I bonded with a third grader at the DMV yesterday. We were in a wretchedly long line. She was along for the errand with her mom. I had to renew my license, which expired in the spring when all of the DMVs were closed. It was time — waiting any longer would mean that the socially-distanced line would just be colder. So, yeah, first we bonded over the freezing temperature. We both wished we were wearing hats.
A little later, though, there was something more interesting to discuss. A fellow line-stander needed to talk with one of the officials, but was having trouble communicating. My new friend’s mom swiftly stepped in, interpreting Spanish and English. It turned out that this man didn’t need to wait in the long line in the cold at all. (Have I mentioned that the line was long? Have I mentioned it was cold?) Off he went, happily.
Then, I eavesdropped as mom told her daughter how important it is to keep speaking Spanish whenever possible. She told her that being bilingual is a gift, and that she could use that gift to help so many people. Ok, yeah, and then I joined in the conversation. Maybe this was obnoxious of me. This was a beautiful moment between a mother and her daughter, and Educator Lynn jumped in. (As I write, it just seems more and more obnoxious…) But anyway, I apologized for eavesdropping, and then told the third grader that I was a teacher and a principal, and that I completely agreed with her mom. (Didn’t mention the superintendent part. Who cares? Certainly a 9 year old would not, but maybe “teacher and principal” carries a little weight.) Mom explained that her daughter’s father speaks Arabic. The daughter only knows a little. And on we went, more conversation about all she could do in her life, all the people she could impact, knowing Spanish, Arabic, and English.
Of course, yeah, then we talked about how school is going this year. She told me that she is remote for the first two trimesters, and her mom says maybe she will be onsite for the third trimester. She loves math! Math is easy! She does not like Language Arts, but when her teacher invites the students to leave the online meeting and work on their own, she stays online because she knows that this helps her. But, really, she absolutely does not like Language Arts. But again, she really loves Math! I told her that the Spanish/Arabic/English/Math combo is golden.
We chattered on for a bit more, and then she got to go hang out in the car while mom and I kept waiting in the line, both of us lost in our own thoughts and phones. She came back on line now and then, and we jumped up and down in the cold a little. When we got inside, we agreed that we couldn’t feel our feet.
It was normal stuff: a student and an educator connecting about what is great about school and what isn’t, and thinking about the future together. Mom was generous to let me talk with her daughter; she could probably tell that I was starved for student interaction. It was just what I needed after an especially rough week, as well as seven months of hard decisions in an ever-changing landscape.
It is true that we don’t know what the rest of this school year holds. It is true that school won’t be “normal” for a long while, and when it is, it will be forever changed. Hopefully we will have taken the bright embers from this thing to help us improve what we had before.
Whatever happens, I hope my friend keeps her Spanish, and develops her Arabic. We will need her, for sure.
“I’m tired of talking to adults and nothing happens, nothing changes. It feels like they are just checking a box.” Take a moment, please, and imagine the context. Can you think of a few? I can. I can.
I have not written here for awhile. My mind and heart have been very full over the past few months for many, many reasons, so much so that I just couldn’t let anything dribble out in the form of writing. But something happened today that made the dam burst, and here we are.
Today, I had the honor of attending my first meeting of the Illinois Coalition of Educational Equity Leaders (ICEEL). This group of teachers and administrators gathers together a few times a year to consider matters of equity. From this, my first meeting, it seems to me that the focus is equal parts reflection, learning, and call to action. Without question, I received opportunities for all three today.
I’ve had many reasons to reflect upon concepts of racism and equity over the past twelve months. Last December, my husband and I had a difficult and emotional conversation with our young adult daughter around a white comedian using the N-word in context of humor and intentional social commentary. She was incensed, a lot. I reflected. A related topic was discussed today, and I was lead to watch this short video of Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining that it is indeed white privilege to believe that all words belong to everyone. (Spoiler Alert: they don’t.)
In January, I accepted a job for the next school year in a district that has created a Diversity Policy, along with a host of other statements, brochures, posters, and guiding principles that speak to topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I rejoiced in the knowledge that I would be working in the right place, a place where I could lead and learn and daily consider topics of social justice.
In July, I read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, followed by attending a two day training in Courageous Conversations about Race. It’s not possible to express here the extent to which these experiences affected me, except to say that they humbled me and helped me understand that I did not know what I did not know. And so I have continued to study this fall, learning from several other books, workshops, and meetings. I’ve been particularly grateful to be a part of my school district’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, as it is filled with parents, teachers, and administrators who are eager to continue on a journey of self-discovery and to grapple with issues of equity in order make important change for students, families, and employees.
