labels that define something that they can do: Writer. Reader. Helper. Athlete. Dancer. Artist. Leader. And we do hear this in classrooms: “Writers, please share your work with your partner.” “Artists, it is time to rinse out our brushes.” Those labels are empowering because they cause children to see their “work” as important, and help them dream up futures built on their passions.

My college-daughter, Sophie, has been home for a few days for part of her Spring Break. This time together has had three focuses: shopping for her older sister Eliana’s wedding dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!) and her own maid-of-honor dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!); celebrating her 21st birthday a little early; and preparing for an upstairs carpet/paint job by virtually emptying out her childhood bedroom. This last activity brought many delights (that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t, I promise!), as her room was chock-full of buried treasure. First of all, it turns out that this girl who always felt she wasn’t a Writer was indeed a Journaler. She found at least seven different notebooks that recorded a vast array of events, some monumental, some mundane, all important. Although I love to write, I’ve never mastered the art of journaling, can’t seem to write just for myself, and I’m green with envy that my daughter now has this record of her own young thoughts and events. Her Bat Mitzvah DVD also turned up, and we watched together, listening to her little voice carefully reading and chanting, remembering her Bubbe, and laughing at who awkwardly danced together at the party. And then there was a lovely moment when sixteen year old sister Eliana stood in front of about 200 people and said, “I’m a musician, and like many musicians, I like to express myself through song.” Instead of giving a lengthy speech, Elli labeled herself a musician and sang a meaningful song to her sister. Confidence can bring labels, and labels can bring confidence.

A wedding and a new job will bring new labels for me in the year ahead: mother-in-law and superintendent. These labels will bring new experiences and new perspectives, and likely will layer over some of my older labels for a time. But they will still be there. Am I still a dancer? Any family member who has spent enough time hanging out in my kitchen will tell you, “Yes.” Thank you, Mom and Dad, for supporting those years of dance when you surely knew that I was not headed for the Joffrey. It made a difference.



That We Know of… YET

Karen and I met in and supported each other through graduate school, each acting as guide, confidant, editor, and cheerleader for the other. When I think of driving back and forth to Urbana during a hot summer in the mid ’90s, trying to figure out how we would get all of the work done, I think of Karen. And then our lives went in separate directions, and we lost track of each other. All of this was before Facebook and Twitter and texts and it was flat-out easier to fall out of touch, and so we did. This was indeed a terrible loss for me, one I let happen.

Then recently, I had reason to reconnect with Karen: I have accepted a new position in the school district where she worked back when we were in graduate school, and letting her know this was the perfect reason to find her again. And then, just as I was getting ready to send a message to her, I learned that a teacher I know had been a student of Karen’s, just around the same time when the two of us were such close friends. The teacher told me with excitement that having Karen to guide her was one of the reasons that she chose to become an educator. Karen is strong, smart, and passionate about education and making a difference, and so is the teacher who was her student. Amazing – both women whom I admire and respect, connected so long ago. Yet another reason to reach out. And so I did.

Karen’s response to me was lovely, no surprise, and it included this, about her former student: She was a bright young woman, a great athlete, strong sense of empathy… I always saw in her a bit more than she was ready to hear. In one phrase, Karen had summed up the essence of what we should all be doing with our students: seeing what is possible, seeing the greatness that glimmers around the edges of our students’ poor choices and fears. Really, now, think back to your best teachers. Is that what they did for you? Probably, in some way, yes. Karen is currently the director of a regional Safe Schools program, serving young men and women who need something extra to be successful in a school setting. So, you know she is still seeing more in students than they are ready to hear.

