Workflow Thinking: Reading online

July 14th, 2012 | Filed under: teacher productivity

Thinking a lot about how I read and, more importantly, how I act on what I read online. Also playing with the paper app for iPad in sketching out this workflow. I save many things to Instapaper, but not all of that gets read. Sometimes I log into my Instapaper queue and realize something isn’t relevant to me anymore, so it gets trashed. Otherwise I follow this workflow:


Basically I read or scan the link and do one of the following things: create an action item related to the reading in Omnifocus, save and tag the link in diigo, or trash it. I am working on doing more trashing than saving, because I want my diigo library to be useful and not a catch-all for links.

I’m toying with throwing Evernote into this mix if it’s something that might work for a specific unit or lesson, but still not sure if that’s helpful or “just another thing.”

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Workflow Thinking: Chunking your life into action

July 9th, 2012 | Filed under: teacher productivity

When I decided to do this Workflow Thinking Project, I wasn’t sure where to start. I began with a mind dump of all the tools I use – on my mac, on the web, on my devices, work or personal, etc. Then I tried to organize them somehow. A while back I organized my iOS home screens into folders based on the action for which I use those tools. For example, social media things are grouped into “Connect.” Going on that same premise, I tried to create some umbrellas under which I would group some things. 

This is what I came up with:

  • Communicate & Connect
  • Note, Create, Publish
  • Think & Do
  • Browse
  • Go 
  • Live
  • Store, Save, Organize, Sync & Retrieve
  • Smooth & Secure
  • Consume
  • Administrate
  • ???

After creating that list and trying to group some tools and apps under single umbrellas, I realized that some could appear in more than one based on my intention for using it at that moment. 

For example, I use Twitter in a variety of ways. I use it to connect and communicate, to learn and consume information, to browse in some cases. I also publish my own ideas there. Twitter is a multipurpose tool. I found it curious that the apps that I have a hard time organizing under one umbrella are the ones I also use the most. 

The question mark category is for a few apps that I’m not sure about. I don’t really have a category or action connected to them. Which begs the question: why is it on my device?

As a technology teacher part of my role is to teach students about how to determine if a tool is right for the job (not just how to use the tool). With so many tools out there available for the same job or action, we often wonder which tool it is we should teach or demonstrate. However, I believe what we should be teaching instead is how to vet and assess a tool to determine if it’s the one we should use at all. Move that decision away from you, as the teacher, and guide students in learning how to make that decision for themselves. Transfer ownership. 

Another reflection that came out of this activity was which category had the most tools. Now, if a category has a ton of apps one must also ask why. Is that the action I perform most often? Is that the one I want to be performing most often? Is that action in line with my personal and professional goals? Have I even articulated those?

One of the first things our instructor Leigh talked about in reference to tech tools is making our intention and rationale clear. Why are we using THAT document sharing method versus another? Is it because everyone is using that tool or is it because the tool is best for the job? 

I’m hoping that in iterating my workflow in this way will help me clarify some of the reasons why I use the tools I do and hopefully be better prepared to model that thinking and reasoning for my students. 

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Workflow Thinking Project

July 8th, 2012 | Filed under: teacher productivity

I just finished my first week in the MAET overseas program. I’m living and studying in Dublin this month to complete three courses toward my master’s. It’s been an information-packed first week, but the item lingering most on my mind (and that is often back there bouncing around all the time) is my workflow. 

Our teacher Leigh asked us to write down the tools we use to get our work done and to organize them into piles of tools that “talk to each other” and tools that stand alone. This was a pretty confronting activity for me. I had so many tools on little cards and kept thinking of more. I realized during the brain-teasing activity that the many tools might be part of why I can’t seem to “figure out” my workflow – a task that has been gathering dust on my to-do list for some time. 


In many ways I was a bit jealous of my classmates who were new to many of these tools and therefore had only a few tools to deal with and think about. They could use this experience to set intentions for what they need to get done and how and then build from there. I started with a bit of a mess. 

Another irony of talking about productivity is that you’re usually doing it at the cost of producing things. I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but sometimes I fall into the trap of trying to perfect my system and not actually getting anything done. Systems and tools are supposed to help you do things and create things, but they’re of no help if you just spend time tweaking them. Perfectionism at its worst. 

