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Message from the Heart

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All day last Wednesday, I felt a tightness and an ache in my chest every time I inhaled. It took about eight hours of chest pains for me to text my doctor friend and ask her if needed to do something. Her answer was yes, which led to a few hours in the ER and a battery of tests. In the meantime, I typed and planned and did my thing with my MacBook:

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Then they gave me a prescription dose of Tylenol and diagnosed me with muscle pain and sent me home. 

All this brings me to Jesus Calling: Devotions for Every Day of the Year by Sarah Young. 

I have a hard time with prayer. And getting myself to church, to be honest. Last fall, I recently joined the choir at our new church in St. Louis in large part because I needed to sing and be part of the service to show up. Sometimes I still don’t show up. At the same time, I’m an emotional, spiritual person for whom there are moments when I feel God’s presence so closely that I tear up and I can’t explain why. I tend to believe that it’s grace, and not weakness, that moves me to tears at random moments of my life. We think by feeling, my favorite poem reads. 

With all my feelings, I have mixed feelings about the Catholic liturgy through which I worship every week. The repetition and the deep traditions are affirming, grounding, comforting… But they can have the effect of dulling the senses, for me. 

The unique quality of this devotional is that it mixes scripture with the firm, loving, generous voice of Jesus as author Sarah Young imagines Jesus would speak to us. This approach goes a long way to strengthen my prayer life, helping me to break through the silence that I sometimes feel on the opposite end of my petitions. 

It seems to be a universal experience that has something to do with free will: the reality that God — the least controlling, nagging teacher — chooses to speak to us through the quiet, persistent voice of our own conscience and inner moral compass. Right now my husband Padraic is reading Silence (recently turned into a movie), about how Spanish priests grappled with their perceived silence of God in an inhospitable, persecutory Japan. 

So the silence is universal, and perhaps, meaningful; but it’s also worthwhile, as Jesus Calling does for me, to imagine the voice on the other side. I especially connected to this reading from April 1st about “not making an idol of your to-do list.” This is something I consistently do, separating me in some, gradual, corrosive way, from the people I love and the God who loves me so much more than I can imagine: 

I am calling you to a life of constant communion with me. Basic training includes learning to live above your circumstances, even while interacting on that cluttered plane of life. You yearn for a simplified lifestyle, so that your communication with Me can be uninterrupted. But I challenge you to relinquish the fantasy of an uncluttered world. Accept each day just as it comes, and find Me in the midst of it all.

Talk with Me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything around you; it is to keep communing with Me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with Me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask My Spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to me.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Proverbs 3:6

How do you break the silence?

The Meaning of Michelle

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My response to the tornado of events precipitated by the Donald Trump administration has been one of occasional action and full-fledged nostalgia.

On the morning of inauguration day, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my friend Allison and me on a crowded, neon-lit Michigan Avenue the night Barack Obama was elected. We were wearing Yes We Can Change shirts featuring a tight-lipped, determined Barack Obama, and we held each other with glowing, teethy smiles.

I re-watched YouTube videos of Barack Obama casually chuckling at the potential reality of Donald Trump becoming president, when asked on CBSN one year ago. I indulged in a second viewing of President Obama roasting Donald Trump at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I pinned images of Michelle in glamorous, curve-hugging, shoulder-draping gowns at state dinners. 

Then I called and tweeted some congress people, donated some money to the ACLU, patted myself on the back, and visited Amazon to order The Meaning of Michelle, a series of personal essays about Michelle Obama’s legacy.

The first essay I read was “She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency,” by Rebecca Carroll. Having just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God with my American Lit class, I was curious about the comparison Carroll makes between Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

Carroll writes that Michelle is the “embodiment of what black American writer Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote: ‘I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.’” I think what she means is that both Michelle and Zora are/were both resolutely themselves in the public eye, which, as Carroll writes, was “no small thing for a Black woman in the 1930s, and sadly… no small thing for a Black woman in the 2000s either.” Carroll argues that Barack Obama, struggling to find his place as a biracial black man with an unconventional upbringing, was attracted to Michelle for the very reason that she was grounded in her blackness, and fully immersed in it. Carroll identifies with the former President’s longing for this grounding partner, growing up as a “Black adoptee in a white family.”

