Slice of Life Challenge day 20 #sol17

Something I heard on the subway the other day made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little…

Title: “Gratitude, anyone?”

“Yeah, 20 minutes in, I was like, ‘snooze time.'” It was a fairly crowded downtown subway car, but the male voice seemed unnecessarily loud.

“She was trying to be funny, but she so wasn’t,” came another voice, a female’s. Wait a minute, are they talking about TC Reunion? It was late Saturday afternoon, and following an amazing day of learning at Teachers College, I was traveling downtown Manhattan to meet up with my family. Incredulous, I turned my full attention toward the small group of what I now guessed were educators huddled on the subway car.

“Finally after, like, half an hour, she got to the topic,” sneered the male voice. The others in the group contributed a mocking chuckle.

For those unfamiar with a TC Saturday Reunion, it is a gift that Lucy Calkins, Director of the world-renowned Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and all the staff developers, office staff, writing staff, and tech staff, give to educators. There is no cost for any teacher to attend. It is a free day professional development, with sessions led by world class keynote speakers and the finest minds in literacy, all in the spirit of supporting the international cause of literacy.

As I quietly sat and listened to the conversation devoted to cutting down a staff developer, a person by the way who had just donated her entire Saturday to play her part in bestowing an invaluable gift upon any teacher who showed up, I began to seethe a little. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up a little bit.  But I knew the next stop on the subway was mine, so I resolved to let it go for that moment.  However, the audacity of some people! It was a disgrace, I thought.

It is my hope that in this blog post I am able to make clear not only my appreciation, but the collective gratitude for Lucy and all of the TC staff for the gift of Saturday’s Reunion. It truly was a golden bestowal upon the education community.

Perhaps the group on the subway that afternoon had some reason that would explain their abhorrent behavior, I don’t know.  But I was reminded of the importance of gratitude, and recognizing how working to understand perspectives other than our own is such important work. For all of us.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 19 #sol17

Filing into the majestic Riverside Church among the mass of educators, I veered right to locate my usual seat right behind the TC Staff Developers reserved section. Although I’ve been in this church several times to attend TC events, the ancient, awe-inspiring architecture never ceases to amaze and cause me to catch my breath. After a few gratifying hellos to former TC friends (miss them all so much), I settled in with a colleague for the keynote speaker, Drew Dudley. Now, I had never heard of Drew Dudley, but the promotion of his talk today promised a memorable experience. And boy, did he deliver.

In his talk today, which happened to be devoted to the topic of leadership, Drew began with a survey. Mind you, the church, located on the upper west side of Manhattan, was filled with roughly 800 teachers. The survey went something like this: “Raise your hand if you consider yourself a leader, and you are 100% certain that’s true.”

Pause.

Looking around, I don’t think I saw a hand raised. Maybe one. Drew went on to politely express his amazement, amazement that a group of teachers, a group this size, would respond so resoundingly in the negative. “How can that be?” he wondered aloud.  “There is no more important job on this planet that plays a bigger role in shaping our future.”  Quickly grabbing my phone, I tweeted that phrase.  This is going to be good.

Drew went on to make several more salient points that morning.  Summarizing here, I am hoping I can do them justice.

  1.  Story is the basic unit of understanding.  Drew recounted the story of a young, seven-year old girl he met on a train once.  This little girl taught him something of the power of story.  “You have no idea how your story will impact other people,” he asserted.  For me, this resonated powerfully.  And it reminded me of Dr. Thomas Newkirk’s writings about narrative writing, and its misassigned place in the common core state standards.  Newkirk contends that labeling narrative writing as a “type” of writing is actually a category error.  For narrative writing is at the base of all good writing.  And without it, we as humans are (a) not interested, (b) not able to learn, and (c) not convinced.
  2. What is the Secret to Unhappiness?– nope, that’s not a typo.  “The secret to unhappiness,” Drew began, “is allowing a gap to form between who you know yourself to be- how you conceive of yourself- and the way you are behaving.”  Now, when Drew said this, I could almost feel a palpable pause, as 800+ teachers inhaled in order to muster as much internal reflective energy as humanly possible.  I was no exception.  Is there a gap between the conception I hold of myself and my behavior?  Good question.
  3. Are you living a life that makes people smile at the mere mention of your name?  Drew told a beautiful story about his somewhat recent visit to his old high school.  While waiting for the principal to fetch the Scotch from her bottom drawer, Drew ran into his old custodian. Seizing a rare opportunity, Drew gushed at the incredible difference this man, Mr. Kiff, had made in his life.  Right to his face. Mr. Kiff’s kindness, his subtle non-judgemental manner, his humility-all of this had made such a difference. And Mr. Kiff’s response? “Meh. I’m just a janitor.” 

Just a janitor? Drew proceeded to tell us that when we use the word ‘just’ to describe what we do, we give people permission to think less of us. Don’t do that, he instructed. Don’t do it.

