One Day- 15 minutes at a time

The trick is to not let one time slot carry into the next one. Let go of the emotions that may happen in one meeting and start fresh in the next. I write this as a reminder to myself before the day starts. Man, has it ever been emotional. I open myself up each day to the teachers in order to serve, in order to hopefully help lift the burden a little.

In order to reset, I plan to do some square breathing- 4, 4, 4, and 4 in between my time with each teacher.

For the first three time slots, I totally forgot to do my square breathing. I have however figured out a nice, tight structure for those 15 minutes- which really ends up being 10 minutes once teachers are released by the roving substitute, make it to their computer and log on. While I am waiting for the next teacher to appear on my Zoom link, I try to envision their walk to our meeting. Final calls from students, “Where are you going? What do we do?” As if their teacher is leaving for good. The restroom, that they pass because they are feeling late and do not want to lose time for more learning. The internet connection is not so good in their school building so they have to press against the outside wall where the windows are to hear and see me without delays.

I have figured out that really these time slots are teaching conferences. Like writing conferences and now I am loving the plan for this day because I love conferences. I love conferring. My structure goes like this: Connection with the person. Restating the focus they named for me in a previous email. Ask them to elaborate on the focus for a minute or so. Then deliver a mini-workshop with three to five practical tips that match their focus. End with a declaration of my admiration and love and a reminder to care for themselves because we need them.

That’s it- a little 5 part teacher conference structure that I do over and over again. 17 times. But, each one feels like the first one because each teacher is new. They deserve to feel new to me. They deserve to be heard as new. And, at the same time, I wish they knew that they are also so very much the same as their colleagues. Struggling with so many of the same things. Grieving in so many of the same ways. I knew I loved teachers before the pandemic started, now I am positive that I will love them forever and always.

Then the principal and the assistant principal get on at the end of the day to listen to how the day went. At first I think that this is a different kind of meeting with the people in charge and then what I realise is that this too… is a conference. People need conferences. All of them. All of us. We need connection. Back to my structure I go. I do not think I have any tips for them and then as I sit with what they want to focus on- how do we start to go forward again from here- I have a little workshop.

No one has answered that question before. How to go forward after Covid? But we get to. We get to make it up. Perhaps we redefine the world with our answer. There are so many things that need fixing and they are long overdue.

Do you have 15 minutes to get started?

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Kindergarten Aubrey

“Would you like to see my book?! I just finished it.”

Yes, please.

She holds her 5 page booklet up to her Zoom screen to read. “How to Make a Cake by Kindergarten Aubrey.”

Kindergarten Aubrey.

I was so struck by her calling herself that. It was almost as if she understood that she was yet another incarnation of Aubrey. That she would be constantly evolving throughout her life. We went on to talk about her writing. It was a writing conference where I was really trying to understand Aubrey the writer and more than that, Aubrey the person.

Later, thinking about how she called herself, I wondered why I had never called myself the same way. What if, upon presenting my first baby, I said to hospital visitors, “This is Dylan Patrick by 35 year old Natalie.” I did not have a grade at that time to name. We are not in grades after a while after all. But, we still have seasons of our life. What might I have called that season besides my age?

I found myself thinking about this as I walked my dog. I noticed he was searching for snow again. Now disappeared. He had come to love his daily king-of-the-mountain poops. What was a tired old tree trunk poop compared to that?!

Maybe that season was my baby making season. Imagine me again with those same hospital visitors, “This is Dylan Patrick by baby making Natalie.” I kind of like the idea of naming my season so that I see that time as just that a season. It is both permanent in how it feels at the time and totally impermanent in a life time. When I first had Dylan, my mom said to me, “My best advice to you is that everything is a stage. Good. Stage. Bad. Stage.” Wise advice for sure but my mom was 55 when she said this and Aubrey, 5.

Every Natalie is connected to all of the Natalie’s who came before and all of the Natalie’s who will come after. I will never know which Natalie is the last Natalie and I have a hard time choosing my favorite Natalie. Here are just a few of the hers that I have been in this life.

Peace Corps Volunteer Natalie.

Barnes and Noble Natalie.

New New Yorker Natalie. (Oooo… that one is catchy right?!)

First year teacher Natalie

Jimmy loving Natalie.