In “Lady O and King Bey,” Brittney Cooper writes of the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share.” Cooper points that Michelle, as First Lady, had an opportunity to reclaim something that black women are often denied:

“In a world in which Black women were always treated as women but never as ladies, a Black woman becoming the icon of American ladyhood is a triumph of the hopes and dreams of all those race ladies of old.”

Given the significance of Michelle Obama’s ladyhood, her public admiration of Beyoncé implies that she also lays claim to another version of black womanhood, one characterized by body confidence and sex appeal, and also a taking of pleasure in “flouting the rules of social propriety.”

For example, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” for the 2016 Super Bowl, critiquing “anti-Black state violence” and wearing costumes with a sartorial nod to the Black Panther Movement, Michelle told Gayle King in an interview, “’I care deeply about the Halftime Show. I hope Beyoncé likes what I have on’ [She] was dressed in a black blouse with black slacks.”

Super Bowl aside, I can imagine there have been many times Michelle may have wanted to channel Beyoncé in “flouting the rules of social propriety.” For example, when “Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin remarked that Michelle Obama had a ‘big butt,’ and thus no business leading the Let’s Move! Campaign,” as Cooper writes. In explaining Michelle Obama’s need for Beyoncé, Cooper writes that

“sometimes ratchet is a more appropriate register in which to check your haters than respectability will ever be. But overtly ratchet Mrs. Obama simply cannot be. Beyoncé can be as ratchet as she wants to be though, and in this, I think the First Lady finds a place to let her hair down and put her middle fingers up.”

According to Cooper, the friendship between Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is both remarkable and “regular as rain,” or rather, “reign.” Their friendship is a testament to the fact that:

“The U.S. is no nation for Black women. It is too limited a container for the magic we bring. And because the American national imaginary is built on the most limited and stingy ideas about who Black women get to be, when we are called to navigate the terrain of racial representation as public figures, many sisters return to the most basic truth we have – we need each other to survive.”

In “Becoming the Wife,” Cathi Hanauer identifies with Michelle’s willingness to set aside a prestigious career to become “Mom-in-Chief.” When Hanauer met her husband, she was an established writer looking to do “something more meaningful” by applying to an MFA program. Her would-be husband was a struggling writer working odd jobs as a ski instructor and a janitor. He eventually became the editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column, a wild success, as Hanauer gradually increased her role as primary parent and homemaker.

In Michelle Obama’s case, as is widely known, she was Barack Obama’s mentor before she became his helpmate. After she married Obama in 1992, they lived “separate professional lives”… up to a point. As Hanauer writes,

“What did change, work-wise, for Michelle – as it did for me, and as it does for so many college-educated women, particularly once children are involved – is that we both reached a point in our lives and marriages when we agreed to become… The Wife – as our husbands took on the more important and lucrative work role. We did this for the greater good of our marriages, our families, and in Michelle’s case, the world; and maybe even, as mothers, for ourselves. Michelle became Mrs. President. And I became Mrs. Modern Love.”

There’s something refreshingly real about the way that Hanauer frames the choice to become the wife, the helpmate once children enter the picture – that it’s a choice borne out of practicality, human limitations, a humility in not demanding oneself to be everything to everybody. This willingness to inhabit a prescribed role, and a traditional, non-glamorous one at that, seems like a matter of maturing for the younger versions of Michelle and Cathi, embarking solo on their careers with Plans – at once laser-sharp and limitless.

When I mentioned this essay to my husband, he said that the notion of success, in his view, has evolved from sacrifice to achievement. We used to judge women, and to an extent, men, by how much they had sacrificed for others, whereas we judge them now by their individual solo accomplishments. I think one of the reasons Michelle Obama is so popular is precisely owing to the amount and quality of her sacrifice, for her children, for her husband, for her willingness to make her motherhood and wifehood public, assuming a role that seems both demanding and tedious. This feeling of admiration and gratitude doesn’t confer as easily onto Barack Obama, as his public sacrifices seem tied up with his personal ambitions.

