Practice What You Teach

Unreal

Saturday morning I came across a Facebook post by a musician friend describing the “unifying breath” taken by a choir or orchestra before they begin to make something beautiful that brings them and their listeners together. It was still in my head later in the morning as Thing2 and I were driving to Home Depot and talking about his college plans.


Thing2 plays guitar for several hours each day. He’s been playing with that intensity for a few years now, and that intensity seems to be leading him to audition for one music program or another. 

Thing2 has other interests — often a sounding board for friends, he has thought about going into mental health counseling or psychiatry – but, as we talked, I sensed that something other than passion for the subject was driving this recent career exploration.

Thing2 also has an older brother who found a more traditional field (computer science) and is now earning more money than both his parents put together.  Thing1 loves his new life, but he also loves the work of problem-solving. He has found his passion.

“I like the idea of helping people,” Thing2 said. 

I reminded him that when musicians bring people together to enjoy music, they are creating moment of communal peace that no other art or craft can achieve. Painters can’t do it. Writers don’t do it. Doctors and teachers don’t do it.  Yet, even in our small town, a kids’ concert or an impromptu band can bring together people with wildly different experiences and viewpoints for the sole purpose of enjoying music together. 

“I know,” he said. He started to say something and then was silent for a bit. We talked about music education and music therapy as career paths. Then he said, “When I listen to my favorite musician, I think about being able to make something that so many people will enjoy, but…” 

We walked through the lumber aisle, and he said again how great it would be to have people responding to his music the way he responds to others. I reminded him of one cousin who is making their life in music and another is making his career in music and music production. 

“I’m just afraid,” he said. “What if I put all my energy into a dream that is really unlikely and then find I’m in my thirties wishing I had done something else?”

“Creativity takes courage,” I blurted out, knowing that, in recent weeks, I had been ignoring the words of Henri Matisse, retreating to realism out of fear that people who have bought my art in the past won’t like my abstract work. I knew my response was trite. 

I could have told Thing2 about coworkers who started with creative careers that took them in unpredictable directions and different fields where their creative natures and backgrounds were integral to the successes.

At that moment, however, I wanted more than anything for him to to understand, at the age of 17, the big and improbable dreams are just as important as the practical ones. He needed to understand the value of his art in his life and the difference it could make in others’. He needed, especially as adult life gets closer, to be willing to take that leap of faith in himself.

We were still talking as we sat in the drive thru waiting for a coffee order. 

“I won’t give up on abstract if you don’t give up on your music,” I said. 

“Okay,” he said as he extracted a promise to have first pick on paintings he likes.

We shook on it, and I gave him a music writing assignment inspired by my painting teacher. 

Our new bargain is way more better deal that others I’ve made with them over the last few months (a Faustian bargain to give up my favorite diet soda, for example). It’s also the most important deal I’ve ever made with him. 

It reminded me of the first rule of teaching, which is that we teach what we model, sometimes, without even knowing it. And now at this crucial time in this wonderful kids life, it’s more important than ever that I start to practice what he needs me to teach.

Get Your Head in the Clouds

I love my job. I love doing the research to become more effective at my job teaching kids with disabilities how to access their gifts. It’s easy, however, to get absorbed by the work, Barely noticing when your feet turn to clay and your head turns to Jell-O (which is just as susceptible to gravity).

I painted the headless statue a few years ago at a friends’ farm during an open house they were hosting to celebrate rural and creative life. There were a dozen morbid reasons the robed figure could’ve lost his or her head, but, as I sat staring out at the mountains that rise up along the border between Vermont and New York, I felt a connection two it that generated a happier explanation for the decapitation.

Whenever I stare out of the mountains, I feel my spirit lifting into the clouds as I try to become one with nature. I never succeed at the merger, but the attempt always brings an unparalleled feeling of peace, followed by a burst of creativity. Whenever I see that statue, and one of my paintings or in real life, I like to think that the figure simply got lost in the clouds, and the feet of clay just got left behind.

I’m on April break this week, and I’ve spent most of it focusing on the things that keep my feet covered with clay. I’ve budgeted. I’ve done some windowshopping. I’ve done some research for my upcoming thesis. And I have bought into guilt for not getting in touch with creativity during this brief bit of downtime.

One of the things I do love about my job is that every day demands intense creativity. I know, however, if I don’t get my head back up in the clouds at least for a little bit this week, that well, while never running completely dry, will become tepid.