My classmates asked me about the tools I use. I happily passed them around and tweeted out links and tips, but felt I also needed to take a step back and look at the system as a whole if I was to confidently recommend anything. 

I struggle with attention issues and procrastination. Messing around with my tools or apps is one way I get a boost of dopamine from the feeling of “doing something,” but without actually doing anything. I think often of this study that talks about why we multitask even though we know it’s not productive. It’s because it feels good…literally. 

A perfect example of a tool I used that turned out to be too “fiddly” was GoodReader. I love it for reading PDFs and highlighting and annotating. However, I also tried grading essays with it. I had my students send me PDFs of their essays and I got to work using GoodReader to annotate and highlight and underline. I spent a great deal of time and I’m not sure it was any better than if I had just printed the essay and marked it with a pen. In fact, I would argue that for me (I’ll be using that qualification a lot), it would have been better to use a pen. And I would have returned the essays to students much sooner*.

So this month one of my goals is to take a hard look at all the things I use in my so-called system and either keep them or toss them. Sort of like going through your closet and getting rid of the flashy outfit you got because of a trend but realized it wasn’t for you. Not every dress fits every woman the same. You get the metaphor.

During my time here in Dublin I’m going to do a series of posts about the things I use and reflect on why. Part of this is for my own thinking and part of this is because a few classmates want to see what I’m using and why. Verbalizing the “why” part will be a good exercise for me on this journey. We’ll see where it goes.

*A professional goal for me next year (and the only one I am setting) is to return assessments to students within one week of the date they send it to me. This timeline is important for me so that I budget for it in my planning and because prompt feedback is crucial for feedback to be useful. I returned things so late this year that I felt the assignments in some cases turned out to be wastes of time for me and my students. Not a feeling I want to experience again. 

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The importance of teaching brainstorming

April 21st, 2012 | Filed under: teaching

Their fingers clawed through the clouds, dripping wet, to find blue.

I’m sitting in an empty classroom as the cleaning lady drags her mop bucket across the floor, waiting for the rain to let up so I can bike home and start my weekend. But, such as things are in The Netherlands (forgive me while I cliche), the rain won’t seem to stop and just seems to pound harder each time I go to pack my bag and leave.

I’ve done a lot of things with my students this week, but one thread seems to follow through all of the classes and cross year and subject boundaries (I teach English and technology). Helping students find an idea or topic that excites them – one that they own – that the teacher didn’t let them choose from a list – one that emerged from the depths of their own interests and ideas that maybe they didn’t even realize they had…that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.

It is much easier to create a list of topics and let your students choose from that list. It feels like you’re giving them choices and like you’re progressive because you aren’t controlling everything like some teachers you know. I understand why teachers do this. It’s easier and, more importantly, it’s faster. Give them the topics so they can get on with the real assignment, right?

Generating ideas in an effort to find that magical one that sparks interest and motivation is pretty time consuming. I know because I often underestimate how long it will take students to find “the one.” I push a little, but not much. I want them to experience that “lost in the middle of the desert” feeling that so many writers or designers or learners experience. I want them to know the false starts and the red herrings that seem like they might be “the one,” but that turn out to be nothing more than empty pursuits. Forgive my cheesy metaphor, but it’s the journey, the being tricked cruelly by the mirages, that makes the real thing that much sweeter. It’s still an uphill battle, no matter the task, but having a topic you enjoy working with makes the climb worth it.

You can’t get that from a list of prescribed topics. You never will.

As a disclaimer, I will say the only time I’ve ever issued a list of topics is in the case of timed writing tasks with my older students. I think it’s important for them to see what they might encounter in higher education and on Diploma Programme exams. I will say their experience with brainstorming and the patience to do so in the face of a ticking clock was a big enough pay off for me to keep spending the time on it in class. It’s important and they understand that enough to sketch out some spider maps or outlines before they start scribbling their pens across the page.

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Slippery slopes

April 11th, 2012 | Filed under: technology

An interesting article from ars technica popped up in my Twitter feed today (thanks to @LaughingSquid) about the Motion Picture Association of America’s position that embedding content (that is hosted elsewhere, but that violates copyright) can be deemed copyright infringement.

Now, think about that for a minute.

How often do you embed videos on your Facebook profile? On your blogs? On your Twitter feed? How often do your students do it?

