Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turning Forty

In just under two weeks, I will turn forty. More than once during the past year, I have heard myself say, "Age doesn't bother me at all. Turning forty is no big deal." I still stand by those words, although, in the last day or two, I have come to understand that turning forty is a right of passage in a person's life. It's a time of reflection...a time of taking stock of where you've been and where you're going.

While I am typically quite satisfied with my state of being in the world, yesterday, I was reading a favorite blog of mine, and it got me thinking that maybe I shouldn't be so content. The blog is called Beginner's Mind. It's a yoga blog written by Kristin Shepherd. Her posts are usually quite short, but they always make me think. The post I'm referring to here was titled Yoga and Energy Management. In the post, Shepherd sets up a sort of dichotomy in regards to managing energy. She writes...

Some people have a strong sense of their own power. They're generally unafraid of their bodies, other people, and life events. They trust. They're the optimists, the resilient ones who know that even when things look bad, they're headed in a great direction. They act out of confident joy. They are motivated by fun, happiness, feeling good. ("It makes me feel fantastic," they say about traveling, about new careers, about highland dancing, photography, about going back to school.)

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are afraid of life, of their own bodies, of viruses and bacteria ("Of course I'll get that cold, I get all the colds"), of the unknown, of scarcity, of the future. They don't trust--they suffer. They act out of fear. Their choices are based on just-in-case scenarios and preventing bad things from happening. They're all about anti-cancer, anti-poverty, anti-aging, anti-heart disease ("My mother had it, my father had it, my brother's going to get it, he eats so badly, god, I might as get on the transplant list now."), and on and on.  

This post spoke to my "about-to-turn-forty-taking-stock" mindset. After reading it, I found myself asking, "How do I manage my energy? Do I have a strong sense of my own power or am I afraid of life?"

I decided to convert the dichotomy into a continuum because I see myself, at times, in both of the descriptions Shepherd puts forth. Naturally, I began to call up experiences where I could see myself on a point of the continuum. For example, last weekend Fonda and I were camping (not necessarily a super high/positive energy activity for me). We were sitting in the camper with our pups in the heat of the day and we were reading (again, not a super high/positive energy activity). It was in that moment that I stopped reading to recognize how happy I was in that moment. The feeling was so strong that I looked over to Fonda and told her how incredibly happy I felt.

Obviously, I want to manage my energy in a way that allows me to spend more of my time with the level of energy I experienced in the camper that day. I'd like to be the optimist, always acting out of "confident joy". But I'm a realist. I understand that it's most likely not possible to be in that state of existence 100% of the time, though I think that presently, more often than I would prefer, I find myself acting from a place of fear or low/negative energy. 

The researcher in me saw an opportunity to learn something about myself. So, for the next week-and-a-half (before I turn forty), I will be paying attention to my energy. I will consciously recognize times when I feel positive energy/confident joy and times when I feel negative energy/tension/stress. Then, I will take note of the activities and conditions that evoke these feelings (even as I construct a plan for paying attention to my energy levels, I'm wondering if stress and tension always correlate with negative energy...so much to learn). I believe, with this data, I will be in a position to make more time for the things that produce positive energy while limiting those things that create negative energy - a worthwhile goal for someone turning forty, don't you think?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Challenging Conversations

I teach a literacy methods course to elementary education majors who have just entered the professional education program. This means they have completed their general education requirements, passed all three sections of the Praxis I exam, and survived an interview with select faculty to be deemed ready for the professional program. I teach the course in a professional development school. A professional development school is a public school/university partnership designed to support the initial and continuing development of teachers. As far as professional development schools go, most of what I've seen has been pretty traditional. Each pre-service teacher is assigned to a classroom teacher who guides and supports them into taking on classroom responsibilities. The university instructor/supervisor periodically comes to check in with the classroom teacher and observe the student teacher. To me, this model lacks rigor and makes assessment of professional development schools (whose number one goal should be to improve student learning) difficult. So...

I had to find a brave teacher who would take on me and my class of pre-service teachers (I have had between 5 and 15 students in my classes since I began teaching at the university). There were many reasons I wanted to try a model like this: First, I believe that, as a group working together, we can have a significant impact on student learning. Second, if we are all in the same classroom, I have more control over the literacy instruction my students observe, plan, and implement (while I don't typically consider myself a control freak, I never have understood those who say you can learn as much about teaching from an ineffective teacher as you can learn from an effective one). Further, I believe in the power of reflective talk and there is tremendous power in our weekly debriefing sessions. Finally, after implementing this model for 3 semesters, preliminary data has convinced me that it has a positive impact on multiple stakeholders;  elementary school students, pre-service teachers, a classroom teacher, and a university professor.

Ms. W is a fifth grade teacher who, some time ago, expressed an interest in restructuring her literacy instruction to better meet the needs of her students. We talked about readers' and writers' workshop and integrating science and social studies with literacy and I shared my ideas about bringing my elementary literacy methods class into her classroom. Since that discussion more than a year and a half ago, Ms. W and I have weekly planning meetings and every Wednesday I show up to her classroom with my students (10 this semester) and we collaboratively engage in literacy teaching and learning. In the time we've been working together, Ms. W has transformed her space from a skills-based, teacher directed classroom to a community of learners where questions are honored and students have time everyday to read and write about things that interest them. Each semester gets a little better as we continue to grow in our own learning and construct new ways to support our students. This semester was going exceptionally well, or so I thought, until last week.

