Monday, December 30, 2013

Keep. Give Away. Pass. Walk Away.

As the year ends and the reflections begin I found myself hearing two very varying views on… books. And they seemed to represent different views of Life. 

One person, a used book store owner, said he worried that with the technology world we live in, we were creating a world where all books would be on technology instead of hand held, paper bound hard copies of books. He wondered aloud if a challenged book could eventually be eliminated with a simple click of a button. In true Ray Bradbury fashion. He also worried about what we would pass along to the next generation...not textured books...but cold technology?

The other person is a mother of four and she said she wasn’t buying books anymore because she didn’t see any sense in holding onto something that might not ever be read, or might only be used once and then it would just take up space. They are avid library users.

Both of these views about the value of book ownership made me think about why I hold onto books, and why I hold onto so much…other stuff.

We have books in every single room of our house. My girls walk around with, and usually they each have, books in their schoolbags…free-choice, unassigned books. They bring books in the car for almost every car ride. Even Kath, who cannot read more than an easy reader, carries around Young Adult books, because to her that is what she aspires to be, a reader. 

I love love love literature. I love to hold books, I love the texture of the pages and cover. I love to smell books. I love to turn pages and hear the sounds books make as you go from one breath of the story to the next. I love the way words look on paper.

Santa gave all four of my children Nooks this Christmas. Although I love ‘real’ books, I also love to READ and sometimes I can’t get to the book store fast enough and I need a quick fix…and the ease of downloading a book and voila! being able to immerse myself right into a story world…is well, kind of intoxicating. And I like to pass on that type of intoxication! Apparently so does Santa! :D

But we also bought my kids and their cousins old books, because in my world, nothing replaces a ‘real’ book. We went to the Book Barn, a local used book store, and looked for the oldest, smelliest, (not mildew, but that earthy old smell), most interesting, classic literature books and bought those books for the kids and inscribed each book with our thoughts as to why we chose those books…aside from the smell and feel. It was fun. And the kids loved it, (even the kids whose mom won’t buy any more books :) unless they are just really good at gift receiving etiquette :).

When I look at books they are a bit like a scrapbook of my life. “I read that book when I was….” “I read this book when….” I remember times, places, life events through the books I read.

Aside from books I wondered, looking around my house with my mind’s eye, why my house is filled with pictures, music, movies, … and why it’s important to me to keep it that way. We even have twine strung across the wide passageway to the playroom where we clothes-pin up assignments and art projects the girls bring home.

Why do some people save books, pictures, knickknacks, writings, DVDs, music cds, recipes, kids artwork when it obviously does clutter up the living space?

I think I am the kind of person that has memories trapped in every object I have been given, bought or gifted. My mom gave me all of her Christmas village pieces a few years before she died. I keep.

I saved up –at a time I could barely pay my rent and food- and bought the boys a big plastic play castle for the backyard. I keep. 

I finally have started to give away clothes my kids wore when they were babies (they are now 26, 24, 9 and 7). Although I am keeping some- the ones I have specific memories I want to hold onto. 

I walk away from buying or accepting many things I find unnecessary, especially as I get older. Do I Need, or do I Want, I find myself asking myself. My needs are becoming simpler.

I keep and want the things in my life that tell stories…the books that I grew up with and that inspire me to keep going, or that contain stories that revive my soul or motivate me to be a part of the solution. I keep the pictures of everything and anything that we have done and lived through. I keep the music that I enjoy or that gives me a peek into my past that I am okay peeking in on. I keep all my journals and writings, they show my place in this world. Evidence that I exist, my story.  I’m not big on movies so they aren’t as important to me, but I do keep many movies the boys watched and now the girls enjoy. And my husband loves TV shows and movies of all sorts, he likes to relax, find the humor and find a way to unplug. All of the Things I keep tell some story. Invoke some memories or feelings. 

Do the things we save…keep…give away and pass on tell something about what we treasure? About what ignites our souls?

What if we had three metaphorical boxes to put all parts of our life into? The Keep box. The Give Away box. The Pass On/Over/Through box? 

Where would I put the people in my life? Who will I keep? And why? Not just because I ‘have to’ to keep them…but why? How close will I keep them, how much time will I allow them to take, how much space in my head and heart?