Numerous websites embed content from third parties they have not personally inspected. Under the theory articulated by Grady, and supported by the MPAA, these websites would be responsible for this content, exactly as if they had stored it on their own servers. This could create a serious disincentive for sites to allow users to post embedded content, hampering the convenience and user-friendliness of the Web.”

Something worth thinking about and talking about and worrying about. I rely heavily on video hosting tools like YouTube and Vimeo for my teaching and learning. The ease of sharing is what makes these tools great and so very useful. Despite SOPA being defeated, keeping the Internet free continues to be a battle against organizations that see this technology it as a threat to their relevance.

It is true that there are sites out there hosting content just so people can freely consume without having to pay for it nor download it (I’ve seen my students watching entire episodes of TV shows this way). However, a decision to view embedded content in this way could have far more reaching consequences than intended.

MPAA: you can infringe copyright just by embedding a video

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Paper reinforcers

August 18th, 2011 | Filed under: personal

meticulous: showing great attention to detail; very careful and precise

fiddling: annoyingly trivial and petty

I spent a disturbing amount of my puberty putting paper reinforcers on the holes of college-ruled notebook paper. This started as early as eighth grade when I attended a small, evangelical Christian school in Chesapeake, Virginia. While the school’s curriculum included a number of unofficial yet unfortunate topics (ie: how Catholics are idolators, why dating isn’t Christian, etc.), I came to appreciate its emphasis on primary-source documents and the development of notes and resources by the student that would then become a resource/textbook. Maybe it stemmed out of a need to save money, but “your notebook is your textbook,” they would always say. With this in mind, I would convince my mother to drive me to OfficeMax at the Janaf Shopping Center in Norfolk where I would think and mull over which folder or tab system would be best for which subject. Always ready in my well-organized Jansport backpack was a roll of paper hole reinforcers, White Out, and various shapes and sizes of Post-It notes. Oh, and who could forget the mini stapler and the matching, very necessary mini staple remover? Needless to say, I was poked fun of by my friends for my quirky concern with office supplies.

And this was just office supplies. I would also go through phases in school where I decided to suddenly alter my penmanship. I went through the phase of writing in tiny CAPS before moving onto a Frankenstein hybrid of print and cursive that I thought seemed more adult. As if the penmanship was more important than the words going onto the paper – the college-ruled, hole-reinforced paper.

That was then.

My love of the Internet and technology has ushered in an entirely new way of obsessing over and tweaking my systems. I recently read David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done.” As someone perceived to have so much potential and yet hopelessly prone to procrastinating and missing deadlines, I am always in search of something to save me from myself. I approached GTD out of the same desperation. Many of Allen’s concepts blew me away – I had lots of aha moments and lightbulbs. Yet I still spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking and fiddling with my Evernote, with tags and saved searches, to set it up as a digital GTD system. I even had a friend bring a box of plain manila folders over from the U.S. for my paper reference/filing system because I just wasn’t into the folders here in The Netherlands.

Tags and file taxonomies and GMail labels – these have become my paper reinforcers and White Out and file tabs. I am still doing the same thing and letting the same behaviors mask problems and confidence issues I have lurking underneath all of this seeming “organization.”

I come from a family of attention-deficit folks. My father, my brother, my uncle, and probably countless others are textbook “ADHD” and have been diagnosed as such. I have never been diagnosed nor have I sought out doctors to tell me either way. Young girls weren’t diagnosed with ADD or ADHD as often as boys when I was in middle and high school. If you were a daydreaming girl who couldn’t focus or stay on task, you were deemed lazy or told to “get your head out of the clouds.” I always seemed to be on task, seemed to be busy focusing and working to the untrained eye, but any close inspection (which my teachers never did) would have revealed a serious problem. I did not have trouble focusing, but rather found it impossible to focus on the right thing when I needed to. I can cook a big meal from start to finish and not forget an ingredient. I can knit a pair of baby mittens while listening to a podcast. However, ask me to meet a writing deadline after I’ve finished the interview and I shut down. I’m not ready. I’m still thinking. I’m still brainstorming and figuring out my lede. Ask me to sit down and write that unit plan, the one I’ve been googling and saving links for, the one I’ve been jotting down notes on legal pads for, and again I shut down. I’m not ready. I’m too busy thinking and trying to plan before I plan before I plan. These behaviors are problematic for someone who has an affinity for jobs that require grown-up homework (journalist, teacher).