And then, in spite of our admiration, there’s a collective instinct to see Michelle pursue her ambitions, full-force. Ironically, perhaps, this is how Hanauer ends her laudatory essay on becoming the wife:

“I can’t wait to see what she does next. And what she does after that, when her children are grown and she can focus with far fewer distractions on her career. She has said she’ll never run for president herself. To that, I say: Never say never, Michelle. Let’s just see where we all are a decade from now.”

“Right Is Right”

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My last post addressed the first strategy in Teach Like a Champion. It also addressed some bloggers’ critiques of Teach Like a Champion and the more broad dilemma between intentionality and authenticity that I personally experience as a teacher.

Despite my appreciation for the criticisms of Teach Like a Champion, I still view it as a valuable resource. So onward and upward…

Technique #2 is called “Right Is Right,” which really resonated with me. This technique is broader and more far-reaching than “No Opt Out,” in my opinion.

“Right is “Right” is essentially having a high standard when it comes to answers that you accept as correct (for me as an English teacher, I’m thinking mainly of class discussions).

Lemov addresses the widespread tendency of teachers to add on to students’ answers, and then to give the student credit for providing a correct answer, instead of questioning students when they provide a partially correct answer until they reach an answer that is 100 percent correct.

In the section, “Hold out for all the way,” Lemov cautions teachers to distinguish between effort and mastery, rewarding effort but encouraging students to build to mastery.

In “Answer the question,” Lemov points out that students learn to skate by in school by providing smart answers to questions that weren’t asked, so it’s important to hold students accountable to the specific question being asked.

In “Right answer, right time,” Lemov encourages teachers to hold students to answering questions in sequence instead of moving ahead, in order to emphasize the process and make sure all students are all learning instead of just one student moving at an accelerated pace. And then, in “use technical vocabulary,” Lemov encourages teachers to get students to use academic vocabulary in their responses.

The whole point of having a high standard for correct answers is to promote rigor and instill confidence and high expectations in your students – in other words, the power to think critically lies with your students and not add-ons coming from the teacher. It’s about showing my students that they are capable of mastering an answer on their own, with the support of questioning rather than add-ons from the teacher.

To Teach “Like A Champion…”

Brian Angell Summer's Almost Over CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hello Friends,

Happy early Thanksgiving! You’d think on a food blog inspired by the act of melting butter in a pan, I’d be posting food-oriented thoughts around this time of year, but instead I’m going to throw you a curveball and process my thoughts about the book – I want to call it a cult classic in the charter world — Teach Like a Champion.

As a matter of fact, I am about to grocery shop for my family’s beloved (to me) stuffing recipe, involving mirepoix, bacon, cornbread, spiced pecans, chicken stock, butter…

Anyway. I’m a bit of a crossroads with my writing: in a fit of renewed enthusiasm for freelancing, I renewed my subscription to Writer’s Market and Media Bistro and I wrote a short story earlier this semester that I’ve submitted to a few publications as well as a query about gifted education.

Fellow writers, this site is super helpful if you’re interested in publishing a short story:

Where To Submit Short Stories

When I introduced the idea of “braiding” short stories to my creative writing class, I got all pumped up and started writing a braided piece about August 2014, intertwining my grandfather’s death, Michael Brown’s death, and my own personal struggles in Chicago, removed from it all, a piece that has now stagnated for me that I’ve somewhat abandoned. I’ve been in touch with a freelance writer/family friend and he’s encouraged me not to blog, instead seeking “some” compensation and editorial feedback for my writing. But alas, I feel myself returning to this cluttered, messy, haphazard website that has at times served as a springboard for my freelance “career” (hah), other times as a personal form of documentation, marking the passage of time with my musings on recipes tested, books read, and trips traveled, and right now, much like the end of the summer when I posted a flurry of lesson plans, a way for me to process and publish my thoughts on my job – the teaching of teenagers. As with my students, the act of putting my thoughts about teaching into writing, and more importantly, sharing them with an audience, however small, is about writing to learn, and writing to better myself, and less about the quality of the words I put forth on the virtual page. So bear with me. Read ahead if you like.