Where will I place my job? The house? The furniture? The after-school activities I sign up and pay for our children to be in…and away from us? The breaks/vacations? The music? The TV shows? The exercise? 

There was a meme I saw on Facebook that said “There are 940 Saturdays between your child’s birth and when s/he leaves for college."

So again I ask, with a slightly different twist…

What do I keep and hold onto for 2014? What do I let go? What do I allow to pass us by? What helps our kids find their way…to find what to treasure…to learn to let go of what needs to let go…? What will help me reach my life goal of completing my book?

This seems to be what I am focusing on this year as I make my resolutions, as I re-start my jar of Things-Worth Remembering, as I begin the metaphorical road of 2014. What will I Keep? What will I Give Away? What will I Pass On? What will I Walk Away from? Can I make my life reflect what is important to my core? What ignites my soul? This year I will think of those metaphorical boxes as I wade through the year.

My top ten goals which will hopefully help me weed through to reach the core, important things I treasure:
        1)  Be in the moment. Put down the phone. Put Facebook and Instagram down and be in the moment.
        2)  Read. A lot. 
        3) Write. Much More.
        4) Laugh. Belly laughs.

        5) Find and make time to cook good meals that feed our souls and bodies.
  6) Treat my body better.
        7) Save up money for the future I want to live…want vs need. Never again allow the debt to overtake once we are caught up this year. :)
        8)  Stay organized in home, school, finances.
9      9) Let go of the things I have no control over and focus on the good, the abundant and the positive.
Last but not least…
1      10) Be courageous in what I stand for and in what I want.

I plan to Keep these goals. I plan to Give Away my fear and hesitations on what I know I can do. I plan to Pass on and along the good, the motivating and the positives. I plan to Walk Away from the stagnant, shallow breathing parts of my life.

Happy New Year to you. Here’s to a good solid 2014!  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

No Good Reason

Before I got to my writing group (AKA PWC) meeting at the Midtown Tap and Tea in Albany tonight, I was thinking about how hard it has been since Kathryn passed away…how I seem stuck in neutral with my writing, how I don’t know what my problem is, how much I still miss Kathryn. And how silent my blog has been. And how silent I have felt since she left us. I can’t explain why I feel this way, but I do just feel so lost, especially when it comes to my writing.

So on the way in to Albany, I was excited to see my friends and talk writing and teaching, though I also had that same little nervous feeling I've had since September when getting together with my PWC meant it was a meeting without Kathryn. 

I almost stayed home tonight because my husband Roger had a headache and I was afraid to leave him with girls, I didn’t want him to get overwhelmed, but he did say to go. So I left.

Then, also on my way, I passed an accident and it looked like someone got hit by a car. I wondered if I should be out driving, with the snow and ice, but I kept driving.

Anyway, I finally arrived and even when I parked I felt less than confident about being at this meeting. Even though Brian and Sean do not make it to every meeting, it is Kathryn I miss. I do miss Brian and Sean but they are gone for good reasons; they are raising babies. Kathryn is gone for No Good Reason and I still can’t completely deal with that.

I was walking towards the back entrance of the Tea Room when I saw an older woman getting out of a  car, passenger side, at the rear entrance of a different restaurant. A younger person was sitting in the driver's seat, to drop her off, probably because of the wet snow/rain and icy conditions. As I reached the car, I asked the older woman if she needed a hand. She looked up at me and for No Good Reason, I took her hand before she even said yes. It was a good thing I did because just then she slipped on the ice. I held her up and steadied her. She was so grateful, she smiled at me with this huge powerful smile, held my hand and called me her guardian angel. She even hugged me when we parted.

We walked to her restaurant door hand in hand and she kept blessing me. I don’t know if she knew I needed her warm hand as much as she need mine. Or that her, ‘Bless you and bless your Thanksgiving. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving. You are my guardian angel, you were there at just the right time” helped me feel like I slipped back into my life-notch. 

She had no idea that I wanted to turn back and go home so many times tonight, but I didn’t. I kept going, dragging myself forward knowing that once I reached my writing group friends, I would receive some solace. Knowing once I arrived I'd let myself be held in the warmth of our teacher/writer conversations and our future personal and professional plans and, as always, our writing discussions.