How did Aubrey know all of this already? How did she know that she will evolve through so many seasons? As a guest teacher, and like all teachers, I will just get to see a small part of her evolution as she moves toward becoming the fullest version of herself. A few seasons probably. Sometimes really just this one season. And, if that is true, then what I say to her in this 5 minute writing conference, matters. Kindergarten Aubrey will carry this on with her and I want it to power the evolution of her most authentic Aubrey. This piece of writing will fall away. But kindergarten Aubrey… now that’s an investment.

Kindergarten Aubrey is wise about life.

She also does really know how-to make a cake.

You should ask her about both.

Tuna in a Green Pepper

Someone asked me the other day what dish my mom cooked the best when I was growing up.

I remembered how we would head to the garden on the north side of our house in South Jersey. On this particular day I had been reading one of the many Bobbsey Twins books that I always borrowed from the library. My mission was to finish all of the books in this series so I could move on to The Hardy Boys. Even though I was interrupting my reading time, I loved the garden.

“There is a really red one over there in the bottom corner,” my mom said. I headed over to find, sniff and then eat that tomato like most people eat an apple. After I washed it in the slightly metal tasting water from the warm rubber hose, and after I sniffed the warm grassy sweetness, I bit into it and juice squirted down my shirt. I always started our garden time with tomato eating.

My mom and I would kneel in the dirt and it was never hot. We weeded when the sun was on the other side of the house. Our knees would get muddy as we reached and plucked. We pinched the string beans from the vines that wrapped around our chain link fence. Our puppy, Chelsea, paced a track along that fence so that she could bark at neighbors and cars and other dogs… and basically everything. She barked at everything. She came to lick my mom every so often while we worked. A polite lick on her cheek. That dog tolerated the rest of us but she lived for my mom. My mom was cool but we all knew the feeling was mutual.

The pepper and tomato plants needed a lot of weeding. We did not want anything to steal nutrients from our precious food. In the summer, in my South Jersey home, tomatoes and peppers were for breakfast and lunch and dinner. At lunch time, on most days, I either had a tomato sandwich or a pepper stuffed with tuna salad. I liked a good tomato sandwich. White bread. Toasted. Mayo. Salt and Pepper. Jersey. Tomato. Magical.

What my mom made best though was a green pepper stuffed with tuna salad. I would cut the top off and clean the pepper. Ribs and seeds removed. My mom would remind me to salt the inside of the pepper. Lightly. Then she made tuna. All white meat Bumble Bee. Mayo and onions. Salt and pepper. The tuna cans were stinky in the hot kitchen but we never threw them away before we ate. The stuffed peppers looked too good.

As soon as she scooped the tuna into the peppers, we would take them and our ice tea, the kind made from the powder mix, and we would go sit at our wooden picnic table under the giant maple out back. I would talk about softball and books. My two loves at the time. For a long time. Music would be blasting from the living room speakers on the other side of the house but if Stevie Nicks was singing then my mom was singing. And, if Meatloaf was blaring, then we were both singing. And eating.

Tuna in a green pepper. It is a simple dish that takes careful attention to each simple step. Tuna, shredded down with a fork from chunks to small pieces. Onions, cut in a pretty fine chop, just a little bigger than the tuna pieces. Mayo, in a big spoonful to start and then it should look creamy while still looking like tuna. Salt and Pepper. Then, more mixing than seemed necessary but the trick was to get everything covered with everything.

I make tuna in a pepper for Luke now. We do not have a garden and if I sing he gets wildly embarrassed. But, I know he will remember it. Careful attention and more mixing than seems necessary sounds like the definition of love to me.

Maybe someday, he will tell someone that tuna in a green pepper is what his mom cooked best when he was growing up. I hope he gets to tell me that too. I hope I told my mom. She was cool but I am pretty sure she knew.

The seven pm essential clap

I was outside with a dog who needed to pee. And then, there were people hanging out of their windows clapping. Calling, “I love you,” and “thank you.” One man pulled his car over and got out to clap. I will go there tonight at 7 PM to clap.

