the looming Chicago teacher strike, part 2

today was the last day of a three-day voting period for rank-and-file members of the CTU to vote on the strike authorization. the union needs at least 75% of members to vote yes to move forward with a strike. that said, this vote is an authorization for strike, so striking is not a sure thing yet, but based on how voting turns out teachers may be one step closer. and while we’re waiting for the final count, let’s look at a few more of the reasons that teachers are revved up and ready to fight.

Issue #4:  Teacher Prep Time

so, I don’t know how many of you know this, but technically teachers are hourly workers. that’s right. every teacher clocks into work in the morning, and they clock out in the afternoon. that said, teachers are paid for 6.25 hours of work per day. lunches are 45 minutes of unpaid, duty-free time.

besides an unpaid lunch, teachers also get 60 minutes a day away from teaching in front of students to complete professional duties including but not limited to:  

  • planning lessons
  • preparing instructional materials
  • grading student work
  • entering grades into an online system
  • analyzing student data
  • communicating with parents, colleagues, and administrators
  • managing student paperwork
  • translating materials (for bilingual teachers)
  • meeting with support staff to discuss students with IEPs and 504 Plans (special education and health-related issues)

this is a lot. and it’s a lot to manage for 25-40 kids. and it’s a lot to manage in 60 minutes a day. and it’s actually NOT 60 minutes a day, but four times a week, because once a week the principal takes the prep hour to meet with teachers. which is fine, we all need time to connect as professionals. however, CPS wants to take away two more hours of teacher preparation time and turn them into additional principal-led hours, leaving teachers with two hours PER WEEK to get all their professional duties done. it’s just not possible. 

imagine:  your job is to be LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, and like, Miss Frizzle with her magic school bus AND a fun math teacher and also stay on top of emails and grades and keep a neat, attractive classroom and have organized student files, too, in two hours a week. again, it’s just not possible.

well, why not come early, or stay late, or work on the weekends? believe me! teachers already do! but teachers are saying enough is enough. leave the prep time alone.

Issue #5:  PSRPs and Teacher Aides

Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel (PSRPs), aka teacher aides, are some of the strongest glue in a school. they most often live in the neighborhood and know the kids and their families, and they are such a key resource for classroom teachers and for the school as a whole. the CTU wants to hire 1,000 more PSRPs, so only one or two more per building. a modest change in each building that can actually lend so much support to teachers in the early grades, teachers of special education students, to provide additional support to larger classrooms, etc. the support opportunities are big. and really, who wouldn’t want a qualified and trained professional available to support their child’s classroom?

Issue #6:  Special Education

special education is an issue with layered demands from the CTU, including hiring more case managers (who manage students with special education needs), hiring more special education teachers, and providing more preparation time for special education and general education teachers to meet and create co-taught lessons.

however, almost the entire opposite is on the table right now, with the district wanting to delete terms from the contract that uphold the federal law mandating that no more than 30% of students in a classroom have special needs. this law is not intended to keep special education students out of the classroom; it’s meant to distribute special education students into a variety of classrooms so they have the chance to interact and learn alongside same-age peers. when a ratio of 30/70 is taken away, special education students are at risk of being taught in classrooms that do not offer the social interaction they need or the educational supports that they deserve.

again, teachers in Chicago are not selfish. they aren’t fighting solely for the pay and benefits. they are pushing for schools that are fully staffed and fully funded. the money is there to fund meaningful changes to our schools. changes that will benefit all stakeholders, like smaller class sizes, social workers and nurses in every building everyday, teachers who are able to prepare lessons and materials, schools with PSRPs to support classrooms, and special education programs that offer appropriate engagement and supports to special education students.

doesn’t that sound like a school system you’d like your child to attend? that’s what teachers are fighting for.

the looming Chicago teacher strike, part 1

what does it have to do with you?

