Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reflecting on Ferguson

If we're destroying our trees and destroying our environment and hurting animals and hurting one another and all that stuff, there's got to be a very powerful energy to fight that. I think we need more love in the world. We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that.

---Ellen DeGeneres

As I reflect on the tragic circumstances surrounding Ferguson, MI I can't help but think of how I, a 5th grader teacher, can make a positive impact.  Thinking of how some of the citizens reacted to the decision not to indict the officer in question left many of us speechless.  But really, how would we expect them to behave?  This is a community with limited resources and par to sub par educational experiences.  What have they been taught?  They see our government react with violence, they see talk shows that glorify fighting on the stage, they hear lyrics of songs that celebrate violence.  They have learned, like many others have, that if you don't like what someone else does, fight.  Talking gets you nowhere.  

So I have to ask myself, how am I contributing to this mentality or am I teaching an alternative mentality?  I teach at a Title 1 school and many of my students have expressed frustration with their peers and teachers and life circumstances with anger and threats of violence.  I believe it is simply because they know of no other way to have their voices heard and their feeling validated.  
This situation in Ferguson is an opportunity for educators everywhere to inject compassion-based, service-based, empathy projects into their classroom and on their campuses.  We must teach our students how to be the hope in the hopeless, the help in the helpless.  We must teach them alternative ways of expressing their frustrations, how to be part of the solution.  
What I have listened to all day, the day after the violence and looting ensued after the decision was announced, is a lot of complaining, fear, condemnation, and blaming.  However, not once have I heard anyone show compassion, validate the feelings of ALL of the citizens, or offer a solution.  So I am offering a solution.  
Have your students learn to communicate their feelings and frustrations calmly and with assertiveness.  Teach them HOW to speak in a way that grabs the listener's attention without being threatening.  Teach your students to LISTEN with empathy; to hear with their hearts and put their own anger aside enough to truly listen.  We must teach them to negotiate, compromise, and problem solve by considering all angles of the problem.  
With absolutely no judgment on either side of this tragic situation, I simply feel compassion for all parties.  The police officer is human and we all make mistakes.  Whether this was his mistake or not is not for me to judge.  He took a child's life.  The judgment he will certainly face is far greater than anything I might say.  And what I could say would serve no purpose. Michael Brown lost his life.  Regardless of his actions, it is not my place to judge him either.  His family is suffering the greatest loss possible.  Blaming him serves no purpose.  The citizens who are peacefully protesting are making a point, but could there be a better solution?  That would be a conversation necessary to have.  As for the looters and violent citizens, I am in no place to judge them either.  They are filled with fear, resentment, anger, feelings of betrayal, and feel hopeless and helpless.

As an educator, I commit to contribute to the solution by modeling, encouraging, and TEACHING empathy and compassion with communication and listening skills.  All of us MATTER.  It is time we start cultivating a fearlessness within ourselves to set our egos aside and to come together with mutual respect and empathy to solve these problems.  My hope is that uniting together as educators, we can change the world one heart at a time.   

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.-- Dalai Lama

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Give Up. STEP UP!