I came to think about all of these issues while listening to one of my favorite new podcasts. At first blush it would seem to have nothing to do with my life and work, but “Back to Work” with Merlin Mann & Dan Benjamin seems to speak loudly and clearly to my current situation and the way I approach my work and creativity. These are two guys that seem a world away from my life as a teacher, but I can’t help but identify with them. In many ways it’s a superficial connection – I’m a nerd and enjoy the geeky banter, strange facts and movie references that pepper the conversations. I’m also a Mac geek like the both of them. But more than these, I identify with the hunger to create something and the many, many things that can distract and keep you from doing just that if you allow them to.

I just started listening to this podcast, so I’m a bit behind on the episodes. In the most recent episode I listened to, Merlin Mann said that “no one has ever thought a novel into existence.” He rambled on about how the brain and the gut can do a lot to discourage our hand from making something (and I mean ramble in a very good way). He clearly admires writers like Don Murray and Natalie Goldberg and references them often, in connection with writing of course, but also in creating anything. I too came to love Don Murray for the way he framed writing as an approachable practice – it is something you have to practice to get good at. Before he died, he wrote every single day. If a writer stops writing, she is no longer a writer. Anyone can write, but to be a writer, you have to sit down and write. You can’t just think about writing and expect a piece of work to appear. Seems simple, right?

Writing is another activity I avoid – a creative process for which I find countless justifications for not engaging in – because I am afraid of the permanence and finality of having something on paper or screen. With my students, we write in journals every day and practice the act of freewriting – of letting your hand just move across the page, without editing. I tell my students that they can save a piece of writing or throw it away – it doesn’t matter, because it is the act of doing it that is important. However, I also understand how difficult that can be for some of them. This is my own complex, but yet it is something that connects me to those students as they sit down to write. Some get this concept easily while others need support, encouragement and coaxing to move toward a regular writing practice. They need to practice writing if they ever hope to slough the fear of writing. I am not there yet myself.

One of my favorite quotes is by E.M. Forster who pondered “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That to me is one of the things that can be so intimidating about writing. You may not truly understand yourself until you get things down on the paper or the screen and maybe there’s a reason you avoid doing that – maybe there are things you aren’t ready to understand about yourself. Julia Cameron and her recommendation of “Morning Pages” – of writing three pages every morning, long-hand – approaches writing as near-therapy.

These memories are bubbling to the surface as I think about my students. Those few students who, like myself, are painfully organized and enjoy using highlighters and Post-It notes, only to miss out on the messy, real learning that can go on if you just let go. One of my favorite comedians  is Marc Maron. He joked once on his podcast that he visited a friend’s house only to find the friend’s house was extremely clean and organized – every little thing in its place. Maron chuckled and asked “So what are you running from?”

I struggle. I concentrate too much on getting the system just right that I miss out on the opportunities to create somehting with the system. Right now I am thinking and thinking about units and what to do with my students, but avoiding putting anything down on paper. I am letting my mind run wild as my hands sit idle – as the creating muscles atrophy.

I’m just beginning to analyze my perfectionism and procrastination as a sign of something deeper. An apprehensiveness about making mistakes. And when you’re a teacher, mistakes are par for the course. As a teacher, you take time getting to know students, their learning differences and interests so that you can meet students where they are and help them stretch and grow. And, now and again, you make mistakes. You select texts that bomb. You assume students know something only to realize mid-lesson they don’t and then you need to reteach it. You have your “off” days.

I am walking into this new year with goals in mind, hoping they aren’t too pie-in-the-sky or unachievable. I plan to sit down with students and have a discussion about what we all want out of this learning experience. I’ve been reading through “The First Days of School” based on rave reviews from teachers. While I understand the need for procedures – and I will certainly have them – I am more interested in getting to know these kids first than in scaring them into submission with lists and policies. It’s important that I see who has the messy bookbag and who is fiddling with organizing papers rather than paying attention. These observations are just as important as responses on surveys and paragraphs about summer vacations and writing diagnostics. And it is important that they learn who I am, faults and all. Building trust and community is my goal. But first, I must create learning experiences that will allow this all to happen naturally. I must commit them to paper and shake that feeling of permanence and remind myself: every lesson is a draft.

