Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Connections to Professional Development: A Letter of Questions

[I wrote this for a friend of mine who will be teaching an English Methods course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her class is based around Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Freire's Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach. She asked me to write a letter to a future educator, particularly a future English teacher. I left it intact here, but feel it applies to all educators. I love that it gave me a chance to reflect and consider my values as an educator.]

To Future English Teacher,

It’s 2014 and this year is notably very different from last year.  Last year I had 7th graders who were eager to learn and thrive.  This years batch of 6th graders are still figuring out how to be nice to each other.  This reminds me that we are all a work in progress - even as I am midway through my 25th year of teaching, I am still quite aware of the ebb and flow of my work.  You are on the brink of something really dynamic where answers do not come so easily and the complexities nag you like an attached two year old child.   Although I’ve had different mentors throughout my life, I will say that the true guides have been questions I’ve asked myself and others.  Questions that do not have pat, simplistic answers but ones that cause me discomfort and stress, breakthroughs and inspiration, and always, always abnormal sleep patterns.  Let me just pose them here for you to consider as you walk down this incredibly important path doing the greatest work in the world.  

The answer to, “Is that the best you could do?” is always no.  At least it is in education.  A better question is, “What resource could help you do that better?”  Depend on people, time, and materials so that you don’t do this work alone.  

Were you in charge of the magic today?  Each of your students come to you with their own stories - they have different needs and need something different from you.  So differentiate.  If there’s anything worth doing really well, it’s learning to teach to the ones on the edges, the ones who get it fast and apply it well, and the ones who need more time to handle it.  Learn to teach the weird.  Get into it with the eccentric and quirky.  You can learn some things from that punk-ass kid who thinks school is a waste of time.   There is no one way to differentiate instruction or curriculum, and the honest truth is it can be large scale disarray.  It can be frustrating and burdensome to prepare different sets of materials and collaborate with colleagues, not to mention the necessary time it takes to collect and analyze student work, but it’s so worth it when your student demonstrates a level of competency. And that’s the hidden secret behind our teacher contracts: We’re super-heroes!

Who has a seat at the table?  Invite your students to learn alongside you.  In a democratic classroom, everyone gets to come to the table.  This means you have to teach the whole kid - not just the brain or the heart, but the whole shebang.  It means that you have to stay up on pop culture, know the names of neighborhood streets and apartment complexes, understand family dynamics and systems, and above all, allow your students to have a say in what they want to learn.  

There’s nothing that makes a teacher feel more vulnerable than times when you just don’t feel like you’re reaching every kid.  What helps is  when you face the question,“Who did you overlook today?” Every day teachers have to push against multiple variables and make instructional decisions that often result in compromising a 5-minute check-in with an attentive student for a 10-minute processing session with one who is struggling.  Embracing this reality is part of the deal, but remember, compromising is not a goal but a temporary solution or diversion.   You’ll get that kid the next day.  

As a future English teacher, you are in charge of words, phrases, literary elements, writing strategies, literature, engaging discussions, multi-media lessons, to name a few.  One of the best guiding questions to ask yourself are three simple ones: “What are my students going to read today?  What are my students going to write today?  What will they talk about today? “  To be really engaging, it’s just as important that you are doing the work you’re requiring of your students.  Would you likely be able to answer these questions for yourself in a way that guides your practice?  The surest way to avoid being that dull English teacher is to make certain you’re reading, writing, and talking - and might I add, creating.  Dust off those blank journals friends and relatives have given you over the years and start recording your stories.  

You’ve gone through schooling and probably some employment so you must know that a dynamic environment can fuel what I call “isms.”  The likes of cynicism, sarcasm, pessimism are torches that can fire you up and burn an unhealthy dose of negativity into your heart, mind, and soul.  Whenever these rise up, you have to wage that battle with yourself to get out of it - you have to ask yourself, “Who did I judge today?”  “What made me feel catty and gossipy?” “What negative emotion or action did I perpetuate?”  And once you’ve had the courage to answer these, you can then self-administer some essence of forgiveness, because tomorrow is a new day.  By the way, be cautious out there - there are those who prefer to live in the world of -isms, so it’s up to you to ask, “How did I experience fair judgement today?”  