This brings me to Ladybird, the beautiful Greta Gerwig film that I saw separately with each of my young adult daughters over the past year or so. This movie hooked me as a mom who raised teenage girls (What did I get right? What did I get wrong? HOW wrong?), and also caused me to think deeply about the messages of empowerment and positive risk-taking that we give (or, sadly, sometimes don’t give) to our young people. High school senior “Ladybird”, who renamed herself as she was becoming who she was becoming, is faced over and over again with adults who do not believe in her, or who are afraid to show that they believe in her. Her guidance counselor outright laughs at her college dreams. Adults fail Ladybird all of the time.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs between Ladybird and her principal, a good-humored nun who actually does support her, who sees and celebrates Ladybird’s spirit and strength. “What I’d really like,” Ladybird says, “is to be on Math Olympiad.” The nun answers, with some kindness, “But math isn’t something that you’re terribly strong in.” And wait for it… Ladybird responds with, “That we know of YET.” (Want to see the scene? It is at the end of the trailer.) That phrase has stuck for me, and I keep trying to find ways to sneak it into encouraging conversations. It is a spark of hope. It is breaking through. It is believing that something else is possible. It is what we need to give to our students. For sure, it is what many of the adults in Ladybird’s life did not give to her — she had to give it to herself. It’s what Karen clearly gave/gives to her students.

Personal development for all people, at all ages, has been on my mind a lot lately. Stretching. People trying things out, doing things that they haven’t done before. And that’s where Honky Tonk Angels comes in. (What now?) If you happen to have read any of my other blog posts, you may already know that my husband has been taking guitar classes for many years, and that sometimes I hang out with him at the music school, or at a nearby coffee shop. And that last year I even took a vocal ensemble class while he was strumming away in another room. This winter, however, Larry cajoled me into taking a class WITH him — we are both signed up for an ensemble class called, you guessed it, Honky Tonk Angels, where we are, in essence, a band that practices (and eventually performs) a set of songs written by female country/western musicians. There are a few guitar players, a guy who plays fiddle and bass, and me, a “vocalist”. Look at that, I had to put it in quotation marks. Say it, a vocalist! But the thing is, unlike the rest of the group, I don’t really play an instrument. I played guitar in college, very, very badly. I can play piano, just a little. But secretly, for the past few years, I’ve craved the drums.

Now, just the vocalist part is already basically new for me. I have plenty of past singing experience, but it has all been more musical theater and choral singing. I have never actually FRONTED a band before. (Never mind that I’m paying for the pleasure of doing so – that’s just a side detail, right?) And then, today, I nudged myself even further out of my comfort zone. After harmonizing on one song in the background while someone else was singing lead, I thought, “Why not?” and quietly spoke up, “Could this song maybe use someone on the drum kit?” And it was YES. And I DID.

Here’s what I’ll say: Drumming isn’t something I’m terribly strong in. That we know of YET! Ladybird would be proud. And Karen would believe in me! I’ll have to tell her about it the next time I see her.

Take a Moment

It is the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we are enjoying a stroll at the Chicago Botanic Gardens — my parents-in-law who are in town from Minnesota, my brother-and-sister-in-law who are in town from Calgary, and me. It’s cold, but not too cold, and the gray sky perfectly complements the landscape, which is turning from rich golds and reds to cool blacks and whites. There are plenty of people here at “The Gardens” with us, happy to welcome the holiday season this way, although most of them seem to be gathering at a special exhibit. So, our walk is pretty solitary, and the place is quite different than it is when all is in bloom. In June, the beauty here is bright and sweet smelling and romantic and full of potential – kind of emotionally wonderful and loud. In November, the beauty is quiet, and it is perfect for contemplation.

I’m walking with Joel, my father-in-law. Well, to be very specific, he is my step-father-in-law, but when you marry into a family that is rich with a mother, step-father, father, and step-mother, you just kind of have two fathers-in-law, and two mothers-in-law. That’s what I have. Add in my two parents, and my daughters have grown up with the gift of six loving grandparents.

Anyway, Joel has always been quiet and observant. He is not going to tell a long story in a group at a party.  He’s not going to intentionally call attention to himself across a room. However, one-on-one, he does have stories to share, and if you ask the right follow-up questions, they might just come out, not in a tumble necessarily, but in a satisfying trickle. Over breakfast this morning, when it was just the two of us, I learned that his father died when he was thirteen, his mother remarried when he was fourteen, and then his life changed again when his baby brother was born, when he was fifteen. I have known Joel for 31 years, and I did not know any of these things until this morning. Maybe he wasn’t telling; maybe I wasn’t asking. Anyway, now I know.