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Your PLN gives you more people to disappoint

August 2nd, 2011 | Filed under: teaching

It’s a strange thing being a part of a digital network of teachers from all over the world, especially when you’re still a new teacher, feeling your way through this complex profession (when do you stop feeling new?). Even weirder when you’ve moved to a new country and are helping to open a school from the ground up. A terrifying, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Did I mention terrifying?

As the time ticks down to the end of August when I will meet my students for the first time – students that will likely be from all over the world, with experiences my younger self could only dream of having, with passport stamps to lands I’ve only seen in movies – sweat is beginning to bead upon my brow. My breathing has increased in pace and seems unlikely to slow until I get into a groove this fall and find some confidence and systems and routines. Sleep is unfulfilling and interrupted with bursts of 3:30 a.m. panic or inspiration or both.

See, I haven’t taught for the last year. I moved to The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 and spent months securing residency and trying to settle into my new home. I have had my head in the education world thanks to some other work and planning this new school, but as for teaching, I’ve not been in a room with students since June 2010. And really, I hadn’t spent too much time working with students before that. Still a “new” teacher, remember?

I am a new teacher. In a new school. In a new country. Doing so many new things, I feel like I’m learning with every turn. Nothing feels like something I’ve done before. This is a powerful and exhausting experience and I constantly find myself asking “is this right?” I try to see my newness as a positive and not as a disadvantage, but there are those days where you can’t help but feel like you will never measure up to the pros.

Thankfully I have that digital network of teachers behind me. It can feel, at times, like a sounding board in the form of a well-worn safety blanket – something to run to when you just don’t know where else to go. This metaphor could be perceived any number of ways – is it a way to feel “connected” in a profession prone to loneliness? Or a false sense of security in a job where, in the end, you really do it on your own every day?

But a strange thing has happened. As I feel the pressure of not disappointing my colleagues, parents, my new students, myself…I feel an even bigger pressure not to disappoint this network. See, when you surround yourself with people you consider experts – people you admire and learn from every day, sharing wowing ideas and experiences in education – you also have an even bigger cadre of people you can disappoint. This pushes me to try harder and do my best, but I know there will be mistakes. There will be days when I think “man, should I even BE a teacher?” I’m wondering if I’ll be confident enough to share those moments with these same teachers, or if I will bury them away in my notebook and keep the shame to myself. I find myself wondering if the “mistakes” shared by the educators I connect with online are akin to the “weaknesses” job applicants share in interviews – perceived downsides that really just beef up your strengths in the end. Do we really share the teaching skeletons in our closets? The moments we were so happy no one was observing that day? The strategies we used and think back on with the sort of stomach turning that only an embarrassing, high school moment can induce? And if we don’t share them, acknowledge them, and think about them, do we really learn from them?

I will be teaching Language A & B English and Technology in all years of the MYP* in addition to some other hats this year as our new school opens later this month. A new school necessitates many hats being worn by only a few teachers. I bounce between moments of feeling brave and proud of myself for tackling such a project, but as the days tick closer those wins are punctuated with “are you crazy? What makes you think you can do this? Leave this stuff up to the pros – you’re not there yet.'” My consolation is knowing that my colleagues are in this with me. We are heading into unfamiliar seas and it is scary, but we are together.

I know the path toward becoming a great teacher means walking that path as a teacher. I know at some point you have to leave behind consuming and reading and learning from your network – the theory – to do the thing you believe you were meant to do – teach. After a year of floating around, I may not feel completely ready to do that, but I am hoping when I do I can turn back to that same group of teachers and say “you were right. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was amazing. And damn, it feels good to be here again.”

*This equates to 6th through 10th grade in the U.S. As a small school, we will have some grouping of grades, which is yet another new and exciting experience for me.

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I’ve started grad school…

May 4th, 2011 | Filed under: Graduate School, professional development

This week I started life as a student again. Like riding a bike!

This week I started course work through Michigan State University’s online program toward my Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET).

I’ve realized over the course of my brief but intense teaching career that technology in learning is something I want to know more about. I’d been asked by many why I didn’t just get my Masters in Education when I got my license since I already had a degree under my belt (and the classes were the same), but at the time it didn’t seem like something I wanted to pay extra for. At this moment I have no aspirations of being an administrator (though it seems that every back is wearing a target in education these days) and a Masters of Education seemed like a stepping stone towards that and little more. I’d toyed with the idea of getting a graduate degree in something more content focused, such as history or media or even literature again, but none of those grabbed me.