I started this post at the start of the pandemic. Almost a year ago now. There was no way to know that this would go on for so long. A year and longer. I was sick when I started this post a year ago. I had Covid when there was absolutely no information and no real help unless you were dying. I was so thankful to not be dying. I spent every day on the couch searching the internet for information to tell me how long it would take to get better. I was looking for information about whether or not I was likely to get sicker or maybe die.

But, each day, I set my alarm so that I did not miss the essential clap. I would head to the window that was a few feet from my couch bed. I would search the windows of the building around me for the other clappers. Some nights if I felt a little better, I would head up to the roof so that I could see who was clapping around more of the neighborhood. There were kids with pots and pans. There was someone with what sounded like a Tuba. There was a lot of honking. Then there was just the lower tech version of appreciation. Those of us who just clapped and yelled.

I would tire quickly and I would head back to my couch bed but not before I waved to the older lady across the street. She would open her window and lean on her forearms out the window to clap. Most nights we would wave to each other. I would not let my boys come clap with me because we were doing a good job staying separated. Me on the couch trying to keep other people from getting sick.

My sister, doing her job as a nurse, would text and call every day to try to figure out if I was the same or better or worse. She worried about me and I worried about her. There was no way to get tested because there were no tests. I also ended up in the emergency room twice. Once with a heart murmur that I had never had before and a second time for trouble breathing. The second visit was in a hospital where the halls and beds were filled with people in various states of sickness. I felt terrible but I looked around and could see that I was probably doing the best. Oxygen tanks and masks on so many people. Every person there, there alone.

I was still in the ER when the essential clap was supposed to happen but it did not feel like I should be clapping. The doctors and nurses were flying around the spaces. They were hard to recognize as yours or mine because they were so covered up with protection. I found myself thinking that if they got sick, what would we all do. It was 7 and I was supposed to be clapping so instead I just thought about the clap. I looked around me mindfully trying to send appreciation to the doctors. Silently willing thank yous around the room.

My doctor came back and she said, “You are sick but I do not think you need to stay here. You can go home and keep resting.” I took that as, “You are not dying and the people here are or may be. So now you need to get out of here.” She was right. I started to cry.

The essential clap was essential for me in the first months of the pandemic because it helped me reach beyond the couch and out into the world where other people were scared and still fighting. I would fight too. I would remember gratitude. It is essential.

When Soccer Was Fun

I am looking at a photo of the soccer team my son played on for three years. In this photo, soccer was still fun I think. You can tell that this photo came from a full Saturday of soccer. A tournament where the boys played 6 games in one day. Their hair is pasted to their heads with sweat in the photo and in between games, they played rounds and rounds of jackpot. A game they made up that involved a fake jackpot amount and kicking of a soccer ball and tackling to see who could catch it in the air.

It was so fun to organize snacks and food so that they could stay energized. Always challenging to keep them from wanting donuts or treats of other kinds. We the parents had to vow to offer only healthy food or else risk a food mutiny.

That was when soccer was still fun for me. I hope that it stopped being fun for me long before it stopped being fun for my son. That is him in the very middle of the back row. Now, before I get a little angry, I do not want to seem completely ungrateful in this post. The men who coached him for those three years made so many sacrifices as volunteers. They would often miss the events of their other children in order to coach the team my son played on. I am so thankful for their willingness to do that for my son and the other kids on the team.

Soccer was fun when teamwork and learning and joy were the main mission. It was fun when every parent cheered for every child and gloried in the idea that every child was doing the best he could with the amount of talent he currently had. Soccer was fun when each child cheered each other on and communicated well so that they were stronger together than they were apart.

Soccer became not fun. It was not fun when parents would whisper in clumps about the abilities of other people’s kids. Soccer was not fun when people you thought were your friends would suggest that your child quit playing at the level he was currently playing at. Soccer was not fun when teammates were allowed to scream at each other like the very worst version of teammates ever. How could it be fun to watch adults blame each other for losses or goals? How could it be fun for adults to revel in the failure of children and groan when a child entered the game? How could it be fun for try-outs to happen before a season was over and everyone from the team, except for my son, cheer together at the end of that tryout for the team that he was still on for several more games? All of this happened.

Soccer was more than just not fun then. Soccer was damaging.