think back to a time when you were at school and things weren’t going your way. were you struggling with pulling up a grade? were you feeling disengaged because you weren’t really learning anything new? were you feeling lonely or left out by friends — who were pretty obviously being mean to you? were you dreading school because of that one kid, or those several kids, who — sure — were funny and joked around a lot in class, but were actually pretty out of control and managed to keep the teacher flustered and everyone else from learning?

as a one-time kid, i’ve experienced all those situations to one extent or another, and i bet you, dear reader, have as well. you may have even felt them more extremely that i did, maybe even failing a class or an entire year and having to repeat a class in summer school — or even repeat a grade. you may have started faking stomach aches or straight up started cutting classes or skipping school altogether to avoid the mean kids or the boredom or the general chaos of school. and who could have helped you pull through all that, if they weren’t already trying? your family and friends, sure, but also the teachers in your life. not all teachers are perfect, and i’m not saying that a teacher would have or could have saved you the discomfort and pain that comes with growing up, but i feel pretty confident that your teachers went into teaching to help their students learn and to support their growth. many times, as with all humans, things just get in the way.

and i’m here to explain that the contract the Chicago Teachers Union is fighting for this fall is one that can help with those things that get in the way, that keep teachers from reaching their students and creating that safe and meaningful school environment.

the contract that teachers are fighting for is one that advocates — no, demands — that the school setting is one that everyone deserves and that as many learning roadblocks are pushed out of the way as possible.

teachers are fighting for what every kid and every teacher in Chicago deserves. let’s take a look.

Issue #1:  Pay & Benefits

at first glance, this may cause some questions. how does a teacher’s salary make a student’s life better? how does that make a student’s experience safer, more comfortable? well, if teachers are worried about how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage, their student loans, how they’re going to cover the rising cost of living, then how can they come into the classroom ready to lead a group of students through the vibrant process of learning? i don’t know about you, but whenever i’ve been worried about money i’m not my most creative, positive, patient, risk-taking self. and aren’t those the characteristics you want most in a teacher?

also, the school system is running into a staffing shortage, particularly in specialized areas like bilingual education, special education, social workers, and school nurses. one of the best ways to attract high-quality candidates is to offer a competitive — and stable — pay and benefits package.

Issue #2:  Class Size

from the outside looking in it may appear that these first two demands, more pay and less students, is obvious evidence that teachers aren’t demanding this for the betterment of the school system, it’s that they’re trying to make their jobs easier. but to a seasoned teacher, or even a beginner, teachers know that teaching isn’t about pouring facts into a child’s head. teaching is about relationships. the masters among us can, and often do, cultivate relationships with 32, 35, 38 kids per class, but it takes a toll. to listen to all those stories, to think about what books each child might like to read, their language development, ways to build their confidence and push them to grow — that takes a lot out of a person. it’s not impossible, but think about the possibilities if a teacher had only 22, 24, 27 kids in a room. think how much more your favorite teacher could have gotten to know you (happy sigh!), and how many more chances your least favorite could have gotten to see the real you, had there been fewer kids and more time to see you, to listen to you, and to be with you.

that’s where the magic of teaching lies, in the relationships. and teachers need to have less kids in front of them so they have the chance to get to know each child more, build trusting relationships with each child, and at the heart of it, support that child as they learn and grow.

Issue #3:  Staffing

pretty simple. hey if there’s a school library, why not staff it with a full-time librarian? since kids have social-emotional needs — growing up is hard! — then why not staff a school with the recommended number of social workers? how about school counselors? how about school nurses? this demand for full school staffing goes back to creating a safe and comfortable environment where children are able to learn and where they can get the supportive services they need. it’s a no-brainer.

teachers are preparing to use their ultimate weapon — withholding their labor — in order to demand what schools across Chicago need in order to be safe and comfortable learning environments. if a strike is what it will take, then the members of the Chicago Teachers Union are ready.

singing or asleep?

