Learning, apprenticeship, study.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s time to make things Internet-official. I’m stepping out of the classroom next year and taking a leave of absence. I’m excited beyond expression, but I’m also scared. Scared that maybe I’ll never come back or that I’ll realize I was doing things wrong the whole time. Scared that I’ll be away from inspiring educators and remarkable kids who keep me going. Scared that I won’t take full advantage of this opportunity.

Who am I when I’m not a teacher? Am I really going to stop being a teacher when I’m out of the classroom? How can I best improve myself and equip myself to return to a vocation of teaching and learning?

I’m fortunate that the district approved my leave (after sending me a very official piece of certified mail that looked SO SERIOUS that Toby texted me asking if I was in trouble). I’m fortunate for the Internet so that I won’t be isolated in this year away. I’m fortunate for the support of remarkable friends who help me become a better person. I’m fortunate for administrators who advocate for the best interests of my students and for the mental health of educators.

Although I’ve been pretty open about my struggles with depression and mania, mental health isn’t the core of why I’m leaving, although I think it does explain why I feel so thoroughly drained and ready for reflection. Teachers leave the profession because they’re burnt out. I hope I’ve caught myself before going over the burnout cliff, and that I will return to my classroom a more thoughtful and proficient educator.

This week is spring break. I’m working with Toby to craft some sort of framework or schedule so I don’t just sink into a fog of ennui in my bed and never emerge. As first-world-problem as it seems, breaks and vacations are really difficult for me, and it often takes a few weeks into the summer before I stop feeling like my skin is crawling. Routines and schedules help my students, and they help me too. One of my tasks is to write something every day. So here’s my work for today.

Learning, apprenticeship, and study. Those are today’s intentions.

NCTM Reflections: Day 1

Yesterday marked the first (half) day of the NCTM conference. I am SO very glad I took the extra day to fly in.

I can’t say enough good things about the Belmont Hotel folks. The shuttle service was low-drama and speedy, and everything I’ve inquired about has been answered kindly and efficiently. My greatest discovery was locating the blow dryer. Yessss.

Most of Wednesday was spent sleeping and doing final tweaks on my presentation. I ate delicious food at SMOKE, the restaurant connected to the Belmont (hangar steak salad, BBQ beans). I slept some more, then I headed down to the convention center.

The opening keynote was Scott Flansburg, the Human Calculator, a dropout savant who spent most of his hour-and-a-half presentation name-dropping all the TV shows he’d been featured on and all the famous people he met. The presentation was pretty mediocre, and I was forced to depart early due to excessive cologne application by my neighbor (who was three seats away). I found myself longing for a return visit from the brilliant and charming Jane McGonigal, who was our opening speaker at the Title I conference.

 

Trundled back home, ate dinner at SMOKE (mac and cheese), read books, watched Sherlock, slept poorly. The only thing that kept me from freaking out about my lack of sleep was marathon guru Hal Higdon’s advice. He says that you probably will get an awful night’s sleep before the race (or presentation), so it’s actually more important that the two nights leading up to the night before the race are solid. Seeing as how I slept through most of Tuesday and Wednesday, each time I woke up, instead of panicking, I was able to tell myself, “Aren’t you glad you slept so much before?” 

Have I publicly mentioned how much I adore Skype? Because I adore Skype. In addition to the tremendous potential it has in my classroom, it’s also really freaking amazing to be able to see my sweet husband’s face before going to sleep when I’m away feeling insecure. Also, I got to see my kitty cat. Who is admittedly cuter than my husband. And equally furry, given the current unshorn state of Toby’s beard.

Perceptions of Science

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about science and people who consider themselves to be “not science people” or “not math people” and how that winds up playing out in educators and education. The response to the Higgs Boson discovery has been huge and wonderful, but these New York hipsters show us we still have a long way to go.

In my musings, I owe much gratitude to Chip Brock, who has always been willing to answer my random, rapid-fire e-mail questions. My lifetime favorite question is probably when I sent him a message from my internship at The Gazette in Colorado Springs asking how much pressure it would take to blast off a manhole cover. Yessssss.

I owe a lot in advance to Kendra Snyder, who is a science publicist for the American Museum of Natural History. I say “in advance” because I plan on picking her brain plenty in the future, although before yesterday, I hadn’t seen her since we graduated together from MSU in May 2005. Which is an absolutely tragedy, because she is brilliant and wonderful. We didn’t hang out much outside of SNews functions at MSU and our sweet 2003 study abroad, which is a shame.

