Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah Tears

            “Look at my eyes,” Naomi demanded.
            I typed two more sentences on my email, clicked “send,” then turned and looked at Naomi.  She had just marched into my room and was standing at attention next to my desk.  Her face was flushed and her eyes were bloodshot. 
            “You’re eyes are red, Naomi.  Have you been crying?”
            “Yes,” she sniffed.  “I cried when the counselor was talking.”
            “Why were you crying?”
            “I don’t know.  I just cried.”
            Naomi had just come back from a presentation by the school counselor on “friendships.”  She can dissolve into a fit of giggles during a grammar lesson, so I have no problem believing she can sit in a meeting on friendships and cry and not know why. 
            “Let’s sit down and see if we can figure out why you were crying,” I said.
            Naomi sat down next to me.  She furrowed her brow preparing to think. 
            “What was the counselor talking about?” I asked.
            “People tell rumors about me.”
            “What do people say when they talk about you?”
            “I don’t know.  They’re just mean.  And I cried.”
            Naomi is continually trying to connect with other girls but she is usually unsuccessful.  She seems to have no idea how to act around other students.  She tends to get her face much too close to people, and she can slip into snorting laughter when she’s trying to join into others’ conversations.  She seems to forget all the coaching tips and planned scripts we give her.  I knew I couldn't solve the problem today. 
            “I’m sorry you were sad,” I told her.  “You’re going to have fun tonight though.” Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. 
            Naomi immediately switched moods and began running through a litany of all the things she’s going to do in the coming days.  Her family is having company, and there are several special meals planned.  She didn’t stay diverted for long, though. 
            “Why do I laugh and cry so much?” she asked.
            Naomi really is having huge mood swings, and I suspect a lot of it has to do with puberty. 
            “Well, you’re growing up, and you have lots of new things happening to you.” 
            The whole notion of growing up and change is a mystery for Naomi, and she has a lot of questions, but she eventually calmed down and was ready to work.  I asked her to get her math book and we started the next lesson.
            As she flipped to page 384, I heard her quietly mutter, “I can’t believe I cried on Hanukkah.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

We Are The World

 “Come sit down Naomi.”  I motioned to the empty chair at the table.  “We have a new student.”

Safia was sitting at the table with me when Naomi walked into the room.  Naomi looked around a minute as though she might have walked into the wrong room then slowly walked to the table and sat down.

“Naomi, this is Safia.  She’s new to our school this year and she’s going to be in Study Skills with you.”   I motioned to Naomi, “Safia, this is Naomi.”

Safia was tall, slender, and had luxurious black wavy hair.  She was beautiful.  She was also very scared and very shy.  She looked at Naomi and smiled sweetly.  Naomi stared at Safia and said nothing.

“Naomi, can you say hello to Safia?”

“Where did you move here from?” Naomi demanded.

Safia’s eyes darted to me.  She wasn’t quite ready to speak.

“Safia didn’t move here from anywhere else,” I explained.  “She has lived here all her life.  She just transferred here from another school.”

Naomi was used to transfers.  “Which school did you go to?” she asked.

I turned to Safia and smiled.  “Go ahead Safia.  Tell Naomi the name of your school.”

“I went to the Islamic school,” Safia whispered.

Naomi puzzled over this.  I wasn’t sure if she’d even heard Safia, so I said, “She went to the Islamic school for the last four years.  Now she’s going to be in our school.”

Naomi’s eyes stopped focusing on Safia and I could tell she was thinking about this.  Finally she asked, “Are you Catholic?”

  Safia’s face looked stricken.  She didn’t know what to say.  She looked at me pleadingly.    Naomi doesn’t know what Islamic means.  “Naomi,” I explained, “Safia is Muslim.  The Islamic school is a Muslim school.”  I wondered if Naomi had ever heard the word “Muslim.”  “That’s Safia’s religion.”

Sarah continued to stare at Safia.  Then she said, “I’m Jewish.”

It was Safia’s turn to look puzzled.  I turned to Safia and said, “Naomi is Jewish.  That’s her religion.  Your religion is Muslim and Naomi is Jewish.”