So today, instead of working on the feet of clay stuff like cleaning my office that looks less and less like a studio every day, I’m spending a little time giving into wanderlust with my watercolors in my bag. There are times when you really need to get your head back in the clouds.

Pieces of 2021

A lot of people think that no good can come of checking your phone at 2 AM in the morning, but anyone who’s ever been getting ready to go into a meeting at 2 PM knows that there’s nothing like a quick glance at that glowing window to distorted reality that take your eyes off the prize so quickly. Even if it’s just for a second, that glance — that loss of focus – can almost make you forget what the prize is.

 January 6, just as I was signing into an IEP meeting I’d been anticipating for weeks, I stupidly glanced at my phone. My kiddo, learning at home all year because of health issues, armed with nothing more than cheerful fortitude, had blown his math and reading goals out of the water. It’s the kind of conversation you love to have with a parent.

But there I was, clicking the start button for the meeting as the chaos in the capital, and not this kid’s triumph, tried to command my attention. When the other faces popped on the screen, the sea of smiles hinted that my colleagues had not seen the news.

For months, I had been aware of national and world news but most days, it was on the periphery, nothing more than a headline to be liked on Facebook. I felt guilty for not tracking events more carefully, but I also enjoyed the bliss of ignorance created by the wall that work had erected, obscuring all but the most vital events.

I pulled my head back to the meeting. The IEP team took turns telling mom about her kid’s amazing progress. We discussed our hopes and goals for him for the new year, and I realized that everyone in our meeting – Mom and teachers – had been channeling fears and frustrations with the chaos of the last year into things we could control. We’d unconsciously rerouted our energies into creating hope for ourselves, one kid at a time. 

When the meeting ended, I checked my newsfeed again just to make sure the country hadn’t devolved into a full-fledged Civil War. Knowing there was nothing I could have done regardless of the situation on the monitor, I got back to the things I could control. 

Then I went back to planning a meeting for the next kid on my list and making up a new game for the next day’s math class. 

I didn’t completely tune out. A functioning democracy needs care and attention. It needs participants now and down the road.

Since January, however, I’ve let my list of meetings and to-do’s turn the news down to a faint din again because I’m not taking my eyes off the prize again. 

The victories our team nurtures and celebrates are small but significant, and we know we’re not alone. There are setbacks, but, faced with two images of the world on January 6, I’m glad I chose the one filled with hope. 

The Kids are Alright, pt 2

I’ve been delivering Special Education services remotely since September. Some of my students are learning in school. Others are learning from home, but all of them are teaching the adults in their lives an inadvertent but valuable life lesson.

Even if you’ve only accidentally clicked one news link in the last eight months, it would be almost impossible not to hear some newscaster talking about the challenges of online education for students (and teachers) in rural areas.

The internet in our ‘town’ of about 300 has definitely improved since the early days when we practically needed to rig up a kite and key and hope a bolt of information-laden wireless signal would find its way into our laptops. Still, most days as I try to stay connected with my kiddos, I wonder if the powers that be are using gum and fishing-line to connect Vermont’s information super highway (it’s really more of an information dirt road in mudseason).

But, just like mudseason, there are two ways to deal with our inter-not. You can do what I do — silently grumble while keeping my best classroom Zoom smile plastered on until the next break in the action.

You can also do what the kids seem to do.  You can accept that this is just a minor hurdle as you restart your Chromebook and log back into your class and catch up on the 2 or 3 minutes of the lesson you’ve missed.

All of my kids seem to be learning — and teaching – this lesson every day of school. They come into school unable to enjoy many of the communal activities — sitting together at lunch, talking face-to-face – that make elementary school memorable in a good way. The in-person learners wear masks most of the day, and the remote kids pine for their friends.

Some kids sit down at their computers and get right to work. Others may need a little redirection to focus on the task at hand, but, regardless of the degree of engagement, they don’t grumble or complain about all of the new hurdles this pandemic has thrown at them.

So, this morning, when Zoom and our rural internet booted me and two of my remote readers out of class, I didn’t utter an oath at the internet gods in the sky. I took a page from my students’ playbook, restarted the class, and cleared the next hurdle, knowing that each time we do, we only get stronger.

