Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Being Rad

My mom came to the United States by way of a naval ship in 1962.  Born "Doreen San Nicholas Leon Guerrero," she grew up as "Doring." Pronunciation had a lot to do with the differences in spelling. On most documents she was Doring, and when addressing letters or signing off her name on personal cards, she always signed it that way.  For the longest time I thought that was her name.  It wasn't until I heard her emphatically tell the registrar at one of the local elections that her name was "Doreen."  

Not Doring.  Like I always thought.

She told the clerk that that was who she was when she first moved here, but she does not spell her name that way so it needs to be changed.  It didn't matter what it said on her Naval ID card and drivers license.  That interaction lived in my mind for a long time, mostly when I was older and found myself correcting people when they mispronounced my first name.

It's "Vera" like "Sara."  Not "Vee-rah . . ."

During my early 20's I looked back on that early experience and fantasized that my mom was sort of a radical.  A practical one, but nonetheless, a radical.  She was just so clear in what she expected from that registration clerk and coming from a culture of deference, well beneath the Chamorro cultural radar - it was a unique boldness for me to witness.  Funny how recalling one event in time can survive and persist.

I've been thinking about this idea because the kids and I were discussing language and how change over time creates new words, sometimes reinvents words, and sometimes recycles words.  It started  because John-Pio was doing some pull-ups and when he went to failure, I was like, "Whoooooa John-Pio!  That effort was so rad!"  He laughed.

Rad.  Radical.  Radness.  My impulse to use the word has since prompted me to wage the battles within myself to go forth and be rad in 2014.  Here's how I'm planning to do it . . .

Seek small changes.

As a teacher I know that the organization doesn't always trust its teachers.  In the eyes of the beholders especially the policy makers in Wisconsin, I feel like my colleagues and I are viewed as professional irritants who are tolerated more than embraced.  Lately, I've felt like I've been teaching on a fault line.   I know that seems dramatic but this year in particular has felt personally tortuous.  I have not felt rad at all.

Yet I think I sympathize with the system and organization.  I get it.  If my teaching goals weren't so rooted in my own identity I'd be cynical and sarcastic with a system like ours.  Instead, like my dedicated colleagues, efforts for personal and professional growth passionately inform us, which is why it's possible to feel sympathetic even when faced with piles of odds and ends that feel unfinished and overwhelming.  With constant adjusting, constant succumbing even when the things we're asked to focus on feels useless and overdone - its driven me to ambivalence and caution.  And maybe, just maybe this can be a new kind of rad because while plugging away, there are those highlights when small battles have led to incremental changes, and for those times, I feel lucky and hopeful.  What matters most right now is that in spite of it all, we have our students trust, and every educator knows that it's the small nudges, not the all-out epic wars that create that trust.

Act locally.  

I'm going to be more like Brad.  He's been rad for a long time having reconstructed his lifestyle by investing in the Community Car, riding his bikes or skateboards for transportation, and creatively traveling his region as a rep.  Over 7 years ago he convinced me that we can be a working family with only one car, and he was right.  Public transportation has grown on me to the point where the ride just isn't long enough.  Not only that, but since we've just recently allowed John-Pio to eat meat once a month, it's been okay to spend a little more on local beef, pork and poultry when we know how and where the animal was treated as a living thing.

There are tons of other examples but let me just say that Brad's been at this for a long time, including building a climbing gym and since acting on his vision from years past by growing it bigger and better.  He acts in a way that's practical, quietly working patiently from the inside of the family and public loop seeking only modest change.  No pressure to conform.  Always considerate and enthusiastic.  His local acts are rad.

Act authentically. 

It's so important to be real.  Being forthright and sharing stories helps solidify values.  Tell stories, spit a verse, write a rhyme, contribute to the family poetry book, make sure to listen more than talk, dance - those are some of the ways I can be rad.  Stories and narratives bridge the connection to experiences and in my opinion, is one sure way to grow authentic bones.

The other day Misa and I were going through an argument she was having with herself about how she treated her brother.  She said, "When you and Daddy argue, you don't really fight but you argue . .  ."    Whew!  That was a time when I could help her embrace rules that are based on values:  We value each others way of thinking that we follow some rules when we argue - rules like we don't hit below the belt, we don't name call, we don't bring up the past, we stick to the subject, and if we can't solve it then we decide to table the matter until later.  Acting authentically can be really impressive to the young and recall what it means to be real.

I'm going to model making decisions not based on rules, but on the things I value.  Because the truth is, values trump rules.  So when my kids feel forced or like I'm being unfair, I won't be wishy-washy or unsure because the things I decide are driven by a real impulse for personal investment in their growth and independence - those are values and acting authentically can build rad relationships.

Live in the world of "and." Climb.