Because of today’s walk, I also now know that a shrub like this grew in his yard when he was a boy in St. Paul. He helped to tend that yard, and as I have always known him to be someone who closely examines his surroundings, it is hard for me to imagine him quickly mowing the lawn and pruning the shrubs. I envision him stopping often, distracted by something that he found odd, or puzzling, or beautiful. Of course, that may not be true — he may have rushed through the job like any other boy, and then run off to play baseball. But I like to imagine him a bit like Dickon from the Secret Garden, talking to birds and coaxing saplings.

Here he is, today, carefully examining an unusual vertical garden. There was a sign in there, and he wanted to read it. Most people would not have seen it, or if they had, they would not have taken the time to gently move leaves aside to be able to see it well. Joel did. He was curious, and was not in a rush. In the 31 years that I have known him, I have never seen him be in a rush.

Joel is also a classical musician, a cellist. This past summer, while relaxing in Minnesota on the beautiful porch that he and Harriet, my mother-in-law, have created, I learned that he hears music in his head, almost all of the time. I don’t mean the annoying ear worm riffs that get stuck in all of our heads from time to time. He hears full symphonies. They play in the background of his thoughts, both when he is quietly introspective and when he is engaged with others. Sometimes, his mind composes. (“Do you ever write them down?” I asked. No, he doesn’t, and he said something self-depreciating about his internal compositions. But I bet that they are wonderful, and that the world is missing out by not being allowed to hear them.) While we walked today, I brought this up again. He’s been hearing these since he was 8 years old, when he began learning the cello. Yes, he was hearing music right at that the moment — he was re-experiencing the beautiful concert that he and Harriet had enjoyed at The Chicago Cultural Center two days prior. Take a moment, please, and try to imagine what that would be like — to have beauty in your head at all times.

Harriet and Joel were married a few years before I married my husband. Here they are, together, enjoying this fall day, this day after Thanksgiving. Really, in fact another day of Thanksgiving. Tonight, soon, we are entering Black Friday Excitement at Barnes and Noble where my daughter is working. They always have an option for holiday gift donation books there. I doubt it is on the list at the register, but maybe I’ll buy a copy of The Secret Garden to donate, in honor of this walk, in honor of Joel. Anyway, tonight — a Black Friday store and a nice dinner out. But today we experienced a quiet walk with loved ones, and for this I am extremely grateful.

My colleagues, Alicia and Jeff, and I agreed that this weekend we’d each blog about a connection between our work and our Thanksgiving vacations. (Please check out their reflections: “Grandkid” Suits Me Just Fine and Of Gratitude.) And yes, I do have a connection. Today we moved slowly and looked closely. At work, I have to fight with myself to be able to do that. There is so much, and it all happens so quickly. And it is important to take time, to examine and not rush past. Beautiful, quiet moments happen all of the time if we are intentional about slowing down and SEEING. In my school world, that moment worth seeing is usually a child making a discovery. It’s too easy and too terrible to miss it.

“Trust Me”

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“Trust me.” The words are supposed to bring you comfort, but don’t they kind of give you the creeps? It seems like every conniving bad guy in every movie ever made has said them. I did a quick Google search when I sat down to write this blog post, and immediately came up with this chilling moment from The Godfather, when Michael Corleone tells his reasonably suspicious wife: Kay, my father’s way of doing things is over, it’s finished. Even he knows that. I mean, in five years, the Corleone Family is going to be completely legitimate. Trust me. That’s all I can tell you about my business. (If you are not a fan of the movie franchise, you’ll have to, well, trust me: Kay should not have trusted Michael in this.) However, despite all of these movie-warnings (not to mention the politicians…), over and over again we ask those with whom we work to trust us. We’re not the bad guy — that’s other people!

A few weeks ago, my colleagues, Alicia and Jeff, and I agreed to try out being Blog Buddies. This was Alicia’s brain child. All three of us are blogging, so she suggested that we all write on the same theme one day, and then link to each others’ posts, and see what would happen. How would we take the theme in different directions? What would we learn from each other? Would our readership grow? We agreed upon the theme of Trust for our first effort in this experiment, and today is that day.

When we first chose our theme, my mind went to the conversations that we often have in school leadership. We regularly think about our work through the lens of Building Trust / Earning Trust / Deserving Trust. My favorite book on this topic is Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust. I’ve attended and run workshops on trust-building, and believe strongly that there is always more to learn about it. No matter how good we may think we are at this, we can all falter. We can all break trust, and then need to start again.