To those parents who believed that their behavior was justified, I hope you get what you want. From this mom, I saw ugly in sports where I had never seen it before. I played sports for my whole younger person life. Basketball and field hockey and softball. I always saw sports as much more than winning and college scholarships. I saw it as character building and all about learning what being a part of a team really means. Sports were always joyful and fun then.

So, to the parents who encouraged their kids to play team sports with an individual sport mindset, you win.

And, just so you know, I lose happily in this competition for whose kid is the best because I never want to be a part of making sports damaging ever again.

I am so thankful we are free. I am so thankful that you did not damage my child. He still plays sports. He still thinks that it is fun.

All or Nothing

I missed days of this challenge and then once that happens, the real challenge is coming back to writing. I think psychologists call this All or Nothing Thinking. Instead of congratulating yourself on each day that you are able to meet a goal, people with this all or nothing thought disorder tend to see things in more black and white terms. The most interesting thing about me and this disorder is that I absolutely do not see other people in this kind of light. I am way harder on myself than I would ever be on anyone else.

I think this is worth thinking about for a few moments. When other people fail to accomplish something, I am able to think about the larger context around that failure. I am able to see them as people with obstacles who are absolutely trying their best to accomplish what needs to get done. When their humanity is visible, I embrace it with an attitude of people can only get done as much as they can get done. I mostly view other people as doing the best they can at all times.

For me however, it is as if I know better. I always think that I could have done better. I am also always sure that other people believe that about me too. I think because I am so hard on myself, I assume other people are hard on me too.

However, why not assume that other people are as understanding of me as I am of them? That would be a real flip the switch kind of thought. Radical for me.

Perhaps I worry that if I start to be kinder and more understanding of myself, I will stop being an accomplished person in the world who contributes to the growth and happiness of others. Interesting to think about self-kindness as the key to my effectiveness instead of its demise.

And so, I wrote today in this challenge. What an accomplishment.

The Alternate Schedule

On a Post-it on a desk first thing Monday morning is the alternate schedule. All that we had planned for today will need to be postponed for another day. We will need to make today the best learning opportunity possible. Our idea is to devote time to action research. We will work side by side with a child and then from that research, make a plan for how we will teach them.

After working with several kids across several classes, I get to read with Arabella. Arabella looks worried about her growth as a reader but so do her teachers. I concentrate on making sure my face does not look worried. I know instantly that I will need to share my belief in her with her so that she can continue to grow. She can do so much. With just a little bit of prompting and coaching, she is able to problem solve words. I make sure to shift our attention from word to meaning. “There are funny things in this book, Arabella.” She has never laughed while reading. A small smile curls and I see a dimple that I had not seen before.

I find out that when her sister is sad, Arabella invites her to play with her Barbie house. Her story ends with, “And then when we play we are both happy.” Arabella is tentative and anxious as if she knows she is below benchmark but she does not need to know that or to own that. I make sure she knows how much she can do. And, as I send her back to her seat, I see her whispering to her reading partner. They are laughing together at something. Arabella looks like a different child. Dimples flashing. Face relaxed.

People are worried about Arabella in this class. They are wondering if she needs more help than they can offer. I suggest that Arabella do more work with her partner. The two of them together look powerful. They look like they could accomplish anything.

I want Arabella to forget the benchmark. I want her teachers to forget the benchmark. I want Arabella and her friend to flash dimples as they lean into books and laugh together. She will learn to read then.

And, everyone… breathe.

March Sun

There is something hopeful about March sun. There is sun in February too. But there is something hopeful about March sun. The early flowers that open to it agree with me. They make me laugh with joy that I am in such good company. Me and the flowers. March promises a waking up and a reaching out.

There is a reason for the seasons. The hibernation of winter lets me go completely inside my heart. While there, I tend to its scars and slow down enough to remember all of the sadness. In the sadness, are the memories of all who have moved on. All who have passed from this light and into another light.

And, as I write this, I can see that the March sun is filled with those I love. My puppy got up just now and moved from his cave-like bed under my desk and into the squares of March sun that decorate our plain beige carpet. He is watching now. Dust maybe or my mom or John or Lynn or Kathleen or Herbie.

