The REAL New Year

For me, for most educators, for most kids, and for most parents, I think that the end of August/early September feels more like the new year than January does. The start of a school year is when things shift. Kids are a grade older. Classes change, teachers change, classmates change. Kids are taller and more grown-up looking. New clothes are bought, new school supplies. Everything is fresh and it’s a true beginning. January? Not so much. Fairly unimportant and insignificant.

I love the first day of school. I had butterflies in my stomach driving to work this morning – anticipatory, excited, beautiful butterflies flying around inside of me.

I loved watching the kids. I loved seeing kids who were petrified just last year, walk in, calmly say hello, and confidently state, “I’m so excited!!”

I loved seeing kids greet their friends, and the exchanges of, “Yes, you’re in my homeroom!”

I loved the trust that the new little kids put in us – to say goodbye to their parents and allow us to lead them into the building.

I loved how one student straight out said: “I am so nervous.” We talked about how teachers, not just kids, feel nervous too, how it was also teachers, not just kids, who might have had trouble sleeping last night. I loved how following that, another student said to me, “This is so weird. I just feel weird being back.” I loved that I could say, “I get that. Me too.”

I loved the idea of a new beginning – clean and crisp where the possibilities seem endless and we all have that new reserve of the core belief that we make miracles happen at this place.

I loved it.

Happy “New Year” to all of you – may 2015-2016 be a truly magical year.

The goal of the assignment

On nearly every evaluation that I write, in nearly every IEP meeting that I attend, I talk about that phrase: the goal of the assignment.

Imagine that you are being taught how to juggle. You are taught the movement with your hands and the pattern. “Now,” they tell you, “we’re going to practice.” During your practice, they keep reminding you about the order of your arms and where to throw the balls. But they keep telling you to do other things, too. “Come on,” they say. “You need to be balancing on one foot the entire time.” When you try to balance, you drop all the balls. They remind you again of the order. “Don’t forget to smile,” they tell you. “You need to be smiling while you’re balancing and juggling.” You try to smile but then you can’t balance and you certainly can’t juggle. In fact, you can’t do anything right. You leave feeling defeated.

That is how our kids feel at school. Once they start to learn one skill, they are quickly asked to do it in conjunction with other skills – none of which they are confident and proficient in on their own, let alone combined.

During testing, both formal and informal, nearly every single one of my kids comes out the same way: when comprehension is measured without the addition of decoding demands, they show a higher comprehension level.

An explanation:

The kids I work with have language and learning challenges. Many of them have a language disorder, many of them have dyslexia or other reading disorders. I have an 8th grader who comprehends at a 2nd grade level, and many of our 4th graders are still learning sounds that make up digraphs and trigraphs (-dge, ch-). Amidst their learning what the letters sound like, what the sound combinations are, they are also practicing comprehension – understanding what the words mean. And, without question, this is where the breakdown occurs.

Imagine you are an English speaker, learning Hebrew. You have learned the symbols and letters and sometimes remember a few sight words: animals, colors, clothing. Now, you are given a paragraph. I can do this, you think to yourself. You spend every ounce of brain energy remembering the letters, sounding out the consonants and vowels, putting the sounds together, word after word after word. You read the entire thing. Yes! I did it. Then your teacher smiles, and says, “Okay, great reading. Now, we are going to answer some comprehension questions about what you read.” What? you think to yourself. I have no idea what that meant. You go through it a second time. You blend consonants and vowels. You sometimes forget how to pronounce a letter and get corrected. You have a word done. Oh, you think to yourself.  I don’t even know what that word means. You try to re-read it, seeing if it’ll jog your memory, but you have to just sound it out all over again. You think it means “dog.” You get to the next word. It takes you so long to sound it out correctly that, you’ve forgotten what the word before it meant.

You’re exhausted. You’re defeated. You feel stupid and unsuccessful.