I left Riverside Church moved, touched, and inspired.  And like most people, I love that feeling. It’s like a good book: when you’re done, you think how will I live differently now that I read that? This day was no different.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 18 #sol17

Sometimes a child’s choice would not be our choice, but it is still his to make…

Title: “Choice”

About a week ago, Zach came bursting into my  office.  “Mr. Ball, I need a book!” he bellowed, his backpack slung over his shoulder.

I looked up from the paperwork I had been studying before this boy had stormed my office.  There was Zach with this head turned sideways, scanning the books on the shelf nearest the door to my office.  The thought crossed my mind to tell Zach I was busy, to tell him to come back perhaps after school.

But no way was I going to do that.

Here was a kid who needed a book!  I find matching a kid to a book to be both one of the most challenging and gratifying experiences in my profession, although I will admit it rarely goes the way I think it will go.  That day with Zach was no exception.

“Well, what are you ready for, Zach?” I asked him.  “You finished the Michael Vey series, right?”  This is how I had met Zach.  He was not my student, but had come to me upon the recommendation of his seventh grade English Language Arts teacher to pick up the most recent Richard Paul Evans installment of the popular character, Michael Vey.  I remembered he had read and returned the book within two weeks, lamenting the fact that no book seven existed yet.

I stood up and circled my desk so that I could approach a different book shelf.  Now, the book selection in my office is quite limited, so I worried that I might not be able to help Zach.  I began to scan the mental files in my brain. Hmm…What to recommend?

Suddenly, I heard Zach’s voice. “I’ll just read this one.”  He held up a book from the shelf he had been searching.

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Now, I am not familiar with this book.  It was one of the many books I inherited when I moved into this office four years ago.  With that being the case, a few thoughts crossed my mind.  Thought #1:  I should not let this kid have this book.  Thought #2:  If I do allow Zach to take this book, at least one of his teachers will want to let the air out of my tires to seek revenge.  Thought #3:  I should make him pick something else.

But a core belief inside me took over at that point, a belief that choice really matters when it comes to growing and nurturing young readers.  Perhaps this book wouldn’t have been my choice for Zach, but it was his choice. So he signed it out and was out the door.  “Thanks!” he uttered over his shoulder as he ambled into the hallway.

That was a week ago.  Then yesterday, Zach, once again, shuffled into my office with his backpack and returned the book to my hands.  “It was really good,” he reported. “Thanks!”

“You’re welcome.”

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Slice of Life Challenge day 17 #sol17

On Wednesday, I opened my garage to see this:

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Taking a big breath in, I grabbed my trusty shovel from its resting place in the corner of the garage.  This was going to take awhile.  A long while. The weather report that had promised an unusually abundant snowfall had, indeed, proven quite accurate.  Every school-aged child had just enjoyed another March snow day in our state, as had I.  Throughout the day, my daughters and I had played board games, written “And Then” stories, watched a movie, gazed at the blustery snowfall outside, as well as a engage in a host of other indoor activities.  And fortunately for us, no power outages had occurred! A good day.

But now, a price needed to be paid.  Due to an unexpected bout of strep throat that swept through the family, my daughters all now needed medication. With the storm and a travel ban, we had been unable to make the trip to the pharmacy (see yesterday’s post about that).

Staring at the enormous volume of snow, I positioned that motivation squarely in the forefront of my mind.  Honestly, the task looked impossible.  It truly did.  But we had to get out. We had to.

So I started shoveling. I knew if I allowed myself to feel angry at the snow, or if I watched the clock, or if I tried to hurry- none of that would be helpful.  It was literally one shovelful at a time.

I pushed myself to focus on the larger goal only when necessary- especially when I began to sense the voice in my head that liked to repeat things like, “You’ll never finish.  This is impossible.”  Those were the times when I widened my view and thought about the goal I needed to reach.  But most of my internal dialogue focused on much smaller goals: This section here; just finish from here to there; make sure this shovelful gets to the top of that pile.  Like that.

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I also remembered the fable my daughters love so much, the one about the Tortoise and the Hare.  “Slow and steady wins the race.” Keep going.  Keep going.

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And eventually it happened.  It was a long day, and there were many times when I wished our budget would have allowed for the quick, professional snow-plow solution (for those of you not from this part of Connecticut, this is what most people do).

But this experience helped me to think about our students, and how things can feel impossible for them sometimes.  I wonder how many of them, when asked to write or read something, feel like they’ve just opened the garage to see a vast field of snow they must now shovel?  I realized that for me today, it truly was both the larger and smaller goals working together that helped make something  possible, something that had, initially, felt so enormous.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 16 #sol17

Doesn’t everyone deserve common decency?

Title: “Decency”

“Mr. Ball?” The voice had a curt, official crispness to it.  Definitely someone I didn’t know.

“Yes, this is he,” I responded.  Talking on a cordless phone attached to a landline suddenly made me feel 20 years younger.  Well, except the “Mr. Ball” part.

“The lab results are back and I wanted to let you know your daughter has tested positive for strep throat,” came the curt voice.