My relationship to climbing is mutually painful.  It's very hard sometimes to do this, this, this, and climb so instead, I've been doing this, this, this or climb.  That or trips me up.  Sometimes this sport brings out the risk-averse in me that I end up walking on eggshells - it's just too easy to rely on natural ability and past experiences.  It's less risky to just get by.  So I've stayed the same.  On the continuum of radness, I'm on the far left of the line.  And for someone whose identity is as a climber, that side can be kind of isolating.  So I'm committing to get to the midpoint of the continuum of radness by practicing ands, and making climbing more of a priority.

There's the preceding verb to all of this:  Be.  Rad.  Radical.  Radness.

So I just called my mom to check out the story to see if I remembered it correctly and she said that it's partly right even though she doesn't remember the incident at the voting booth like I did.  Apparently, what I left out was that she always wanted to be "Doreen," and that over time it just was.  I read the first part of this blog to her and she laughed - she was like, "Vera Jean, that is not radical.  Radical is what Jesus Christ did for us."

So I'm left with that bit of authenticity to start off 2014.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Split Families

Last week my teaching partners and I received an email containing a string of communication between two parents about their child who we have as our student. The string was actually between the parents (who are divorced) and we were cc'd.  It was kind of awkward.

Split family situations aren't unusual for educators, but the involvement by cc'ing us (passive as it was) is a telling reminder that different kinds of family structures create all kinds of complexities for parents, step-parents, and children, not to mention teachers.  And while involved adults can display their emotions and thoughts passively, contrast that to children who can be forthright and honest, like my one student did when he publicly recited this the day before Thanksgiving:

I'm thankful that my parents aren't together but thankful that we can still have Thanksgiving with each other even though they're divorced and even though it'll be in different places.  I'm just thankful I was born.  

No matter what the family structure is like, there are inherent stressors.  They range in degree and type but there's no doubt that split families are just hard.  I'm in the know on this one.  I was 18 when my own parents split, and I became a stepmom to Emma in 2002, so I ran the treadmill of varying emotions, logistics, and levels of involvement.  With Emma, I was cognizant of who I was and always considered my place in the system because in truth, I just didn't want to be that stepmom - or step-monster for that matter.  Mostly though, I observed and waited patiently day to day as Emma grew into her own.  And man has she taught me - someday I'll publish the list of lessons I've learned from her.  Not only did she teach me how to be a stepmom, but those lessons transferred into my job as a teacher.

In fact, whenever parents come to school for conferences or whenever there's tension or unexpected exchanges like the one I mentioned, I always take it back to my experiences.  Just as strong as my empathy and concerns are for all parents, I have that much more for divorced parents.  Believe me, I know some of those experiences that frustrate and at times, infuriate.  I know what it's like to be in the background, and I also understand boundaries.  I get purpose, too - like, if what I'm doing or saying does not serve a productive purpose, I should withhold that action or thing that's at the tip of my tongue.    I've figured out that at times it's okay to have the second to the last word, and that having imaginary conversations about the things that bug me are healthier than a conflict that won't be resolved.  I also understand distance and disengagement, and I get that on all sides, it's a necessary part of a system that's broken.  But I also know what it's like when the system flows and those times are when agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.  

You probably recognize the idea of flow if you've read or heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  As a skier and climber, I've been reading his work for over two decades and I can honestly say that it applies not just to athletic performance or to the learning process, but it's also a part of teaching and parenting.  The best moments of flow in parenting are not when parents are passive, receptive, or status quo.  Mihaly says that the best moments seem to occur when we're stretched to our limits because we have chosen to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.  In my opinion, this aptly applies to parents in split families.  

If flow is to be possible in a split family, it means both parents have to suck it up.  Every family has different crosses to bear, and what matters to one might not be that big of a deal to another.  Nevertheless, it might mean that they agree to attend parent-teacher conferences together or that both households will implement an organizational system to keep the kid in check as s/he switches houses. Maybe it's an agreement that there will be no public bashing of each other in any way whatsoever, whether it's through an email, text, or conversation - and certainly not to the kid.  That difficult thing might be making decisions from a set of shared values that they've identified together instead of ambiguous actions or behaviors.  It could be something that's super hard and seemingly impossible like accepting that once and for all, your households are different and that's just the way it is.  Although flow is not something that's easy to achieve, it becomes possible, and even probable if agreements and decisions are made because it's really, really what is best for the child.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Kids are Deep

Over the past two weeks, our students have been studying Typhoon Haiyen - the terrible disaster in the Philippines.  No doubt, the typhoon made its mark on our little world in a way that confirms once again that the time is now to foster advocacy in middle school students.   Given these four opportunities:
  • content information 
  • structured discussions 
  • contemporary connections
  • real-world narratives 
our students initiated a grass-roots fundraiser the old-fashioned way:  Face-to-face soliciting backed by sufficient information to give credence to their cause.  Their goal is to raise $600, and in a few weeks time, they're well on their way.  When knowledge, evidence, connections and stories are in place, there's no telling what will happen.  As teachers, we sort of kicked back and watched the students get after it.  Check out our team's fundraising effort!