This is what happens to my kids. Whenever possible, the goal of the assignment needs to be determined, I write in my evaluation reports. If the goal is decoding [sounding out words, blending sounds together], Jen should work on such skills without being asked to comprehend. If the goal is comprehension [making meaning/demonstrating understanding of a piece of text], Jen should have access to text-to-speech, or have a teacher/parent read the text to her, effectively bypassing her decoding deficits and truly focusing in on what she can comprehend. If decoding and comprehension are worked on simultaneously, Jen will likely demonstrate a lower level of comprehension, as all of her energy will be spent decoding.

So, I will continue to recommend, suggest, encourage: determine the goal of the assignment.

If the goal is neatness of handwriting, ignore incorrect spelling.

If the goal is comprehension, read the text to them.

If the goal is expression of ideas, let them say their answers aloud instead of writing.

If the goal is juggling, ignore their posture.

Determine the goal.

Breathe.

 

[written Thursday night]

It has been taking me the better part of a ninety-minute yoga class to focus and steady my breath. I’ve been reaping some of the benefits after class, finding some deep, cleansing, renewing breaths on my walk home, and as I get ready for bed later that evening.

Tonight was the first night that my body truly relaxed. As an aside, or maybe as an important detail, yesterday was the first day that I felt like myself in the better part of two weeks. Two weeks of hypersensitivity, feeling raw, anxious, and down, had left me disconnected from my body, it sore and aching, and my mind racing.

I spent yesterday and today moving back into myself. And tonight during yoga class, my body allowed the breath. Rather than fighting it, rather than screaming, “Please, stop forcing this breath into me! I can’t hold one more damn thing, there’s just no room for it!” my body decided it had room. It tested out a breath here and there. Allowing it in. Allowing it to wash over me and swirl around.

And before I knew it, I was moving to my breath, with my breath. My body was breathing. Body parts were synchronized. They stopped arguing and fighting. They relaxed. They were still.

It felt so damn good to breathe, to truly breathe. Freedom. Release. Energy. Hope.

Guest Post: Contrasting Being Connected with Just Connections

Today I am hosting my first ever guest post. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a while – inviting others to share their words in my space – but hadn’t taken the initiative to organize. A few nights ago I received a message from a former student, from my senior year of high school when I was a student teacher in our religious education program, and she was a 7th grader. Now, years later, she reached out and asked if I’d share something she wrote. Yes!, I responded. Anything, anytime. She sent me her post that very night.

So, here you go: What follows are Melissa’s own thoughts and words. I think you will find that she and I have many of the same philosophies and ideas – enjoy!


Contrasting Being Connected with Just Connections

Today, journaling didn’t feel like enough. My words were jumping off the page. It seemed like they were screaming “share me”! So, in an effort to practice the things I value and find important, namely vulnerability and storytelling, I took a risk. I stepped out of my comfort zone. Here’s what I wrote:

Recently, the pervasiveness of social media in our everyday life has been at the forefront of my mental energy. Sometimes I feel like Facebook is mostly about keeping up appearances. I don’t actually find it very authentic at all. It’s simply a crafted glimpse into someone’s life. I am always intrigued to see what people are posting and sharing but as for myself, I’m never really that “open” or thoughtful on Facebook. So, to put it bluntly, if you’re only following me on Facebook I say to you, “you don’t know my life”. For some many people I know I am passively following their lives and occasionally liking their posts but that’s the extent to which we are “connected”. This managed identity gives way to statements such as this “Well, it seems like you’re busy and having a lot happening right now…” when you’d rather be asked ‘how are you today?”. Which, if we’re being honest. Most of us post more online on the days when we ARE struggling (or bored, lonely, anxious, etc.). For me, I post more on days that I’m not insanely busy and on days when even an hour of free time is overwhelming because I don’t want to be “stuck” in my own head. There’s a certain solace in social media. Furthermore, the paradox that we’re more alone and independent than any previous generation yet we thrive off of constant connectivity challenges me often. In a lot of ways it seems like in an effort to combat our own inner perceived notions of mediocrity we continue to strive for and subsequently advertise external achievements to build ourselves up. In this way, we perpetuate a definition of success that is controlled by comparison and that implies that we must burn out, or DO ALL THE THINGS to be successful. I wonder how much of this external confidence hosted by social media is a cover for the insecurities so many of us encounter each day.