A few weeks ago, at the start of the summer, really, I went with my wife and a friend to a special event where we got to lay in a dark room and listen to a musician make crystal bowls and glass objects sing. I know, I know — depending on how interested or open you are to “woo woo” types of activities, this event may seem like either the best or the worst way to spend a Friday evening. Believe me, I get it. But, even if you’re not into the energy of life, letting go of things that don’t serve you, and opening up space in your energy field for magic, it’s still nice. After all, you get to lay down and rest — and the music’s not bad.

That said, I was there laying on a couple of stacked yoga mats with a bolster and some blankets, making myself comfortable to enjoy this …experience. It was my first time at this type of event, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be weird? Would it be cool? Would my dead grandparents or future children come to me and tell me something deep? Would I just be uncomfortable laying on the floor for 90 minutes without a mattress?

The musician found that nice balance of alert and playful as she greeted us and helped us settle in, the lighting soft and dim, and I felt more comfortable on the floor than I thought I would. When the musician’s set began I immediately started to relax and breathe more deeply. The bowls and glass contraptions made a soft, resonating tone that filled the room floor to ceiling. I felt my body vibrate softly, too — not uncomfortable, but a distinct, non-me vibration. It was was weird and it was cool and I settled into a deep stillness to absorb the changing tones and volumes and — kind of like night tennis — to use my other senses to tune into the music’s movements as the musician walked the room with her instruments. I didn’t see any ghosts or visions, but my whole body and even my mind began to relax and take in sensation rather than words. Ah…

At some point, I did have to shift around on my mat and that’s when I noticed it:  snoring. There were about a dozen of us in the L-shaped room laid out in a variety of angles and postures and I couldn’t quite tell where the sound was coming from but it was most definitely a snore. At first I was annoyed but then I re-relaxed and reflected. Maybe someone needed the rest and this was their only chance during the week to have that time to just be still, with no outside demands on them. The snoring flagged then faded away. Back to the singing, sounds resonating, the vibrations and energy. Then it happened again. More snoring. But from somewhere else in the room. And while that person sawed away, another person joined in. Now snoring was in stereo!

It continued on and off for the rest of the session, ending with at least one snort when the music itself ended. As soon as stereo snoring began, I decided to have a sense of humor and imagine that the snores were part of the sound experience, an extra flourish to the spiritually healing soundscape. But truly, it made me wonder — what was it about this setting or this experience that put multiple people to sleep? Were they so rundown or overworked that this was their only place to find rest? That in itself seems problematic, even sad. Imagine — having to go somewhere outside your home and pay just to guarantee yourself 90 minutes of uninterrupted rest. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe they were unable to be present in a relaxed body — they were so unaccustomed to being simultaneously awake and relaxed that once they reached a certain point of relaxation their minds just checked out and they slipped away. Maybe the healing they were looking for was there and accessible for them, but they just couldn’t be awake for it, they couldn’t be present and clear for it — whatever the reason or barrier.

And that led me to think about myself — where am I asleep in my life? What are the experiences that I’ve had or often have where I’m not present or clear for it? And why is that? Am I physically exhausted? Am I stressed or anxious about things that are beyond my control? Am I holding on to old pain, limiting ideas or ideals that keep me from taking in and absorbing what’s around me, keep me from growing or changing, keep me fuzzy and unfocused? And if so what can I do to get clear, be alert and playful?

Each of those questions deserves a lot of reflection and action, so I can’t answer all of those here and now, but I can say that time and space, quiet and stillness are key tools that help me clear out. And I guess the unexpected, like snoring, can’t hurt with keeping me alert and playful.

night tennis

this summer is the summer of tennis for my wife and me. we don’t play too much, maybe once every 10 days, but that’s about 300% more frequently than we’ve ever played in a summer. that said, a couple of weeks ago, we walked over to our neighborhood tennis courts to play. we had waited a little longer than we should have, since it was already after seven o’clock when we left the house and that pre-twilight phase was quickly approaching. but that didn’t stop us from playing.