However, lately I’ve also thought a lot about Giving Trust, and that is my lens today, exploring trust through 3 avenues — Giving Trust to our Colleagues, Giving Trust to the Process, Giving Trust to the Universe.

Giving Trust to our Colleagues

One way to give trust to colleagues is to trust their work and their opinions. This part is easy! I work with incredibly smart, talented people — without question, I trust the high quality of their work and their professional views. I also think about trusting colleagues in relation to collaboration and time. It’s this: I am lucky to work in an extremely interdependent system. We try hard not to exist in silos, and thus when there is a project to do, rarely is one leader responsible for the whole thing. Much of what each of us does touches many other people and departments. This commitment to collaboration improves our products and decisions immensely, however there is a downside regarding our day-to-day work, as collaboration takes time, and time is a very precious commodity. We are BUSY! So, we find ourselves frequently waiting for each other (while the “other” is working on equally important projects!) — for questions to be answered, for one-to-one and group meetings to be held, for drafts to be reviewed. All of us sometimes ask others to find time for something, and all of us sometimes convey that we just don’t have time right now. We will soon! Why this big lead up? Because I think that trusting colleagues can mean trusting that they indeed are eager to work with us on something, and they will do so as soon as they can. The work ethic in my school system is truly exemplary, and we have to trust this ethic and the relationships that we’ve built enough to know that the work will indeed get done, and will be better because we’ve done it together.

We also rely upon this system-wide strong work ethic when it comes to our own departments. We believe whole-heartedly in surrounding ourselves with smart people, and then trusting them to manage their own work without top-down close scrutiny. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get involved in setting priorities, and of course we believe in the importance of checks and balances. But the “checking” can come from various people. In this case, trusting your colleagues means knowing that others are just as invested as you are in excellence, and then behaving as such.

As I consider Giving Trust in this context, it is not lost on me that there is, or at least there should be, a direct relationship between Giving Trust and Building / Earning / Deserving Trust. When our teams don’t believe that we trust them, then they don’t trust us. When we do trust them, and display this regularly, then strong trust grows between us. The thing runs on a continuous loop, I think. When the loop is broken, a swift attempt at repair is important. However, the loop may, well, hang by a thread for awhile. And, the more trust that existed previously, the more quickly the loop mends.

Giving Trust to the Process

Has anyone ever reminded you to trust the process? If not, then friend, I admire your patience! For many of us, trusting the process means knowing that when we skip steps, it shows in the end product. It also means remembering (or, if need be, reminding each other) that when we are worried about a situation, we likely already have a process in place to deal with just that type of thing. We have to just trust the process. Which can be slow. Which can be hard for us when we are worried, or hurried, or just generally impatient. (Impatience… seems like a theme… I feel another blog post coming on…)

Giving Trust to the Universe

There are many variations on this, some religious, some metaphysical, some that probably came directly from your mother. And in truth, this concept can be a bit hard to take in many contexts, as there are an awful lot of terrible things that happen in this world which can make it hard to trust that there is a reason for everything. And also it can be pretty hard to remember in the moment, even when the problems only FEEL gigantic. I remember once lashing out at my bewildered husband when he was trying to comfort me with, “It will be ok,” as I was sure that he did not know that! (Sorry, Larry… that was not nice of me back then…) (And also, thanks for not doing it again.) (Enough about my marriage.) But the point is this: if we want to subtract out the truly heinous things that happen to people, Trusting the Universe is a pretty good concept. And for many people, it rings true even in the most horrible circumstances. One of my colleagues has a sign in her office that I love, which reads: Not to spoil the ending, but everything is going to be ok. In most cases, I do believe that is true.  It just may be a pretty painful route before we get there.

If you enjoyed thinking about trust with me, I hope you’ll also check out more thoughts on the subject from my colleagues, Alicia and Jeff! It was rather freeing for me to think about trust as a commodity to be given away. Its quantity isn’t finite, like for money or time. In fact, it multiplies.