After introducing various media events (among other issues) related to the typhoon, Ms. Jorgensen focused on celebrity involvement.  Since perceived relevance is an important factor in student engagement, and since most students are connected in some way to popular culture, there was controversy already.  We formed a "Four Corner Discussion" and brought this statement to the table:  Celebrities are obligated to donate to the Philippines to help the recovery effort after Typhoon Haiyen.  I won't go into detail about how the format works, because these pictures tell a lot of the story about student engagement.  You had to have been there to see the remarkable discussion that unfolded across kids who never talk in class, kids who sometimes participate, and kids who almost always volunteer their ideas.

11-year-olds are deep. 

At the end of the class period, these students could not let go of the discussion.  That was when real learning was happening.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What Did You Expect?

This morning I read about the mother who took her son off of the Honor Roll at his school because he earned a "D" and a "C," and in her mind, there was nothing honorable about either of those grades.  The whole situation got me thinking about expectations and the expectations teachers have of students, but specifically, what expectations mean.

I was floored during two different conferences last week.  Both were with parents whose kids are  spoiled rotten.  Kid #1: argues, whines, pouts whenever he doesn't get what he wants.  Kid #2: charming with great interpersonal skills, but she just doesn't think academic learning applies to her.

I really don't want to hate on others but both those parents reported that the reason their kids are like that is because their former school had low expectations for them.   One told us that his son was taken out to lunch or given a pizza party when he'd been on good behavior for like, 3 days.  The dad was like, "Huh?"  Another parent told us that her daughter pretty much ran the school and her teachers. She reported that she was rarely marked tardy even though she was late every single morning, and that whenever she needed a "break," she would go to the office where they'd give her Takis and gum, and then she was allowed to just stay in the office.

Regardless of how much truth there is to these reports, it comes down to this:  Both parents believed the elementary school was at least partly responsible for their child's spoiled rotten behaviors.  And both parents strongly believed that their kids carried those behaviors into middle school because their children would not expect it to be any different.

And why would they? 

To be honest, I'm not shaken by these two students who admittedly require lots of redirections.  My teaching partners and I know that it takes a direct, straight-up approach with an emphasis on academic engagement to help turn these spoiled kids into students.  Just as concerning to me are these parents perceptions and beliefs about teachers, which in turn, affects their relationship with me and educators in general.  Inasmuch as I feel a responsibility for their children as students, I feel an immense responsibility to these parents whose faith in public education has been shattered by how teachers have treated - or mistreated - their children.  Because lets face it, low expectations are what drive teachers to give into students which then perpetuates this behavior pattern that manipulates and controls adults.

And I know this is only one side of the issue.  Trust me, I'm credible.  I've been that teacher.  The one who dished out empty praise, the one who negotiated in the midst of a power struggle, the one who felt icky at the end of the day because manipulative behaviors got the best of me, the one who feared reactive kids, the one who leaned towards the "if you do this, then you'll get that . . ."


Suffice it to say, I grew out of that and grew into my own thanks to the village.

I'm coming to the end here because I'm just done talking and thinking about this for now, but let me just say that the kids and parents I profiled here are black families.  After hearing these parents out and getting a sense of their beliefs and perceptions about teachers and school, I was left with a sleepless night coupled with more impatience than ever with teachers in the system that writes off kids through their willfulness of low expectations.  At least that's my view from the receiving end.

So what's the takeaway?  It's that there's some simple power in expectations.  It takes a strong sense of self coupled with an incredible mentor or two to help a teacher make a conscious point to look for greatness in all kids.  It's not easy.  It's freakin' hard.  Yet everywhere I go, I see kids excelling and at some point, teachers of all kids are going to have to say to themselves - well, of course.

What did you expect?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Learning about Stereotypes. And Rice.

Today is my dad's 75th birthday and he's partying with the fam in San Diego.  I got this text from my sister and felt her pain . . .

For those who have the "rice culture", you know that if you fuck it up, you're toast.  I'm pretty sure my sister fixed it cause that's one thing about our family, if my dad's in town, you better cook it right cause it's the thing that'll get the aunties, uncles, and cousins talking if it's messed up.  We traded messages back and forth and by the time I talked to my dad, he said "The rice turned out good."  Big hug to my sis!