One of my biggest dilemmas as a teacher is the balance between intentionality and authenticity… (This is a topic that I’d really like to pitch to a magazine, one that I feel I could write a long article about, but I mention it here as a segue way into Teach Like a Champion). This is my sixth year of teaching, and in my earliest years – like 1, 2, 3 – I placed more of an emphasis on intentionality to the point of writing down scenarios and scripting my responses in the beginning of the year, and even scripting my daily lesson plans to a certain extent. Granted, that’s probably appropriate as a beginning teacher, and now certain responses are engrained in me and I don’t need to really think much about certain responses – in other words, some of my reactions to students naturally fall into both categories, intentional and authentic. But I’ve found in years 5 and now 6, especially, that I lean increasingly towards responding to students in a spontaneous, human way, rather than in a scripted, “this is how a teacher responds” sort of way. And I’ve found that it has yielded very effective results, especially as a teacher of juniors and seniors, the oldest kids in the K-12 system, in building close and authentic relationships. When older students see your humanity, and feel that you interact with them comfortably as one person to another, I’ve found that it builds trust and respect. And avoids power struggles.

Then again… I feel that a classroom is always a performance space to a certain extent, and it’s crucial to run a tight ship. So as I sweep floors, and wipe countertops, empty trash, and otherwise prepare for my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving!!! – I’m delving into a little professional development at the same time, and summarizing what I’m reading for no other reason than to record and clarify for myself some strategies I want to try in my classroom. This post isn’t really about writing, or blogging, it’s for myself, honestly – but whether or not you’re a teacher, most of us have been in school at some point, so I find that most of us are interested in what goes on in schools and are invested on that level alone to make teachers better at their jobs. So, with no further adieu, Technique #1. As I do with my students when I ask them to summarize, this is Teach Like a Champion as I understand it, in my own words.

Technique #1: No Opt Out

So the basic idea behind “No Opt Out” is that you want to teach your students that you won’t let them off the hook when they either don’t know the right answer, or they don’t want to try for it. So the simple idea is, whenever you ask a student for an answer, and they can’t answer the question, you find a way to circle back to that student and have them answer the question. This does a variety of things: it builds individual students’ confidence, it expresses your high standards for all students and your emphasis on 100 percent participation, and it builds a spirit of collaboration, for starters.

It’s very easy to implement, and Teach Like a Champion identifies five different and simple formats for implementing this strategy:

  • Provide the answer yourself, then circle back to the student and have him/her simply repeat it.
  • Seek another student’s help in answering the question, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the other student’s correct answer.
  • Depending the on the nature of the question, invite the whole class to call out/chant the correct answer, then circle back to the original student and have him/her repeat the correct answer.
  • Provide a cue with additional information that helps the student answer the question; then have the student answer the question correctly
  • Call on another student to provide a cue that helps the original student answer the question correctly

What I love about Teach Like a Champion is that the strategies are highly specific and very simple. With so much to think about, not to mention a long to-do list, it’s nice to write on my lesson plan, “No Opt Out” and just strive to hold students accountable more effectively when some of them want to opt out of thinking critically. There’s a part of me, heavily influenced by the charter world, that really believes that in education, the devil is in the details and it’s the small adjustments that count for a lot.

But then again, the struggle between intentionality and authenticity. The fact that we are adult human beings dealing with young human beings. The dichotomy between being told that teaching is “all about relationships” and yet about these draconian, yes, highly specific strategies. Here are some criticisms of Doug Lemov/Teach Like A Champion that get at that central dilemma, in my opinion – What do you think?

Peg Robertson Eviscerates Teach Like a Champion

This School Year Don’t Teach Like a Champion

Why I Stopped Teaching Like a Champion

 

 

A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

Reading in Iceland

Written on June 29, 2016:

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I am currently traveling — lots of hiking, biking, reveling in Iceland’s beauty marks — but in flight, or in the lull of a long day (the sun sets at midnight here) I am engaging in my favorite form of travel, flying through the pages of a good book.