There comes a point in each semester when my pre-service teachers engage in two weeks of  "full time" observations (while my class is only on Wednesday, my students are in the school all week taking a different class each day, Monday through Thursday). This means they spend one week in two different classrooms observing, planning, and teaching. For my literacy methods class, this group of pre-service teachers has only experienced Ms. W's class, but they have been in other classrooms for their science methods class. We (all the instructors who see these pre-service teachers this semester) agreed that our students should experience two classrooms during their "full time" weeks. During these two weeks, instructors do not hold class, so that our students can experience eight school days from beginning to end. While I don't hold class on these Wednesdays I do attend Ms. W's class during our typical practicum time.

Last week, the fifth grade students were MAP testing in the computer lab, so I was in Ms. W's classroom talking with my four students who were assigned to her class for the week. At lunch time, four students who were assigned to another classroom burst into Ms. W's room (Ms. W's room had become somewhat of a home base for the whole group of pre-service teachers).

One of the four students said, "I'm so glad to be back in here. The students in my classroom are so bad. It's not like being in here."

I immediately perked up, although I wasn't quite sure what to say. I knew that this could be a transformative moment and I didn't want to jump in too fast. I was just presented with evidence that my students weren't differentiating between the two classroom environments, or between the styles of teaching. They were blaming the children. Thinking back now, I should have said something immediately, because once the first comment was made, a barrage of negativity followed. It was a bit chaotic as multiple students talked at once. At one point, I tried to insert the following question:

How could the environment be changed to better support the learners in that classroom?

My question seemed to get lost in the heat of the discussion. I opted to step back and collect more information about my students perceptions of schools, classrooms, and children. I have scheduled a large chunk of time to debrief  their experiences from their full time weeks in class next Wednesday. I believe I can more effectively facilitate this conversation in a more formal classroom setting (or maybe, I just wanted some time to reflect and think about some guiding questions). I was definitely taken by surprise by the comments my students were making. There has been a great appreciation, among my students, for Ms. W and her classroom practices, so I was surprised that, when faced with an opposing set of beliefs and practices, my students didn't recognize the differences. 
It's important to me for my students to understand that, in most circumstances, children are responding to their environment, and that when our students are not meeting our expectations, we must first consider how we might restructure the environment to better meet their needs. We should probably consider it second, third, fourth, and fifth as well. So, this Wednesday, I will be facilitating this conversation with my students. Wish me luck!

Friday, March 11, 2011


As I sit here on the couch watching Max, our 14-year old mixed breed pup, push his stuffed hedgehog toy around the living room, I can't help but smile. Last week, he was barely able to move. Max has back trouble. It's quite like when a person has back trouble. We never really know what causes his back to go out - I suppose it could be from anything - but we know it has, when we find Max under our bed.

We know because, when Max is well, he is always where we are in the house. And, if we happen to be in different rooms (which is not acceptable to Max), he moves back and forth between the two rooms until we are all together again. Max is spoiled. He rules the house. We reflect often on our part in shaping his behavior, but really, what can we do about it now?

Max is what we consider a high maintanence pet. He begins reminding us that it's almost time to eat about 30 minutes before feeding time by yipping at us incessantly until we get up to feed him. He lets us know everything he needs or wants with the same yipping sounds. If we don't respond fast enough, the yipping grows into a shrill cry or an impatient bark. It's not likely we would get out of the house without giving him a carrot, or that we would leave him outside one minute longer than he wants to be out there. He makes sure we are aware of his every desire. He's so persistent that we often refer to him as "pest". But these behaviors, that at times infuriate us, are also the behaviors that make Max so endearing to us.

As you might imagine, it's easy for us to tell when Max isn't feeling well, which was the case last week. He had an episode with his back in January, so we had some muscle relaxer and pain medicine to give him. This time though, it didn't seem to help him. We woke up in the middle of the night to Max shaking, panting and crying - all signs that he was in pain. We took him to the emergency vet where he got a shot to relieve the pain and a new pain medicine. Three days later we had Max back at his vet because he wasn't responding to the medication.

It was quite an ordeal as the vet reminded us of his age and talked about the possibility of back surgery (which we wanted to avoid because Max has a significant heart murmer and it's a risk to put him under anesthesia). After listening carefully to our options, we decided to try another medication. But before he could start the new medication, he had to withdraw from the medicine he was taking. Unfortunately, this meant 48 hours with no pain medicine at all. It was the hardest 48 hours of our lives.

The good news - Max responded to the new medication within the first 24 hours, and after 3 days, he was back to himself.

While this story has a happy ending, the past 2 weeks have been a cruel reminder that we will not have Max forever. So, this morning, I'm appreciating him for all the joy he brings to our lives everyday, even as he, so persistently, reminds me that it's time for Cheerios!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I, along with my partner of fourteen years, recently made one of the biggest decisions of our lives. We are moving to Bloomington/Normal, Illinois.

