Things I Know 186 of 365: The teaching is ubiquitous

We seek not rest but transformation.
We are dancing through each other as doorways.

– Marge Piercy

I logged in to the dying social network today and found a message from a former student with the subject line “Blogging Advice”:

Hi Mr.Chase hope you are having a great summer. I am going to be blogging from california in a couple of days and was wondering if you could give me any advice. Thanks in advance!

I responded that I’d be happy to help and asked where would be best to have the conversation. I offered Facebook, IM, phone call, and texting.

I expected a quick IM conversation or phone call.

The student opted for texting, explaining she had no computer access at the moment.

I told her that would be great. A few moments later, I received the first text via my Google Voice number in my e-mail inbox.

I responded and archived the message. This continued back and forth, as you can see below, for a total of 25 messages.

All the while, I was working on other projects at my desk.

A question would pop up on my computer and I would reply to her phone.

It looked like this:

Student: Chase!!!!!

Me: What’s up, kid? Ok. Probably, the best place to start is you to come up with specific questions you have about blogging.

Student: Well, I guess my first question would be about the difference between a more journalist approach to blogging versus a more a free write style of blogging.

Me: Great question. Journalism is going to make sure you’ve got the who, what, when where, why and how in there. The goal is to communicate the story or event to people who weren’t there.

Me: For the journaling piece, it functions more as a personal record that is public. Something for you and your memories that is available to others.

Student: Ok, that makes sense. So what is the best way to establish the so what factor for both of blogging? I get that the journaling type of blogging is more personal, but if you are posting don’t you want people to get something out of it?

Me: The something they get out of it are the stories and thoughts you put into words. Sometimes, I’ll write from the perspective of, “I want readers to do X because of this post.” Often, I just want to tell a good story and make people think.

Student: Makes sense. Does that apply to journalist writing style too?

Me: Yes.

Me: When you’re writing to inform, the goal is to make sure you’re offering information people would want to have.

Student: Wait, that confuses me.

Student: What if it’s something they could care less about until you informed them?

Me: Your job as a writer is to make them care.I would imagine it’s the same as your job as a poet.

Student: You’re right. I would think it’s like writing a persuasive essay but i’m pretty sure it’s different. What the difference between essay and the structure of a blog?

Me: Think of a blog as fitting the information of an essay into a more informal storytelling structure.

Student: So there are no set rules?

Me: Nah.

Just tell the story of the piece.

Then, revise.

Then, proofread.

Then, revise.

Then, post.

Me: My best writing comes from reading blogs. See if you can check out some poetry blogs and get a feel for what others are doing. This will help you develop your taste.

Student: You make sound easy Chase. lol

Me: It’s quite difficult at times. I find the easiest recipe is to find something you want to say and commit to saying it. Again, not always easy, but always good.

Student: Well, I think i’m out of questions. Thanks for taking the time to help me. Hope you have a great summer.               Love, Chella

Student: P.S- I know you are going to be amazing at Harvard!

Me: It’s been my pleasure, kid. If any other questions pop up, don’t hesitate to hit me up.

Me: I’m going to try my best to make you proud.

Student: You already have!

The conversation did two things for me.

First, it made me realize I’m still a teacher. I know that sounds odd, but it’s been a huge fear since leaving the classroom. As confident and dedicated as I am to helping people learn, I was still mentally tied to the idea that the classroom or the official title was somehow tied to my powers of pedagogy. This lesson was just in time and just in need for my student and it showed me I am still a teacher.

Second, it made me think about what was necessary for the conversation to take place. Yes, the technology made it happen. I mean, it was a conversation about using technology as a forum for creation. It also could have happened without anything electronic. My understanding is there used to be these things called letters or missives. If my understanding is correct, my student could have sent me a letter with her questions and then I could have replied with my answers and questions. This process could have continued, similar to the one we used, interminably.

So, it wasn’t the technology that led to this learning.

I needed to know her. She needed to know me. Most importantly, she needed to know I cared and would be there if she had a question. I don’t remember making any statements as I was leaving SLA that I’d be willing to help kids with anything they needed. I’d like to think I didn’t have to. I’d like to think they knew.

Today’s conversation helped reinforce that belief.

As I continue to build systems and structures of care in my life, I will focus on and highlight the tools at my disposal for connecting and maintaining connections to people. Always and forever, I will highlight and nurture the caring necessary for community. Even if they’re multi-medium communities of two.

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Things I Know 135 of 365: Processing matters

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

– Peter F. Drucker

My friend Darlene earned her master’s in counseling. Never one to do things in a small way, Darlene’s degree is in Adventure-Based Counseling.