Speaking of rice - on a different note - we've been studying Asia, and this week, Ms. Jorgensen started lessons on stereotypes about Asians.  One of the lessons included a panel of our former students (now 8th graders) who came to share their stories about stereotypes and to answer questions posed by our 6th graders.  I don't have to go into detail but it was pretty awesome.

One of the 6th graders asked this question, "When you go to a restaurant do you think there's an assumption that you want to order rice?"  Student answered, "Well I do always want rice . . ." 

Another question was, "When you fill out forms I don't always know what to check . . . do you check African-American or Filipino?  I get so confused . . . " One student answered, "I check whatever I feel I am that day . . . "  While another student who is part Filipino and White said, "I check Asian."  One student said something I thought was really good advice, "Just because a person says something that seems offensive or rude to you doesn't mean they're being that way.  It just might be that they don't know . . . "  

Talking to kids about stereotypes and race and how to be non-racist, non-judgemental, and question stereotypes have their heads spinning.  So much that a few have initiated projects and research on their own.  Two students made a poster of a collection of messages that basically followed the theme that stereotypes are harmful and here's why.  Another student found a website about personal stories on life experiences  and shared it with the class while at the same time, she's created posters of the most powerful messages she's learned about stereotypes.  That same girl, who is on-task and nice about 50% of the school day told me that if it weren't for our class, she wouldn't openly share the thoughts she has about stereotypes and race.  Suffice it to say, she's in the skin that seems to solicit stereotyping of her so no wonder she identifies so strongly with these lessons.

How do kids get engaged?  Create and teach lessons on the deep stuff - even if "All Asians eat rice" seems like a mundane stereotype, it's that generalization that gets to the hard issues that then lead to reflective questioning and can prompt deeper inquiry.  And treat them the way you want them to become and believe they will become that person - that'll help with engagement, too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It's Official: My kids will NOT take the test

After multiple days and hours of witnessing standardized test taking this year, I've had enough.  Misa and John-Pio spent 4 days taking the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test after being in school for just 4 weeks.  Starting next week, which will be 10 weeks from the beginning of the year, they are scheduled to take the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) test that will last for 4 days.  I'm sure y'all can infer my reasons for opting them out, and my top 5 reasons are in no way exhaustive, but here's the deal . . .

1) As a professional educator, I know first-hand that it takes away from teaching primary academic subjects. 

2) The timing of standardized tests - what sense does it make to spend the majority of first quarter testing students? 

3) Knowing the test items, it's clear to me that a student who is an English Language Learner is clearly  at a disadvantage.  That's only a piece of the equity issue - ask any teacher in my building how a student of color or one with economic pressures rate to the majority and those with economic stability, and they will tell you that the results of the test on a school-wide scale confirm the inequity issue.  

4) The assessment itself sucks.  And we don't even get the results of the test until next year so it's not helpful for student learning or to even guide instruction. 

5) I get enough data from Misa and John-Pio's Friday Folders to know that they're learning and challenged.  

I also know that they're happy and engaged and I know this because they're fired up and curious before school, at school, and after school.  It helps that their teachers are amazing dedicated professionals, too. 

So that's that - enough is enough.  I said no.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: A Sense of Belonging

"If we ever move from Madison can we move some place where I'm not the only Chamorro in my class?"


There are so many underlying microdynamics in Misa's question.  I felt her words so I probed a little.  Afterwards, I felt pained and wrote a poem.  Then a letter to myself.  Then I got on the internet and searched for teaching jobs on Guam.  I followed this up with a look at the census bureau to find out where other Chamorros are living.  I reminisced and recalled my childhood when I never thought about other kids looking like me because well, we all kind of looked like each other.  

What is it Misa feels but cannot exactly articulate?  If what she's feeling at 10 years old is similar to what I felt at 18 when I moved from the familiar to the not-so-familiar, then let me say that it's all recognizable - that sense of powerlessness, self-consciousness, intimidation - for being born as who she is experiencing things in a place that belies acceptance and transparency.

So what is the 'so what' of this experience?  Just 5 months ago at the end of last school year a team from my school was starting the transition process with the 4 elementary schools that feed into Sherman Middle School.  The primary goal was to gather as much information about each incoming 5th grader in order to create balanced teaching teams.  I'm talking about strategically looking at all aspects of the child in terms of academic levels and behavioral needs, language, ethnicity, and gender.

Admittedly, I initially balked at the time consuming effort this involved.  Interviews at the elementary schools with 5th grade teachers followed by meetings to make decisions that included recapping the child's needs which inevitably led to short discussions about the match-up - that entire process was just too much for me to imagine conducting at the end of the school year.  And anyway as a public school teacher, I've always been of the mind that you get what you get cause we teach 'em all.

That's true, still.