past the playground, the sprinklers, the field house, the basketball court, we walked to the farthest court, the one bordered by the busier street right next to the men’s softball league game, put our racquet covers and ball canisters and bags next to the net, and strode out to the baselines to hit back and forth. as we chased the balls and swung our racquets the sun set fully and dusk fell. the softball game continued behind me, with the sharp thud of bat hitting ball, infield sand crunching under feet, and yelps and claps when a runner made a go for a stolen base. the field lights and street lamps threw enough light for us to keep playing, although the ball would disappear from view for a couple of seconds on its way over the net, lost in the glare. regardless, we played on. and I began to notice that I was playing tennis differently, not just with my sight and my body following along, but with my whole body — or at least more parts of my body — attentive and alive to the ball. I was looking intently for the ball when it disappeared into the glare, but I was also listening for it, almost trying to feel the wind of it, feel it bounce on the court. sometimes I would just run in the direction of where I imagined the ball would bounce and trusted that when I swung it would be there.

people and their shadows walked by along the busy street beside us, on the sidewalk behind my wife, their shapes getting darker and denser as the night drew in more deeply. the ball began to glow in the little light that it caught, and disappeared just as quickly. my wife and I took a break for water and considered stopping, but we thought why not just a few more?

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and there was strange magic in our night tennis. we played as shadows, in the shadows, running after the shadow of a ball, using our senses and imaginations, not caring about the outcome, the night inviting us into another way of playing.

the seed, renewed

I’ve been on a long, unplanned hiatus. I stopped due to a family emergency, and then once my writing momentum was broken, it was easy to just continue not writing. However, I never stopped thinking about writing and how I should be writing, and often it gave me twinges of anxiety, to think of my poor little blog all alone, untended.

I was on the phone with a good friend the other day, one who moved across country and I haven’t talked to in over a year, and in about an hour and a half we covered pretty much everything under the sun — as we tend to do. Anyway, we started to talk about this blog and why I named it The Seed. Just those comments were a wonderful reminder of why I write — and I’d like to share them with you, as much as I can remember them.

Sometimes people, especially women, tend to over-mother their projects. We check in on them too much, too invested. This can be true regarding any creative endeavor from raising children to planting gardens to realizing our dreams of opening up a small business, to losing weight, even making a new friend or trying out a new recipe. That energy of over-mothering, of overly caring, can strangle our deepest desire before it has even taken its first breath.

Which brings me to the symbol of a seed. A tree saves up all its energy from the previous summer, all winter long, and spends that energy making seeds. And these seeds are created, encased, and let go in the wind, eaten by small animals, washed away by rains, and eventually land wherever they land. The mother trees can’t do anything about the fate of her seeds, her most precious creations. She just has to wait. So the seeds flutter away and land somewhere. And they, too, wait. And the miracle is that inside of them they are complete. They have all the information they need to push into the soil, grow roots, reach a stem and leaves towards the sun, and grow grow grow. If they are lucky, they will sprout close to their mother, protected by her shade and nourished by her root system, and eventually grow as tall as their mother — maybe taller — and house animals, create shade, someday drop their own seeds to the earth, as well. But if that doesn’t happen right away, it’s okay. The seed waits, dormant. Sleeping. Complete.

And that’s how I feel about my creativity — and really about everyone’s creativity. We have it, and it’s ready to be released. We just have to walk that fine line of giving it our all — every ounce of our energy — and also being okay with letting it go. We have to be confident that our seeds are complete and we have to have faith that they will eventually land on fertile soil. It’s the beauty and the mystery and the agony and the pleasure of creating and letting go.

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Many, many seedlings from our backyard tree, sprouting wildly in a gutter!

Choosing Like You’re Already There

A few things have been coming together in the last week or so, and it’s hard to put into words what those things are, but I’m going to try.

I think it’s easiest to see in fiction, or in the lives of others, and especially in the lives of those who are already gone:  there are usually big, sweeping themes and events that have changed the trajectory of a person’s life, and people in a person’s life who have defined one another’s lives or have at least defined parts of one another’s life.