I was trying to figure out yesterday morning, as I was brain barfing to Kendra, why my passionate interest in lay-person’s science advocacy has been on the sidelines for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve found science-loving friends in Toby’s coworkers at Cheezburger who made me think that the rest of the world was more into science these days. Maybe I was lulled into a false sense that science was becoming more widely recognized because of popular shows like Mythbusters and Alton Brown’s Good Eats.

But I’m probably really thinking about how most people respond to science because of the reaction most people have when I tell them I’m writing a children’s book about Buckminster Fuller. There are three main forms these reactions take. I am including photos for ease of interpretation.

 

1) Delight. “OMG Awesome! The geodesic dome! Buckyballs! What are you writing about him?”

2) Dismissiveness. “Oh, SHANNON, you’re such an overachiever. Don’t even tell me, I know I wouldn’t understand.”

3) That Look. “That Look” also goes along with “That Voice,” the tone that people use when they talk about science being beyond their grasp. You’ve heard every single TV and radio personality using “That Voice” when they lead into a story about the Higgs discovery. It’s oftentimes meant as a compliment, I’m sure, like “Now we’ll hear from a brilliant person who understands the mysteries of the universe,” but I actually take it as an insult. When you use That Voice and give me That Look, here’s what I actually think: If I am failing to communicate in a lucid way how certain processes work, you are actually calling me an incomprehensible jerk incapable of communicating clearly.

I don’t want you to tell me I’m smart; I want you to ask me questions so I can help you understand too! I want you to be able to see the beauty and majesty and wonder in how science shows us how the world is put together.

How can we get people to be more comfortable and interested in science, especially in a time when NASA funding is nonexistent, education is floundering, and there’s a gross permeating feeling of anti-intellectual sentiment that I can only seem to shake when I’m with the brilliant educators they keep tucked away in the district office?

Well, I can tell you one strategy that probably WON’T work:

 

I’ll be continuing to ponder this further. But for now, I’ll leave you with inspiring words from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who actually works out of the American Natural History Museum and might have been in THE EXACT SAME BUILDING AS I WAS yesterday.

The Power of Three

Today, I talked with three people from three different passions in my life. Today blew my mind.

Betsy Bird

I met Betsy Bird for lunch. I know Betsy from the reading fangirl part of my life. She’s sort of a librarian, but she is way more than that. Yes, she is as friendly, intelligent, and nimble-minded as you think she would be. We talked about lots of bookish things. I wish we would have lived on the same floor in the dorms, she’s the kind of person I just want to be able to randomly pop in on and start up a conversation with.

 

Chip Brock

I corresponded with Chip Brock. I know Chip Brock (I mentally call him Dr. Brock but he has indicated that he’s fine with Chip, but I feel weird calling him Chip so I compromise by using “Chip Brock.”) from my science fangirl part of my life. Chip Brock was my Navigating the Universe professor at MSU, but he is way more than that. He also does work with CERN, WHICH YOU MIGHT KNOW ABOUT BECAUSE THEY FOUND THE EFFING HIGGS BOSON (-like particle). We talked about science and making it accessible (but also way more than that). And I will be writing way more about that. Tomorrow. Featuring a graphic organizer for Gae Polisner (someone else I only feel comfortable referring to with both first and last names).

Damon Gupton

I approached Damon Gupton after seeing Clybourne Park. I know Gupton from the theater fangirl part of my life. He is an actor, but he is way more than that. I told him that I enjoyed the show and that it resonated with all the work we’ve been doing with equity at Wildwood and I got a little teary and he said that this conversation had to continue, so he invited me along with other cast folks to a pub across the street and we talked about Michigan and Detroit and race and prejudice and it was wonderful.

I am so grateful for wise, kind, fascinating people who are willing to talk with me to try to make sense of this overwhelming world, whether we make sense of it through literature, science, or art.

New Traditions

This year was the first Christmas I celebrated away from my Michigan family. Mom and dad, I missed you sooooo much! The hope was that my new husband Toby and I would be able to develop new traditions to make the holiday our own. Due to my mopiness and gross indecision, nothing earth-shattering was created, except lots of fires, tea, and reading. And mediocre Indian buffet food for Christmas dinner. And frankly, that’s just fine by me.