I had no idea how meaningful and how important it would be for me to go to my writing group meeting tonight--- for non-writing reasons as well as writing reasons. For that woman in the parking lot. For me. Maybe I needed to come for myself, of course, but maybe I needed to know that I need to write for more than just me.

I miss Kathryn. 

But today I felt like it was ok to miss her and still write and still reach out to be a part of my Professional Writing Cohort. Kathryn was the reason I went to that winter meeting up at Nicole’s family cabin last February…she was the reason I was a part of this group. Kathryn always spoke so positively about me, about how I taught and about my writing, she gave me the confidence to share what I write to a small group of passionate educators and they helped me share to a bigger audience. She was my bridge. She brought me from being on the peripheral to being a member of this life-changing group. And when she was gone I wasn’t sure where I fit with my writing anymore. 

And then that lady grabbed my hand, told me she was glad I was here and called me her guardian angel. And for No Good Reason I felt like a weight had been lifted. And just maybe I could remember how to use my words again. Kathryn would have wanted me to fill my pages with words and to share it. She would have wanted me to write for teachers, for the silenced, for No Good and for Every Good Reason.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Teacher's Prayer for the New School Year.

Please let me teach…
…without the PA screeching a most important announcement.
…without a student getting an early release.
…without a child who thinks they need to go to the health office, the bathroom, the water fountain, the vending machine (‘I’m starving!!’), the guidance office, the locker room, the phone to call ‘my mother.’

Please let me teach…
…the importance of thinking through a problem to a clear analysis with examples to support, written in a way that any reader can follow the thinking—especially someone who doesn’t know what is being talked about but also for someone who does and who will look for holes in their logic.

Please let me teach…
…the love of gently drifting into a story that haunts their days and keeps them up at night.
…the love of being dragged kicking and screaming into the storyworld and seeing life and the world through someone else’s eyes.

Please let me teach…
…real poetry that grabs their souls.
…real writing that is meaningful to their hearts.

Please let me teach without…
…fire alarms interrupting.
…loud, roving bands of unchecked students yelling in the hallway.
…equipment and technology breaking down.
…a bee holding us hostage until he finds the unscreened window again.

Please let me teach…
…the meaningful, the deep.

Please let me be.

Please let me teach without the teststeststests that frighten full grown intelligent educators and take our focus off the teachable moments and put our focus on CYA type methods.

Please let me educate, excite, motivate, embolden and challenge.

Please just let me teach.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Education vs Schooling

                                                                    Chapter 4

In August when I open my letter from the Special Education Department of our school district for Katharina, I know we are in for some heavy reading. 16 pages this year. I started to read it, but put it down after a few minutes, completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t read it all in one sitting. Then I thought about how Kath’s teacher would deal with that heavy Individual Learning Profile. How could she manage to read and grasp all that it contains from Kath’s vision issues to her cognitive delays to her potty issues---and do the same for any other child with an ILP---AND teach a room full of other multi-abilitied children??

Katharina has certainly made me view the world of education through a different lens.

I always wanted to be a school teacher, but my experience with Kath shows my true aspiration is to be an educator. Education is not the same as “school.” And it’s taken Kath’s experience to show me this. We have been blessed with many educators for Kath, who have been strong advocates for her and who took the time to figure out how Kath ticked and saw that the gap that was there was not one of petulance or disobedience, but truly one of her not being able to connect the dots without assistance.

When Kath began Early Intervention at 14 months, her therapists took the time to see who Kath was beneath the exterior, even when she was a non-talking immobile toddler. Kath has been lucky to also have a really sweet disposition (most of the time). But she is the kind of girl who if she thinks she is not pleasing you she will try to make you laugh…which usually looks instead like she wants to push more of your buttons. If Kath feels cornered she will try to exit that corner by making you laugh or acting out. And her therapists would always adapt exercises, or reset her, or switch activities or stop for the day, realizing that Kath mentally could do no more at that point.