I just finished watching the Masterpiece mini-series Little Women, a story I read as a girl and I likely didn’t completely understand, but I understood enough to know that I loved it. Little Women was the first book that made me cry — really cry sobbing tears, I was so distraught when Beth died — so it has its own place in my heart as a book that added a richness and a depth to my reading life. But as an adult looking back on the story overall and especially on the girls’ storylines I can see that for each girl they had their life trajectories, their destinies even, that were partially set by their place in history, by their circumstances, but also by their personalities, their talents, and their decisions. Each girl came to a crossroads, and they chose, and in choosing they defined themselves in one way or another.

I’m also in the midst of watching a multi-part documentary on Netflix called Wild Wild Country about the Rajneeshee spiritual group. Similarly, these real people — most of whom are still living — came to important crossroads in their lives and they chose, and in choosing they defined themselves and changed their lives. Some of the choices made people criminals, attempted murderers even. Other choices made people faithful guardians of justice. Still other choices made people bystanders, simply people in the background living lives that were tangential to all the chaos and drama.

I’ve also seen some old photos of family members, retold myself some family histories, and sifted through my own old memories. I’ve reflected on the themes of family members’ lives, where they seemed to have flourished, where they seemed to have deflated, the legacies and memories they left behind with me, the marks they made on their families, the personal lives’ works they created. It’s all very beautiful and mysterious.

So what does this have to do with me — with anything? I know I’ve said it before in some previous entry, but there is such power in deciding. And sometimes life does us a favor and forces us to choose, be it because of a life-threatening illness, a lost job, a relationship breakup or a marriage proposal, sometimes even the death of a loved one. Because these big events cannot easily be avoided and we must deal with them. We must choose. Other times, our lives go along quietly, slowly drifting with the current and little change from one day to the next. Slowly, imperceptibly days turn into weeks turn into months and even years with little discernible change. To me, this is the hard part, because as someone living a life, this is when I must make change, when I must be my own force — face things that must be faced in order to change and grow, let go of things that must be put down so that new things can be chosen and picked up.

And that’s where I see that I am now. I went through a big period of growth and change when I met my wife. We got married and lived through our first couple of years of marriage. Those experiences were transformative and have left an indelible — and I’d venture to say positive — mark on me. But I’ve been dormant lately, and honestly a little lazy. So it’s time to force some change. A woman whose videos I often watch online mentioned once that in order to make change you have to treat yourself like you’re already the person you wish to be, make choices like the person you want to be, live your life like you already are that person. And that message is so simple — cliche even — but it’s so true.

So that’s the plan — to treat myself as if I’m already arrived where I want to be, and make choices like I’m already there. Which for me means choices that promote physical health, spiritual growth, creative expression, healthy relationships, and all kinds of experiences. Because when I look back on my life as an old woman, as a middle aged woman, even a year from now, I want my big sweeping themes to be just that — health, spirituality, creativity, community, and even a little magic.

as strong as the weakest link, or run your own race?

lately, some of the adages I’ve heard since I was very young are really starting to resonate with me — I’m really starting to get them, and it’s most frequently been in the context of the classroom.

You’re Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link

this one used to annoy me a lot as a kid, in pretty much any group situation. in the settings where I was a stronger link, most often at school, I was easily impatient with and frustrated by “weaker links,” kids who didn’t get things as quickly as I did or who didn’t do their homework or try as hard, or whatever it was that in my child brain didn’t measure up.

as an adult, and especially as a teacher, I see now how each kid coming to school may be pushing as hard as they can, but the homes they’re coming from may either create obstacles or lay fertile ground for their school success. and that home life variable can be anything from poverty, not speaking English at home, having only one parent, having parents who are splitting up or who argue and fight often, to parents who are college graduates and earn high incomes and take their children on enriching vacations and hire tutors and nannies and send them to club sports and private lessons. it’s easy to grow when you’re a kid from an optimal home — or on the optimal side — versus kids who live in obstacle-filled homes.