Professional Learning at Starbucks

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There are about thirty of us in this Starbucks in the Chicago neighborhood where I’m  spending my afternoon, and it seems that we are all engaged in something important to us. Some of us are reading, many of us are studying or doing some type of homework. Some are writing, and some are deeply immersed in conversation. A mom snuggles the toddler on her lap while she reads the newspaper. One lady is gripping a highlighter and pouring though stacks of papers filled with text, and I feel certain that she is pulling themes for qualitative research, just as I was doing a few years ago when I was writing my dissertation. And I am sipping tea, grateful to be enjoying self-directed professional learning time for a few hours.

When do you find time for professional learning? I don’t mean when do you go to workshops or discuss and share at meetings or (for Illinois administrators) attend Administrator Academies? I mean when do you read/watch/write/talk/create/learn because doing so is meaningful to you as a learner and leader and teacher of others? I’ve tried all sorts of things… I’ve blocked out dedicated time on my calendar during the work day, but have usually not lasted past a week or so. I simply cannot ignore the ringing phone or knock on the door, and well, let’s just say that I’m still on the road to recovery when it comes to the whole Checking Your Email Thing. Bottom line: at work, work distracts me from work. Or I’ve decided that I’ll focus on professional learning while I have lunch, but then I don’t have lunch, or I meet during lunch, or I actually catch up with someone at lunch. For me, my best self-directed professional learning happens outside of the work day. It happens as I listen to an audio book or podcast in the car or on the treadmill (currently enjoying HBR’s podcast Women at Work). It happens when I read an article on Twitter while my husband drives. It happens when I dive into a book on leadership or learning on a weekend afternoon. (Recent good read: Daniel Pink’s When, which fed my nerdy interest in the topic of Time.)

Enter: The Starbucks in Lincoln Square.

My husband Larry has been taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music for years now, and I enjoy coming down here to Lincoln Square with him, pretending I’m cool enough to actually live out here. (I’m not. I don’t.) Last spring, I even took a class myself, enjoying thinking about teamwork while singing with a nice group of people. (Curious? I wrote about it… Work Team Lessons While Singing Doo Wop… Who Knew?) However, this autumn the electric guitar class that Larry wanted to take didn’t match up with any vocal classes, and so I’ve dedicated the time to my own professional learning.

Here I sit in Starbucks down the street from the Old Town School, sipping on my hot drink, reading, writing, maybe watching, and learning. There is one simple rule: I deny the urge to do any of the work that is specific to my job description as a school district administrator. I’m not answering email and I’m not completing a project that is staring at me from my Google Task List. I have been a working adult long enough to know that the email will never be to zero, and neither will the task list. So it is up to me to save myself! This is time that I use to develop myself as a learner, teacher, and leader so that I may be useful to others in ways that may not be described within that job description. I may be reading articles, possibly those shared by people I respect in my PLN, or retrieved elsewhere. (The newest issue of Ed Leadership showed up in my email box yesterday, and I’m itching to get to those articles on Social Emotional Learning. Also, our Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Learning just shared an article about listening with compassion in the classroom… looking forward to reading that today, too!) I might use the time for reflective writing. (Does this blog post count? Yes, I think so. I’m thinking about thinking. Very “meta”.)  I may be reading a book. (Next week, I plan to dig into Rath’s Strength’s Based Leadership, lent to me by colleague and Learning Leader Alicia Duell!) I may be watching a Ted Talk; I may be digging into the Illinois State Board of Education website, reading about something that is coming down the pike. Sometimes, a muffin may be involved.

Today,  I’m reflecting on how my professional learning has intersected with Starbucks. You see, back in the the late ’80s, I was a barista in one of the first Starbucks in Chicago. I was experiencing my first real job as a half-time teacher in Oak Park, IL, and making up the other half of my rent by pouring coffee. There were no Frappuccinos then, there was no Iced Peach Citrus White Tea Infusion Lemonade. There was coffee, there was espresso, there was cappuccino, there was tea. And there was this 23 year old newbie, steaming milk and thinking about how to teach my third graders how to read. I love that I’m sitting here, so many years later, enjoying this same space (well, a few neighborhoods away), still thinking about how children (and adults) learn, and where my place is in it all.