This brings us to today, to the ICEEL meeting. Attorney Jackie Wernz taught us about equity issues in relation to the new Illinois law requiring school districts to teach about LGBTQ history, and then in small groups we discussed practices and policies that support equity, or, more often, inequity. Truly, there is so much to do.
And finally, more dramatically, there was a call to action which came in the form of five high school students. Each ICEEL meeting ends with a student panel so that educational leaders can hear about the real impact of what they are doing (or not doing). Today, a Muslim student explained that it is not enough for a school to have a place for daily prayer if a student requests it – true respect comes in the form of being offered a place to pray. Latinex and Chinese students spoke about assumptions that are made about them due to their racial backgrounds. And an African American student, enraged that her district has taken steps to combat racism in the school by providing a four day “N-Word Curriculum”, saw through and past the positive intent around that decision with the statement, “We don’t need four days of discussion. We need four years!” Oh. It is hard to argue against that point.
This same student told us that “adults need to listen to our solutions, not just our feelings.” But she began where I began: “I’m tired of talking to adults and nothing happens, nothing changes. It feels like they are just checking a box.”
I asked these students if any of them are writers (some very clearly are), and wondered aloud if they are blogging. I suggested that the adults who appear not to be listening may need chances to listen and read and think. I didn’t imagine that they would be writing publicly; making themselves vulnerable in front of this group of adults who may not be moving quickly enough but are clearly passionate about equity is not the same thing as exposing themselves to their peers and the angry world at large. But I wanted them to be thinking about it. Their responses to my questions were thoughtful; one put it like this: “I can’t narrate my experiences while I’m living them.” So anyway, I’m blogging for them, now. I had a chance to speak with three of the students after the meeting, and one of them told me that she is writing about her experiences with racism in her college essay. She promised to send it to me. Oh, I hope that she does so that I can continue learning from her.
As I discussed with the students, the adults in the room who are learning about equity and are eager to make changes are indeed on a journey, and adult learning takes time. Change takes time. But these students don’t have time. Their now is NOW. There is so much to do. We cannot be just checking a box.
This past week was Back-to-School Week for many of us. Or the week before was. Or next week will be. But anyway, whether we are students, teachers, administrators, parents, or all of the above, Back-to-School Week is a Big Deal. It is filled with excitement and hopes and good intentions and packed lunches and probably nerves and hopefully not too many disappointments.
My Back-to-School Week began with three Institute Days with staff, and two days with students. The morning of the first day for students, I was privileged to receive and read this blogpost, written by a school administrator from another district who also happens to have two daughters in my schools. This was the perfect read to start my morning… a wonderful reminder that every child is precious, and that we must carefully examine our school systems and practices through lenses that include celebration of the individual, unwavering high expectations, and a commitment to equity.
As a new superintendent in a PreK-8 school district, there are of course many To Dos on my list as the year gets started, but the item at the top was obviously being in the schools with the students, teachers, secretaries, custodians, and principals. So those first couple of days, I got to traipse all over the place, from one elementary school’s First Day Flag Raising Tradition to another’s early morning breakfast. I got to meet excited Kindergarteners, savvy fifth graders, and confident eighth graders. And the hair – the fades and the bright colors and the gold-woven braids! And the fashion — Oh the fashion! So maybe we’ll start there, as my goal now is simply to let you glimpse some of my favorite moments of those first two sun-filled days.
Students Announced Themselves through Garb and Gear:
A first grader passed me in line in the hallway, turned my way, and proudly stated, “I’m wearing a tie!” Yes, indeed he was. And a checked shirt. And checked bermuda shorts. Every color imaginable going on in that ensemble – a style-maker, for sure! (Yep, check out the photo at the top… that’s my little friend, captured perfectly by our Media Relations Specialist, Leslie!)
A second grader showed up with a t-shirt that said School Rocks! Ok, it would have been even better if that t-shirt had been on an older kid. But who am I kidding — that is just unrealistic.
And the sassy tutu dresses! And the mermaid backpacks!
And here are my favorite Kids Encouraging Kids and Friendship Moments:
A child happily shouted to mom, “I made a new friend!” YES!!!!
A Kindergartener turned to a tablemate and asked her, “You’re going to be my best friend, right?” (I’m happy to report that she agreed with this plan!)
First grade class was huddled up around a book. Child 1 raised a hand to answer a question, but then was stymied for an answer when called upon. Child 2 answered. And then Child 3 turned to Child 1 and said, “Is that what you were going to say?” What a way to support a buddy!