I can see that now, and I can see it better, and I understand why I was impatient as a kid. and I know that I was guilty of thinking that I was smarter than other kids in my room. however, no adult — no teacher or parent or family member — ever broke it down for me, explaining that not every kid has the same home life. not every kid gets their own, quiet room to sleep in at night. not every kid gets a home-cooked meal and a place and time to do their homework. not every kid gets vacations to destinations around the country and around the world. and not every kid has parents who are genuinely interested in their success. so what can I do, now that I’m in a position to be that adult who can break it down for different groups of kids? — but not do it in a way that says, “Hey, you’ve got nothing, you’re our weakest link,” or “Hey, you’re so lucky, congratulations, you’re our strongest link?”

my best attempts have been trying to show it through biography and stories — to discuss how real kids from history, like Louis Braille and Helen Keller, had different childhoods, but through their circumstances were able to achieve a lot. I felt a little weird explaining it to my students at the time, but it was true and I think I had to say it. I said, “you know, if Helen Keller’s family wasn’t a wealthy, landowning family, we would probably have never known who she was. her family wouldn’t have been able to pay for a teacher to come and live with her, to give up her entire life to teacher Helen, and only Helen, for her entire life. it makes a big difference if you’re rich, and Helen was lucky.” I paused and thought, then went on. “and Louis Braille didn’t come from a wealthy family at all, so they had to be strict with him and give him chores and not help him too much even when he made mistakes. they had to see him fall, and then tell him not give up, or let him become spoiled or hopeless. they had to push him hard and he had to push himself hard, too. thankfully he never gave up, and we have braille today, and we have him to thank — and Helen Keller has him to thank, too. so we have to remember that our families help to push us hard and even our teachers are here to push us hard, too.”

So my role as teacher, and as adult in the world I guess, is to notice those people around me who are dealing with obstacles and setbacks, to acknowledge that and not to see them through a lens of strength or weakness, but through the lens of needing my understanding, encouragement, and support.

Run Your Own Race

my internal struggle then comes from the balance I try to find between caring for my students who need the understanding, encouragement, and support and also caring for my students who are already fortunate enough to come to school with a lot of the “optimal home life” boxes checked. between these two groups, what’s fair?

honestly, I don’t know. this is a struggle I’ve had for years. I have only so much time, so many resources, and so much energy, and I have to work with what I’ve got, sometimes moment to moment, and with a lot of variables at play each day. and for me it goes down all the way to the question of what a free and appropriate education is — what that truly means. does that mean that each child is challenged and engaged at their individual level for as much of the day as possible? does that mean that children are asked to learn the content of their grade level (first grade, second grade, third grade, etc.) and anything beyond that is extra? does it mean that kids need to be divided or tracked, so kids with more similar needs can be together? does it mean that kids cycle through different teachers throughout the day, so they can see specialists for each content area?

I know what’s plausible for me as a teacher, and I’ve heard what’s fashionable and preferred by parents, which — spoiler alert — are incompatible. so what do we do? most importantly, I think parents need to adjust their expectations, and think back to when they were kids. think back to what their teachers did for them, what their parents did for them, and then what they were expected to do for themselves. because in the end, we are running our own race, each one of us — and we have been all along — and kids’ teachers and parents and supportive adults are there to coach, model, and cheer them on, but ultimately our kids have to learn responsibility and they have to be driven by their own desire to self-actualize and get to their own finish lines.

freedom, responsibility, possibility

so to continue what I was thinking about last week — although it feels like such a long time ago to me — I’ve been searching about for people whose lifestyles and philosophies may serve as an inspiration. unfortunately, for all the hours I’ve spend casting about, I’ve not come up with much.