This seemed to satisfy both girls because they both smiled at each other.

“Hello Safia,” whispered Naomi.

“Hello Naomi,” whispered Safia.

“Let’s work on some math problems,” I said, passing out small whiteboards, markers, and erasers.  If only world peace could be achieved this easily, I thought.

I wrote the first problem on my whiteboard and showed it to the girls, but Naomi was already busy working on her whiteboard.  Her head was bent down, tilted to the side, and she was biting the tip of her tongue as she carefully drew a Star of David.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

. . . And Gently Lead Those That Are With Young

            What can capture the total attention of eight adults for three days over the Thanksgiving break?  It wasn’t a football team or book or movie.  It was two infants who couldn’t even sit up by themselves.

            For three days we held the new babies, got them to laugh, watched them spit up, cry, sleep, and started it all over again the next day.  Of course, while we slept, their moms got up with them at least three times during the night.  It’s amazing how eight adults can suddenly have nothing to talk about but babies for three days – how they’ve grown, are they hungry, tired, sleepy, what they need for Christmas – babies, babies, babies.  And we’re adults who one year ago could only discuss jobs, politics, theology and education.

            Two of my daughters-in-law had that zonked out look of a new mom who hasn’t had more than four straight hours of sleep in months.  The young women continually exchanged ideas with the third daughter-in-law whose baby is due in March.  The two new moms had so much to share with the new mom to be, and I noticed the third daughter-in-law began to look a little overwhelmed herself.

            After holding my infant grandsons for just a few hours, I again realized that babies are for strong young women.  I loved the time when my sons were babies, but I’ll never forget how tired I always felt - so bone wearying, would-do-anything-for-a-good-night-of-rest tired.

            New moms need so much tender care themselves as they care for their young children.  Isaiah 40:11 says, “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd, He shall gather the lambs with His arms, and carry them in His bosom.  And gently lead those that are with young.  The NASB translates that last phrase, “And gently leads the nursing ewes.”

            Over Thanksgiving I saw how much care new moms need.  I’m so glad God led Isaiah to include the extra reminder that the Good Shepherd takes special note to gently lead those in his flock who have the wonderful, but sometimes overwhelming task of taking care of young children.     

            So to my dear sweet daughters-in-law, when you are feeling the mind numbing overpowering exhaustion that comes from caring 24/7 for a young infant, know that God takes extraordinary care to gently lead you during this time.  You are amazing young women, and you have a loving, understanding Shepherd watching over you.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Transition Goals

            “So, Naomi,” I began, “What would you like to do after graduation?”
            “What do you mean?” she asked.

            “When you graduate from high school – what would you like to do when you don’t go to school anymore?”

            Apparently Naomi had never been confronted with a future that didn’t involve going to school.  “What do you mean?” she asked again, “When I don’t have to go to school anymore?”

            “When you finish high school,” I explained, “You don’t go to school anymore unless you choose to.”

            Naomi’s eyes got wide.  “I don’t have to go to school?”

            Did she really not know that there was a time in life when school ended?  “Naomi, you don’t have to go to school after you finish high school unless you decide to go to college,” I explained.

            She was still processing the fact that a day was coming when she didn’t have to go to school anymore.   Her face was lighting up.  “I won’t have to go to school any more if I don’t want to?”  She began dancing around the room.  “I don’t have to go to school anymore.”  She ran over to another student on the other side of the room who had stopped working and was watching the dance.  “I won’t have to go to school anymore.  I’m not going to school anymore.”

            When students turn 13 years old, all IEP’s must include vision statements related to what a student will be doing after they graduate from high school. Naomi had started school late and been retained one year, so the conversation with her was beginning in sixth grade.  My standard approach was to interview a student before the IEP and get their ideas.  I thought this would be a good approach with Naomi, but I was having second thoughts.