It’s almost as if I have to re-learn and re-up my subscription to these questions time and time again. And while the point of this letter is to relate and identify some things I would like pre-service English teachers to know, I hope you understand that content is only part of the practice.  Really, what it really comes down to are introspective questions that are on-going and and risky because it requires communication inwardly and together.  There are times when you will be misunderstood, so if it’s important that you be understood, then say it more clearly.  Say it again.  Then act on it, and live it. Teaching and learning go hand in hand - they’re both verbs and that means that we have to do the conscious work of acting it out.  

And just as I’m coming to a close here, there are still several more questions brewing that I would be remiss not to share.  I leave you with them along with my very best wishes for a risk-filled, active, introspective endeavor.  

What do they believe?
Who do they trust?
What are they afraid of and who do they love?
What are they seeking?
Who are their friends?
Where is the how, the why, and when?


Vera Naputi

6th-7th Grade Teacher
Sherman Middle School

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Change and Fitness: Where You Come From Matters

Learning about the early lives of my friends gives perspective.  I first met Rick Miller bouldering side-by-side working problems on the same wall - always positive and just an all-around nice person, he and I became fast climbing friends.  Along the way I learned some things and once again, was reminded by Rick's story here, that where you come from matters.  Read on and enjoy this honest piece!  

I had an odd childhood.  My parents were separated on and off, and as a kid, I moved around a lot - 12 different schools in 4 states and 3 summer schools.  These early experiences left me with a different view on life, or at least my own perception of Life.  Growing up, I was called a "half-breed" being part Caucasian and Asian because I was half of each, and what it did was instilled in me this idea that I was already different from everyone else.

At times I found myself hiding one of my ethnicities to try and fit into a mold that was called the norm.  Due to this fact and moving a lot, I never quite had the opportunities I could have let myself have in certain circumstances, particularly to play in sports.  Because of my inconsistencies in grades, I wasn't eligible for sports anyway, and found that the most accepting crowd/clique in school were the artsy-goth kids.  So you are who you hang with in some respects.  I mostly avoided making friends so as to avoid the feeling of losing them when one moves away like I was bound to do.

After moving out on my own at 17, I found myself to be semi-reclusive and shy to the world.  Somehow I managed to graduate from high school and started taking care of my mother who had colon cancer at the time, and ended up settling into a quiet social life which was nil in 1998 and beyond.

Eventually years later, 2006, I found myself desiring life, a life of my own.  I wanted to connect with nature and started to hike and trail run on the trails of state parks.  One of those parks happened to be Devils Lake, and it was there that I saw my first real live rock climber.  I was instantly curious and fascinated and wanted to know more about this seemingly leisure activity.

At the end of the summer of 2006, I was 26, and found myself at a location in the Dells called Vertical Illusions.  It gave rock climbing courses so I didn't hesitate to sign up and learn more about not just the activity, but also myself and my fears and ability to reflect and problem solve issues.  Like most climbers, I started top roping outside which led to easy climbing to hard leads, evolving into sport climbing and then bouldering - the last discipline of the sport for me.   I found myself in various places I would not normally find myself: Hueco, Bishop, Yosemite . . . All helped me gain what felt like a positive foothold on life being surrounded by positive challenges.

By 2007, I was told by a friend about an indoor climbing gym in Madison, WI.  And it was there at Boulders Climbing Gym where my life changed.  Not just because of the great route setting, but because of the beautifully diverse and open people.  It was unlike any other sport I previously tried, those that were always around an alpha male or an ego or points or teams of division where someone got picked last.  Here everyone bonded, everyone smiled, and everyone was noticed.

My life has been deeply enriched through positive people pushing my mental and physical limits to achieve what is considered and labeled a "problem," and to find the most efficient way to solve it.  I became a closet athlete.  I began to run more, and run longer.  I bought a 12 station workout machine for my spare bedroom, lifted weights, did core training, and climbed in the gym 6 hours a day for 5 days a week. Even with all this I still could only boulder V3's, my plateau and arch nemesis.  I found myself stumbling time after time to break that grade and remained unsuccessful until I met a few wonderful women who I watched to understand form vs. power, finesse over brawn, a mental tenacity to listen to the body not just the mind.  These two ladies, Vera Naputi and Anne Hughes, inspired me to discover a new form set for climbing and were openly friendly to anyone regardless of strength.  I felt accepted for once, something that hadn't occurred for me in a long time, being surrounded by people who would eventually introduce me to more great people.