It seems that I spent a lot of time in first grade. Well, I mean, first grade is just joyous… how could I not! And here are two more of my favorite first grade moments:
Here’s the picture…
Here’s the narrative: “Today is Batman’s birthday!” (Yes! Yes it is!)
Teacher was reading aloud the book First Grade Stinks by Mary Ann Rodman, and one happy student announced, “First grade is the best grade I’ve ever been in!” What an old, wise child…
I got to see students at various grade levels using sensory supports to help them ease into school:
Students in some classes had flexible seating… they self-selected the type of chair that would best help them to learn. Stool or armchair? Low or high? Wobbly or sturdy?
A barely verbal girl with Down Syndrome soothed herself by happily unpacking a box of stuffed animals, greeting each doll lovingly. This moment was very quiet, and very magical.
Some smart and creative primary teachers gave their students little tubs of Play-Doh to help them keep busy and calm while supplies were unpacked and checked in and such.
If it appears that I didn’t spend a lot of time with older kids those first days, it isn’t so. But the older kids tended to keep their excitement on the Down Low, carefully checking each other out as they staked claim on their places in their new classroom societies, so I just don’t have bunches of cute stories to share about them. Of course, this former fifth grade teacher knows that those older kids will get comfortable mighty soon, and then their personalities will come pouring out!
Students in our Early Childhood Center didn’t start until this week. I can’t wait to greet those little ones tomorrow, to see school as they see it! In the meantime, I will watch this video one more time tonight. We invited families to secretly send in Back-to-School videos of the students in order to greet the staff on our first Institute Day. Leslie, our Media Relations Specialist, put it all together with great flair. Enjoy… it is a special peek into how many of our students feel about the start of school. Of course, we know that there are students who don’t greet the first days of school with unbridled joy. There is separation difficulty and social anxiety and disappointment and much more. Whatever past experiences and emotions our students bring with them at the start of school, we are here to support them through those first days, and every day beyond. I promise.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about architecture or design. I’m glad that many people are passionate about these topics, because their excitement means that I get to live in a more beautiful world. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to get pretty old without delving much into the design choices that architects make when creating spaces. There. I said it.
So, when I learned that I was going to spend a couple of hours in Spring Green, WI, touring Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, I figured that this would be a pleasant way to spend the morning. Didn’t think much more about it, except to be grateful to my mom-and-dad-in-law for this generous gift. But then I found myself standing next to this excited man in the gift shop, and it all changed.
We were both looking at this chair, a replica of one of Wright’s designs.
I thought it looked cool, and kind of uncomfortable. He was mesmerized. Something in his demeanor, in the excitement that was buzzing off of him, let me know that it would be ok to strike up a conversation, and so I did. I learned that this was his fifth tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright property. No, he wasn’t an architect or a designer. He was a SuperFan! Well, he didn’t quite say THAT, but it was really, really clear. He wanted to buy this $1,745 chair, and the screen behind it, and the lamp next to it, but knew he could afford none of these. I gave him some space while he took photos of these beautiful objects, and we talked a little bit more about his love of architecture, and his reverence for this particular architect. And while I was learning from him, I just kept thinking, “Oh, I hope he is on our tour!” I mean, excitement was just shooting out of the top of this guy’s head, and I knew that my visit to Taliesin would be greatly enhanced by his presence.
I admit to feeling a little disloyal to my husband, who was with me at the time. Larry DOES love architecture, and already knew quite a lot about Wright! It is just that we’ve been a couple for thirty two years, long enough to be able to predict each other’s responses. He knows me well enough to expect that I wouldn’t quite share his level of enthusiasm about the trip, and so he fell into the pattern of just pretty much keeping it to himself. But this Gift Shop Man didn’t know that I wasn’t as excited as he was, so he freely allowed all of that electricity to shoot right at me.
Alas, Gift Shop Super Fan Man was not on our tour – he was scheduled into a different excursion of the grounds. Probably this was just as well, as I might have stuck a little too close, risking his enjoyment and maybe my reputation. But no matter, I was now primed to be passionate about this topic. Like any great teacher, he had kindled my enthusiasm, and now he was stepping out of the way for me to discover the thing myself, which indeed I did.
There is no doubt that Taliesin is absolutely beautiful. Our guide was a master storyteller, and certainly he helped me to understand and appreciate some of Wright’s design principles. But, alongside learning about the interplay between natural setting and construction, I visited the school on the grounds and heard about the architect’s constant goal of teaching his visitors about design, and thus ultimately I could not help but default to my own Geek Arena – and that is Education. And so as we worked our way through the living spaces and studios, I learned as much about Frank Lloyd Wright the Educator as I did about Frank Lloyd Wright the Architect.