In the two years we worked in the same school and the eight years we’ve been friends, Darlene’s made one point about ABC over and over again: The activities are only only useful if you process them with the kids.

Darlene’s processing mantra of choice was, “What? So what? Now what?” asking the kids what they noticed about the activity, the implications of what they noticed on their success during the activity and what they would do to move this new knowledge into practice in their daily lives.

At SLA, we introduce students to inquiry thinking by taking them along a similar line of questioning: “I noticed…Iwonder…What if?”

As I’ve been considering caring lately, these questions and other iterations thereof have been striking me as increasingly important from both an academic and socio-emotional point of view.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a grandmother who was flying home after watching one of her grandsons graduate. I confessed to being a teacher and we felt silent again as often happens with the edd and flow of airline conversation.

“You know, every child needs at least one good and important teacher in their life,” she said, pulling me back to the conversation.

“More than one if they’re lucky,” I said.

“Mine was in ninth grade,” she said, “He told me, ‘I’m going to transfer you out of my class because it’s not quite what you need,’ but he also took the time to explain why.”

We talked for a while about how much it meant to her that the teacher explained to her why another class would be a better fit.

Now in her 70s, it is the processing she carries with her as the memory from both of those math classes. The processing of the why of it all turned out to be the greater moment of learning for her.

I suspect it influenced how she interacted with her own children – taking the time to explain when they asked the omnipresent, “Why?”

Darlene is right, what we do is only as useful as our effort to process it with our students. The processing takes many forms such as giving a response more detailed than “Good answer” in class or providing words rather than numbers when filling out a rubric.

Not only is processing in this way helpful to my practice as a teacher, it’s helpful to my students in their acquisition of the language of learning.

I’m a little cagey on the idea of teaching students to learn. Teaching students the language of learning and how to express the ideas and progress inherent in their learning – that I can get behind.

Things I Know 129 of 365: Sometimes, when we say we’re caring, we’re not

Students in a given high school say that they want their teachers to care for them, but “nobody cares.” Their teachers make a convincing case that they do care (in the virtue sense); they work hard and want their students to succeed. Here we have willing carers and willing cared-fors but no caring relations.
– Nel Noddings

Today’s faculty meeting featured an investigation of the Ethic of Care. A group of SLA teachers self-selected into a study of the EoC at the beginning of the year. Once a month since then, they’ve met to discuss selected readings and their thinking on the subject.

In the second half of the year, each group is presenting on its learning from the first semester. Today we talked about caring.

The EoC has been coming out of my mouth quite a bit lately. SLA visitors, colleagues, student teachers, no one has been immune to my verbal storm.

Such is usually the case when I’m trying to work out an idea. Today, in a small group discussion, I think I figured out what I’ve been talking about.

Much of the time when we claim to be caring, we’re really not – at least not like we think we are.

Teachers assign loads of homework or grade harshly while asserting such actions come from a place for caring for their students’ futures.

Parents punish in anger or limit students’ independence under the guise of caring.

Under the definition of the EoC, though, these don’t qualify.

Nel Noddings explains the existence of a caring relationship depends not only on the one caring, but also on the cared for recognizing the actions of the one caring as being, well, caring.

This is tough.

This is really tough.

In many educational settings, patterns are firmly developed:

  • Teacher assigns difficult homework to help push students to grow and examine complex ideas.
  • Students become frustrated with the work and blame the teacher for not paying attention to what they see as their limitations.
  • The homework goes undone or incorrectly done.
  • The teacher becomes indignant that the students have ignored or negated what he sees as his clear attempts to show his care for the students and their future.
  • The students’ frustrations grow as they continue to receive work they perceive as reinforcing their teacher’s uncaring.
  • Without reciprocation of his intended caring, the teacher’s capacity to care is diminished.
  • The negative feedback loop diminishes everyone’s capacity for caring.

Simply put, if the one caring is the only one who sees what he’s doing as caring, it’s not a caring relationship and the caring will be unsustainable.

Communicating care means taking time to check in with our students to understand how their perceiving our actions and intentions and then working from that understanding to better communicate what we mean.

Saying and believing we are acting from a place of caring means much less if those we are caring for don’t feel the care.

To me, the best piece of this is Noddings’s contention that the reciprocity of a caring relationship isn’t predicated on the cared for becoming the one caring. For a caring relationship to energize the one caring, all he needs is to have his caring acknowledged.

Last week, a few minutes after I’d dismissed class, a student returned to my room. She’s been struggling mightily this semester with some hard core procrastination and disorganization. It’s drawn a fair amount of my attention and encouragement. Things are improving, but ever-so-slowly.

She popped her head into the room.