like everyone who’s got internet access, I get lost down the rabbit hole sometimes. and sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes it’s for the worse. I’ve been casually following a couple of female vegan vloggers — YouTubers? — and it’s interesting to notice what I think about and how I feel after watching their videos. I feel the worst after watching Freelee, who has good intentions I think, and means the best, but whose approach is too rigid — it makes me uncomfortable. also, I think there’s a good amount of unconscious privilege in her outlook and actions. sure, you can give up make-up and wearing bras (and clothes!) — you’re a light-skinned white woman. you can move to the Honduran jungle to live off-grid with your boyfriend on a plot of land that has freshwater streams on the property and buy solar panels for your house and encourage others to quit their jobs and do the same as you have — you have no kids as far as I know and no family members that you’re responsible for.

but how possible is that for most people? and from what little I know of current events, Honduras is a failing democracy and one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas. there’s got to be some white privilege in renting or buying up some land there and living with no effects of the Honduran dictatorship in your life. sure, she’s living a life with lots of personal freedom — and lots of personal responsibility — but how possible, and how plausible is it for the rest of us?

I’ve also been watching Sweet Potato Soul and Cheap Lazy Vegan. these women are more my speed, living with a lot of personal freedom and responsibility and their choices are a bit more possible — and plausible. that said, sure, veganism is a lifestyle that can be a bit rigid and difficult, and if anything the self-imposed limitations may make a person feel less free rather than more free, but it’s nice to see variants of the vegan lifestyle — women who eat more or less processed foods (I’m talking peanut butter and soy sauce, tahini and cocoa powder) and who can spend money and time differently to make plant-based foods. they also incorporate different levels of the vegan / eco-friendly lifestyle into their own lives, like purchasing second hand clothing, not using a car, finding and using cruelty-free and food-grade beauty products. but again, depending on your background, time and money situation, as well as ability to change your lifestyle drastically, this may or may not be possible.

so what am I saying? well, first of all — and I feel weird writing this since I’m online doing it — it’s best for me to stay away from YouTube and other social media (I’d venture to say the internet in general!) unless I have a clear and constructive purpose for using it. essentially the internet is like a portable library, and why did I go to the library when I was a kid? I didn’t go most times to randomly browse, or to learn from strangers who were lingering about the building, spewing their ideas backed by varying levels of education and expertise. I went with a purpose — with my own questions in mind, searching for my own answers, and with the goal of hopefully finding literature and essays to read by educated, experienced, thoughtful people who could share their ideas with me so that I could grow in my own education and expertise.

and for me that’s another step towards being free — freeing myself of the distractions and empty attractions of the internet so that I can focus more on my actual life, the one I’m living in my heart and head, the one that I will look back on and hopefully remember fondly, with cherished moments of living. because what purpose is there in sitting in front of a screen, endlessly accessing content? use it as a tool — a tool to create more knowledge and self-empowerment — not a tool of distraction and unconsciousness.

time to get free

spring break was two weeks ago, and during a quiet moment of my week off I reflected on the Friday before break and the hours leading up to dismissal. everyone, the kids and I both, were really watching the clock — sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. to lighten the mood and ease some of the excitement and pressure around the upcoming break I joked with the kids. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m keeping track of the time, too, and we won’t forget to leave — trust me. We have 2 hours and 26 minutes to go, and in all my years of teaching I haven’t forgotten to leave school on time. Plus,” I paused, “we always have the dismissal bells to remind us.”

a few of them who were repeatedly looking at the clock or asking their watch-wearing friends about the time seemed a little sheepish that they’d been caught, but I understood. sometimes, even as a teacher, I just don’t want to be in school. and why not?

sometimes school seems like prison, a place we file away all kids for the day with a few adults to regulate their time and activities, and then when the working adults finish work, we pick them up and shuttle them home. back and forth, back and forth, sometimes with a bit of variation in the routine for outside play or lessons, but overall that’s it for nine, 10 months of the year.

