Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Satisfactory or Outstanding? What the Checklist Cannot Measure

The time has come for my second teacher evaluation of the year. Despite the fact that I stand in front of nearly a hundred teen-agers every day, the thought of one administrator sitting in the back of the room makes me nervous. Many of my colleagues and friends echo the same feelings. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to be evaluated, to be expected to bring my “A” game, to have someone keep tabs on what I am doing. But the observation form is almost laughable in its simplicity. A current seating chart? Check. What is the objective of the day? Check. What type of technology are you incorporating into your lesson? Checkity check.

But how could someone observing one period of one class possibly understand what l do all day, and all year, and perhaps, (when I am in an optimistic mood and all the stars align just so), what lessons I teach that last long into the future? I don’t blame the admins for trying, but there is no way to put into words (or boxes), the magic I make each day and the connections I create.

How could they know about the girl who was suspended from school for a cafeteria fight, never turned in assignments, begged me all second quarter for extra credit to bring up her F, and (because I knew she could do it) worked her tail off to bring the grade up herself when I said no.  She currently has an  A and is writing beautiful poetry.  Or how can they learn about the kid whose mom was frustrated that he got a C+, but when I explained that her son liked to brag about not studying and goofed around in class,  and I advised that he could work a little harder, he took it to heart? Two quarters later, he’s sporting an A+.  Fifty minutes in my class can show my boss that I  can answer essential questions, create a variety of assessments, and teach the material, but it is not enough time to explain how I raise the bar and expect the best out of each student in my room.

Among all the gradebook victories, showing up as a caring human is just as important. I’ve hugged a sobbing student who broke down in the middle of the class talking about her recently deceased uncle, counseled a boy who even in April has only managed to narrow down his college choice to FIVE schools, prayed with a girl whose parents have split up, consoled a boy whose Ivy League dreams did not come true, and negotiated the rough waters of literature and life with many others. Again, there are no boxes for the administrator to check. Human relationship are tricky at best, and high school relationships especially. These students and I have seen each other at our best and worst.  Imagine motivating a student on the first day back from Christmas break, or when the thermometer hits 70 and she is dreaming of being anywhere but here. The world we live in does not help. My classroom is filled with snapchats and mean tweets, Promposals and break-ups. Somehow in the midst of this chaos, I am supposed to connect, cajole, coddle and create. I love the challenge, and on most days I make it all work, but there is no rubric for these moments that matter.

So sure, come to evaluate my teaching. But don’t expect to get the whole story while you are checking off the boxes. What you can’t see is way more important than what you can: The trust built over months and months of working hard together, the comfort created when I read and evaluate  what they write, the lessons they receive when I challenge them to give a little more effort than they’d like. What we do matters, in the moment and for their future. And no matter who is watching, I give it my all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Garden Wisdom

I had a bad week at work. The kind that ends with the principal calling you at home on the weekend and catapults you into the next week with a rock in your stomach. There were several reasons, but fundamentally, my ideas of planting seeds and helping teens grow up do not always mesh with everyone.

But even in the dark moments, I do love my job. Most students get it:  We are always more than we imagine, and we can work harder than we ever dream. Reading and writing matter in the present and for their future.  I cultivate magic in my classroom and my life, and most times the rabbit really does get pulled out of the hat.

I  had a beautiful moment with a student poet the other day. One of her lines read “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It fit perfectly in her writing, and I told her my dad had the phrase hanging in his office, although it sounded a little sweeter written in Latin on his poster.   My student had had a hard week too. Her grandma died and I had taken some time  to grieve with her. I was surprised to see her in class with a grief so raw, but the poetry flew from her fingers that morning. Magic. Words can always heal, and she was so proud of her creation.

I couldn’t find that healing today. I tried everything  to forget the impending Monday meeting and the anger directed at me and the inadequacies such events always stir up in my heart. I’ll wear my boots of course, which give me a feeling of power, and my Choose Happiness bracelet, but the rock has been in my stomach all day. For a woman who always brings her “A game”, who works for hours at home to innovate for her students,  who gives up time with my own children to help other people’s children grow up, these moments of conflict always bring me down.

I ran through my go-to happiness list. Certain places always heal me. But today, the beach didn’t help. Took my boys to throw rocks and find driftwood and watch the barely frozen lake move with the tide. But no luck for my heart. Cooking didn’t help either. The mindless chopping of veggies for potato soup and the buffalo chicken dip my daughter requested didn’t make a dent in my mood.

But I finally found my balm in the garden. My eight year old and I have had an action packed weekend. We’ve played hours of lacrosse in the front yard,  And we hand-washed the car yesterday like my dad and I used to do. Today, we hit the garden. He’s such a hard worker, and was turning the soil and chopping the lumps with a spade when he taught me the very best thing.   