Why this blog post? In John Stepper’s Working Out LoudStepper explains that Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. Perhaps my Starbucks strategy might help someone carve out that time for professional learning. And perhaps some of you will share with me your own strategies for finding the time – I would love that! Stepper also guides people towards accountability through goal setting that is shared with others. In some ways, then, this blog post keeps me honest. If I’m writing about it today, I sure better still be doing it next week!

My colleague Catherine Joy is my model for professional learning. She always has a new book or article, and she fits learning in anywhere/anytime: she is known to watch a Ted Talk while getting ready for work in the morning. Now that is dedication! I’m still working on it all. Today, Larry told me it was time to sign up for the next set of guitar classes — did the time frame still work for me? Indeed it does. Hey, nice barista behind the counter, I’ll see you next week!

I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler

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I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler.  I’m not even a middle school parent, well not anymore. It was the glorious first day of class, and this assistant superintendent had the honor of helping out at two middle schools. Due to the outstanding organization and cheerful goodwill coming from staff and students at both of these schools, my “helping out”  consisted mostly of assisting lost 6th graders with finding classes and opening reluctant lockers.

Ok, what was the lump in the throat about? It came on quite suddenly when a sixth grade boy politely asked me to help him find his class. So… huh? Well, most of the emotion came from the sheer joy of being in a school with excited students and staff.  The boy and I chatted about his summer a bit as we walked down the hall together, and don’t worry, I held it together. Didn’t freak the boy out by actually letting this overwhelming burst of emotion show! After we parted ways, I returned to intermittently helping nervous kids open lockers and watching/listening to middle schoolers who were in their element. A few favorites:

  • The Greetings and Supports – “You’re going to gym? I am too!” (followed by a hug and a High 5); “Come with me, I did this last year!” (I LOVED that one!!!)
  • The Nerves – “Dude, it feels so weird!”
  • The Tough Vulnerability (5 eighth grade boys dressed to impress, swaggering down the hallway together, but still peering at their schedules)
  • Blending In and Standing Out (Who is inside those Nike Air Force 1s? Who is beneath that awesome rainbow-colored hair?)

I taught middle school for a year at the very beginning of my career, and do not remember the students being quite this fantastic. I don’t recall them encouraging each other this much, or being this fresh-faced and cute. Of course, I may be remembering my students from the weary end of the year rather than from the excited start. Maybe, though, part of it is that all of our emphasis in the social-emotional realm is paying off, and adolescents really are nicer than they used to be. You don’t have to look too far to read about bullying… educator friends, we need to tell the great stories, too.

So back to the heightened emotion I was feeling in the hallway… it also may have been because I was hit in the face with all that it took to get ready for that moment. In late May, I had committed to my work self that in the slower summer months (HA! NOT!) I would make sure that just about everything I worked on would in some way make things better for someone, or would support my own learning and reflection (“What’s In Your JunePile?“). It was an extremely busy summer, and I tried very hard to hold myself accountable to this goal. Of course, ultimately, “making things better for someone” could be distilled down to making things better for this sixth grader. I collaborated with other administrators to write and submit a grant (fingers still crossed as we await news!) in order to forward this boy’s social-emotional goals, a colleague and I took new staff on a bus tour while teaching them about our district in order to prepare them to help this boy grow, another colleague and I labored over decisions about this year’s staff evaluation assignments so that we could best support the professional growth of the adults who work with this boy. Etc.

Later in the morning, I had the pleasure of watching the Principal, Assistant Principal, and Dean model vulnerability when they introduced themselves to a class via a slide presentation. They invited students to guess which of them sometimes has trouble maintaining a “conversational level” (the Dean!) and who is sometimes distracted and off-task (the AP?)…  Without banging them over the head with it, they showed the students that we all have differences and hurdles and wonderful strengths as well. Bravo, adults! What a fantastic message for adolescents who are trying so hard to figure themselves out, who need permission to struggle with their awesome, terrible selves every single day!

Tomorrow I start the day with a brief meeting in my office, but I know I will be itching to return to the wonderful staff and students in Middle School 2, where I spent part of the afternoon today. The truth is, the adults and preteens in neither school needed me very much today, and I’m sure that tomorrow will be the same way. Who are we kidding? I needed them.