But after going through the process, and having met the 54 students in my classes, I could not be more thankful that there's a transition team in place.  What I learned was that each and every incoming 5th grade student was given remarkably careful attention.  What we discussed was that perhaps a "quirky" kid ought to be with at least one other kid with similar unique traits.  I discovered that there are kids who are really supportive of kids with specific special needs and that perhaps they should stay together.    I helped make decisions about academic placements so the wildly varying learning needs were balanced for proper differentiation.  We talked about kids of color - in particular, Hmong, Latino and African kids having others of the same ethnicity in the same class.  And in fact, it was pretty cool when a Pacific Islander was intentionally placed on my team.

I bring up this transition process as a way to give thanks that I was part of a process that was culturally, ethnically, academically, and - most of all - dynamically aware.   It's not all perfect, but it's sensitive and intentional.  After thinking about what Misa's question really meant, I empathized for her and for other young students who have felt uncomfortable or oppressed or out-of-place or intimidated or insufficient.  I mean, I know how it feels as an adult, but I don't really know what this feels like for a 10 year old. So in the spirit of this - that as grown-ups, we can find and build a sense of belonging no matter what, I conducted my own question and answer session using just a few questions I've been asked over time. . .

1) What would you say to a kid who says s/he feels "out of place"?   What if it's a kid of color - what would you do?  

Me: There are no right answers.  I am most comfortable sticking to addressing what I know, which is that I'm a minority from the island of Guam and a Pacific Islander and sometimes it's just hard to be the only one.  I can infer that at times, Misa feels disempowered so it might be confusing for her when her sense of belonging becomes an issue.  I would love it if educators would learn about the cultures of kids they teach and not just on a cursory or surface level - but really learned about them.  And what I would do is continue to do the personal work to unlearn internalized racism that has altered who I am.  Maybe that kind of work will in turn help Misa's sense of belonging.

2) What would you say or do when a kid of color stands out for being naughty?

Me:  I'm assuming you're referring to discipline and I'm assuming you're asking this because you've been called a racist or want to prevent this from happening?  Well.  Discipline means "to teach," and the purpose of setting limits is to help kids manage those moments when they feel powerless.  To be real, lets take race out of this - most of my students come with their own baggage.  However, I'm of the mind that I need to promote kids' commitment to learning, and more than that, to help kids learn and understand the value of being fair and just and how to navigate the world through those lenses.  So I'd discipline him or her with equity and fairness, as I do my own.

3) What resources are there to help understand the subtleties and dynamics around race?

Me: Tons, and lots of credible authors.  But just take a tour of MMSD and surrounding districts and private schools as well, and observe what you see.  Come to my school if you want to see the differences that exist on the east and west sides of this small city and you can take note of how geography has an impact on institutionalized racism.  Go to Misa's classroom to witness student life, and while there, look to your left and right and see where kids of color are placed.  As happy and engaged as Misa is - and as satisfied as I am with her learning in that school, there are some race-related problems in that building. And to answer the question - consider pursuing topics about cultural differences, development of kids and adolescents, racism and its effects on White people and people of color, personal narratives and memoirs from poets, artists, musicians and the hip hop community.

Actively pursue a venue with older folks of color where race, ethnicity, and cultures are discussed.  You can learn a lot.  Maybe even be transformed.  Draw upon the insights of others.  My former teaching colleague and dear friend, Ms. Matson could hands down, address the underlying microdynamics of Misa's question in a frank and open way.  She'd remind me that her walk was long and at times really, really terrible, but as a pillar of resiliency and wisdom, she would tell me to never diminish Misa's feelings about being different.  I know that my search for being me as an educator and parent came from a strong mentorship by Ms. Matson.

Above all, the main thing is to stay open and listen to the words from your kids and students - from the witty and blunt to the abstract and linear, to the words that seem small or inconsequential and even to the torrential rain of words that seem like blather.  Listen and then do something to cultivate their sense of belonging.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Connections to Professional Development: Spoken Word and Beatboxing

At the start of the school year there was one thing I felt absolutely compelled to do, and that was to start a Spoken Word-Beatboxing club.  Together with my colleague Richard Henderson, we're 4 sessions in and getting our rhythm down.  Here's our first piece . . .

Spoken Word and Beatboxing from Vera Naputi on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Home and Place: Capturing it in Art, Natural Beauty, and Relationships

Sometime last spring around March, I was mesmerized by the sighting of a Great Grey Owl that took up residency outside of Madison. Although that bird has moved on, I was thankful for the photo Jeremy Hemberger captured, one that created a long-lasting impression in my mind.  I've known Jeremy for several years, primarily as a climber and after seeing his photos, I wanted to know how he uses the art of photography to capture home and place.  I love how he tells his story, especially how his "home-life" unfolded - circumstances many can relate to.  Mostly though, his message of capturing home and place is candid, forthright, and pretty sweet.  See some of his good work below his bio at the bottom of this post.  Read on and enjoy! 