but you’re the one in charge, you say, why would you feel like you’re in prison? well, if the kids are the prisoners, that makes me the jailor. and I can’t tell you how much I hate that role, how often I start every day with bright hopes, imagining all the interesting discussions we’ll have, the engaging hands-on activities, and the moments to read and reflect, and to just talk, get to know one another, and spend time together. but that’s just not how it goes. there is so much pushed into the classroom from the outside by people  who work at varying distances from me and my students and who I’ll assume are well-meaning. but whatever their intentions, they’re micromanagers to be sure. they create hard deadlines to meet, a quota of scores to record, grades to file, paperwork to submit, referrals for behavioral and academic issues, standards to meet, and on and on and on and on. my days are scheduled to the minute, which means the kids’ days are scheduled to the minute with an underlying pressure to keep up and for all of us to do what we’re told. and this is not the way education should be — paperwork and rule-following was not the reason I became a teacher.

so, if school is like prison, then it’s time to get free. because as a teacher I’ve wanted to create freedom through education, through giving kids the tools to question, to think deeply, to reflect and take action, to self-discover and self-determine, to be so knowledgeable of self and the world and so free-thinking that their very existence was a radical act of freedom, and that their radical freedom would inspire others to get free — and that eventually we would all be moving towards that freedom.

and freedom from what? freedom to do what? well, freedom has been written about and thought about for centuries and I cannot address all that I think and feel fully in a few paragraphs, but in short:  freedom to choose and to be. freedom to live a life with purpose and meaning, to live a life of self-understanding and a with a broad perspective on humanity and an understanding of the interconnectedness of life on the planet. freedom to know that there is a balance we must respect and maintain as a member of the living planet and to know when the demands of personal freedom must be mitigated for the good of the group — and to be secure enough in our personal freedom to know that it constantly flexes and bends within different contexts. there are no absolutes — movement and change are constant — just as the need for honest reflection and continuous education is constant.

so as I move forward, looking for moments of beauty in my daily life, I also search for moments of freedom, moments I can amplify and then stretch into minutes, and then hours and then maybe full days. let’s get free.

experiences that inspired this post:

The Hoodoisie — a Chicago-based, live news show podcast.

Educated, by Tara Westover

Chicago Teachers Union Foundation — professional development for Chicago Public Schools teachers

Beauty, A Guiding Principle

On the way home the other night I was thinking about a book I’d read a while ago called The Four Desires. In it the author talks about uncovering and expressing your dharma, which essentially means your personal mission / vision statement. I was thinking about this because I was finishing up another long and busy week of work and coming home to a week of vacation. Somehow just the promise of open time creates that immediate pull back into big picture questions for me.

I was thinking about what motivates me, my driving principles, the ideas and ideals that attract me. Based on the things I’ve always liked to do and be around, I think it’s come down to a single word:  beauty. I like to be around beauty, to create beauty. I like to see beauty in others, and when it’s not there, I try to encourage beauty and I hope for the beauty that will come. In many cases beauty does mean the physical kind — comfortable and supportive home, lush gardens, comfortable clothing, inspiring artwork — but it also means the beauty in moments, in people, in relationships.

The hard part for me, though, is that it’s much easier to see and create outward beauty rather than inward beauty. I can see when something has become beautiful or is approaching beautiful, and others can see it, too. That seeing validates the time and effort given over to a beautification project. But inward beauty, that’s tough. Can we see how a child has become more a more patient sibling, a better independent problem-solver, a more resilient student? Can we see how a co-worker has pushed herself to be more positive and complain less about work? Can we see when a neighbor has committed himself to a more forgiving approach to his wife and kids?

So for me I’ve been thinking of making that challenge a focus this week — looking to see the internal beauty in others. How can I find those beautiful moments and see them and know them while they’re happening — and not so much that it ruins the moment, but just enough to be awake to them? How can I notice positive change in others? How can I raise my awareness to kindness, generosity, patience, enthusiasm, gentleness, courage?

In some ways this week’s challenge will be easier than any other week because I’ll have the time and space to relax and slow down and really look — I’m off work. But it will be a good place to start this habit of mind. And this isn’t to say that I will ignore things that must be discerned or defended against, rather that I will put my energy and attention on things that merit being centerstage and let the things that don’t wither and fade a little more. Care to join me?