“I want to thank you for not giving up on me when it would have made a great deal of sense to do so,” she said and walked away.

She knows I care, and that will make it easier for me to continue to do so.

Things I Know 127 of 365: The real world accepts late work

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

– Douglas Adams

Jabiz called me out this morning.

He didn’t mean to, but I’m glad he did. Each of his assertions was incorrect. I haven’t written 124 posts. Neither have I written a post each day since January 1.

Let me explain before you give up on this experiment all together.

This is my 127th Thing I Know. I realize yesterday’s post was labeled “124 of 365,” and there’s a reason for that.

I can’t count. Well, I can’t keep count. If you were to comb the archives, you’d find two 63s and two 94s. I’m not sure how it happened, but every TIK from March 6 on has been a day or two off. I’ll be going back and correcting them, but it’s going to take some time to individually rename half of the posts I’ve written this year.

The second inaccuracy was the claim that I’ve written one post per day. There were a few days over the last couple of weeks that got away from me. From being on the river to writing narratives to entering grades to report card conferences, my days got away from me.

I’m not sure anyone would have wanted to know what I knew in those few days. At least two of the posts were begun in end-of-day exhaustion only to result in me wake finding an open laptop on my stomach after I had passed out in bed.

I counted this weekend. May 10 is the 130th day of 2011.

I owe me some posts.

They’re coming.

No matter whether anyone else cares, my brain won’t sit right until this is all back on track.

What’s interesting to me is my lack of freak out. I could be rambling on and on to myself that I’ve lost the purity of the project or that writing more than one post in a day to catch up is cheating.

I’m not doing any of that.

It will get done, and the missing posts aren’t missing because of sloth or apathy.

Life needed me to prioritize school ahead of writing and then sleep ahead of writing. I obliged.

Today, a student got to my first period class late. We were just finishing up a vocabulary quiz. At the beginning of the year, my policy was that any student missing during the quiz would not be allowed to make up that portion of the quiz.

“Get here on time if you’re think it’s an unfair policy, and you’ll never have to worry about it,” I said.

The tardy student raised his hand once he’d taken his seat.

“Can I make up the quiz tomorrow during lunch?”

“Where were you?”

“I just got to school.”

“Why were you late?”

“I woke up late and then had to catch the train.”

“You can make it up Thursday at lunch.”

Then, I walked away.

I could have lectured him on the importance of punctuality or restated the policy, but that’s not what he needed at the time. The student was visibly frazzled and stressed by getting to class late and missing the quiz. Adding to that would have accomplished nothing.

If he makes a habit of it, we’ll talk.

I’ve been late to meetings and missed deadlines outside of self-imposed blogging deadlines. I’ve felt the frustration of falling short of the expectations of others and myself.

In those moments, it wasn’t the people who lorded the hegemony over me who made me want to work harder the next time. It was those who looked closely to see what I needed and responded from a place of care.

If I ever took advantage of their empathy, they once again responded caringly and called me on my actions, helping me learn lessons I didn’t necessarily want to learn but needed to.

I once taught with a teacher who accepted no late work and allowed no make-up work, citing the real world in her reasoning.

“When these kids get into the real world, they’re going to have bosses who don’t let excuses and tardiness fly.”

I’ve been in the real world for a few years now, and it’s not nearly as cut and dry as my colleague made it out to be.

There are times when deadlines are hard and fast, not to be taken lightly. Other times, life piles up and we’re forced to make choices. Then there are those moments when we make the wrong choices and firm understanding, not berating and belittling, is what’s called for.

I am reminded of this sentiment as I catch up on my writing. I will remember it again, Thursday, as I administer the make-up quiz.

Things I Know 110 of 365: She broke her self against the diatreme

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.

– Ernest Hemingway

You don’t need to know what a diatreme is to understand this. All you need to know is that Sam cried when she got to the top.

Far from the familiarity of Philadelphia’s sirens, horns and more vocal pedestrians, Sam had hiked with our group to the top of the diatreme.

A few days earlier, she’d flown on her first plane and hiked into the Grand Canyon and out again.

She was well outside of her comfort zone. Well, well outside.

When she arrived at the summit of the diatreme and sat with the rest of the group as cereal bars were handed out and water was encouraged, one of the other adults on the trip motioned that I should look at Sam.

I turned my head to find Sam, chin on her knees, sobbing.

She had just done something completely outside of what had ever been asked of her, and it hit her.

She was hot and tired and in a foreign space eating a cereal bar.

I turned back and nodded acknowledgement.

I didn’t sit next to Sam and comfort her. She didn’t need that from me.

One of the river guides from our trip was sitting, rubbing her shoulders.