Middleton, Wisconsin.  Cross Plains, Wisconsin.  Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.  New Glarus, Wisconsin.  Platteville, Wisconsin.  Madison, Wisconsin.  I suppose I agree with Todd’s first assessment (see his post below) of how we see places we call home: Geographic localities – places on the map that to us bring feelings of place and purpose.  Places where we grew up, where we shared memories (both good and bad). My homes have changed frequently over my young life.  My parents were never married.  While one stayed in the same place (Middleton), the other spiraled further and further away from my school and homes where my friends lived.  During my young life, I struggled with this concept as I saw all of my friends coming and going from the same place every day; whereas I never really knew whose house I was going to that night.  I was at two households sporadically through the week, with the balance of my time spent at my best friend Daniel's house.  His family built yet another place that I call home - treating me as if I was their own son.

Looking back at this and I think it made me who I am.  My vastly different experiences in two households often in different geographies of the state (relatively speaking) exposed me to a lot of people, places, and ideas.  But it was through my father and our adventures when I was a kid that I was brought closer to the place I know I can always call home: the natural world. 

For twenty-four years, I have been hooked to the places that allow me to take in the beauty and be inspired by Mother Nature’s brilliance.  Often when I say this, people assume I am talking about the National Parks, The Redwoods, Mt. Everest - the places where the most pristine landscapes we know of still exist unmolested.  I have been fortunate enough to visit some of these places.  I have stood in the stands of the mighty Redwoods and felt for the first time a sense of insignificance.  Walking delicately among the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, I caught a glimpse of the forces that helped to sculpt this incredible planet.  While these landscapes fill us with awe and marvel, they helped me to see something else.

When I returned from the trips that brought me face to face with these natural wonders, my views toward my home surroundings changed.  It wasn’t a feeling of desolation – a sort disappointment with my surroundings as compared to the great places I have been.  Rather, it was a respect and ability to see profound beauty in anything that surrounded me.  The pond across the street from my grandparents where I spent the better part of my young life took became a new playground again.  The marshes, woodlots, and state parks became extensions of my home.  I started searching for a way to capture this beauty and how I felt about it.  I began using the only media I knew I could do justice with - photographs. 

While I had used a camera in the past to preserve memories and places I had visited, it now became a different type of implement.  Before it had been a tool, and it now was becoming my pen, brush, or clay.  My artistic goal wasn’t abstract or shrouded in mystery.  I simply wanted to help others see the beauty that lay in front of them every day.  This type of message, I thought, could change how people see the world and perhaps foster a deeper respect, in much of the same way the Redwoods did for me. 

I am by no means an amazing photographer.  I stumble through self-taught, experimenting, and spending far too much money.  My photos are of things some may consider everyday images or wildlife.  That’s often true.  But I still capture these because I do want people to see what beauty lies just outside their door.
Wisconsin has always been outside my front door.  The culture, people, University, family, and friends all make me feel like I belong.  I have become a part of new communities over the years that have further set my foundation here.  Recently I have begun whole new chapter of my life as a graduate student here in Madison.  Perhaps most important to me though, is that I have started a whole new home with the person I love the most.  While this place is still in Madison, sharing it with someone you care about so much makes it a whole new experience. 

As the months go on, though, there will come a time when it is time for me to move on - to set down new foundations in new communities.  I don't know when this will be, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't afraid.  Despite my fears, I know that there will always be something to comfort me wherever I go.  I will always be able to marvel at and capture her beauty flying overhead, towering over me, flowing in front of me.  And when I do feel far away from home, I will have an incredible girl next to me who reminds me, that I am at home whenever we're together.  

Jeremy is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin studying entomology.  When not chasing insects around, he can be found at the climbing gym, on his mountain bike, out taking photographs, or eating donuts and enjoying time with family and friends.  To see some of his photography, or to learn about his research and academic pursuits, please visit www.jeremyhemberger.com

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: More Things I'd Say to Parents (Part II)

Of the 54 students on my team, about 15 of them probably should have waited a year before enrolling in kindergarten.  Really. All told - a period of 3 weeks with about 45 hours of classroom instruction compounded by the complexity of boys - and I know tons of public educators who teach students from  diverse neighborhoods would be able to say "I feel you Ms. Naputi."  So in the spirit of pre-adolescent boys who do some of the strangest things during class, I'm picking up where I left off and my next item for parents to know is this . . .