Case in point… while Larry studied the spaces, the lines and light, and took gorgeous pictures like this:
…I enjoyed the beauty, but probably spent equal time thinking about all of the young apprentices Wright influenced over the years, and poured over old photos such as this:
The teacher in me also couldn’t help but pay attention to how the youngest tourists were experiencing the visit. I loved having the chance to learn from one girl of about fourteen or so who murmured, “They’re different blues” to her mom. What? Oh!
While I was noticing something else in the room, this girl was observing that the two chairs at the table did not match. (And then our guide told us a story of how that came to be, but I’ve already forgotten the story, because I was lost in the wonder of all of these strangers standing in the same place, seeing different things.)
And that’s where I’ll leave this one. Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius and a flawed man – indeed there are many unflattering stories about him. Sixty years after his death, there we all were, learning about and from this master whose legacy continues to inspire artists, architects, designers, photographers, collectors, educators, students. There we all stood in the same space, bringing our backgrounds and perspectives and experiences and passions to the moment. Just like we do all of the time, with everything. And my curiosity was kindled at the start by observing someone else’s passion for the topic. As teachers start the process of transitioning back into school-year-mode, perhaps they are thinking about how to transfer their own excitement about learning and/or content to their students. A reminder from my mom-and-dad-in-law to the Gift Shop Super Fan Man to me to them: sometimes all it takes is letting your own inner excited light shine. And then you have to stand back and let your students illuminate the place for themselves.
Just over a year ago, I wrote this post, reposted below if you are a scroller, not a clicker. Lots has happened in the past year, and now the JunePile is different (but also, sort of the same). New thoughts, below the old post….
May 28, 2018:
It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.
It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.
Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.
The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.
But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.
Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.
Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”
And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?
June 1, 2019:
So, why bother to repost about the JunePile? Well, because a lot has changed for me. I am an educator, leader, and learner in transition, and that has somewhat changed my JunePile. A few months ago, I was offered a new job, and thus am transitioning out of the position of Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in one school district and into the position of Superintendent in another school district. 1 transition is actually 3 transitions:
# 1 I am transitioning into my new role with new administrators, central office team, Board of Education, teachers and staff, all with the help of the generous superintendent who is retiring.
#2 I am transitioning all of the projects and responsibilities (and physical stuff) of my current role to the wonderful administrator who is taking over as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in my current district. And HE is currently a middle school principal in this district, so…
#3 We hired a new middle school principal, and the two of THEM need time to transition.
All of this takes an enormous amount of time. So, what am I doing on a rainy Saturday morning when I have 100 transition tasks in front of me? Writing a blog post! But the writing is purposeful, as truly it helps me to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing. And what is that Main Thing? Positive Impact.
About two weeks ago, I was having a pretty hard day. And at the end of that hard day, my response was to realize that I only had 20 work days left before turning in my keys and ID, taking a glorious two week vacation, and starting my new job. Now, I’ve never been a person to count down to the end of something — for me, that’s just never felt like a positive way of looking at time. However, once I DID, well then, I KNEW. And I realized I would keep counting down, which caused me to understand that I needed to attach something meaningful to the countdown so that the passage of time would be focused positively.
Thus… Days of Positive Impact
Every day, starting on Day 20, I’ve had the countdown in my calendar with that label (so, yesterday said 11 Days of Positive Impact). And at the end of the day, I create a list of all of the people or situations that I think/hope I’ve positively impacted that day. I recognize that I’m letting myself be kind of vulnerable here, announcing this strategy — depending on who you are and how you roll, Days of Positive Impact may seem a little “woo woo” and dorky. Don’t care — it’s how I roll.
Last year at this time, I wrote about the importance of culling the JunePile, and knowing that I should only do the things that have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators. I knew I needed to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Well, friends, now that I’m leaving my job, that commitment is ever more important. It would be very easy to focus on details that are not meaningful. I could make myself crazy by crossing every T on things that won’t help anybody, that will just allow me to feel finished. I could worry about all of the projects that I wanted to do in this job but just couldn’t complete or even start. There are many! But I’ll leave those for the new guy.
So here we are. Monday will bring 10 Days of Positive Impact. 10 days left. I can spend them on work that will help the organization and people around me, or I can spend them on busy-ness. I know how my time is best spent. Yep. Time to get to work!
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.
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.
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 Loud, Stepper 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’ve been feeling kind of out of balance this summer. Surprised by things in unusual ways. A bit out of sorts, not quite myself. And I think this morning, I figured out why.