Eventually because of these great people, I broke through and climbed a V4, but more importantly, these wonderful people helped me break through my shy self.  From 2007 to 2012, I've had my ups and downs with climbing, progressing through training and dietary lifestyle vs. laziness and Krispy Cremes or having a 40 hour week job.  Having climbed 13c and V11, I'm now on a hiatus from climbing.  I'm unable to climb a V4 or a 10d.  And I wonder if all that training was wasted.

But I find myself without regrets, because there's an epiphany in all of this - that it was the people around me who made life more enjoyable, not necessarily the short lived feeling of a send, but a sense of unity.  I no longer climb these days and have reverted back into a life I used to have before this, but what little time I spent in that community, whether they were considered a great climber or not, still were rainbows in my skies.

On a side note, I'm an only child who didn't meet my cousins until my late teens.  I have only met one set of my grandparents.  My Asian grandfather was unfortunately taken and shot, then killed in front of my grandmother and her kids (my mother was probably 3 or 4 years old), during the Korean War.  So my mother grew up without a proper education which made for awkward table manners :).   I guess that's why it was always hard to make friends.  

[Not so at Boulders Climbing Gym, where in my opinion, Rick goes down as one of the nicest guys there . . . ]

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Becoming an athlete: Building Competence, Making Friends, and Training

Pursuing excellence is a goal for many of us, and Sue Lottridge is one of the best models for this challenging goal.  Here she describes her journey as an athlete and the value of training and friendships.  Of all my friends who are at high levels of training and performance, Sue is the most humble and always the one having the most fun.  Enjoy this piece!

Aside from T-ball in grade school, I didn't do much with sports growing up. In high school I tried tennis, but somewhere along the line that went bad when the coach accused me of writing an anonymous nasty letter. I didn't write the letter of course, but the accusation told me in no uncertain terms: you don't belong in sports. Being resilient, I simply changed focus and worked on academics. I occasionally ran a mile when I felt fat and lifted weights but didn't do sports for much of my 20s.

Then Boulders climbing gym opened and as John Bingham says, “I became an adult-onset athlete.” As I think happened with a lot of the new climbers, I became... well… obsessed with climbing. I was terrible, having no athletic background at all, but loved climbing for the simple pleasure of movement and the quick advancement that sport provides. I climbed pretty much every day and miraculously escaped overuse injuries. And, for the first time in my life, I became good at a sport! I loved the feeling of competence and of strength. And, since the gym was new, everyone was progressing the same way, making for a fun and vibrant community of climbers and boulderers. The Madison Women Climbers group was born and through that, climbing at the gym, and at Devil's Lake, I met inspiring, strong, athletic women. The fun times learning problems with Vera, Annie, Lisa, Amy, and Lindsay were some of the best in my life and I miss all those women dearly now that I live elsewhere. I read a quote recently and have no idea whether it is true in general but it is true for me: "The most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women. " (The Happiness Project). Through climbing I learned the value of simply hanging with the girls (sorry guys!).

Paul and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and I quickly learned that what I value most about sport is not the sport itself but the community. In Harrisonburg, biking is king; the community is strong and there are rides every day of the week. There's actually fantastic climbing in Virginia/West Virginia, but the community is small. So, climbing took a back-seat. I learned to get over my fear of gravel, of rocks, of logs, of speed, of off-camber, and got in darn good shape climbing mountains. And, what I learned in Harrisonburg was to simply enjoy myself and make fun the priority of riding. There, probably in part because the riding is so technical but also because the people there are just so chill, group rides consisted of newbies like me, professional mountain bikers, and everyone else along the spectrum. This made for lots of learning and lots of fun and cemented in me a deep respect for group rides (and the obligatory beer and pizza or Thai after). And, once again, I met ridiculously strong and fun women and rode countless hours with them (and even climbed). Kristin, Amy, Anne, and Rachel, I can't put in words how much I miss you!