#9 Your son should have only the basic supplies for school.  This means a #2 pencil, a simple calculator, and some looseleaf paper.  Anything mechanical is a distraction (he'll take it apart) and anything that is constructed of separate parts should not be purchased (he'll bend, break and reconfigure it).  He can still write words on his basic calculator but at least he will not be fidgety if his paper doesn't have the fringes to remove.  If you can find or make a pencil box out of titanium and cover it in bubble wrap, that'd be awesome - your son can bang on it all he wants and when it inevitably falls to the floor it'll be as inconspicuous as a tiny weed sprouting.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I can avoid petty clashes with a kid who cannot control his impulses. And I'm sorry to harp on the boys, but all of my data points for distractibility aligns with that gender.  It also means that by keeping it simple for your kid, I can actually give positive acknowledgements for meaningful participation and engagement.

#10 I will avoid the -isms.  Sarcasm.  Cynicism.  Pessimism.  Middle school kids have a hard time differentiating these -isms, and adults really should be sensible because often these -isms border on being too much.  True, some are unaffected by sarcasm and there are those who are already cynical and a few who have adopted pessimism way too early in their lives and if this is so, then it can make adolescence even gloomier.

What does this mean for me as a teacher? It means that when I go there, I'll wage that battle with myself to get out of it.  As an educator, cynicism and pessimism are enticing because so many legit reasons exist that lead us to that black hole.  But there's danger there.  And I won't find transformation on that path and isn't that what teaching is all about?

#11 A dress code will be enforced.  Aside from the district dress code policy which I honor to the tee,your child needs to come to school dressed for their job.  This means they cannot wear pajamas or house slippers to my class.  There's just something musty and gross about a student rolling out of bed and coming to school without changing their panties or underwear.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I will dress professionally.  It means that the 6-year tradition of "Team Dress-up Day" on the first Tuesday of every month will continue, and that students who show up dressed-up (most of them do . . . ) will be recognized.  It means that at times my teaching partners and I will plan academic presentation formats to give them a purpose for dressing up, but to also help make the connection that presentation - in various forms whether it's on paper or in-person - makes a difference in how you feel and do.

#12 I will not always get the last word.  Saving face in the midst of a power struggle is a big deal to a kid.  If s/he says "So" or "I don't care" or "Make me," I'm going to think negative thoughts in my head but I'm going to back off.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I can't force a kid to be a student but I can believe in their human-ness and realize that everyone comes from a place of instability.  And really, it means that sometimes having the second to last word is okay.

#13 Your child isn't better than their peers.  When a student rolls their eyeballs at others, sighs heavily or even lightly, refuses to participate, or only wants to work alone or on their terms, it sends off vibes of superiority.  Worse is a gaggle of those profiles in a classroom and even worse is when that air of entitlement hovers over such rich and beautiful diversity.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I'm going to call out those kids who overtly and covertly judge others.  They probably don't even know how obvious their body language and actions are, so I'll be very specific when I show them what their airs and entitlement look like.  And I might have to be very direct and say some things they haven't ever heard before.  I might also issue a challenge that they form an alliance with someone who comes from a different neighborhood, social class, background, or who differs from them academically.  Because one thing we all have in common is that we all have stories to tell and contrary to perceptions and judgements, some might have similar ones to share.

#14 In a million words or less, tell us about your child.  It's the only parent homework you'll get.  Students are sent home with a blank sheet of paper with the direction, "In a million words or less, tell us about your child." The return-rate is high, and we get a range of responses - from a single paragraph to a 4-page essay, and they come back written in Spanish, typed or hand-written.  Sad to say though, a few come back blank or not at all - the blank one you see in the picture below was from a kid who said, "My mom said she's not gonna do no homework . . . "

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I get to know your child as a son or daughter, sometimes as a foster child, and occasionally as a grandchild.  I get to know them from your eyes and that means a lot to me.  But really, it says a lot about you.  Because underneath the descriptions of your child's talents and gifts, strengths and weaknesses, is the undeniable love and hope that you carry for your kid, and that makes me feel tremendously proud to be their teacher.

After next week it'll be one month since a bunch of parents' kids became students and I continue to look for ways I can practice being a better parent and teacher.  At the same time, Misa and John-Pio are into their own routines of school and play, and - biggest surprise of them all - Emma is coming into her own as a teacher in Kenya, a career path I thought she would never consider, and psyched to hear that she is.

I'm not gonna lie - I'm really tired and I've had a drink every single weeknight which goes against my usual routine, but I've managed regular workouts, some good runs, and a number of good climbing days.  So in the spirit of this blog also being about my favorite thing to do - climb - here's a video Misa took early September when she and I spent time focusing on a few climbing goals.

Climbing from Vera Naputi on Vimeo.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Home and Place: Your Place or Mine?

