Getting Set to Jet

I love to travel.

I love searching for deals on flights and rental cars.

I love getting organized.

I love packing (I start about a week before the trip. I lay out all sorts of options, and then, over the course of the week, I cull and change, and make final decisions about what will go and what will stay.).

I love figuring out who will watch the dog, and making contingency plans (If it snows, do I have someone to plow the driveway?  If it gets really cold, do we have enough heating oil? If the dog sitter can’t get here, do I have a backup?).

I love getting the house clean and organized, cleaning out the refrigerator, taking out the garbage, running and putting away the last load of dishes and laundry.

But what I love most of all is when all of the organizing and preparing comes to an end, and I’m on the plane, heading off to a new adventure. I only have a few more hours to wait, and then I’ll be on my way!


Small Gestures Matter

This weekend we attended our grandson’s basketball game.  He is 8.  We were in an elementary school gym, a few parents and grandparents scattered around the perimeter sitting in stackable, brightly-colored plastic chairs.  People clapped at every attempt, said things like, “Great try!” quite a bit, and generally enjoyed the game.

But at about thirty minutes in, it was clear that one team (It did happen to be my grandson’s team.) was making all the baskets.  They have a few great little players on the team who can really hustle the ball down the court and sink a shot from the side (quite impressive for 8 year olds). It got to the point where it started to feel awkward for every one of the people sitting in those brightly-colored plastic chairs.  Every time the children on the other (yellow) team threw the ball toward the hoop, you could feel everyone in the gym hold their collective breath, hoping that somehow the ball would arc up just a bit higher and move a little more toward the middle, and somehow make it through that metal ring up there, but…..alas….no.  The shots were not even close.

That’s when our daughter, the coach of the blue team, talked to her young players.  After a quick huddle, the blue team went back out on the court.  As the yellow team started dribbling down the court, our team waited.  Our daughter called out, “Put your hands up!” but it was clear that she had told her players to let the other team take some clear shots.  The yellow team shot, and missed.  Then they tried again….missed. At that moment, the yellow team’s coach leaned over and said to our daughter, “Hey, coach.  Thanks.” I felt tears well up in my eyes.

We need more of these moments.  Moments when we try to work together to make the world a little bit better. Moments when we show each other some gratitude. Thanks, coaches!

Epilogue: The yellow team eventually made two or three baskets.  The crowd went wild with each shot.  The kids all smiled.  The coaches gave each other a knowing wink.

Exploring My Dark(er) Side

I’m an optimist.

I was raised by optimists. For example, when I talked with my mother on the first year anniversary of her diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, she said, “You know, Erika, this has been the best year of my life.”  She went on to say how much she had appreciated people’s kind words and how she would never have known how much impact she had had on people if they hadn’t had a reason (her terminal diagnosis) to share this with her.  But really?  In 82 years of living, she selects a year when she knew she was dying, received horrible treatments, took medications that made her feel sick, and lost all of her hair as the BEST year of her life?

I’m bad at sharing negative emotions.

My parents were not good at sharing negative emotions either (see above).  In addition to my wonderful rose-colored-glasses mom, my dad (who is 89 years old) has an incredible ability to look ahead and not let himself get down.  Years ago when I was having some trouble with anxiety, he told me, “I love you, and I really want to be helpful, but the only thing I know to say is ‘Pull up your socks!'”).  This has become sort of a joke between us ever since, but it is evidence of an inability to deal with negative emotions.

To be honest, I kind of like being an optimist and being a person who is eternally positive, and I truly admire the way my parents lived/live their lives, but I know there are consequences to this way of being in the world. Being eternally optimistic often leads to disappointment when things don’t turn out the way I had hoped.  Sometimes my optimism and excitement take over what someone else is trying to say. And let’s face it, life is full of bad experiences, tragedy, and sadness.  I sound ridiculous at times when I’m trying to find a positive spin to a horrific situation.

There is plenty of research out there (I’m reading Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel right now.) to tell me how unhealthy and unproductive suppressing negative emotions can be. This weekend I had an honest conversation with one of my daughters about some of this, and she said that sometimes I’m too hopeful, too positive, and that maybe it would be helpful to balance a little optimism with a healthy dose of reality.  My younger daughter said something later in the weekend about watching podcasts, and then said, “It might be good for you to watch some darker shows, mom.  I actually think you might like them.”

So…based on some research, some wisdom and advice from my daughters, and an interest in exploring and experiencing all that it means to be human, I’m planning to be a bit more realistic, find ways to share some of my darker feelings of anger, sadness and frustration, and maybe I’ll even watch the movie The Joker this week (OK, maybe I’m not quite ready for that….yet…).

Tips from Jim Lehrer

I’ve been reading a lot about the journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and debate moderator Jim Lehrer since his death last week.  To say this man led a big, impressive, and meaningful life seems to be an understatement. I mean how in the world do you have a schedule like Mr. Lehrer’s and turn out a novel every year?  I can barely get out my weekly blog post!

According to Lehrer’s peers and colleagues, he was a man of high professional standards (harder and harder to find in the world of journalism these days).  These standards include the following:

Do nothing I cannot defend.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.

There are more, but I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how these three standards might apply to my life and work as a Literacy Coach.

Do nothing I cannot defend:  My work has to be grounded in research and be solidly focused on the child/children I am working with. My work with children, teachers, faculty, and families must be ethical, moral, and kind.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story:  It is important for me to listen well to adults and children to try to understand all sides of a conversation.  This will help me to determine strengths and needs, which will help me focus teaching and learning. Although I do have strong beliefs about what literacy approach works best for children, it’s important for me to be open to the hearing about other stories and approaches (There are a lot of different opinions swirling around at there at the moment.)

Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am: I’m lucky to work with smart, caring, and good people.  I have studied literacy for many years, but I am a learner, not an expert, and I like it that way.

I wish I had spent more time listening to Jim Lehrer’s reporting.  I can see that he has a lot to teach me.



Pause to Be Inspired

Reading is a powerful act.

We tell kids this all day long.  We tell teachers too, and parents, and administrators, and anyone who will listen to us as we shout from the rooftops, “Read!  It will change you!”  Reading (and listening) to books changes us in profound, and often unexpected, ways.  I’ve experienced this, yet again, while reading (and listening to) Cornelius Minor’s book, We Got This!

I walked away from this book inspired to become the kind of thoughtful, caring, super smart, strong, inclusive, sometimes rebellious, child-centered, “all in” teacher that Cornelius exemplifies.  As I listened to and read this book, I found myself constantly yelling out, “Yes!” or “Of course!” or “That’s SO right!” And then I’d pause and think,
“Do I do that? Would I do that? Can I do that?”

This book has re-energized me to be a better teacher and a better human. It’s just what I needed during these winter months when, half-way through the school year, I sometimes start to lose energy, and I sometimes start to lose hope.    I sometimes feel that the systems we work within create limitations that keep us from doing our best work and reaching all of our students, but when Cornelius says things like, “It is possible to take the parameters that we’ve been given and, within those parameters, create art that is both beautiful and proudly defiant.” I am energized to keep going. When he reminds us that, “We do not teach for what is.  We teach for what can be.” I’m back at it, full guns!

Thank you, Cornelius Minor, for helping me through the mid-year doldrums, and catapulting me forward to be a better teacher, a better human, and to work harder to make the world a better place for all, especially our children.

Pause to Celebrate

There are so many ways to pause (my OLW for 2020).  This week I’m pausing to celebrate.  I’m a pretty positive, optimistic person by most standards, but when it comes to my work, I tend to be critical of myself.  I want to see positive change, and I often want to see it happen faster, and more completely, than it does.  I tend to look ahead to all that still needs to be done.  My lists are long, and I’m often frustrated at myself for not accomplishing all that I set out to do.  I want to do more.  I want to be more. These qualities can be positive.  They drive me forward. They push me to outgrow myself over and over. But they can also cause frustration and disappointment. So this week I’ve decided to push pause and celebrate all that is going well.

I’ve recently finished reading the book Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk by Shana Frazin and Katy Wischow.  There is a strategy these authors mention in their section on listening called Study the Strengths. Shana and Katy encourage students (and adults) to listen for what we might consider (instead of for what we might disagree with). This idea made me stop and think about myself.  Am I studying the strengths, or am I always listening for what still needs to be better?

So this week I’m leaning in and I’m pausing to study the strengths.  Here are some I’ve seen already (and it’s only Tuesday morning):

Teachers talk about children in such thoughtful ways.

Teachers talk about the reading and writing process in ways they didn’t a few years ago, with deeper knowledge of how readers and writers develop.

Teachers are teaching reading and writing in ways that are responsive to student needs.

Classroom teachers, special educators, and reading interventionists are working together to figure out what instruction is best for students.

Classroom teachers are working with me on studying student work and finding ways to accelerate progress for all students.

Students are growing in amazing ways as readers, writers, thinkers, and people!

I can talk hard with one of my administrators about teaching and learning.  She listens, gives hard feedback, and works to support the literacy work.

Teachers are trying out new ideas, taking risks, and working hard for their students.

Teachers want to outgrow themselves.

This is just the beginning of my celebration.  I’m going to keep a list all week of our strengths. After just one day of this, I already feel more optimistic and energized about the day ahead.  I think I’ll make pausing to celebrate a habit.



Use Continuers to Improve Listening

The year 2020 has begun, and I’ve chosen pause as my OLW (One Little Word) for the year.  Part of working on pausing for me is going to be working on listening.  I am a person who leans in to what people are saying, and I’m a person who wants to listen well, but I’m a person who often jumps in before people are really finished talking.  It’s a very, very bad habit.  I’m going to try to break this habit in 2020. I’m going to try to push pause when I feel myself starting to jump in (and often over) what people are saying.

I’ve been reading up on listening.  Not surprisingly, I found some tips in a book on student talk.  If we want people to talk well, it certainly makes sense that we have to listen well!  The book I’m studying is Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk, written by Katy Wischow and Shana Frazin (I’m lucky to have Shana as our school’s TC Staff Developer this year!). In this text, the authors write about strategies to help students use talk to clarify.  One of the strategies is to teach kids to say, “Say more about that.”  In explaining how and why this strategy works, Katy and Shana discuss a research study that was done to improve doctor/patient relationships.  Some of the surveys in this study showed that patients are often dissatisfied with doctors’ ability to listen. The suggestion (referred to as a “surefire method”) from Dr. Howard Beckman, medical director of the Rochester Independent Practice Association, was to use what he called continuers. Beckman encouraged doctors to say “uh huh” three times while listening to a patient.  In an example given in the text, a doctor tried this, and each time he said “uh huh” the patient gave more (and very important) information about his symptoms.

I plan to push pause and use a few continuers with students and adults. I’ll see if this helps me to listen more and talk less.  I’ll try saying “uh huh” or “hmmmm” or “Tell me more” three times and see if people say more.  I think it’s more realistic for me than trying to stay completely silent while people talk.  I think it will feel more authentic and show that I am listening and that I am interested, but I’m hoping it will keep me from jumping in too quickly.

Here’s to pushing pause in an effort to be a better listener in 2020. Wish me luck!