Well, now I live in Colorado and have taken up "training for races," mainly just to see what I'm capable of -- to take me in a new direction than just fun. This has opened up a whole can of worms in that those old "you don't belong in sport" issues learned in high school arise and I have to remind myself that I'm just as allowed to train and race as the next person when I pay my race fee. And, even though I'm certainly no great athlete, I still can have a goal that is important to me. It's an interesting thing, to train. It's here where you come face to face with your own limitations, where you put faith in the plan, you put in the work, and you hope it pays off. For me, training has been pretty solitary, the opposite of my time in Virginia and Madison. It allows me to achieve things I've not thought possible and in the end challenges me to be a better person by pursuing 'excellence,' but at the same time I wonder if it’s worth it. The current challenge in my athletic life is: how do you train for a goal AND be part of a community, especially a community of women athletes. I have yet to resolve it, and if you have any suggestions, please email me!

So, in the end, my athletic journey, like much of my life, has been following my nose and interests in new areas and seeking challenges. It has led me to new sports, new places, and new approaches to sport. I'm grateful for them all and to all the people I've encountered along the way. Even with my current reservations, each experience helps me to see the world in a new way, simply enjoy feeling of using my body, and feel strong and competent. I think in the end, that's what it’s about: enjoying experiences, challenging ourselves, feeling the beauty of movement, and enjoying it with people we love. Even with the occasional doubt, I now know I "belong in sport" but on my own terms.

Hate the role or love it, Sue Lottridge is a psychometrician. She leads the efforts at her company to develop and use an automated scoring engine which employs computer programs to score test-taker responses to constructed response items, essays, and the like. In short, she is a geek, but reasonably pleasant to hang out with in spite of it. She loves rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running, and open water swimming and is planning to do her first ironman this coming summer in Boulder.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Change: Realities of an Active Climbing Family

Fitness and how people grow and change is really interesting to me. I've been following Jamie Laurer's life for several years now and always love seeing her family out hiking and climbing. I wanted to know more about her lifestyle since most everyone knows that being a working family with personal goals is dynamic and ever-changing. I related with gusto to Jamie's sentiments and experiences that I actually teared up remembering the challenges and joys climbing as a young family. Here's a wonderful account of the realities behind the scenes and a few tricks to share when being active outdoors with young ones. Enjoy!

Doesn’t this photo look as though climbing as a mom or working out as a mom is a piece of cake?  I am here to tell you what this photo failed to capture was a morning filled with tears from a 2 year old young daughter (who I adore named Kaitlin) who did not want to hike into the bouldering area. That was followed by the fact that we weren’t even sure how to fit everything into our crash pads.  We looked like two gumbies with overstuffed burritos on our backs and two toddlers who were not happy about our adventures.  The bonus part is that you will clear out an area in no time and have the place to yourself.

I was honored when Vera wanted me to write a piece for her blog.  This writing will capture what it is like to work out with a family and find our own time to train as climbers.  Prior to having kids, my husband Tom and I lived in Phoenix and climbed almost every single weekend.  We made great friends and had so many awesome memories.  Neither one of us have ever been afraid to explore or take risks, until we became parents.   When our son Ryan was born I was so tired and overwhelmed that I had no idea how to work out or take a child outdoors into our climbing world.  My husband wanted to take a road trip with Ryan but I was too full of hormones to see the value of this trip (which I still regret not taking.) I am not afraid to admit that when I take a peek into the past, I was so nervous about being a new parent that the only thing I could think about was making it to the next day.  Everything went out the door the first few months including working out and climbing.  I am always impressed with the articles about the young mothers who have newborns at the crag.  I’ll be honest and say I wish I could have been as carefree and confident as they were when my son was that age.  

Climbing and working out is not a hobby for Tom and me - it's a lifestyle.  If too many days pass without working out or climbing we both get very grumpy. 