When Kath was in a therapy-based special education preschool, her experience truly made me understand how different Kath’s learning style is. Kath was moved from a self-contained classroom, where she soared with a wonderful teacher and aides, to an inclusion class. After the switch, we began to see some shutting-down. Kath started to come to me in the morning telling me that her school was closed that day, that she saw 'the note on the door.' A girl who loved school was now telling me she wanted it to be a no-school day, every day. In all fairness it was a very stressful time at home. Our regular caretaker had to leave us to take care of a family member and I scrambled for before and after school care. A generous friend, Darlene, stepped up to take care of both girls in the morning and take them both to school, every day. My son Nick (then-recently diagnosed with his own TBI) picked Kath up at 1 pm every afternoon and watched her until I was done teaching, every day. That was way too many transitions for this girl who struggled with transitions. And she did not feel the teacher or aides in this new room liked her, but it took me awhile to figure that out. If Kath can’t make you smile, she feels lost. She was usually surrounded by smiles and laughs, so not being around people she knew who smiled at her was a big struggle. (This was something I had to teach even family members. When she knew that she was doing things not-right and would look to see reactions, she either saw frowns of disappointment or smiles of encouragement. Smiles were what she needed, or at least an explanation and a path back to where there were smiles). I thought she was simply struggling with the transition to the new class, and blamed the fact that I had to work and leave her to the care of so many other people (there is a guilt thread in every chapter isn’t there?).  Fortunately after a few months our previous caretaker came back and she began the morning in our house and helped get the girls ready for school, drove them both to school then picked up and cared for Kath at the end of her school day until I was ‘done’ with my teaching day. The stability steadied Kath. And since Robin is also an artist, she brought a different avenue of connection to Kath’s blossoming mind.

In elementary school, Kath began a wonderful program that we were fortunate enough to be able to create for her. She did a two-year full day ‘kindergarten’ program where she was in a self-contained classroom and received therapies for the first year, with occasional times in the integrated class. The second year was more of a traditional kindergarten program where she transitioned into the integrated class and became a member of the class for real. Except for her locker, which was in her original special ed classroom -- and which she often asked if it could get moved into the regular classroom. I told her there wasn’t any room, but she was observant and noticed that there was an open locker one day so I told her that she needed to be able to take off and put on her coat and backpack by herself in order for her to be moved in, help that she got from her special ed teacher Mrs Brown. She seemed to understand she wasn’t there yet and she stopped asking.

Kath knows she needs more help than the other kids. She sees that she is one of the only ones who needs help toileting. She knows she goes to therapy and that all of her therapist are her teachers too and they are helping her think better, walk better, write better, speak better, use her eyes better, and she accepts that. Most of the time.

But there are times when her brain just goes into overload and she explodes into a little ball of mean frustration. It is usually when I am trying to do something that takes all of my concentration, like writing. About her.

In schooling, especially with the way teachers are being forced into teaching nowadays…with their time and attention being taken up by larger class sizes and teaching to tests instead of ideas, Kath will struggle. To sit and have to take hours of seat time and testing…Kath will explode. I am not trying to predict her future, I am trying to be like Ray Bradbury in his book Fahrenheit 451 and prevent this future. Anyone with their own Katharinas knows what I am talking about with her issues and how this can make my curious loving-to-learn girl want to go back to saying, “School is closed, I saw the note on the door” again.

In education, where students are encouraged to think, given time to analyze and figure out, Kath will blossom. When Kath has the right setting and patient educators, Kath will thrive.

But when people look at her and expect that because she ‘looks’ normal she can handle all, she will struggle. When she has to reach some bar of success dreamed up by non-educators, she will struggle.
How then do we make the successful model work for Kath and other kids like her, with varied abilitied-brains?

What I have seen so far is that Kath needs someone who can be her connector to the regular world, someone who will explain what she doesn’t understand, a translator, with patience. Someone who will not make her feel more wrong-footed than she does every day. We have been so blessed by the teacher we have been provided with, Jen Votra Brown, S.E.T.E. (Special Education teacher extraordinaire).

Last night when I was putting Kath to sleep she said, “I don’t understand that story about Belle, the one where she fell off the ladder. What happened?”