Everyday Art

In my classroom there are long rows of hanging shelves containing multiple copies of different novels for my kids to read. Next to my little brown desk, however, I keep single copies of various books that I am reading with students one-on-one or, in my “free” Time at the suggestion of various students. My little stack of books is a colorful sculpture, an homage to the conversations I have with the wonderful young people who come through my door every day.

My and Thing1’s health situations have necessitated close adherence to the “stay home“ directive. I am treating this time at home as training for retirement when, again, there will be infinite time to write and paint as part of a last career. I’ve inaugurated a daily schedule of writing in the morning and drawing practice in the afternoon (chest pain from pneumonia still makes painting impossible).

Writing is a conversation with the zeitgeist, but, despite efforts to focus on the sparkle in the solitude, the conversation seems a bit one-sided lately. I can’t do much about the solitude, but, looking to put some sparkle in the conversation and, at least mentally, reconnect with my kids at school, I’ve started a new book sculpture next to my/Princess Jane’s fuzzy blue chair.

What do you have in your book sculpture these days?

Self Schooling

My favorite picture of the Big Guy and Thing1 doesn’t show their faces. To the casual observer, it’s a picture of them replacing the radiator on our 20 year old Volvo wagon. for me, it’s the moment when our oldest kid learned that sometimes you get the best education when you roll your sleeves up and learn how to figure things out. Yesterday Thing2 got started on that same path.

Time and weekends are almost meaningless, these days. Thing2 has a few assignments every day, but, without the interactive component (and friends) offered by the classroom, our social butterfly has greeted homeschooling with as much enthusiasm as cleaning his room. Yeah, that room.

Friday, however, his iPad which is still my iPad, served up an ad for MasterClass, an online series of courses hosted by famous writers, lifestyle gurus, and artists. T2 watched a video with Carlos Santana and then a couple with a super chefs before rushing to my office. he regained his composure a few steps inside the door and casually begin the process of trying to talk me into buying the discounted two for one subscription.

I’ve seen their ads before and always been curious about the classes but leery of the price. Seeing it half price, however, and seeing T2 getting excited about directing his own homeschooling a bit, I cracked open my wallet.

Last night before bed I walked in on my multitasker reading his English assignment and keeping an eye on the video game, all while watching Gordon Ramsay teach him how to make the perfect soufflé . I put the kibosh on any more video games for the night and figured he’d go right to bed.

we slept in a bit because it was Saturday, but the sun was out and the boys have chores to do outside. I went to rouse my would be guitar playing chef, curled up under his blankets, buried in the kind of oblivion one only experiencesafter staying up way too late. I knocked on the door jam asked, “Do you still want to make eggs for Daddy?” I wasn’t sure if he would even remember the aspiration had mentioned the night before.

“Mmmph,” was the only sound he could muster from under the covers.

“You two have got a lot of work to do in the garden today,“ I said as I walked into the kitchen. I went to the fridge but as soon as I closed the door and turned around to go be the snooze button, there was Thing2, Wondering if dad would actually like him to make scrambled eggs.

Five minutes later he had his answer as the two of them were hovering over the stove, discussing the finer points of making eggs and soufflés and homemade bagels. Thing2 did most of the cooking with just a few pointers. The Big Guy made the toast and coffee. I did a little heavy lifting and got a picture of Thing2 discovering that there are a lot of ways to get your education. That picture is going to go perfectly right next to the original.

The Absence of Sleep

Two years ago we were celebrating April Fool’s Day digging out from under a thick blanket of snow. We were closing out in March but had seen four major snowstorms–one each week. Our family was closing out a winter of worry marked by Weekly hospital visits and a nearly fatal flu for Thing1. Now, as I stare at the ceiling, trying not to be wide awake, that winters like that never really melt from your soul.

for the past three weeks, pneumonia rather than the mandated school shut downs have kept me from teaching. Our school, as treatment facility, is still open, and I have been ashamed to admit that I have been grateful for the pain in my rib cage don’t keep me from having to show any courage.

When I made the jump to teaching, I knew that it could be dangerous. It is possible to be assaulted by students, particularly working with children who Have severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The news, of course, as shown as how it’s all too possible for teachers to be shot. this latest danger, however, adds a new dimension to the job description.

Both the Big Guy and Thing1 are in high-risk categories. As my doctor reminded me, my history of chronic pneumonia puts me in a high-risk category. but “my kids“ are also in the high-risk category. They count on their teachers to be there.