To my 5th grade students,
I always tell you that in the Fearless Classroom you won’t fall.  That we have each other’s backs and that we will succeed together no matter what.  I tell you that I don’t worry about the learning that takes place in our classroom because I know the level to I teach.  But that isn’t exact 100% true.  Truth is I am very worried.  Truth is we are not being as successful as we could be.
I always tell you that when you want to confront something you need to look at it from all angles.  You need to approach a problem with a solution or a bunch of solutions.  Complaints don’t fix anything.  Words without action are meaningless. I need to share with you how I feel about teaching and then I can tell you why I worry so much about you.
As an educator, I am torn between wanting to educate children to be thinkers, explorers, and curious souls, and covering the curriculum.  Being fearless means taking a leap of faith, a well-calculated risk, that the curriculum is secondary to the education I will be providing.  It is believing that I, the teacher, am actually the weakest source of information I could give to my students, but the most powerful of idea-generators, question-posers, genius-cultivators, and that, in fact, it is YOU, the students, who are capable of learning without me.  I must allow failure to always be an option in our classroom. I must commit to fail, disappoint, and make mistakes eagerly.  
I must fail to stop learning, fail to settle for less than my own best or yours, fail to be satisfied with our work.  I must disappoint you when you think that I will back down when you fight against your best and against the opportunities you are given in my class.  And I MUST make mistakes.  Make them daily...in front of you and let you engage in solutions with me.  It is a necessary tool in learning to struggle through a challenge in order to find authentic learning. 
I believe this so fully.  And this is why I am so afraid for you.  I care about you more than you realize and more than you probably care about yourselves.  It never has been and never will be about what you do or accomplish in my classroom.  I am not in this career, I don’t come to school excited everyday because I think something I say or do will suddenly morph you into a student who for the rest of his or her life will embrace every piece of information as if it were the last most delicious morsel of food every eaten.  But I do care about the kind of people you will be when you leave me.  I remind you daily that you matter.  What I mean is that you matter in a way that no book or website or poem or math problem could ever matter.  You matter more than any test score or grade or academic achievement.   It is because you matter so much to me and to this world that I must tell you that I can no longer sit by quietly and watch what isn’t happening to you.
Don’t get me wrong.  It is vital to your future that you learn the reading passages and poems and fractions and science experiments and historical events.  Knowledge is power and you can’t go anywhere in life without knowledge.  But you don’t need me for that.  You have resources available to you right now at the press of a button that will give you all of that information.  You’re not coming to my class solely for information.  I can see why you would not care to attend regularly or not understand what the point is if you are thinking that this is all you are expected to gain.
You come to my class to learn something so much more important.  Something that you cannot learn on the internet or from an app or from a book even.  You come to learn your impact in this world.  Your place of importance.  Your ability to have influence.  You are here to be as much of a teacher as a student and to figure out who you are and can be. 
So I ask you this.  How do you approach problems?  I mean what happens when you forget your lunch in the car?  What happens when you can’t find a paper that is due?  How do you react when a friend tells a lie about you or betrays your trust?  How do you react when you tell the truth about something and no one believes you?  How do you react when what we do in here gets tough?  Really tough?  When you have no idea what to do next or how to even begin?  Who are you then?
You see, my dear students, THIS is what you come to this classroom to learn.  You must learn who you are and who you can be in order to negotiate these moments wisely, fairly, and maturely.  It is about growing up a little and seeing struggle as a gift, as a chance to grow and become greater than you think.  It is a chance to impact others and your own life in a positive way.  Because you need to know that life will go on after 5th grade and all of the thing you think are horrible will not matter in a year or 5.  The girl or boy who has your heart now will not have a name in your memory by college.  Even the lost opportunities to try and give some extra effort that you brush off because you don’t feel like it or think it isn’t important will hold no worth in your memories as the years go forth.  But life is a rollercoaster of ups and downs and it is in those downs that these experiences will either ease your anxiety or strike fear in your heart.
In my lifetime I have loved and lost, seen friends and loved ones die, I have had bad things said about me and I have not been believed.  I have given up when things got tough and I have quit trying a far too many things.  And the one thing I wish I had learned in school was how to tackle life when life roars at me.   
Being fearless is about embracing changes and challenges as steppingstones to success.  It is about not backing down but facing them head on with the determination and tenacity needed to come out having given your all to persevering through.  THIS is what being fearless is all about and what is going to be your legacy.  This is your preparation for life after school, far more than the content we discuss
I don’t want to see you give up in these moments.  You matter in this world and the world needs your contribution.  Without your contribution this world won’t be as effective, compassionate, connected, or beautiful.  That is quite the responsibility to take on, isn’t it?  But man, are you worth it.  Man, are you capable of that and so much more!
Don’t give up when it gets too difficult in class.  Step up, rather, and do it.  Do the task.  It doesn’t matter if you get it correct.  That will come.  But don’t give up on what you COULD do by allowing your doubt to stop you.   Don’t give up on that person you can be who doesn’t back down from a challenge.  This is YOUR education and YOUR intelligence that is in YOUR hands.  I can give you the task and the information, but it is up to you what you do with it.  Don’t give up, STEP up for yourself, your education, and your own intelligence.
Don’t give up by leaving class when things get tough or boring.  Don’t use the bathroom as an excuse to avoid challenges.  STEP UP.  Step up to drown out the voice in your head telling you that you can’t or shouldn’t have to try this.  You have the PRIVLEDGE of going to school without worry and without limitations.  So many have been denied this privilege and some have even been hurt and killed trying to just have a chance to learn.  Don’t give up on this opportunity.  STEP UP and embrace it.  STEP UP and honor it with your fullest effort to attend and try and fail and try again.  It isn’t about just showing up.  It’s about being present.  It’s a gift to learn in this country. 
Don’t give up by using defense tactics like sarcasm, back talk, and disrespect.  We ask you to walk quietly in the hallway to honor the learning of others.  It isn’t about compliance.  Whether you listen to us or not isn’t the point.  It is about stepping up for each other.  It is about stepping up so that our campus can honor the privilege of learning.  It is so you can step up and once again be the person who can be counted on to honor others respectfully and maturely.
Be the hope you want to see.  Be the change you deserve.  Be the person you and only you know you can be.  Be YOUR own hero.  If you allow doubt or mood or negative attitudes to stop you, you’re giving up.  You’ve lost.  You’re quitting and giving in to being powerless and voiceless later.  And no one who ever gave up ever did anything worth mentioning.  YOU matter more than giving up on.    
So here is my commitment to you as we move forward in this year.  As long as you are in my classroom and beyond that even, as long as you are part of my life, I refuse to give up on you or to allow you to give up on yourself.  My job is to give you the chance to be determined, courageous, tenacious, and respectful.  My job is to create opportunities for you to step up.  These opportunities may be difficult, they may angry you.  They may challenge you beyond your comfort zone.  They may scare you and make you feel incapable.  That is until you don’t.  Because you stepped up. You didn’t make excuses, you didn’t back down, you didn’t give up.  You stared the challenge straight in the eye and stepped up!