But, I’ve decide to address and reframe this frustration with social media by looking at the positives. A couple months ago, I posted the following Facebook status: “Here’s what’s on my mind: Sometimes I feel like I could make a pretty strong argument as to why I should never work or go to school and instead be on social media all day. Everywhere I look recently, people are posting articles or statuses that make me think and help me to learn more. So, I feel like in some ways, Facebook is its own classroom. Maybe you have to know the right people…” This clickbait classroom has taught me a lot recently. I find myself scrolling through the various feeds I subscribe to with a different eagerness. I am seeking the thoughtful motivational quotes and pictures, latest news coverage, or exciting life events. I’m not reading Facebook seeking validation of my life or to fuel FOMO but instead I’m being inspired, much like how I anticipate this post will be received, by those who are taking chances and sharing more of themselves and their beliefs.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine encouraged me to listen to Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability.  I gained two important messages from Dr. Brown’s talks. First, we live in a time where we are continually confronted with unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. To me, this is further compounded by the constant need for validation, justification, and approval that churns in our mind even when we’re not willing to admit that it’s there. I struggle with these notions because they are contradictory. How can one seek approval if they’re not even sure who they’re supposed to be or what they’re hoping to achieve? In so many ways, social media perpetuates this.

The second thing I took away from Dr. Brown’s talks is this: it’s okay to be seen and heard. When I first heard this, I exhaled a sigh of relief. I felt like I was being granted permission to be proud of myself without fearing disapproval or being perceived as arrogant. Then, I stopped thinking about myself and realized, the best way I can embrace Dr. Brown’s message is by advocating for sharing and truly hearing stories. Stories have a special place in my heart. Stories connect us. They help us learn empathy and foster lifelong relationships. They are also the foundation of our society (think history class). Recently, I’ve been fascinated with stories! Both understanding my story and learning others’ has given me space to be critical and also to explore.

A brief digression to share some relevant resources: When I found out about The Strangers Project I was so excited. Check it out! More stories! More things to question and consider. Of course, I couldn’t view this site without thinking about my favorite TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” or the blog post from my incredible semester in Cape Town that inspired my love for stories and craving for understanding.

The story motif is not transient in my life. It’s complemented by a desire for everything, every moment to be a learning opportunity. Therefore, when a friend shared with me a difficult part her story recently I was again challenged by this sharp dichotomy of internally and externally facing selves. I never knew theveryone you meetat about her but I considered myself privileged to learn more about her personal life. I don’t have a lot of conversations that aren’t either super intellectual or very surface level (this is intentional, those spaces are safe and I can easily contribute and not feel overwhelmed typically). This is also mostly because I don’t reciprocate well and because I usually don’t have the words to participate in the way that person expects me to respond when they tell me personal things. But, I’ve been practicing vulnerability lately and I’m appreciative for conversations that model this important, powerful skill. While I never want anyone to struggle it was important for me to be reminded that everyone has their story and their challenges but also their composure that they put out to the rest of the world. That was influential for me. I learned a lot about myself and about friendship from that worthwhile exchange.

I was inspired to write this post today because in the midst of being inundated with thoughts about the power of storytelling and being distracted by the overwhelmingness of managing my external life on Facebook I scrolled past these two meaningful and complementary images that spurred my thinking about stories and vulnerability once again!

franklySo here’s my plea: rather than exhausting ourselves with the tiring task of crafting an identity that fits our mental images of what “success” and “happiness” look like, let us spend more time seeking, sharing, and honoring each other’s stories! I think this is best practiced through conversation and the commitment to creating safe spaces for diverse voices and experiences to thrive and be appreciated. When we stop comparing and competing and begin appreciating and recognizing we give power to individuals and let each person own where they’ve been and where they hope to go. We let each individual grow into and with their story and contribute to an identity they can be proud of and others can love regardless of the hurdles and struggles along the way. I hope that through sharing and supporting each other’s stories rather than fortifying spaces of harsh, judgments based on uninformed impressions we can grow and learn together and from each other and reserve judgment by recognizing that this is THEIR lived experience and their truth regardless of what they post on social media.