It’s about lack of routine. In the middle of yoga class this morning, I realized that every single week this summer has brought with it something that changed the flow of my days in some way. (Even my yoga routine hasn’t been… routine.) The Data Fiend in me came home and made a timeline of the summer, and listed what changed each week. Starting early in June, each week something either in my personal or work life rerouted my thoughts, my plan, or my typical daily experiences. I know I’ve drunk coffee each morning, and I know I’ve spent time with someone I love every day (how blessed am I to be able to say that!), but otherwise, well, it’s all kind of been up for grabs. No worries, my family is healthy and safe! And in fact, many of those disruptions were purely positive, such as a beautiful California vacation with my husband, and a fun Galena weekend with my daughter. And without question, the more challenging disruptions are extremely manageable. Nonetheless, without a regular routine, I’ve just been a bit off my game. Educators talk a lot about how important it is for children to have predictability in their days, and it’s important for adults to know what to expect, too. (For more on why routine is important for adults, you may want to check out this article.)
In the middle of my little ups and downs this summer, small irritations and re-routes, something huge happened in my community when a fire ripped through a housing complex sitting in the middle of my school district. Although injuries were few and relatively minor, the fire displaced many families. All belongings and important documents of some families were burnt to ash. Children spent nights sleeping on cots in a church or school, and then using showers provided by the Red Cross. People are trying to rebuild lives. They are more than “out of balance” and “out of sorts”, they are starting over from scratch.
So, as I think about the disruptions in my own routine, I try to re-focus on those children and families, consider the fear they face daily. And as students walk through the doors of our schools in less than a month, I will remember that all children, whether their homes, clothes, toys, and special mementos all disappeared this summer, or whether they come to school each day from homes of great comfort, still lack control over so many of their circumstances. They all need the emotional safety that a predictable routine can offer them. They may not have it at home; we need to commit to giving it to them at school, to the best of our ability.
I found comfort in charting the changes of my summer, and in accepting that I have more transitions ahead in the coming weeks. Having let expectation of predictability go for the next month, I have committed to enjoying my summer for what it really is, and not what I expect it to be. That will need to be my balance for awhile.
I’m not exactly sure what made me feel that I must try surfing. This happens to me sometimes. I’ve never really been a “bucket list” type of person, but when I have it in my head that I need to try something new, either personally or professionally, well, then, I’m suddenly quite ready. I do my research about the challenge or change, and then I jump in.
Quite possibly, the surfing idea came as a result of completing my dissertation. While writing, I often thought about the Learn to Surf scene in the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, as it felt as though my dissertation chair was much like the surf instructor, constantly telling me that I was doing it wrong, but not telling me how to do it. (Although she was not quite as sunny about it as Paul Rudd’s character… but that is a story for another day.) Anyway, surfing may have lodged itself into my head during the lengthy writing process, only to reveal itself as a full-blown itch this summer, now that writing is done and I have time for other endeavors.
It is noted that the above photo shows paddle boarding, not surfing. And if you are wondering which of those women is me, the answer is NONE. Are you kidding? But indeed I did paddle board yesterday, as that was part of my surfing research for my upcoming trip to the California coast. I figured that before I tried surfing, I should check to see if I could even stand up on some type of floating board. So off I went to Stand Up and Flow on Bangs Lake in Wauconda to take a “Basic Stand Up Paddle Boarding Lesson”. Never mind that I have lived 30 minutes from this lake for the past 19 years and didn’t know that it existed until last weekend… that is just shameful, and helped me to realize that I need to do a better job of checking out my 30 minute radius. But anyway.
So here’s how the whole thing turned out: First of all, there were a LOT of technical instructions given back on the beach. This made me very nervous, as I didn’t know if all of the information was really sinking in, and I headed into the water thinking, “Well, I really hope that this will be pretty intuitive.” In fact, it WAS, and soon my goal was less about standing, and more about not falling. So, there I was, gliding along, feeling pretty good about myself. (“Look at me! I’m GREAT at this! So graceful! Not falling! I was MADE for paddle board!) And then, mid-Positive Image Moment, the motorboat came along and provided a bumpier wake, and BAM – I was in the water. And I had to get myself out of the water, back on the board, alone. Which I did, of course, hardly worse for the wear, and definitely wiser.
It turns out that falling in was no biggie, and in fact enhanced my experience. It cooled me off, brought me back to humility, and gave me a chance to prove to myself that I could pull myself back up on the board. Next up will be surfing in California, and then I intend to do Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga and a Night Paddle back at Bangs Lake later in the summer. And of course there are professional challenges ahead as well, as the new school year brings new programs and opportunities to grow. Because why not? Falling in is no big deal.