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trending What Matters

After hearing about the "Alex from Target" phenomenon, I had a conflicted reaction of moral duality.  On one hand, it demonstrated the power of social media.  Imagine that 250,000+ people in this world now know of this one kid from Texas simply because one girl thought he was attractive enough to post a photo of him on social media.  Having anything go "viral" is a demonstration in the sheer power of what the right tweet through the right channels can have on something.  But unfortunately, often the viral effect happens to damaging and humiliating events.  The case of Alex simply exemplifies our society's relentless obsession with looks.  I began to wonder what message was being sent to our young people, particularly our girls.  Will this "Alex from Target" effect perpetuate the selfie epidemic in our girls?  Will they amp up their obsessive display of self-objectifying photos just to have others build their egos so that they feel adequate and important?  What are we celebrating?  What are we encouraging?

As an educator, it is my obligation to use current events, particularly ones that impact my students directly, to, in the very least, get them to thinking and examining these events more critically.  They can draw their own conclusions, but I want them having deep and meaningful conversations about it.

I brought this topic to my 5th graders.

We talked about harnessing the power of social media for something more meaningful than selfies and viral photos and videos.  We discussed what makes a person beautiful and how beauty comes in all forms and all manifestations.  We listed humor, compassion, kindness, talent, effort, sacrifice and faith as ways beauty can be displayed.  I was inspired to hear that they really tried to stray away from physical beauty.  But there IS a need to discuss the positives of celebrating your most beautiful self too. We need to recognize and celebrate the beautiful parts of us.

And so the "OUR Beauty Project" began.

We have been learning about poetry and today's form was a diamante.  The topic was about defining beauty.  They were charged with creating a diamante about beauty and giving me a statement about what they find most attractive about themselves and why.  Then I asked them to respond to how they would capitalize on the sudden exposure to fame and 250,000+ followers to change the world.  Here are the results of this exercise.


"Popularity shouldn't be based on your looks.  It is your character, honesty, respect for yourself and others, and compassion that matter and make you important."


"Beauty is perfectly imperfect."
hidden, masked
veiling, misleading, changing
a million bucks can't buy a heart of gold
inspiring, world-changing, creating
natural simple

I would encourage people to step away from their phones, stop texting and taking selfies, and trying to impress social media with your looks and do something to make the world better.  


"My eyes are beautiful not because they are a pretty blue but because they see truth."

Outside beauty
altered, deceitful
fibbing, improving, covering 
Your truth lies inside of you
charming, shining, sharing
real, individual
inner beauty

gorgeous, lovely
sparkling, glowing, charming
grace is beneath the skin
hiding, disgusting, hating
unattractive, deceptive

"I would tell my followers, 'YOU are important! Share this.'"
negative, impure
repelling, distrusting, changing
the cup is half full
charming, loving, laughing
positivity, graceful

"I would tell them to follow their true self and live life."
Outer Beauty
untrustworthy, cruel
self-loving, faking, deceiving
true beauty is true to yourself
caring, loving, sharing
unselfish, good 
inner beauty

"Cherish this one day.  This is the day God has given you.  Start a viral revolution!  Befriend someone unpopular at school and start lifting them up."

"My smile changes the world because it is how happiness populates."

outer beauty
pretty fake
hiding, faking, worrying
you don't need validation
caring, loving, helping
kind-hearted loving
inner beauty

"My ears are beautiful because they hear the truth in people."

pseudo, phony
veiling, suppressing, cloaking
fake is a break
shining amazing alluring
exquisiteness glamour

possessive, gorgeous
boasting, bragging, gloating
it's the inside beauty that counts
caring, admiring, respecting
cheerful, compassionate

fake, outer
lying, hiding, trying
wolf in sheep's clothing
impacting, expressing, seeing
true, inside

Chris M.:
cruel, spoiled
bullying, stunning, hurting
don't judge a book by its cover
caring, listening, loving
thoughtful, genius