            I sat and watched Naomi prancing around and giggling.  It was impossible to rein her in when she got this excited.  After a few more minutes I called Naomi over. I really needed to get this interview finished.  She finally came over and sat in the chair next to me, smiling, breathing heavily, and bouncing up and down.  I probably should approach this differently if I was ever going to get some information from her.  “Ok Naomi,” I began, “What would you like to do after school?  What kind of job would you like to do?”
            There was a perceptible shift in the light.  "Job" had a deflating effect on Naomi.  I began again.  “You know – a job – like your parents have jobs.  What kind of job would you like to do some day?”

            I struck gold.  “A vet,” she declared.  “I want to be a vet and take care of dogs.”

            “You like working with animals?”

            “Yes.  I’m going to be a vet.”  We were making progress now.

            “Naomi, if you want to work in a vet’s office, you might need to go to school some more after high school.”  I thought we might as well start talking about vocational schools.

            “Are you going to pay for it?” Naomi asked.

            Wherever this was coming from, I was going to nip it in the bud.  “No, I’m not going to pay for you to go to school,” I informed her.

            “Then I’m not going,” she declared.  

            “What if you really want to work in a vet’s office and you need to go to some school to learn how to help,” I questioned.

            “Only if you pay,” she again declared.

            I had Naomi’s information on possible career interest and possible future schooling, so I moved on to living arrangements.  “Where would you like to live after high school when you’re working for the vet?” I asked.

            “I’m living in Hawaii.”

            Hawaii? I thought.  Where did this come from?  “Is your family moving to Hawaii?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” Naomi answered.  “I’m going to Hawaii when I get out of here.”

            “OK.  So you want to live on your own?” I summarized.

            “In Hawaii.”

            So I learned that Naomi wanted to be a vet, living in Hawaii, after she went to school that I paid for.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Big Frog, Little Frog

            Have you ever had this experience?  You believed you were a decent sized frog, but you were in a small pond.  You moved to a big pond and suddenly you feel like a very small frog – maybe even a tadpole.  You worry that everyone in the big pond knows things you never learned in your small pond.  Excitement for your new experience is replaced with doubt about your abilities.        

            A dear friend of mine recently took a new job in a large corporation.  He had a very successful career working for smaller companies for 10 years.  When it seemed like the small company wasn’t even going to survive another year, my friend made the decision to move to a larger, more stable company.  His new job is with a massive corporation with world-wide offices.  After one week in his new position, my friend is feeling overwhelmed.

            I’ve been thinking about how I felt when I first moved to my current position.  For the first sixteen years of my teaching career, I taught in two very small schools.  In both positions the entire K-12 operation was housed in one building.  If you’ve never taught in a small school, classes with less than 20 students sound wonderful.  But it’s not that simple.

            What most people don’t realize is that teachers in a small school usually have six or seven different preps over several grade levels or subjects that they have to prepare for each day.  Preparing for the class is the work of teaching.  Presenting the lesson is the glorious performance.  Imagine preparing for six opening performances every day.  Tomorrow will be six new performances.  That was how I taught for sixteen years.

            When I moved to my current position, my field of performance suddenly narrowed to one grade and two subjects.  I came from districts with less than 250 students to a district with over 30,000 students.  Everyone seemed to be a world class expert on something.  Every building contained people who had won teaching awards on a state or national level.  The district scores on state and national tests put us with few rivals.  I felt overwhelmed.  And stupid.

            It took me about a year to figure out where my self-doubts were coming from.   I wasn’t overwhelmed with the teaching task in front of me.  The task was easy compared to what I had been handling for the past sixteen years.  I was overwhelmed with learning the policies, procedures, and ridiculous software information system of my huge district.  Once I got past learning those, I realized I too had great ideas and insight into how to work with my students.

            My friend with his new job is smart.  Very smart.  He is excellent with people.  He never would have been hired had they not seen that greatness in him.  I hope he is able to identify the real things that are overwhelming him.  I’m pretty sure he’ll see that they condense down to names of people, places, policies, and procedures.  I hope he can see that once he gets a handle on the new information, he brings something to the table many tenured employees don’t have – fresh eyes.  He brings the ability to view a problem from a new angle, an angle from which you sometimes can see a solution that is hidden from the old angle.

            And you know what?  The transplanted frog from that tiny pond brings a more global view.  I’m good at teaching two areas in one grade level because I know what five other subjects in four other grade levels look like.  I know where my students have come from and where they are going. 