I love this on-going conversation about Home and Place - it keeps my mind flowing as I learn new ideas and perspectives from others.  In this piece, Todd Mei discusses "place" as it relates to our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, and our future plans.  The challenge is to reflect on "place" as an idea that extends beyond geography and location.  I get this.  In fact, it's one of the reasons I started this blog - to explore personal identity and write narratives about the very questions Todd poses here.  Enjoy this fine tuned piece that gives perspective on how and why people "inhabit" a place.  

Your Place or Mine?
        We tend to think of place in terms of places, or specific geographical locations. But do we ever think of place as a general concept we use to make sense of not only where we are physically but how we see ourselves—our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, our future plans?
         There has been much explored in recent philosophy on the concept of place, with the majority of it discussing how we, particularly in the West, have tended to forget its significance. So what exactly have we forgotten? Typical for philosophy, the answer is not easy to state in a few words. Rarely is it straightforward. But in the short space I have, I think it worthwhile discussing one aspect of what these philosophers of place raise, and that is how place is fundamental to understanding who one is. In a word, they refer to this as “habitation.” Habitation is essentially the way a local community of people dwell in a place according to conventions and customs which take into account relations to the whole of things. This whole includes nature, other people in the same place, other people who are strangers (non-local), a sense of boundary, a sense of what is sacred (and profane), and so on. In this regard, to inhabit a place is to live according to habits deemed appropriate for living with others.
Why is reflecting on place worthwhile? Because I think there are certain pressures in our modern life that encourage us either to forget about this relation to place—and therefore to forget about the fundamental way we come to understand ourselves—or to ignore place in our everyday routines. I will mention one example of this in closing.
                  If it is true, as I said at the outset, that we primarily think of place in terms of geographical locations, then the common way of thinking of oneself as “coming from” a place seems a bit odd. We do not merely come from a geographical place: “I am from Orange, California.” Rather, it seems fairer to say that in speaking of a place of origin, one is referring not just to geography but a specific kind of lifestyle, culture, or . . . habitation. Perhaps this seems a truism. I would not deny this, but what is obviously true in one sense may still have much significance which is not so obvious. What might be hidden in this respect is how a specific place forms our relation to everything else. Buildings and scapes are the most explicit expression of place. Consider how a cityscape dominated by the car often results in a place not intended for the pedestrian. Where I grew up, the local hills were steep, yet access to these hills was primarily by car and not foot or even bicycle. So instead of having gradual switchbacks, the roads shot straight up the hillside. What kind of customs and habits develop from such cityscapes? And are these profoundly different from, say, the European-styled city in which a car is not only not necessary but largely a nuisance?
                  I think we often try to explain such differences in terms of cultural relativity—London is culturally different from Los Angeles. I am not dismissing this explanation, but what I want to show is that such differences are not due to varying cultures but rather how cultures vary because of the way they are tied fundamentally to the way their place of origin is inhabited, in the sense I mentioned earlier. Take for instance the practice of the ownership of property. It is a “habit” (or convention) that is specific to and determined by place. Nomadic tribes often have no sense of private property of land in perpetuity, and where one finds conventions of ownership in the customs of indigenous people, they are often qualified by a specific ethical relation to nature and to other people meant to curb or prevent the kinds of oligopolies common today.
                  So even if what I have described is a truism, I still think one can ask whether or not we notice this relation to place actively when we go about our day-to-day lives and especially when we go to foreign places.
I want now to turn to an example of how we tend to forget this relation, and though it may smack of technophobia, I do not intend it as a criticism of technology. Given the use of mobile communication devices, we tend to reduce place to an intermediate location “on the way” to somewhere else. We text on trains, in cars, while walking, even while talking to others. So while such devices facilitate communication in remarkable ways, this facilitation encourages the forgetting of place—of where we are in that moment when we use those devices. “This” street is now any street; it is any street because it is merely a length of asphalt and concrete on which I can text a friend. It is well known that other types of technology encourage this type of forgetting, as when a Sat Nav enables us to get to a destination but without any real, conscious awareness of how we do so on the physical land, that is, through places.
                  But maybe this is all trivial compared to what seems to really matter to us? Perhaps it is, but of course it may only seem so because we have little regard for place. One of the consequences of this lack of regard may be an inability to think of relations with outsiders in a more hospitable way. Place might then become the locus through which I can greet another person, make myself available to him or her. My own sense is that this would add a very human dimension to what we term multicultural relations. Of course, this is easier said than done. But at the same time, such saying is not empty. For something to be possible, it must also be said since this saying is an essential way of inhabiting place.

Todd Mei is an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.  He climbs and windsurfs occasionally, has a penchant for bourbon and gin martinis, and endeavors to keep one-finger, one arm pull ups as a staple of his maintenance workouts.  Check out Todd's other piece on this blog:  "Stereotypes and Race: China is Here."