Sam knew she was surrounded by people who cared for her. She knew she was safe. She knew we would take care of her.

I didn’t sit next to Sam because that’s what caring for Sam looked like in that moment.

Putting my arm around her and telling her things were going to be ok wouldn’t have made things any more true.

What’s more, as she was pushing herself to do more than she thought she could, Sam needed to know she was there to reassure herself, that she was enough.

I will encourage students (anyone, really) as much as I possibly can and as much as they need.

In that moment, sobbing in the shadow of a 12-foot limestone boulder, Sam supplied her own encouragement.

Friday, as we floated the last few miles of our trip, Sam and I were on the same boat.

She started talking about hiking the diatreme.

“At some point, I just got angry and decided I was going to do it,” she said.

By the time the group was ready to head back to the river, Sam had composed herself. Still visibly raw, she had a look on her face that was part determination and part frustration. The exact mixture of the two parts was fluctuating as she walked.

I picked up a round, flat volcanic stone – a perfect skipping stone.

“Look at this,” I said, “Isn’t this a great rock?”

I handed it to her, and we kept walking.

As we unloaded from the van tonight after driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix, Sam was talking to another of our students and said she still had the rock, that she’d kept it with her.

I’m an advocate of leaving only footprints and taking only pictures. I’ve said it dozens of times over the last week.

More than a small part of me, though, is perfectly fine with Sam bringing that stone back with her. She battled the diatreme and some lesser version of herself. Let that rock be the trophy of her victory.

Things I Know 41 of 365: Caring is reciprocal

Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.

– Benjamin Franklin

It should be said, I was ready to go home.

On my way out of school today, I stopped by one of the tables in the hallway near my classroom. Gathering my things, I’d heard some students using their outdoor voices at the table.

I stopped not to tell them to move or repremand them. I started with a simple observation, “You are all sitting within 2 feet of one another.”

A slight smile from one of the students. I went on to bemoan the fact that it was the end of the day and we were all full up on crazy for the time being in that lesser referenced teacher voice that says, “I’m kidding around with you, but truly making a point at the same time.”

My message delivered, one of the students said they’d keep it down. I started to walk away when one of the students who’d been quiet since I’d stopped by said something ugly to another student at the table.

It was one of those moments of stupid. One of those adolescent powerplays meant to show his peers he was grown enough to spit ugly words in front of a teacher. As a former assistant principal of mine once said, he was feeling himself.

In that moment, my simple stop to ask the table to quiet down became something else.

In that moment, I needed to be present. I needed to be caring.

My coat, bag and water bottle in hand, I suggested he and I go for a walk. It took a few suggestions and the encouragment of one of the other students present before aquiesced to my invitation. This was not before he let fly a flurry of words that made a verbal cocktail with the rare quality of being profane without including any profanity.

He would leave, but not without assuring all present that he was the one wielding the power.

We walked a ways down the hall and turned the corner. I’d hoped to make it to another floor, but he had a good 50 lbs and a few inches on me, so I knew not to push my luck.

In these moments, when our students choose not to or are incapable of being the better versions of themselves, we must be the best versions of ourselves.

Standing there, in the hall with the lint of the day stuck to my brain and adored with the accessories of my walk home, I needed to be someone other than a teacher ready to go home.

My tone was soft. My sentences were largely questions. My goal diffusion.

He would have none of it.

“See, she says all of that, and I’m the one in trouble.”

“Who said anything about anyone being in trouble?”

And it continued like that – he intent on being angry and me intent on not.

And, I get this is the role adults must play when they choose to spend their days modeling life for those children in their charge.

We must be present. We must care…even when it’s a drag.

Thus was the internal conversation myself and I were having as sentences like, “What would you expect me to do when two students I love deeply are saying hurtful and ugly things to one another.”

He was having none of it.

Indignation fueled by righteousness can be an intoxicating thing.

One thing he failed to take into consideration, I care for all my students.

In a moment of reciprocity I’m certain Nel Noddings heard wherever she is, one of my students, Lenea, turned at the end of the hall.

The student I was listening to had  let loose a particularly baited and patronizing sentence as Lenea passed by.

I’d barely noticed her passing.

That is, until I heard, “You don’t talk to Mr. Chase that way,” in a tone, to that point, I was certain only my mother knew.

Appreciative of the vote of confidence, I kept on, “If someone said something like that about you in my presence, you know I’d take issue with it.”

He was mid-rebuttal when I heard Lenea’s voice, “I’ll talk to him, Mr. Chase.”

I turned to look at her.

She was staring at me with that look that says, “Go along now. Get. I’ve got this covered.” And, I knew she did.