I decided to dive into some travel writing: “The Best American Travel Writing 2002” edited by Frances Mayes. As Mayes writes in her introduction, “reading and travel have a natural symbiosis” — reading about a variety of foreign adventures while on an adventure of my own puts me in the traveling mindset — a mindset characterized, in my experience, by a closer clinging to the present moment and a mental, as well as physical experience of dislocation that allows for greater self-reflection, spontaneity, and once again, that in-the-moment mindfulness  thing. (Such an elusive and aspirational practice, at least for me, when muddled with to-do lists and daily routines).

Perhaps reading and travel are “symbiotic” in the way that they transform readers and wanderers by first transporting them. And this process of transformation is built upon the liberty, the privilege, of reflection and mindfulness. Mayes seems to draw on this principle in her selections. She writes:

“Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip.”

If the highest purpose of travel (and naturally, the mark of good travel writing) is to, however subtly, transform the psyche of the traveler, this Mark Twain quote, also a part of Mayes’s introduction, comments on one way in which travel broadens consciousness:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

So where does 2002’s “Best American Travel Writing” take its reader?

My favorite essay, so far, is Michael Finkel’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void” originally published in National Geographic Adventure.

It follows a lone traveler piled into a truck driving across “the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara.” The void itself, the “giant sand sea,” is fascinating — its disorienting quality attracts an eclectic group of passengers, from a drunk to a widow to an American named Beth who just wants “to feel the wind in her face,” provokes reactions ranging from bliss to terror, and serves as an ever-shifting landscape of haunting, unpredictable beauty. Finkel writes:

“Many of the tourists are on spiritual quests. They live hectic lives, and they want a nice dose of nothing — and there is nothing more nothing than the void. The void is so blank that a point-and-shoot camera will often refuse to work, the auto-focus finding nothing to focus on…”

There’s a strong statement about modern society — that Westerners with hectic lives will haul themselves across the Saharan desert just to bliss out on endless sand, to envelop themselves in a place that represents emptiness and nothingness… Finkel continues,

“After a fortnight of wind, Beth came to a profound decision. She said she now realized what her life was missing. She said that the moment she returned home she was quitting her Internet job and opening up her own business. She said she was going to bake apple pies.”

By contrast, “Forty Years in Acapulco” from Men’s Journal chronicles an eighty-nine-year old Polish immigrant named Mort Friedman whose idea of paradise is stalwart routine, reclining by a pool in your finest swimwear at a hotel. This is not travel as self-discovery or spiritual quest but travel as self-affirmation. The routine of “wak[ing] at nine-thirty; putt[ing] on a brand-new bathing ensemble… fly[ing] down on American Airlines on the same date every year” enshrines all of the achievements that earns Mort his yearly trip.

A third essay, “The City and the Pillars,” describes New York’s immediate response to September 11, 2001, emphasizing the instinct of New Yorkers to throw themselves into a daily routines, such as shopping for groceries or cafe owners hosing down sidewalks, in a stubborn protest of the horrific reality of the towers. Adam Gopnik writes,

“The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee shops and long waits and longer trudges. On the afternoon of that day, the symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes attacked, seemed much less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.”

One downside to reading a collection of travel essays, if you’re reading it cover to cover, is that you occasionally get stuck in a destination that you don’t find exciting, or you find yourself a passenger on a journey that wanders a little too long — in my case, “A Rio Runs Through It,” by Rod Davis from The San Antonio Express-News. You’re obviously jolted from place to place, occasionally leaving you with that feeling of the void: there’s too much and therefore nothing to focus on.

So how are my first four or five days in Iceland affecting my psyche?

As much as I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, the density and crispness of the language, and the friendliness of the people, the answer that first comes to mind is that I’m experiencing a renewed appreciation for certain aspects of the U.S.

For example, in a country where most foods, save sea food, have to be imported, and everything but a hot dog is startingly expensive, I appreciate living in a country rich in access to cheap produce (notwithstanding the obvious problems with our agricultural industrial complex).

And as beautiful as the Icelandic landscape is, I find myself reminded of certain remote parts of Montana or Oregon, and feel gratitude for the tremendous diversity of the American landscape, East to West:

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That being said, the lack of visible poverty in Iceland, except for two homeless men in Rekjavik, points out the visible poverty in the United States and our complacency toward it.

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On a more personal level, the gift of time has given me the chance to reflect on the balance between teaching and writing in my life, and how, in an ideal world, I’d like the balance to tilt. Who knows — maybe enough geysers and hot springs and glaciers and waterfalls will convince me that I need to ditch it all and start baking apple pies. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

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Daring Greatly

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Author and self-proclaimed “shame and vulnerability” researcher Brené Brown keeps resurfacing in my life in different ways. First, I reconnected with an old childhood friend and we had a surprisingly honest, vulnerable conversation right off the bat. After bonding over some of the different, mutually deep struggles of our twenties, my friend referred me to her TED Talk about how vulnerability is the means to meaningful human connection, something to be owned and cultivated.

Then I attended a small group meeting of teachers about the subject of “cultural competence,” education jargon for how well teachers build relationships with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. We were asked to bring resources that impact our thinking on this topic, and specifically on the topic of how we show love for our students and how well that love is received. The Brené Brown TED Talk came  up again, and a co-worker of mine recommended her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.

I just finished Daring Greatly. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:

Brown frequently uses the term “scarcity culture,” referring to the myriad ways in which society tells us that we aren’t enough as we are. I immediately think of Facebook — our frenzied, frequent status updates crying out, “I am so great!!” can seem like a desperate effort to outrun the notion that, really, we’re not enough. Brown also makes the point that for women in this so-called “scarcity culture,” it’s not enough to be small and pretty, maternal, “nice,” but it’s important to make it all look easy and effortless. If you show your struggle to meet these criteria, you’re opening yourself up to society’s critical eye. How convenient it is that we have Facebook pages we can curate to make all these hard-won accomplishments look like the natural unfolding of our lives… Oy vey…

Brown makes a point of distinguishing between the ways that women and men experience shame, and the hot points of shame for women are predictable and familiar, heavily focused on body size, appearance and mothering as I alluded to before. When Brown points out that shame around mothering applies to all women, including those who aren’t mothers, I want to shout, “Amen!”

When it comes to men, Brown calls out women on the fact that we’re constantly asking men to be vulnerable and open emotionally, but when they’re really, truly vulnerable, when they really need our help, women sometimes recoil. It turns women off, even disgusts them a little bit.

She also hits on numbing behaviors, be it emotional eating or compulsive exercising or that daily 5:00 pm cocktail. Eliminating numbing behaviors fits into another Brené Brown catchphrase, “wholehearted living.” She says that numbing the pain equals numbing the joy, and that the those of us who successfully live “wholeheartedly” instead of numbing our pain are those of us who set clear boundaries and set up our lives for balance, rather than overextending ourselves and using grit or willpower or whatever you want to call it to “manage” the imbalance that comes with an overworked, spiritually underfed existence.

But back to the conversation about teaching and parenting, giving and receiving love: One of the best kernels of wisdom Brown offers is that the best way to be a good parent, or a good teacher, isn’t necessarily to know a lot about parenting or teaching, but to live wholeheartedly yourself, as an adult. Now that’s a tall order…and one that requires vulnerability.

When I think about some of the pivotal moments in which I have earned the respect of my teenage students, I see a pattern of vulnerability on my part, a willingness to open myself up to their feelings and criticisms. When Chandler told me, “You’re one of the few teachers I have who apologizes when they’ve made a mistake.” Or earlier last year, when I unwittingly pushed a student to write about some of the personal struggles she had shared with me, and then I broke down crying (privately) when she told me that my actions made her feel uncomfortable and betrayed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not believe my tears were not interpreted by this student as a sign of weakness, but as sincere regret, and I think my tears made my breach of her trust a non-issue because she could see that I took her seriously.

As with parenting, there is certainly competition and blaming and shaming in teaching — right and wrong approaches, teachers who reached a “difficult” student that others didn’t, not to mention test scores. Brown’s advice to parents could also be applied to teachers: try not to criticize another person’s teaching or parenting style if it’s different from your own (if you’re a peer) — what matters is that, as teachers and parents, we address and engage with the challenges and issues our children face.

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