“Mom, since we have two gardens, could we grow food in this one for us, and grow food for the poor people in the other one?”  He had all sorts of ideas on what to grow and how we could get the vegetables to the poor people. Not bad for an eight year old. We worked in comfortable silence for a while until he said, “I bet it would bring us closer to Jesus.”

And in a few minutes’ time, dirt under my fingernails and cold tingling my nose, I finally got the message, delivered through my father and my son. Get closer to Jesus.  Don’t let the bastards grind me down. Share with the poor.... the poor in money and the poor in spirit. The seeds I plant will germinate...at their own rate and in His time. Sometimes the seeds stay in the dark a very long time, but all good works will bloom eventually.

So,  I’ll keep on showing up and cultivating magic, with the poet in my fourth period who is mourning,  with my literature students who deserve my high expectations and creative ideas,  and especially with my little boy who never fails to teach me.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Miles of Milestones

May is the month for milestones: graduations, baby showers, band concerts and baptisms currently dot my calendar. Additionally, there is the list of milestones as I go through the “lasts” of everything at my job. The last report cards, last talent show, and last class of eighth graders will be gone faster than I realize.

But with my head and calendar spinning, May is also the time I choose to focus on my re-birth.  Five years ago last week, I left my house in a funk, just as a howling thunderstorm approached. As with most moments that end up changing our lives, I’m not quite sure why I started running down the street. I made it a short distance that evening; the pain in my chest and my legs was new and as fierce as the storm.

That night changed my life. As I wrote five years ago.  I keep running. The wind chases me now. I turn the corner and head for home. I’m not in it for the distance tonight. It is too new and too raw. But now I see. There is more to me than I already know. Some strange strength is gathering like the roiling clouds blowing in from the west.”

The power I found that night, when I landed on my porch breathless and dodging rain, was the beginning of this five-year journey. I had never exercised, and truly felt running was abhorrent. But in the past five years I have experienced hours of training,  nasty shin splints, a few half marathons, and the hottest and longest run ever: 26.2 miles on an 86 degree day. I have dodged ice and heat but somehow, inexplicably, I cannot dodge my dream of running a half marathon in every state. Believe me, I have tried. But what happens to a dream deferred? It keeps popping back up.  And so I run.

Five years later, and I’m pounding out a five-miler in the woods last night. (No small feat between my workday and the band concert.) Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. So do I. I want to move and breathe and focus. I want to do the impossible. I want to be someone I didn’t know I could be.

The process has been slow. It is so much easier to change my body and my breath than to BELIEVE that I am a runner. Last night I passed a woman walking her dog on the trail. Since that part of the trail is a loop, I quickly passed her again. She smiled and said, “You’re moving fast.” Immediately I responded, “Not really.” I spent the next mile frustrated with myself. Why is it so hard for me to feel like a “real runner”? Why is my speed at all indicative of my heart and my purpose and the pride I should feel at re-inventing myself?

But the moments of beauty help. I think I smiled the whole five miles last night. Deer, chipmunks, blooming trees, red-headed woodpeckers, a killer soundtrack, the “good sore” of my muscles. My daughter helps too. She did in one word what I haven’t been able to do in five years. Brought home her school project where she had to use three words to describe me, and one of them was “running.” She’ll never realize how her observations have helped change the way I look at myself.

Running is such a great metaphor for life. I’m always running, though I’m not always sure where the path is headed. The work is harder than I think, but the pay-out is more powerful than I can imagine. It’s the same in my home and my classroom.

A friend reminded me of this quote by Christopher McDougall: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”

I do hit the ground running each day, each moment. And in many ways, my running career really is this life-and-death for me. Fear, fatigue, doubt, the feeling of being unworthy: they are always chomping at my heels. Running gives me the power to keep the problems at bay, and to become more than I know.  Some days I’m the lion, and some days I’m the gazelle. But each day and each mile brings me closer to the heart of who I want to become.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Setting Sail

The blue sky is the perfect replica of the lake this morning, the horizon line lost from my view.  The birds are loud, and the little kids on the playground even more so. This is the kind of spring day I was made for.   The chirping warmth of the blue sky, the promise of blossoms turning to full-fledged beauty, and the tiny voice inside my heart that says anything is possible.

And so it goes. Anything is about to be possible. For the past 11 years, I have breathed in this lake view, these junior high students, these countless essays and lessons and moments. And now it is time to go. Albert Einstein said, “A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it is built for.” I understand this sentiment, and I am ready to put his theory to the test.  This week I signed a contract to teach AP Literature and junior American Literature at Elyria Catholic High School.  This morning I am watching a freighter filled with rocks float by on the lake, and it helps me to cement the decision to move, to sail away from the comfort of the shore.