I turned and walked down the hall to attempt to diffuse the other side of the argument.

A few minutes later, I walked back down the hall. Turning the corner, I was ready to re-engage. I couldn’t. They weren’t there.

Lenea had moved him physically (and I’m guessing emotionally) farther than I’d been able.

I’ve been mulling that idea tonight. I’ve considered the ninth grader I met when Lenea first entered my room nearly four years ago. I’m uncertain how many times I’ve hugged her, told her how much I’m proud to teach her and made a point to assure her I see the good she’s created.

What I’m certain of, though, is that all those moments, those pieces of mental and emotional investment, those moments of caring, were worth it.

What I’m certain of is caring is reciprocal.

Things I Know 2 of 365: I am not a vegan

Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can’t even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won’t allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can’t reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that.

– Frank Reese, Farmer

via Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

When I was a freshman in high school, I announced to my mother I was going to become a vegetarian.

I told her the idea of eating meat after all the dissections we’d done in biology classes grossed me out.

She understood what I was saying, but suggested there might be another reason for my dietary shift. Betsy, the girl I was trying to date at the time, was a vegetarian, and my mother suggested this might be a more likely catalyst for my decision.

I argued ardently against this line of reasoning.

Now, older and wiser, I can admit she was correct.

Almost 15 years later, Betsy is married with two children, and I’m still a vegetarian.

What’s more, I’ve watched pretty much every food documentary out there, read the best of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and the rest.

Whereas misplaced teenage lust was the impetus for going veg, the decision to stay that way has come with a fair amount of research.

I should say, because it needs saying, I’ve never been a proselytizing vegetarian. In college, after explaining the idea of eating flesh grossed me out, I claimed the notion of killing animals didn’t bother me at all.

Just typing that now helps me to see what kind of dork I was in college.

Still, I’ve never been one to spread the good word of vegetarianism. If you want to be all omnivorous with your bad self, have at it.

I’ll be at the salad bar.

Then, in October, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

It was the first time I’d read someone make the moral argument for vegetarianism that made me care.

“Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer wrote. And, it started to get to me – even as a vegetarian.

From the moral argument, to the ecological argument, to the nutritional argument, to the sustainability argument – Foer put it all in front of me.

And so, on Black Friday, I decided to conduct an experiment. For one month, I would eat a vegan diet. Suddenly, I couldn’t distance myself from the treatment of the animals producing the dairy or egg products I’d told myself were acceptable because none of them was killed.

So, for one month, I ate like a vegan.

I read about veganism.

I visited vegan websites.

I talked to vegans.

I went to a vegan restaurant.

And, I have to tell you, it felt pretty good. After two weeks, I noted an uptick in energy, and my body felt lighter.

On the downside, I was a pain to choose a restaurant with. Plus, I needed to eat. All. The. Time.

Taking the processing out of my food meant my body didn’t take as long to, well, process it.

In the last week of my experiment, I was seriously considering turning vegan. On the drive from Philadelphia to Illinois, I had a rather lengthy phone conversation with Ben who cautioned me against being fanatic about the whole thing. After we talked, I did a gut check. Nope, not fanatical.

When I walked in my house, my parents ran me through the list of vegan foods they bought at the specialty food store to make certain I’d have enough to eat throughout my stay.

The decision was getting easier and easier.

My mom even made a special dish with rice pasta to take to my grandparents’ annual Christmas Eve celebration.

At my grandparents’, I realized I am not a vegan.

I care about the effects of factory farming, and I realize my place and the part I feel compelled to play in working against a treatment of the land and animals that would set my great-grandfather rolling in his grave.

At the same time I was reading Eating Animals, though, I started reading Nel NoddingsCaring.

And here’s why I can’t be a vegan.

Faced with the corn casserole and the sugar cookies shaped and decorated to look like each of my grandmother’s grandchildren, I realized I care about animals, but I care for my family and they care for me.

In the face of the feast prepared by my family and the reasons for that feast, I realized saying, “I’d love to try a cookie, but I’m not sure where the eggs came from,” wouldn’t quite be in keeping with how I want to honor the care my family shows me.

I allowed myself a 48-reprieve from the experiment. I focused on enjoying the company and offerings of family. The day after Christmas, I picked it up again.

I’m sure there are those who would argue I’ve violated my rules. Maybe I did. When the rules are arbitrary, though, I am uncertain as to how much it matters.

And here I am, again a vegetarian.

Only now, I’m working to be more thoughtful as to the source of the eggs and dairy I choose to consume. The politics of food and what I say when I decide how to feed my body are trickier now than they’ve ever been before. The stakes are getting higher. They require, as so many things do, thoughtfulness – not fanaticism.