Making decisions is something I do many times everyday. For example, this morning I decided to take in a yoga class before sitting down to write. On the grand continuum of decision difficulty, this was a relatively easy decision. Yoga would relax my body and focus my mind, which seemed like a reasonable preparation for writing. In addition, the yoga class was early, so I wouldn't be sacrificing my writing time to go. The decision of whether or not to move was different. It was so far down at the other end of the decision difficulty continuum, that at times, I felt as though I didn't have the capacity, or stamina, to complete the process. It was two-and-a-half weeks filled with research into every aspect of life in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, pro and con lists (I was in charge of the pros, while my partner took on the cons), and many tension-filled conversations.

We agreed, some time ago, that we would like to move away from South Carolina. For many reasons, we decided that now was the right time. We felt ready. I began lurking on websites for academic job postings. I was advised to "apply widely", so each time I saw an interesting job posting, I would text my partner, "Do you want to move to New Hampshire?", "How about Virginia?", "Illinois?", "Ohio?", "Utah?", "Maryland?". The first response to every text was, "Too cold!". But then, she would come home, do a little research, and in most cases say, "Go ahead and apply."

I should interrupt the story here to share our vision of how this adventure would go. We thought we would "apply widely", I would interview in a few places, and we would choose where we wanted to go.

So I did! I frantically put together application packets, requested letters of recommendation, and informed my Dean that I was beginning a job search. Over a span of two months, I submitted six application packets and I was still checking job postings everyday. Oh yeah, and I was waiting.

I've learned two very important things about job searches in higher education:

1.  They can take an enormous amount of time. First, there's the review of applications, then there's a phone interview (awkward). If you make it through the phone interview, there's a campus visit. Finally, if all goes well...the offer! Of course, there's lots of waiting between each step in this process, so patience really is a virtue.

2.  Timing is everything.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately (this remains to be seen), in our search, timing was not working in our favor. Our vision of how this adventure would play out was crumbling before our eyes.

Illinois called first, and they were moving fast (rumor has it, in this field, moving fast can be an advantage)! Less than twenty-four hours after the phone interview, a campus visit was being scheduled. I visited the campus during the last week of the Fall semester. The visit was exciting! I met many potential colleagues and felt confident about a possible offer going into winter break. With winter break fast approaching, the chances of hearing from other universities before Spring semester were dwindling, as was our vision of having choices.

Illinois was not our first choice in terms of location, but with positive attitudes, my partner and I drove there to check things out during winter break. The ground was snow-covered, the sky was cloudy, the terrain was flat. While it didn't actually snow while we were there, at times, we felt like we were driving in white-out conditions. It looked very different from what we are used to, and it was cold! With less positive attitudes, we drove home silently. We had pretty much decided that we didn't want to live there until....

THE OFFER! It was good. It was better than we expected. Thus began the two-and-a-half weeks of deliberations, considerations, and conversations.

In the end, we decided to go. There are still many things up in the air. It's a little like taking a leap of faith (and those of you who know me well, know that faith is not my strong suit), but I'm sure we've made the right decision.

I've learned a lot about myself, and about my partner, through this process. We are stronger because of it. And, while our vision has had to shift along the way, there is no one I'd rather be on this adventure with - here's to difficult decisions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Write My Way to Being a Writer

Am I a writer? My honest response to this question is "No, I'm a fraud, a hypocrite!" I talk about writing. I think about writing. I even write for my work. But do I live the life of a writer? No. I write when I have time, which in the scheme of things, turns out to be seldom, if ever. Certainly not enough to identify as a writer. This is a constant struggle for me.

You see, I am a professor of literacy education. I taught first and second grade writers for 8 years. I currently teach early childhood and elementary teacher candidates how to teach young writers. And I facilitate graduate students in their Language and Literacy program.

I know all the right things to say about writing and teaching writers...

"Writers write everyday!"
"Writers observe the world around them."
"Writers are always collecting ideas for their writing."
"We all have stories to tell."
"To teach writers well, you must be a writer yourself."

I would even say that I believe these things, but do I practice them wholeheartedly? No, haphazardly at best, until now.

Writing is hard work. It takes time. Time that I have not yet been willing to protect. This semester I have committed two half-days each week for writing (Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings). My colleagues and friends have suggested that this commitment is a necessary first step, and that without such a commitment, writing will always be the thing that fades from a way too hectic schedule. I have lived this reality for far too long. I want to create a new reality, a new identity for myself.

I am, quite certainly, one of the most reflective people I know. Recently, I have been talking with my undergraduates about learning as an active process. I've asked them to notice, in their practicum classes, where students are actively engaged in learning. I believe they need to be able to distinguish between active learning and passive participation. In reflecting on my own teaching, the fact that I am a passive writer, has become abundantly clear to me. 

So, for me, this blog is an active way to "Write My Way to Being a Writer", to shift my identity, and to live my beliefs.

Why a blog?

I have been inspired by friends and colleagues who creatively and courageously share their experiences, thoughts and ideas each week on their own blogs. I love reading those blogs! Thank you.