I am an English teacher, but I always felt a little too interdisciplinary for the English department. I liked to walk around, talk to other teachers, and daydream about collaborative projects we could do together if it weren’t for state testing, time constraints, and all the other excuses you can imagine. I needed something that wasn’t an umbrella degree like education, but wasn’t so focused that it limited me to certain content. I found in the MAET program something that spoke to me – a chance to take all of my raw ideas about tech and learning, reflect upon them, and hopefully coax them into some focused philosophy while picking up skills along the way, though that philosophy part might be a reach. My education philosophy seems to change with every day I learn in virtual networks or even talk with a fellow teacher. One shared link on Twitter can get me thinking and wondering about everything all over again. Uncertainty – it’s a nice place to be sometimes.

I’ve started a blog (Mary gets her MAET…still working on that title) separate from my usual teaching blog (See Mary Teach), because I want to keep my course work separate from my usual ruminations in education. Also, some of the content of my MAET blog might be a little dry for some (I’m getting ready to write an example blog post about the differences between web pages and blog posts for my CEP810 course, for example). This is always a challenge for me – to decide how I am going to use one space over another and what tools I’m going to use to achieve the goals. I’m an early adopter of many online apps and tools and often find myself saying things like “wait a minute, I have 45 different ways to take notes…is that necessary?” And determining the answer to questions like that – to finding the right tech tool for the job – is something I hope to become better at through the course of this program so that I may model it for the students I have next year and in the future. And I’m just excited to be talking about teaching and learning in another space in such a complicated time.

I will be cross-posting content from See Mary Teach and vice versa from time to time and while my grad blog is separate, I encourage anyone interested in following it to do so. I plan to be transparent in my learning and opinions of the courses and program as I move through them and I welcome your feedback and interaction.

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Reading the gender binary

April 21st, 2011 | Filed under: teaching
Books for all children

Should we abandon the idea of boy- and girl-friendly texts?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of teaching to boys and teaching to girls. I even had my mom bring over my battered copy of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys from the states. My worry is that through these ideas – of accentuating the gender binary in our pedagogical strategies – that we might be enforcing this binary and pushing kids that don’t fit into it further into the fringe. Photo by sleepyneko.

I’m not the most well-read when it comes to YA lit, which is one of the many reasons I adore and appreciate and never take for granted the wonders of librarians. I depend on them and seek them out when I need recommendations or ideas of how to engage a student. Maybe the librarian even knows this student and can give me some ideas about what he might like. I get that it is much easier to describe texts with terms like “boy-friendly” or “girl-friendly.” It’s important to get boys reading. I will never dispute that. But I wonder if it’s more important for us to frame this as getting children reading and abandon this binary.

Thanks to amazing programs and a society with more and more progressive leaders, children are feeling more empowered to come out as whoever they might be. Young girls are coming out as lesbians at an earlier age. Boys are coming out as gay. Children are self-identifying as genders other than the ones they were assigned at birth. And then there are those “tom-boys” and “sensitive guys” that don’t fit the ideas of what publishers deem “boy-friendly.” What about all of these kids?

As a woman I know I’m often offended at the assumption I love rom-coms and tear-jerker films…or that I love jokes about high heels and how “men just don’t get it.” I don’t, for the record. I like documentaries and funny movies and sci-fi. I like comic books. I love RPG video games, but don’t like first-person shooters and things like Call of Duty. I love computers and technology and reading about science. But then again I also love cooking and read food blogs. I love knitting and arts and crafts. I enjoy surrounding myself with artists and designers. I despise clothing and shoe shopping, but like going to the hardware store and DIY projects. I liked R.L. Stine books as a child, but could never get into The Babysitter’s Club, though I had been known to read a few Sweet Valley High books. So…what book might a publishing company recommend for me?

People are complex and children are even more complex as they explore their identities and try to pinpoint who they are and who they want to become. Labels are helpful and make parts of our jobs easier, but they can dehumanize and mask the personality nuances that could allow us to see the real child hiding underneath. The girl that loves to knit but watches sci-fi and likes weilding a handsaw. Or the boy that loves to read fashion magazines, watch Top Model, and is captain of his soccer team.