March sun is filled with warmth. I move next to my puppy. I feel motivated to uncurl from my spot on the couch and get out into it all. Instead of a nap, a walk. Instead of a snack, a glass of water. Instead of passive, active. My seltzer bubbles on the table next to me as I make a promise to the flowers. I will open to the sun. There will be more cold for sure but I will merely close- temporarily. I will not head back under ground. In touch with myself again because of the winter, I head out to get back in touch with the world.

Me and the flowers. Such good company. Both of us out in the hope of March sun.

Podcast Try #1

I will try to record my first podcast ever today. I am interested in podcasting. I love the format. A voice in your ear with a story to tell and space filled with bits of silence just long enough for serious thinking and reflection. I think this might be a fun medium for me. I do not hate the way my voice sounds on a recording and I love the idea that I can share my thinking without having to put myself on video.

So, I did some research the night before the big day to find out what I could do to make a great podcast. I googled. Right away I found an entry called, “How to Make a KickAss Podcast.” I think this was part of a larger series of podcasts by the same name but I did not open this one. I just liked the title. I moved into another podcast advice column by clicking and I found what I think I already knew. Story. Be ready to wrap the information that you are wanting to teach into stories.

I began to think about 12 minutes of content and then how I might attach stories to each of those parts. If I could have somewhere between 4 to 6 main points with stories attached, I would be able to make a first great try at my first podcast. I felt excited and anxious. Some part of me wondered if this was the start of a new part of my life. Okay, maybe that is a little dramatic.

I headed into the podcast room later that morning. The podcast room looked just like the office it also had been with two differences. Lisa was sitting there with a very small recorder. As big as my cell phone. It had two microphones. One that bent toward her and one that angled toward me. Looking at the recorder helped me understand what a podcast really is. It is a conversation. We made a little plan. We were strategic about the kinds of information that would be most helpful to listeners and we put that information into some wort of flow. We thought a little bit about what might make for some beautiful last words. But really, a podcast is just a conversation.

I paid attention to how I was feeling as we talked. I was enjoying myself. I let my energy rise and fall naturally as I would when I talked or taught about anything. A podcast is really a conversation about something that you have passion for. I loved that thinking on my feel part of my 15 minutes. I left the room feeling smart and like I had offered up at least a few nuggets of wisdom about my topic. Thus ended podcast attempt #1. Stay tuned. It may be coming to an earphone near you someday soon.

And, who knows. This may be the start of something new.

Book Baggy Research

I pulled up next to Josue and I asked him if we could look at the books he had loaded into his book bag for reading this week in reading workshop. He told me that he had just picked all of these books on Monday, so this was his third day reading from this collection. We spread the books on the table and there were seven of them. I said which ones of these have you read so far and he touched just one book. I then asked, “How far are you into this book?” He was on page 7. That meant that he had had 60 minutes or more of in school reading time and he had only read 7 pages.

I was attempting to model how I was setting myself up to be a consultant to these second grade readers. I had no interest in “holding them accountable”. I was more interested in teaching these young readers how to build and understand their reading identities. I helped Josue set a new goal for the next few minutes and when I returned, he had met it. I asked, “What changed? What did you do differently to get more reading done?” He paused for a second and then answered, “I read.” That made me laugh because I knew he had been mostly talking during reading workshop but he just discovered it for himself. So much better than if I lectured him about that. Science teaches us that the epiphany is the best place for learning. The secret is that the person who is doing the learning needs to have the epiphany.

When I asked Nolan about his book bag he had no answer until be started to sort his books. I said, “You have this whole pile of animal books. You must love animals.” Nolan looked at me and said, “No. I do not like animals.” So funny. Kid after kid answered this way when we talked about what was in their book baggy. It was clear that they had just been choosing books by level and number. As soon as we spread the books out and we had kids really look, read the title and take a book walk and maybe even read a little bit, they were choosing books in a much different way. They were thinking about what they wanted to read and why. After working with two other kids and having them really work to pick their books, they both sat hugging their pile and they wanted to know if they could read at home too.

This kind of work can sometimes feel like it is frivolous, not rigorous but if we make people who want to read and if they have books that are tempting to them, they will practice more and that will grow them. Especially if the books are also ones that they can read with high levels of understanding.

Before I left his room, Nolan came running up and said, “Wait. Wait. I was wrong. I like frogs. I like frogs.” I smiled and said, “Oh. Just one animal you like.”

He said, “Are you coming back?”