Fast forward about three years and we found our groove. Tom’s job relocated us back to the midwest.  Because we had two toddlers, making it into the gym was not going to happen easily so we turned our basement into a climbing wall.  This was a pretty easy project as we had a huge climbing wall in our home in Phoenix. We actually looked at homes based upon space for our wall.  That’s what climbers do and real estate agents look at you like you’re crazy.  We had a 15 foot wall in Phoenix in our front living room because we had 23 foot ceilings.  Tom is an expert at building them and he has a great vision for spaces.  We are both into bouldering and love steep climbing so we went to work building the wall of our dreams.   I was in charge of the math and Tom was in charge of the actual building.  I strongly suggest if you have the space and you’re a climber...build it. 

We train all the time.  Once at Shady Grove in the Red, Tom just finished onsighting a 12b and another climber asked him how he trained for it.  His reply “I just climb in my basement all winter. ” The other climber was shocked and said “that must be one hell of a basement.”  

When Ryan was about three and Kaitlin two, we decided that we were going to get back into our normal lives and take these little guys on the adventure of a lifetime...hanging out while we climb.  We started with little trips to Hoot Bluff in Iowa and graduated to the Red River Gorge and one of our favorite places in the whole world (where we had our first date), Jackson Falls, Illinois.

This little photo is of Kaitlin ( age 2) topping out at Torrent Falls in Kentucky.  It was not easy to tote two toddlers, but I figured out some tricks. I always went to the dollar store and put little presents in their backpacks that they could open when we got to the crag. This was a motivation to hike.  We also bribed them with “treats” from the gas station to motivate them during the hike back.  This is especially important if you’re in Muir Valley.  Once Tom had to put 2-year old Kaitlin (who refused to hike) in the sling and carry her up from Muir Valley with a 50 lb climbing pack on his back.  

I will also tell you that projecting a route can be impossible.  I don’t know how they do it but they know when mom is on the rock and that’s when they decide to start WWIII over some lunchable. This is why I get upset when I read a climbing mag about some woman who has 10 kids, works 80 hours a week and climbs 5.13 like it is a walk in the park.  My husband always teases me when he reads these articles.

What they don’t tell you is that she has a nanny, took a sabbatical from  work and trains like a dog on the rock.  She also has a crag in her backyard as well and never takes her kids with her when she is on a project.  Honestly, these kinds of stories do not motivate mothers, they make us feel like incompetent women.  A little voice inside my head would say “What the hell is wrong with you?  You stay at home and only have two kids so why aren’t you cruising 5.15d?”  In my defense I did finally redpoint Gravity Amp (12a) in Iowa over a three year span, fell at the anchors of Golden Shower (12b) the climb right next to it about a million times (currently still working on that one.), ran a PR in a marathon and  won a few tennis tournaments which seems to pale in comparison to this superwoman.  

While I am not even close to climbing a 5.13, I was acclimating our kids to travel, adventure and climbing.  They became the best car travelers at only 4 years old and could easily manager a 9-12 hour car ride to the nearest crag. I became an expert at giving out little presents every few hours into the ride or renting the right movies.  Travel was a lot slower than when Tom and I used to drive together but we didn’t care.  Honestly, we both peed in bottles to save time from stopping.

We flew with them to Bishop to boulder and just watching their expressions as they saw the desert for the first time was awesome.  These kids didn’t need electronics to have fun.  They would spend hours in the desert, the forest or the boulders of southern Illinois making their own fun. To show just how tough any kid can be, a few Thanksgivings ago, we camped at Jackson Falls for our annual Thanksgiving tradition.  The low at night was 22 degrees.  To warm them up in the morning we sent them out for firewood.  They had a blast carrying back big trees together and we got a kick out of watching them.  This year was our first year staying home for Thanksgiving and Kaitlin commented “but camping is our tradition and I miss camping.”  Music to my ears.  