Tonight as I’m counting the number of hours of productive sleep still available, I am also wondering if I will be able to be there for them. I know my first, unquestionable priority is to be there for Thing1 and Thing2– to not needlessly expose them to any dangers. As the number of cases in our county increase, surpassing statistics in much larger Vermont towns, the question is becoming what is the best way to navigate the months ahead?

Before my husband fell asleep, we both remarked on what a strange time it was to be alive — even with all of the uncertainty in our lives. We are aware of how lucky we are to live in a remote area with neighbors who are working together to slow the spread and limit the impact. We are aware that millions of people experienced a far worse pandemic 100 years ago because little was known about preventing the spread.

But I’m also aware of what it feels like to see a child gasping for breath and not knowing if it might be his last.

I don’t know if if that memory, in the coming months, will make me brave or smart. A few weeks ago I thought, I hoped, it was possible to be both. Right now, I’m not so sure.

Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

Feline Friday

My classroom is just across the hall from the science teacher’s. We’ve become good friends because we have similar senses of humor, and I have found her to be a fountain of good ideas to make learning fun.

One of my and the kids’ favorites is Fun Fact Friday which is just what it sounds like. Of course, I can’t let those kids get all jazzed up with a bunch of new fun facts and then come to my class without something equally fun to do so I started First Chapter Friday.

Our kids don’t get to do many library visits because we’re a residential school so I’ve started hitting the local book warehouse and stocking up my classroom library with new used books each Friday. once they are all caught up with any outstanding work, we can dig through the shelves and check out the new books. If they like the first chapter, they have to write me a quick summary and then they can keep reading and take the book back to the dorm with them. If they don’t, they just keep digging and reading until the bell rings. Either way, they end up reading for most of the class, and we all win.

Right now I’m stuck at home waiting for the group to clear from my lungs, so there’s no Friday classroom routine. I can’t let a Friday go by without a good routine, however, so today officially became the first Feline Fun Friday on Picking My Battles (I swear, this is not becoming a crazy cat lady’s blog — even though i have the cats and the crazy part — no, no. Not a crazy cat lady blog. It just happens to have a lot of pictures of cats taken by a crazy lady on it).

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

We lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night. I couldn’t fall asleep until after midnight on Sunday night, and I had to be up by 4:30 on Monday to drive to a teachers’ workshop in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

I was excited, but, for once, I wasn’t nervous.

When I worked in IT, I had a few professional development opportunities that sent me to fun locales, but the courses were usually more competitive than collaborative. There was always an unspoken challenge to prove you were the smartest person in the room (I am rarely smartest person in the room — Except when Jim Bob the orange tabby is here. Then I am the smartest person in the room).

Today was different. I’d done my homework. I had just finished a course at University of Wisconsin on today’s exact subject, and I knew it would be fun and useful.

I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button once. Then I remembered what day it was and snapped right out of bed, hobbled in and out of the shower and donned my favorite scarf, a Maria Wulf creation that had been waiting for a perfect occasion on a perfect spring day. I was out the door and over the mountains before the sun was fully up.

When I got to the workshop/conference, the room was filled with a few dozen other Special Educators who hooking up their WiFi’s and getting acquainted. The news on the way up had told me I should be terrified to be in a crowd this size, but as we shared jokes about the rhymes we are all using this week to get our students to wash their hands better, I decided this day was worth any risk.

We talked about programs. We talked about helping kids with trauma and disability. We talked about our kids and our “kids,” and I suddenly got a feeling I’d never had at any professional conference before.

I sell art at art shows and craft fairs in the summer, but I always feel like an imposter, secretly certain that everyone can see how much better all the other artists are (I rarely worry much about writing since I need to do it badly enough that I don’t care if it’s bad or good). I was in IT in one role or another for over 20 years and, even when I knew I knew my job, I never felt like I really belonged.

Today was like being a ballplayer who had been moved up from the minor league to the “show.” Talking with people who care passionately about helping children and who were as nerdily excited as I was about the best techniques amplified the feeling.

It was a club, but, instead of competing with each other to be the smartest in the room, the members were sharing ideas about how we could help each other to our common goal.

I realized I felt like a real teacher today — like a professional. And, for the first time in any career, I felt like I belonged there.

And it’s a good club.