I’m Still Learning from Summer Camp

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“My heart is full and mushy and running over with feelings.” Not very eloquent, but it is pretty much what I said to my daughter yesterday as we walked the grounds of the overnight camp that taught us each so much about ourselves. It was Alumni Day, and both of my daughters and I are all alumni, having collectively spent 24 summers there.

It is not possible explain what this camp means to me. Here’s the anecdotal data, though: when I was seventeen, I spent the summer there on the work crew, where I cleaned bathrooms and emptied garbage FOR FREE. Need I say more? If you were lucky enough to go to overnight camp and loved it, you understand that it does not matter that you drank “egg water”, ate indescribable food, gave up all privacy related to your personal hygiene, slept in cabins or tents that horrified your parents (“We are paying all this money for you to sleep in THAT?!?!”) and were driven round the bend from the itch of mosquito bites (while there) or maybe lice (a delightful surprise after you got home). You understand that you want your own kids to go there, and if they do, you are sure to either drop them off or pick them up (instead of putting them on the bus both ways) so that you can experience having your heart quicken as you drive through the camp gates and hear the singing and smell the smells. Ok I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I love my camp.

As I drove home with my brimming and mushy heart, I considered why people who are lucky enough to attend overnight camp often feel connected to their “summer homes” in ways that supersede their attachments to their schools. After all, unless you move often, you certainly spend more hours in the year at school than you do at camp. However, although I went to excellent public schools and have great school memories, for me, at least, there is absolutely no comparison.

We could talk about the joy of independence with no meddling parents around, of making our own daily decisions about things that are both not all that important and also enormously important. We could talk about the value of choice, of picking which activity to attend (basketball or friendship bracelets? paperbag dramatics or canoeing?), and of learning from counselors who are maybe just 4 or 5 years older than us, and therefore hilarious, wise, and incredibly cool. We could talk about possibilities of summer flirtations and all-out romances, if that is our type of thing. But what is on my mind just now is the idea of Belonging.

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My K-8 school district chooses specific Areas of Focus to frame our work with children, and for the next few years, along with Literacy Throughout the Day, we will be focusing on Positive School Climate. And we’ve written this vision for that focus: Students and families are invited into a school environment in which they feel valued, safe and engaged in meaningful learning. Yes, well, that is indeed exactly how I felt at overnight camp — valued by my friends and counselors, safe to take risks, and engaged in learning which meant an awful lot to me. All of this, because it was clear that I belonged.

Of course, not every camper is a happy camper. Children leave before the session ends, or muscle through but never return. Ask them for their stories, and there is a high likelihood that they were shown by others, usually campers, that they did NOT belong. Like schools, the camps keep trying, but haven’t made it right for all kids.

When I think about my own school experiences, there is one particular middle school teacher who brought school connection to me and so many of my friends. His teaching techniques were unusual, and I’m sure our parents rolled their eyes often at what they heard about and saw come home in our backpacks, but his message was clear and it worked: “If you are in my class, you are part of a community. We care about each other, we risk showing each other who we really are, and we are safe.” If you went to Maple Jr. High School in Northbook, IL awhile back, there is no question that you know exactly who I mean. He was a legend. I went back to observe his classroom while I was preparing to be a teacher, and quite frankly was appalled. I was learning the science of teaching then, and what I saw did not at all fit with what I was studying at college. Now that I know more, I wish I could go back and take a peek at the art of his teaching. For sure, a huge part of why he helped us to feel connected to our school and to each other was because he showed us that we belonged.

Most kids do not get to go to overnight camp. It is an expensive luxury, and well out of the realm of possibility for the vast number of families. Lots of kids would not want to go, and lots of parents would not want to send their children. And of course, families have a myriad of ways of creating wonderful summer memories for children that have nothing at all to do with camp.

Going to school, though, well that’s pretty common. So what can we learn from camp? How can we help our children love school the way that I love that bunch of buildings, trees, and people who gather every year next to a lake in Wisconsin? I feel sure that it is less about drinking “bug juice” and telling ghost stories, and more about creating a feeling of belonging. That, we can do. Our teachers already work very hard at this, and I’m so glad that we’ll be giving time to ongoing conversations as we learn how to get even better.