We had watched that episode from the first season of the TV show “Once Upon a Time” last week, and moved into the second season with more of a focus on this Beauty and the Beast character since. A week ago she saw something and it didn’t make sense, but she didn’t tell me she didn’t know what was going on until last night. First of all I tried to understand exactly what she meant, and that’s when I realized it was the original first season introduction of Belle. Then I praised her for asking me to explain something she didn’t understand. I told her that was a really smart thing to do, to tell someone when she didn’t understand and ask it to be explained. 

The smile and the way her body relaxed into me highlighted for me how uptight she was about this, admitting her lack of knowing. I told her smart people ask for help, that’s how they get smarter. The conversation we had then was flowing and she starting to make connections.  Unfortunately, it was really late and I wanted to read my book, but this was a teachable moment I couldn’t bypass.  

When I came downstairs I talked to Roger and I told him about Kath’s and my conversation. We talked about how we (Alex included) knew the fairytale stories that were being used and twisted and mixed together in this fractured fairy tale TV show, but that was a lot of cognitive work for Kath to pull together.

When teachers are allowed to take the time to teach in those teachable moments, that’s when they truly educate. When teachers are allowed and encouraged to find the various paths their students learn, then they truly educate. 

In Kath’s brain she may need to be taught something 15 times before she ‘gets it,’ but she will get it if she is given that time, shown the different paths she can come to the knowledge table by and allowed/encouraged to ask questions.

The way we are forcing teachers into teaching now with the new testing does not allow for Kath and others like Kath to fully learn. It’s as though we are shrugging off the struggling learners and all of the brain research of how to teach them; it’s as though we are saying these kids don’t matter.
Every year since Alex was born I looked into homeschooling. Every year. This year, yesterday, I actually unsubscribed to the homeschool email groups I’ve belonged to for 7 years. The teachers and the programs that my girls have been involved in has made sure that despite what is being slammed down teachers’ throats they are educators of students, first and foremost.

They will make sure that Kath (and all of their students) has her teachable moments. That Kath has her time. They know Kath because we have a school community that makes time to talk and share, regardless of what is provided for by State Ed or even our district. These teachers have met at one another’s homes during the summer to begin planning times, they have gone into their classrooms and set up their rooms (we teachers at the high school are not allowed in until 9 days before school begins). They have talked to last year’s teachers and they have studied the Individual Learning Profiles of their special education students as well as studied the testing scores and write-ups about all of the other students in their classes.

They will make sure that my Kath finds her paths and they will show her doorways and make sure there is always a place at the table for her. And what’s more is that not only will they allow her time to learn, but they will push her and challenge her too.

I don’t know how they do it. As a mom I am overwhelmed by the 16 pages of Kath’s ILP, and I live it. I am constantly challenged to learn and make Kath’s connections solid. As a teacher, I have so much respect for and admiration of her teachers who have so many ‘tricks in their bags.’ And as a human, I am grateful that when I said to Kath’s 1st grade teacher Mrs Kim Culnan, “I am so happy Kath has you this year…,” then pretty much sobbed when I finished with “…but I am sorry, she is going to mess up your teacher rating,” Kath’s teacher looked shocked and told me, “Don’t you ever say that, Veronica. I am glad I have Kath."

This is why I don’t worry about education and my daughters (and my students) as much as I used to. There will always be teachers who are angry and shut down because of how educators are being treated, and their students will suffer because of their negative classroom environment. That is a tragic but true fact.

But I have been fortunate to also know that there are so many other teachers who, though disgruntled by how educators are being treated and while fighting for what is right for educators and our voiceless students, will do what is right for the students, despite the erroneous ways we are being told to teach, despite the testings and despite the way teachers and students are being evaluated.

I asked a few people on my Facebook page what they thought about this subject—teaching to special education students in a world with standardized testing and how this will impact our scores as teachers. How they felt about stuffing round pegs into square holes. And my teacher friends from around the United States shared their agony of how this unfair system is on all students, especially special education students, and how they would still make sure that what they know works will still be used and taught, despite what is being pushed down the pike by State Ed.  

As long as we teachers (and parents) continue to fight the system yet continue to educate the way we know works, our kids will be alright (how exhausting, I know!). And I am so happy to say that the educators we have in our girls’ life are the right kind. They make me up my game in teaching my high school kids. They make me want to be a better educator and reach every single student in one way or another, just like they do.