            So hang in there son.  They’re lucky to have you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Ecumenical Learning Center - (or What Would Jesus Say?)

“When I get married,” Naomi announced, “I’m moving to Israel. And we’re going to keep Shobat. And we’ll pray a lot, and we won’t use electricity.”

It was a cold, blustery afternoon, and I had several students in the Learning Center laboring on projects due the next day. Three girls were sitting at the round table with a large bin of crayons in the middle. One lone boy worked on the computer across the room.  I kept moving between them like a magician keeping the plates spinning on the sticks.

I guess Naomi’s family is going to synagogue again.  Naomi loves sharing stories about her mother’s battles with their rabbi.  But I have never heard her talk about marriage, and I waited for someone to ask Naomi who she was going to marry.  Marriage was not what captured their attention.

“Why won’t you use electricity?” Medina asked.

“Because you don’t use it on Shobat,” Naomi declared.

“Well I’m going to Bible camp next summer,” Emily announced.

This was news to me. “Where are you going to camp, Emily?” I asked.

“Well I want to go to camp in Michigan, but my parents say I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It costs $3,000 to go for eight weeks.”

Yikes. “Well I don’t blame your parents, Emily,” I stated firmly. “That’s a lot of money for camp, and Michigan is a long ways away. Besides, you’re too young to go away for eight weeks. I wouldn’t let you go if you were my daughter.”

“I’m not too young!”

“Yes you are Emily. If you went all that way to camp, your parents would pay all that money, and you’d get there and get homesick in two days and call home crying that you’re homesick and want to come home.”

“I did that,” Roberto announced matter of factly from across the room.

I swung my head around towards Roberto. “What did you do?”

“I called home from camp last summer and made my parents come get me.”

“There you go.” I swept my hand in Roberto’s direction.

“Well I still want to go to Bible camp in Michigan,” Emily countered. “And I won’t get homesick because I’ll pray and read my Bible.” She turned to Naomi and lifted her nose a tiny bit higher.  “I don’t think we’ll use electricity there either,” she huffed.

Naomi just stared at Emily pondering the world of Bible camps. She must have decided that Emily’s faith was more than she wanted to deal with, so she turned to Medina.

“Do you do anything religious at your house?” Naomi asked

Medina’s family is Muslim, but I knew she was far too shy to ever discuss anything about their religion.  This seemed a good time to shut the conversation down.

“Are you ready for the math test tomorrow, Emily?” I asked.

“I’ve been practicing with my dad,” Emily smiled. “I’m getting really good at solving the equations.

“I need more practice,” Roberto called from across the room.

We had about 15 minutes before the bell rang, so I pulled Roberto and Emily to a second table and left Naomi and Medina to work on their triptychs.

As we sat down at the table, I gave small whiteboards, markers, and erasers to Roberto and Emily.  I wrote an equation on my whiteboard.

Students love the little whiteboards, and both Roberto and Emily immediately bent over their boards and began drawing. I turned my whiteboard around to show them the first equation. Roberto was deep into drawing an alien on his board. Emily was drawing a bearded man in a robe who I decided must be Jesus.

“OK guys, copy this equation on your board and show me all the steps for solving it.”

Both copied the equation down, and after a few minutes Roberto’s head popped up.

“X is 4,” he announced.

“Uh . . . no,” I said. “Check your work again.” I watched Roberto redo the problem.

“I have it,” Emily chirped. “X is 6.”

I looked at Emily’s board. Jesus was still there, but now he had a cartoon dialogue bubble next to his head. Inside the bubble was the equation with all the correct steps, including the final solution for X.

Emily turned her board around to show Roberto her work. “Jesus says X equals 6,” she explained.

Roberto’s family is Catholic, so Jesus carries weight with him.  He studied the problem in the bubble and figured out where he made his mistake.

We did five more problems before the bell rang. Emily continued to work her problems in the bubble coming from Jesus, and she announced all of her answers with “Jesus says X is ...”

Before the bell rang, Jesus got five problems correct.