I attended an ALAN convention once and sought out an LGBT workshop. This is a passion of mine and has been since I started on this teaching journey. I want every child to feel welcome and comfortable in my classroom – not ashamed or afraid to be who he or she or ze wants to be. It was refreshing to hear that authors were moving from books with the expected LGBT themes of coming out to including characters who are amazing and complex and who just happen to be gay. We as educators also need to look for books like these. Consider titles that include diverse characters – diverse in race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. I’ve been thinking a great deal about these things as I have been charged with developing language arts curriculum and selecting books for the new international school I’m helping to open this fall. I feel a heavy weight of responsibility as I do this – not something I’m taking lightly – and something I’m seeking the help of others in doing because I know it’s dangerous to have one person make all of these choices. One person with biases, ideas, and perspectives.

So how do we do this? How does our language and how we label text effect the ways in which we help students (all students) learn and experience our classrooms?

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Shrugging off cynicism

April 19th, 2011 | Filed under: personal

Mama Worrell helping me see with new eyes.

I just returned from a trip to Paris with my mom (“Mama Worrell”) and my partner Thomas. It was amazing, frustrating, fun, exhausting…all of the things you’d imagine it to be. We saw amazing art, ate the best falafel of our lives (I’m still dreaming about it), and witnessed monstrosities like the Eiffel Tower. I had moments of wonder as I held my mother’s hand climbing stairs throughout this amazing city. And I had moments of despair as I tried to ignore four young African men trying to sell pieces of string as friendship bracelets. There is a lot of poverty every where I look, even when I’m not trying to see it. Seeing these sides of a touristy city make it hard for me to not feel ashamed of myself as I waltz around spending money in a place where so many struggle.

But then I remember the life I lived growing up with my mother working her ass off to support her children while my father was out of work. The mother who didn’t think twice about her pride when it came to seeking social assistance to feed her children. The mother who worked two full time jobs. The mother who got to go on one vacation to Florida with us when I was 11 years old. The mother who was probably still paying off the debt from that trip for years after.

Experiences are relative. I try to tell myself that when I feel guilty enjoying something I know many around the world wouldn’t dream of being able to. I sometimes envy those with thicker skin – the ones that can turn their empathy on and off when they want to really, hedonistically enjoy something without a hint of shame.

I made sure I brought a video camera with me to document all of my mama’s reactions and learning and amazement. I knew this was important and exciting. I’m still not sure how I’m going to compile the whole thing – maybe a few mini movies – but I just know I need to get this on record somewhere. So we can go back and see that from those humble and heart-wrenching beginnings, a family can still make it to the Eiffel Tower and read into that achievement however they wish. It can be nothing – just a trip – or it can be something inspiring. An event to give us happy memories and hope and pride and comfort that it was all worth it somehow. Mama is still pulling 60-hour weeks on nights as a nurse just to be able to fly over here and visit me. But she made it. While her 57-year-old body and achey knees struggled climbing and descending the many stairs of the Paris Metro (not even to begin talking about the stairs she climbed to the Sacré-Cœur), she would turn to me and say with pain still furrowed into her brow, “I can’t believe I’m here,” or put her arm around me and say “Can you believe we’re in Paris…together?”

This was my second time visiting Paris, but it felt new all over again seeing it alongside my mother – a person with whom I share a closeness that Hallmark cards and commemorative mugs can’t begin to explain. As I witnessed her wonder I couldn’t help but think about my work with students and bearing witness to their discoveries and amazements. I’m a bit of a cynical traveler when I visit cities like Paris, seeing the wealthy flaunt their money and my eyes turning instead to beggars and souvenir sellers and wondering about their stories and struggles. I couldn’t even bring myself to visit Versailles since I knew it would frustrate me – to wonder how much money is laid in every inch of that place that could have been used in more productive ways. I rarely see beauty in monuments, but rather waste and death of those used to create it. Traveling with me can be tiring, as you can probably tell.

I came from a low-income family that did a pretty good job of faking lower middle class status thanks to credit cards. It gives me perspectives I’m happy to have, but in some ways clouds my experience of other cultures and monuments and sites. I wouldn’t change anything, but I want to be more like my mother. Someone that can walk into a city wide-eyed, amazed, and not let the scars of her life taint her experience with cynicism. I am always learning from her and from the children I teach and hope to teach.

It’s never to late to shrug off the cynicism and see with new eyes. I’m trying.

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