Some people think I’m nuts for leaving the safety of a job I know so well, these dear people that I call my friends, and the routine that is ingrained in my muscle memory.  But I am ready.  I’m not always the most adventurous, but this decision seems rock solid wonderful to me.

Only slightly masochistic, I know my new job will be harder. There are nine novels lined up on my bookshelf for the first quarter alone.  And the high school students come with their own set of angst and technology and neediness. They can also drive away! A lot has changed in the time I have been gone.

I will also miss my friends. You don’t have the all-in personality I have and work somewhere for 11 years without getting attached. These people have seen me through births and deaths and everything in between. They have saved my life and my soul and my sanity. I will not take that parting easily.  

And there is something about this lake view that has buoyed me as well. The Panther football field outside my new window will not quite suffice.

I am leaving my kids behind. I know they will be well-loved, and I am happy for them to spread their wings without my shadow at the end of the hall. (It is hard to be a free range parent when you work twenty yards away.) And every seventh grade girl deserves to navigate the rough seas of junior high without her mother at the front of the class. For that I am most grateful.

As I sit here on the brink, I appreciate the freedom of my choice. I am thankful for the lessons learned here, the pieces of these students I will carry with me. I wonder at the blurred horizon; but I’m content with knowing that 20/20 vision of the future is impossible.

The day I got offered the job, still reeling and amazed by the new fork in my path, I left EC and turned on the car radio to hear the song “Say Geronimo.” Such a perfect moment of clarity and expectancy that afternoon, and I feel even more certain of my decision today. I CAN make this leap, and anything is truly possible.

Friday, May 1, 2015

On Breathing and Balancing

Why do I feel like crying at yoga class?! Under normal circumstances, crying and I are actually quite well-acquainted, including but not limited to baseball game brawls, school masses, moments with my lawnmower, and the general beauty of the natural world.  But what is this strange intensity that makes me feel as though tears will well at any second once I come to the top of my mat?

Let’s be straight. I know just enough yoga to be dangerous. But I do feel a strange calling to investigate this art of breathing and strengthening my muscles. I am assuming it will make me a calmer mother, too. (It really shouldn’t take much to improve on the lady yelling “I am not Cinderella” the other night. But really, you should see the ways these clients load the dishwasher!)

So lately I have been taking my talents to a local yoga studio. Last night I showed up with the awkward grace I am known for, and OHMed my way to the top of the mat.  I love the idea of the static stretch, the quiet, the focus. But the breathing sends me over the edge. I always feel like I am teetering between hyperventilating and breaking out into tears.

And there is the metaphor. I AM always teetering.

It’s been a big week of preparation for my children. The middle guy has his first Gallery Opening this evening at BayArts. His drawing class met every Tuesday all year, and I am amazed by the creativity that lives in his brain. Tomorrow, my baby makes his First Communion.  The importance of that moment is not lost on me, despite the chaos of fried chicken and baked beans and chalice cookies. Not to be left out, my girl is competing in the county-wide spelling bee on Sunday. Yes, I know I am blessed.

But I have been spinning lately. And running, both literally and figurately. And I guess it makes sense that when I stop for a second, emotions that I didn’t know I had will appear.   And it is somewhere in this chaos of mothering that the breathing beckons me. I read an article a few weeks ago about how kids grow up too fast. I can attest to that myself. But the article also contemplated what WE mothers are doing WHILE the kids are growing up. Am I growing too, and who will I be when they leave the nest?

Last night I scared myself. Went too far too fast in a halasana position, and felt like I couldn’t breathe.  But you know what? Just last week I couldn't do it at all. Progress.  I felt this same kind of amazement when I ran my marathon: 26.2 miles of me pounding asphalt.  And it made me wonder, what ELSE is there that I think I cannot do?!?

Yoga is a great way to see that my mind and body are connected, and I CAN do more than I realize. I can learn that on the yoga mat. I can practice that patience in my house. I can feel the fear in my career and challenge myself in new ways. I can relish those moments when breathing deeply is my best and only choice.

So what am I doing as my children are drawing and growing and spelling? I am breathing. And reaching. And balancing. No professional yogi for sure, but a woman in the midst of becoming. And the art of becoming is the perfect pose for me.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Chasing Grace

Topic of the week? Sacraments. Webster says that a sacrament is a “visible sign of God’s grace.”  Fair enough, and I am sure that I should be ruminating on the upcoming First Communion in my house, or the beautiful Anointing of the Sick that our pastor offered to a first grader needing a liver transplant and his donor cousin last week. I also totally appreciate the sacrament of Reconciliation, which my second grader was not too happy about recently when he had to come clean on all the cash he spent buying gems on his video game, Clash of Clans. (Thank you, Apple, for knowing that I really didn’t WANT to spend 1, 109 dollars to give my son super-powers in a video game, and graciously refunding my money.)