A few years ago we did take an unforgettable road trip.  As a family we camped for two weeks and traveled out west.   The kids still talk about how awesome that trip was and about how much they learned.   There were hiccups with older children too as it was 100 degrees on our first 5 travel days and everyone was grumpy.  I believe we all hated Mount Rushmore because we hiked around it in 105 degrees and we had just gotten out of the car after 20 hours of family time.  Eventually we all acclimated to the weather and had one of the best trips of our lives.  We shared so many laughs at the Cody rodeo and were anticipating Yellowstone.  Their favorite part was whitewater rafting down the Snake River in Jackson Hole.  At the time my boss (who claimed to be this big outdoorsman) asked how the camping went wondering how many times we had to abandon our plans and hit a hotel.  I replied it was so awesome, we never had to stay in a hotel.  He was shocked as he tried taking his three young girls camping and lasted two hours.  I told him not to give up and that there will be more challenging nights initially but they will learn to love it.  

For us, working out as a family is something we have always done and will continue to do.    I won’t lie to you, there were plenty of tears and meltdowns at the crag or on a hike.  There were times we even thought to ourselves “Why in the world are we doing this?”  If you expect many hiccups or delays then you will never be disappointed.  As a teacher I’m ready when organized chaos presents itself.  

Now that the kids are 12 and 10 they are into their own sports.  That has thrown us another curve ball for working out and planning.  It's hard to fit in climbing workouts when we are running around every day of the week.  It took us two years to figure out that “you pick a day for working out and you stick to it.”  Too many times we were guilty of rescheduling at the last minute which ended with missing workouts.  Any workout is better than no workout.  I live by that and often have to remind myself of that when I’m trying to climb but all I can think about is the pile of laundry and the AP chemistry test I forgot to write.  

Right now we aren’t able to get outside climbing as easily because our weekends are full, but we’ve adapted by using our holiday breaks as travel times to different crags all over the country.  During the hot summer months we wakeboard and waterski up north.  During the winter months we hit the slopes together. To my own surprise my own kids got me into a new sport when I signed them up for ski club.  Now we ski and snowboard almost every winter weekend.  It is so much fun when your kids are cheering you on.   

Don’t ever be afraid to start working out with your kids no matter what your age.   If you’re afraid to take your kids out with you, don’t be.  There will be people like me somewhere in the area to cheer you on.  

Jamie is fortunate to belong to a very active family which includes an awesome husband/workout partner/belayer named Tom and two adventurous kids, Ryan and Kaitlin. All have taught her the value of staying young and trying new things. Tom and Jamie both grew up in Illinois, and have also lived in Chicago and Phoenix. They are currently residing in Hartford, Wisconsin.  During the day, Jamie has the honor of teaching 160 students all different levels of chemistry. She likes to blow things up (all are invited to come see her Halloween show.)  A student once asked her if she had any normal hobbies as all of her hobbies seemed extreme.  Having never really thought about it that way, she went through the list in her head and got her student's point!  List in head: rock climbing, water skiing, snow skiing, trail running and tennis.  Tennis seems to be the only normal one in the bunch.  Every year after the AP Chem exam she shows a rock climbing video for the remainder of the testing week.  It’s one way of showing them a glimpse into her world.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Change: Rework

Now that I'm on the 2nd day of school closing due to extreme weather, I had to make myself change the course of the past two weeks by treating today's day off like any other normal weekday - kids were up at 6am and dressed.  It went pretty well, except that I don't normally whip up crepes with Nutella and hot chocolate to help the kids start their day, and I rarely get to drink two cups of coffee, unload the dishwasher, and read.

I just finished the book Rework which is about leadership in complex places driven by knowledge.  To these authors, success isn't predefined - it can't be handed out neatly on a page to implement with fidelity and precision.  While this idea seems like common-sense, I often feel trapped in a workplace that wants so badly for success to occur in this way.  Since last November, I began to really note the difference it makes in investing tons of time, energy and effort into short-range planning instead of the long-range.  I think it's easier to change direction especially when vulnerable to work and a lifestyle that at times can be volatile.

What spoke to me most after reading the book was that success happens when an organization's commitment responds to current realities.  That applies to my personal life, too.  During a training session the other day I walked out with a structured program, one that fits my lifestyle of kids, work, socializing, climbing, and running - one that I can commit to because it responds to my current realities.  When training, that's important to me.

So anyway, I'm not recommending the book unless you're looking for #20 on your list of books to read.  Among a few other good points, I think I also just liked the word and the concept.