“What about my other daughter?” I asked.

“Um…yes, her too.”

This presented a tricky situation.  Outside, the blizzard continued to rage, precipitating a statewide travel ban for all of Connecticut.  That meant no one was allowed to drive.  How would I pick up the girls’ prescriptions?  Glancing out my window I could see the black and white snowy form that was my Honda.  There was no sight of my driveway.  Hmm…I’d better consult with my wife, I thought. Standing up, I padded toward the living room.

“The police are issuing $100 tickets to anyone driving on the road right now,” she informed me, speaking over the top of her iPhone.  “So, maybe we ought to call them to see what they think we should do?”  Brilliant suggestion, I thought.  I imagined the police responding with something like, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your daughters, sir.  Yes, there is a travel ban in effect, however I am sure an exception would be made in these circumstances.”  Or maybe they might have another suggestion for me!  The few dealings with the police in my town we had had so far were quite pleasant.  Grabbing my iPhone, I quickly Googled the phone number of our local department, not at all expecting what was about to occur.

Reaching what I assumed was a dispatcher, I politely explained my situation.  My girls needed their antibiotics.  Did she have any advisement for me?  “I can’t help you,” she snapped.  “I can’t make that decision for you. Is this an emergency?” she churlishly chiped.  Well, no, it’s strep throat I explained. And it’s not like I had called 911, for crying out loud. “Just hold on,” came the woman’s voice. Silence on the line. Somewhat stunned by the abrupt and rude demeanor of the woman, I waited.

In a moment, a male voice came on the line. After briefly explaining my situation, I was told, “It’s up to you.  Have a good day.”  And he hung up. He hung up?

I quietly laid the phone on my lap, staring straight ahead. Not what I expected.  At all. I suppose expectations have their way of playing a role in all upsets.  I had clearly expected a different flow to this conversation, and now I was a trifle upset.  But was I unreasonable to expect at least some decency from the other end of this call? Doesn’t everyone at least deserve that?

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Slice of Life Challenge day 15 #sol17

Something my daughter said yesterday struck a chord…

Title: “Weird”

I remember a time when ‘weird’ was one of my favorite words as a kid. “Weird, weird, weird.”  I said it all the time.  Perhaps it’s one of those words that helps define us.  Kind of like, “I’m not that, I’m this.” One of my favorite authors once wrote about how stars are only bright due to the darkness that surrounds them. Something like that.

As I turned the car on to snowy Highway 341 toward Kent, I glanced in the rearview mirror.  “You girls must be excited to spend some of your Spring Break with your friends today?” I spoke to the mirror.

“I can’t wait until Spring Break is over!” chirped my kindergartener.  Always the unexpected with this one.

“Oh yeah, why is that, honey?” I queried.

“When I get back to school we’re getting a new person in our class!” Lexi’s face was alight with joy, and I detected a marked lack of sarcasm in her voice.  These sentiments were absolutely, 100 percent sincere.

“Do you know her name?” I recalled discussing this once before and was fairly certain the new arrival in her class would be a girl.

In the mirror, I watched Lexi shake her head.  Then suddenly my second grader, Livi, piped up from Lexi’s right, “I heard there was a new girl in the school named ‘Joshi.’ Joshi! That name is so weird!” An innocent giggle escaped Livi’s lips, her eyes aglow with amusement.  Although not a trace of malice or malintent was present in Livi’s words, I frowned.  She’d struck a chord.

“Honey, there are no ‘weird’ names,” I calmly stated.  “Only names we’re not used to.” Wait, where did that line come from?  I must admit, I kind of shocked myself when I said it. Perhaps growing up with a ‘weird’ or unusual name had helped grow an internal sensitivity and defensiveness when hearing such words.  Lord knows I had heard versions of that backhanded insult of ‘weirdness’ aimed at me a few times over my lifetime.  Or maybe Livi’s comment had struck the built-in ‘raise-your-kids-to-be-kind’ mechanism that triggers my instant parental correction button.

Whatever the reason for my response, my mind suddenly flashed back to the classrooms in which I used to teach.  I superimposed the sentiment I had just voiced aloud on some of the behaviors I witnessed in my classrooms many years ago…what if those behaviors weren’t ‘weird,’ but just ones I just wasn’t used to?

Reflecting back on this little slice of my life yesterday, I believe my message to my children had been to remain open.  Be accepting.  We are all different.  And being ‘different’ doesn’t make us ‘weird.’ It makes us human.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 14 #sol17

Eternal Winter

by Lanny Ball

Storm warning

Again

Eugene approaches

White blankets will fall

Winter roaring its terrible roar

Gnashing its terrible teeth

Chilling breath bearing down

Not to be denied

Rudely shoving June

Further into summer’s courtyard

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Accumulation out my front window 7:15 a.m. on March 14th. Notice the top of the planter on the bottom left…just getting started.

* To all in the Northeast and everywhere, stay warm and safe!

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