As sacraments go, I am one hundred percent able to spout off the rites, the sacramentals, and the minister for each sacrament.  Not surprising, really, since I have been standing or sitting in a Catholic school for most of my 43 years. I can even define words like transubstantiation and chrism and eucharist.  

But to me, sacraments go beyond the veil of the church and the priest and little boys with slicked back hair and clip-on ties. Visible signs of God’s grace? I see them every day.

Grace: “seemingly effortless beauty or charm; a disposition to be generous or helpful; divine love and protection bestowed freely on the people.”   Oh my, this world is full of grace-filled moments. Ever see a girl go up to someone sitting alone on the playground and make her smile? Grace. Ever see an elderly man help his walker-using wife into a grocery store? Grace. How about some generally quiet girls standing up to a bully in class? Grace.  Ever see a student who struggles in writing finally write a beautiful metaphor? I have. Grace all around. Or how about a spontaneous hug for a brother who has skinned his knee or my daughter taking out the garbage AND recycling without being asked? There is even grace in my happy little home!

Nature creates grace too. Daffodils, planted by my father, bloom in my back yard. Now my sons pick them for me in grubby–handed bouquets. Grace. Or the streaks of sun reflected through the clouds or lake or trees? Grace. Heck, even my boys dancing in the hail yesterday (really April?) remind me that opening my eyes to see the pebbly white beauty is tasting eternity.

So yes, I am preparing excitedly for my kid’s First Communion, as he has been singing church songs at full volume for weeks. I appreciate the tradition and sacraments of my faith. But living with intention and looking for “effortless beauty and charm” in the people I meet? That is a game I am willing to play in all moments, big and small. And being a minister of grace for others? To help a struggling student or throw the ball to my boy in the yard or buy a tired grocery clerk a candy bar? Those are occasions when I know I am kissing the divine.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight

I’m obsessed with spring. Year after year, large piles of snow give way to an awakening earth underneath, and I am still no closer to understanding how it happens. What is the trigger? How do these crocuses know that even under two feet of snow, it is time to rise and shine?  How do trees bud and the birds come North? Must be magic, like my favorite illusionist David Anthony sawing a woman into pieces before my very own eyes. Illusions. Magic. The unfurling of new life from the darkened earth. I just can’t figure any of it out.

My rake and I do know a few things. We need to rid the lawn of the many acorns that the hapless squirrels have thrown around all winter. And eradicating the dead grass will make room for a lush new lawn when the April rains decide to cease.   We even intuit that it is time to clean the beds and spruce them up.

Today was the day to order the tools of the trade for beautifying the beds. Don’t ask what I will do tomorrow when I come home from work and see four yards of mulch and 2.5 tons of river rock in my driveway. (That’s a magic trick for another day.) But a stop at the Rock Pile led to a chance encounter that put a smile on my face.

I saw him near the bananas. No working mother of three can ever leave the house on just one errand, so after ordering the mulch, I headed to the grocery. Halfway through the produce section, I stopped dead. The gentleman with the twinkle in his eyes looked very familiar.

“Excuse me,” I said. (I live big, and have no qualms about making a fool out of myself near the mangoes.) “Is your name Tommy Burns?”

“Yes,” he replied. There was that twinkle again.

“My name is Katie Kraven. Do you happen to remember my dad?”

He was as shocked as I was, and broke into a huge grin.

I have vague memories of this man who I know played a huge role in my father’s life. He helped to paint the house I lived in as a little girl. He is my sister’s godfather. And he was a role model, mentor and friend to my dad for years.

But time has gotten away from us and it’s been a lifetime since I’ve seen him. He hugged me and grabbed my hand. He told a few funny stories about his great-grandkids, their antics, and his removable teeth. He explained that although his kids have moved around the country, he lives in the same house where he’s been for decades. A few moments to catch up, and then he was gone, with his bag of lettuce and one yellow banana.

I love the magic of these freeze-frame moments, these chance encounters that come seemingly out of the blue. I know who he was to my father. And I know the positive impact he had on my dad’s life. But how do you reconcile that between the Vitamin Water and the organic chips? I don’t know all the details, and it is too much history to relive at this point, but I know Tommy’s impact somehow must ring in me still.

Magic, I tell you. How else to explain that the people we need, the reminders that can heal us, are like daffodils popping through the earth or rabbits pulled from black hats? They have all been hiding in plain sight all along. I’m pretty convinced that this is the way with most miracles.  With random grocery moments. With bulbs that blossom into beauty.  With new eyes on old realities, and new hope in the darkest moments.

So many blessing are hiding in plain sight. And it just takes a little raking and a little wonder to uncover them.