(Melissa Lovitz is a recent graduate from the University of Connecticut where she studied Human Development & Family Studies and Public Policy. Currently she is a graduate student at Brown University in the Urban Education Policy Program focusing on family and community engagement in urban communities.)

When Filters Fade

Sometimes words happen, and sometimes they don’t.

Today, they did.


I’m over at Some Talk of You and Me, writing about how raw I have felt lately.

p.s. There is no reason for me to link to Some Talk, other than I highly respect their community and feel grateful to them as they continuously honor, respect, and embrace me as a writer. Check them out, read what they have to say, and consider writing yourself. I can’t even tell you how empowering it is.

Things that made me cry today, in no particular order

lake

-Listening to one of our campers play and sing a song she wrote on her ukelele, about how much she loves camp.

-Watching one of our little 6-year-olds silently cry. And when I said, “I’m feeling really sad about camp ending. Are you?” he heavily sighed, wiped his eye, and said, “Yeah, I am.”

-Watching another one of our little 6-year-olds say goodbye to our therapy dog. He knelt down, and whispered in Cadet’s ear, “Bye, Cadet. It’s my last day of camp.” He then told us, “Cadet is so sad it’s the end of camp. Cadet wishes he could come back every day. Cadet is going to miss camp.”

-A thirteen-year-old camper saying, “I don’t want to go to school. I wish camp could be forever.”

-Four nine- through thirteen-year-olds making a conga line in the water during free swim

-Taking one last picture of our backyard this morning, and one last picture of the lake yesterday afternoon.

-The idea that yet another summer is done, in the blink of an eye

backyard

Okay or not okay?

“Are you doing okay?”
“Yes.”

“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m okay.”

What is okay?

For many of us, okay is a huge catch-all. Okay means that I am going about my day, doing great, hard work at my job, helping friends and loved ones and kids and co-workers and family members. I rarely (ever?) say, “No, I’m not okay.” For me, that statement only fits if there is an immediate crisis – a trauma, a death, a situation that warrants immediate attention. Because otherwise, of course I’m okay. I’m going about my days, functioning, doing great, so yes, I’m okay, why would I think otherwise?

I try to focus on, and embrace, and teach, that emotions have  shades, and situations have gradients, and it’s not all or nothing, there’s no black or white. However, a recent conversation led me to a personal realization: okay is a whole other continuum. Okay exists tantamount to other things.

I can be doing a kick-ass job at work, but not feel okay, if I’m anxious and panicky.

You can be maintaining your marriage, but not be okay, if you’re dealing with depression.

She can be beautifully parenting her children, but not be okay, if she’s fighting self-harm urges.

He can be getting all A’s in school, but not be okay, if he’s dealing with PTSD.

Do you see?

You can be successful in your life while you’re not okay. You can be in a healthy relationship and not be okay. You can smile and laugh at work and genuinely feel happy in those moments but also not be okay.

This gives us power. 

Saying “I’m am not okay” is scary. And maybe not always necessary to say out loud. But maybe we say it to ourselves. Because it’s not all or nothing. We don’t have to be in our beds, unable to move, unable to face the day, to “deserve” to say “I’m not okay.”

You deserve to say anything you want or need. You also deserve, you get, to not set a bar for yourself: I only deserve to ask for help if _____.

No.

You can always ask for help. You can always reach out. Outward appearances are deceiving. They deceive others and they help us deceive ourselves. Look inward. Deep, deep inward. Into the crevices and cracks in which you’ve been cramming thoughts, memories, feelings. Yes, you are fantastic at work. You have a wonderful family. You are loved. You are a role model. You take care of everyone. And, you might not be okay. And it’s time to face that. Embrace that. And get the support you need.

Because it’s okay to not be okay.

%d bloggers like this: