phenomenal

 

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
(excerpted from “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou)

In early December, I received this gorgeous thank you note from a student of mine. The thought behind this handwritten note alone would have been enough to remind me that the weight of my job delves deeper than the daily decision making that occupies so much of my time as principal/teacher. Our young people, my students, lead busy lives that create a constant hum of events, studying, clubs, family life, work and  more. College pressure and the pressures of figuring out who it is they wish to be in this world rests upon their shoulder’s as Atlas’ burden sat upon his. Amid all of this, she escaped her own needs and responsibilities and found the time to write a thank you note.

I also would have been moved by her simply mentioning of how grateful she is for the introduction she received to poetry in my class last year…for the opportunity to explore her new found passion fully in her writing (instead of forcing her to maintain the plan I had set out for the class). Students often come to my classroom with only negative feelings toward poetry. Once they are immersed in it, once they have the freedom to find their own meaning, once they venture into writing their own stories poetically, doors open, confidence blooms, they become writers.

But, what struck me most was the line that is underlined: “Thank you for being a strong female leader I can look up too [sic]” Well, it would be easy to forget this responsibility in the busy days of the school week. One could quickly become numb to the rest, to the fact that the kids are always watching. One could lose sight of the example we set just by being ourselves. Across this nation there are heaps off female high school principals–I am the product of an extremely impressive one, after all. But at my small school, the only leadership that has ever presided over the high school has been male. I know that I felt a small victory in breaking that barrier and assuming this position but I don’t think I realized until I read this note the impact that my students (especially my girls) felt by witnessing that changeover and the days that followed.

It has become increasingly important to me to uphold that responsibility, that honor with the dignity it deserves. I don’t necessarily do my job any differently or better than I would have before; I do, however, act with intentionality and a mindfulness of what my words and actions create. I feel an extraordinary  duty to exemplify that a leader can have an empathic heart and also enforce rules and enact change. I am more keenly aware that it is ever-important for me to display that a good leader has vision for the future and creates plans to achieve that vision but without sacrificing the heart of the institution. Honestly, every leader should be conscious of these qualities. But, I am also cognizant of the need to demonstrate that a woman is equal to that task. It is imperative that I use my voice wisely and not be afraid to assert it just because I fear being seen as noisy or abrasive. When I speak for the good of my students and the good of the school, I am working toward bettering learning opportunities and I should not cower from that because of possible perception. Because when it comes down to it, the reverse, the depiction of female leadership as always needing to be told what to do, of always waiting and never acting, of being quieted rather than elevated, is a far more dangerous example to set.

I am blessed to work in an institution that values my voice and my brain and so the confidence I am fighting is more from what the world around me has said for my lifetime rather than what is actually being enacted around me. Breaking that common societal narrative for the girls in my school has become paramount. My hope is that they will seek leadership roles in their lives, as many already have, and that they will assume those positions with grace and confidence because they are more than equal to the task and no one has ever made them think or feel otherwise.

So, these days, I am willing to walk the line a bit more. I am working to own the confidence it takes to do that. I keep this note with me all of the time as a reminder of purpose when the job feels too much…like another path would be easier. Ease isn’t always better; simplicity can also bring emptiness. The task is hard, the job demanding (seemingly impossible at times), but I am up for it…

“’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

 

(Day 58–tomorrow is king cake day!!! I would expect a super early post because I am anticipating king cake for breakfast and maybe again on the parade route!)

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)

transformative

High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:

“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.”

She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings  sincerity and  weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.

In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.

This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work.  So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.

It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.

(Day 18)

#readinggoals

Since we returned from winter break, my AP Lit seniors have been working to set individual reading goals and then to select a book that will challenge them as they work toward achieving the goals they have set. Some are tackling longer books than they have read before in order to build stamina (and maybe to prove something to themselves); others are selecting texts that reside in a genre they wouldn’t normally visit, an attempt to extend their reach as readers; and still others are hoping to slow themselves down and really think their way through their reading rather than simply speeding through a story for the fun of it. There are no restrictions on the books selected as long as the student can justify how their choice helps them meet their goals in a meaningful way. They do write reflections weekly, but these aren’t your typical readers response. In these reflections, students do respond and react to the text they’re reading, but they also respond and react to how they are growing and changing as readers as they are working to meet their goals. In this way, they aren’t just unwittingly becoming better readers. They are fully aware of what the challenges are and how they are actively working to meet them.

Because my kids are setting their own challenges, their enthusiasm for their selected books and for their growth as readers has become contagious. One student in particular selected And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts because at over 600 pages, finishing the book felt like an insurmountable task–and she wanted the push to do it. However, she also picked it because it is nonfiction and she is not typically drawn to nonfiction. Today in class, she was beaming as she explained that not only was she around 200 pages into the text, but she was thoroughly enjoying it. She didn’t realize she would be able to read a book like this so fast. She didn’t realize she would enjoy it as much as she has been. She didn’t realize that this challenge could offer so much to her as an individual.

I feel strongly that without choice in this situation, engagement would almost certainly drop out, if it existed at all…and without engagement, true growth of the reader is stunted. If I assumed a singular challenge for the class as a whole and then assigned the same book to each kid to be studied in the same way with the same questions and the same assignments, I really don’t believe their investment would have become so rich and so rewarding. Sure, every now and then in this class we work with a shared text and the kids learn and they grow in intentional and measured ways as readers, but opportunities like this challenge book assignment are more present than they used to be in my space because after witnessing the impact I would be negligent to act in any other way.

The energy charging this student’s voice as she shared her excitement about the challenge and about the book was palpable and entirely beyond the simple satisfaction of having completed an assignment. She had chosen goals that she felt were impossible or at the very least, improbable, to meet, she pushed herself to meet them in a way and with a text that she determined best and as a result, every achievement over the course of this assignment is hers and hers alone.

As a teacher, it just doesn’t get better than that!

(Day 11…done…this one had the potential to be much longer but this has been a rather chaotic night and organizing it would have been too much. The challenge book work will go on for some time in my classroom, so I will simply write on this again another time.)

voice

Since the surgery on my inner ear, a negative pressure has developed. What might this mean? Well, thankfully, it doesn’t make me dizzy, but I hear every inhale and exhale I take no matter how shallow. My heartbeat pounds my eardrum causing vibrations deep in my ear (we won’t even talk about the cacophony in my head when I am running–all breath and pounding). There are several more elevated internal sounds that would shake even the most serene soul, but only one feels like a burden. Every word I utter reverberates, echoing loudly inside my head. If I didn’t talk for a living, this might not be such a big deal, but I spend my days talking to teachers, kids, colleagues, parents, etc. Sometimes I can just ignore it, but other times the distraction is overwhelming and I am rendered exhausted by the effort of just attempting to hold a simple conversation. In crowded or noisy places where I really cannot trust my own sense of the volume of my speech, I think twice before talking, wondering for a moment if what I have to say is really worth the exertion.

It’s in those moments, that I am so grateful to have the outlet of writing–to know who I am as a writer, to know how to use my voice in that way, and to know I have the confidence to do so. So many young people, though, come to my classroom having been told they can’t write, will never be able to write, are failures as writers (because that is what an F translates to) and their confidence is shattered. I imagine that for these students, writing feels about as comfortable as holding a conversation does for me right now. I also imagine that mustering the courage to put the words on the page, no matter how few actually make it there, is absolutely draining.

For many of my students, their first writing goal is just to work on their confidence because so much of me knows that they will never be able to learn and to grow as writers if they believe they can’t.  But confidence, it seems, takes trust. And so, my first goal as their teacher is often to build that trust. To prove to them in my methods and in my words that I’m present and my only hope is to encourage and support, to listen and assist, and to offer opportunities for revision and growth. Trust also comes because with the choice and freedom they have to define and develop their writing, they know I respect them as thinkers, as individuals. They know I believe that who they are matters enough to allow it to shape their assignments.

It takes time, developing that trust and building confidence, and sometimes it doesn’t happen in a single school year. But, it is always worth the effort because witnessing the moment a young person finally realizes and owns their voice as a writer, is one of the greatest gifts a teacher of writers can receive. There is a vibrance that is indescribable–the words have a greater texture on the page because they’ve been imbued with authority and style and every so often, nuance and grace. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—the smile that creeps across the face of the writer whose heart and mind are finally at peace with one another. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—in the face of a kid who is finally hearing commentary that recognizes not only their skill as a writer, but more importantly, its worth…their worth.

Those are the moments I was terrified to miss when I left full time teaching to become a principal who only teaches a couple of classes. How could I walk away from such incredible moments? Well, it took me some time, but I finally realized that I actually was creating the same moment only in different context.

I am always yammering on to students (and anyone else who will listen) that three things are most important to me for our students at all times:

  1. That everyday–I mean every single day–students come to school and feel free to be themselves–exactly who they are without the mask of who they think they are supposed to be. And that they feel this freedom because they feel accepted.
  2. That at some point in their educational careers at my high school they feel truly engaged in their learning. That may not be an everyday, every class event. I understand this, but I want them seeking engagement rather than just teacher or parent pleasing…rather than just working for a grade.
  3. That my kids leave this school knowing the import and weight of their voice and knowing how to use it for good in this world–and that they have the confidence and the skills to do just that.

All of these are integral to our success as a high school and, in my opinion, to the educational and future successes of our students. School shouldn’t be about just checking off skills and courses; it shouldn’t be about just getting a diploma or into college. School should also be about learning what it means to be an effective, productive citizen in this world. And if I’m being honest, I think that has everything to do with accepting yourself, seeking engagement, and using your voice for good. And again, if I’m being honest, when I see my kids standing up and using their voices in a purposeful way, with confidence, it is just as vibrant as it was in the writing classroom…just as meaningful…just as significant.

I suppose I should start listening to my own advice when it comes to this ear situation…accept, engage, speak up anyway.

(Day 5 done! This daily writing thing has been far tougher than I expected and I suspect my dog is tired of me spending so much time on my computer at night instead of scratching behind her ears, but the challenge has me moving through the world with the eyes of a writer in a far more intentional way. Grateful.)

 

awestruck

As an educator, I’ve long realized that my students are brilliant beyond all expectation and that if I will just get out of their way, they will prove that truth time and again. It’s the dismissal of my own pet projects and the getting out of the way that can be tricky. There are certain works and assignments that I simply love to witness kids interact with and grow from, so the temptation to micromanage the curriculum can often be difficult to dismiss.

This is particularly true in my AP Literature class. It’s less a temptation in this situation and more a burden placed by the weight of the test in May…you know, the test that is made without knowledge of my kids but that determines whether they will receive college credit without regard for the fact that maybe they have completed important, intelligent and profoundly thought provoking work all semester but maybe came into the test not feeling well. An entire year of work denied in four hours. I digress. My point is that given the import my kids place on this test, I feel an obligation to find a balance between teaching a really solid literature course and also instructing on the nuances of the test.

Every other course I teach roots itself deeply in the choice offered through reading and writing workshop, but my AP class has always been a little bit different. Choice has been present but within parameters–often set by me (particularly when it comest to reading).

This year has been a bit different. We still share a central text every now and again so we can discuss and learn from each other as a whole class. But our reading for the most part has existed in book clubs. And while, yes, there have been literary analyses that were written, this year we have also participated in a true writer’s workshop. Students set writing goals for themselves, selected a style of writing and topic that would assist them in achieving their goals, and then set to work. I was present for conferencing and teaching one on one as they went through the process.

What I found incredibly intriguing is that so many of the kids were inspired to write based on the books they had chosen for their book clubs. A few students read Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection entitled Whereas. This beautiful book of poetry reveals the hard work of the poet, and the intricacy of Layli Long Soldier’s craft deepens the connection of the reader to the work, to the meaning (and also opens eyes). As much poetry as I have shared with my kids over the years (there has been so much poetry, trust me here), there was something magical about their independent reading and interaction with Whereas. Not only did they appreciate the text and have riveting book club discussions, but they also all decided that their writing goals would include exploring what they could really do with poetry.

Now I have to say that historically, when a student asks to pursue poetry for independent writing, questions like these are often involved… “So, like, how many poems do I have to write?” “So, 3 or 4 haiku would count, right?” “But what if I worked really hard on these two poems? Two would be enough, right?” This group of students, however, asked an entirely different set of questions… “Can I include an intermission in my collection?” “Would it be alright if my collection had 3 parts?” “I’d like the third part to be interactive for the reader–is that too creative? Will people get it?” “Can I play with spacing on the page and punctuation if it works with my point?” Meaningful questions about the work of a writer–questions that reflected thought and consideration and investment. I was dazzled.

And the outcome? Well, one student crafted a 62 page, three part collection of poems that illustrated the transition from anxiety/depression/hurt to taking a breath to finally healing (the healing is approached through an interactive set of poems and directives that aim to help the reader work toward healing rather than simply acting as a passive observer). Another student, who had never attempted to write poetry and maybe hadn’t even really attached himself to any piece of writing before, composed his own multipart collection in which he plays with spacing, punctuation and word choice in a rather magical way. His continued affirmations that he was so proud of this work only made its worth shine more brightly.

One student, intrigued by Jean Toomer’s style in Cane, attempted an entire essay composed in prose poetry, and get this, merged the airy, imagistic language with terms and ideas associated with Calculus and Physics. It was utter brilliance. Stunning to read. I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped at certain points. Again, the pride she took in her accomplishment was remarkable. She wrote, “I read it out loud to myself for the first time last night and I heard growth as a writer, thinker and viewer of the world.”

Finally, another student who had been frustrated and a little bored by Camus’ style in The Stranger realized that his own writing reflected this very same style. He went back to the short story he had been composing in workshop with a fresh eye and revised from there. His self reflection included these words, “Who knew I would end up liking to write? Probably you, Mrs. Clark.”

And I’ve only mentioned the kids whose writing was inspired by their reading…For the sake of space I haven’t  included others who played with style, development, genre, imagery and more apart from their reading, but with equally impressive outcomes.

Here’s the thing. I could never have created a set of directions that would have led to the crafting of any one of these assignments. My brain would never have gotten there. And if I had by some small miracle, actually assigned even one of these pieces, the investment and engagement that was palpable in the classroom simply wouldn’t have existed. Why? Because they would have been working for me, for the grade. They would have been doing the work that I asked them to, in the way that I told them to and it would have been good but it wouldn’t have meant so much. Teacher pleasing is not engagement. It gets the work done, but it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t linger.

The student who wrote the 62 paged piece has now, long after the grading is done, methodically increased the collection to 120 pages and is considering inserting photography as well. This piece is hers and hers alone. Its genius stems entirely from her mind and her process. The small intricate touches she is adding don’t reflect the work of school; they reflect the work of her heart.

The writing turned in during this writer’s workshop represents the inspired work and thinking of students who, when given the chance, were ready to prove without question the value of choice and freedom, the value of engagement and ownership.

And as a result, despite knowing these students for the last four years, after shifting my role completely to consultant rather than instructor and after the joy of witnessing the results, I find myself quite simply awestruck.

(this piece really needs to be longer…and less clunky…I don’t have an ease about my writing when I write about my classroom yet–something I am working on over these months… Day four writing, done!)