But now that I’m looking forward to returning to school today, I’ve been thinking about the traditions my students, colleagues, and I have been developing in the five years I’ve been teaching. Here are some things I’m looking forward to in the new year.

Mock Caldecotts. This started last year officially, although I’ve been holed up in front of a computer the morning of the ALA Midwinter Conference ever since Katherine Schlick Noe told me about the awards livestream when I was at Seattle U. My students come in early (if the conference is held on the East Coast) and enjoy breakfast snacks as the awards are announced. If it’s an award they’re not familiar with (last year I neglected to explain the Sibert award to them — MAJOR oversight on my part), they usually look to me to gauge what their reactions might be. This year, though, I think we’re pretty well-prepared to critique the official choices.

Preliminary voting on our classroom Mock Caldecotts, which were featured last year in the Federal Way Mirror, will begin the end of this week, with the final votes cast January 21 or 22. I haven’t yet decided.

Math Team S’Mores. Sometimes, traditions are started for no good reason. I can’t remember why we decided to microwave S’Mores for our math team members at the last meeting of the year, but this tradition is entering its fourth year. Our first math team competition is coming up this month at Green Gables Elementary. Whee!

Tour guide Ms. Houghton on field trips. I’m SO EXCITED to take the next step in this tradition. Every time we head up to Seattle, I put on my best newspaper reporter voice (which is also my best documentary voice-over voice) and point out relevant landmarks. Smith Tower, once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, Port of Seattle, Amazon headquarters, Starbucks Headquarters, the Convention Center that goes right over the freeway (and contributes to Seattle’s traffic woes), the U District, Space Needle, etc. My goal is for my students to take over this role on the remaining field trips we have this year. Wheeee!!!

Reading Challenges. I started my 50-book-a-year reading challenges when I was in college. You can see an early list here. This year I’ve committed to a few challenges, and created a new one. You know I love any excuse to pull out a new retro lady header.

Sibert Challenge

All this chatter about the various ALA challenges going on in 2012 made me long for a few more nonfiction books on my to-read list. And although the Sibert Informational Medal hasn’t been around for that long, I realized I’ve read woefully few of the winners and honor recipients.

So I present to you this year’s Sibert Challenge, which you can find on Twitter as #nerdibert.

I’m not quite sure how to facilitate something like this, so I suppose I should ask you to please post any links to your versions of the challenge in the comments section. Here’s the complete list of award recipients, taken from the ALA site. For now, I’ll say that I’ll attempt to read them chronologically. If I’ve read a book, I’ve linked it to my Goodreads review.

  • Winner: Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado. Written by Marc Aronson.
  • Honor: Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America. Written by Jim Murphy.
  • Honor: The Longitude Prize. Written by Joan Dash. Illustrated by Dusan Petricic.
  • Honor: My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal. Written by Sophie Webb.
  • Honor: Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned. Written by Judd Winick.

  • Winner: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
  • Honor: Brooklyn Bridge. Written by Lynn Curlee.
  • Honor: Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. Written by Andrea Warren.
  • Honor: Vincent van Gogh. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan.

  • Winner: The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. Written by James Cross Giblin.
  • Honor: Action Jackson. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.
  • Honor: Hole in My Life. Written by Jack Gantos.
  • Honor: Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929. 
    Written by Karen Blumenthal.
  • Honor: When Marian SangWritten by Pam Munoz Ryan. Illustrated by Brian Selznick.

  • Winner: The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights. Written by Russell Freedman.
  • Honor: Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing.  Written by James Rumford, translated into Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller.
  • Honor: The Tarantula Scientist. Written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.
  • Honor: Walt Whitman: Words for America. Written by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick.

  • Winner: Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. HunleyWritten by Sally M. Walker.
  • Honor: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow. Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

  • Winner: Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. Written by Catherine Thimmesh.
  • Honor: Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Written by Ann Bausum.
  • Honor: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. Written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.
  • Honor: To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic NovelWritten by Siena Cherson Siegel, artwork by Mark Siegel.

  • Winner: The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron CurtainWritten by Peter Sís.
  • Honor: Lightship. Written and illustrated by Brian Floca.
  • Honor: Nic Bishop Spiders. Written and photographed by Nic Bishop.

  • Winner: Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. Written by Sy Montgomery.
  • Honor: Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.
  • Honor: Lafayette and the American Revolution. Written by Russell Freedman.

2012

  • Recipients to be announced January 23, 2012!

A Tale of Two Articles

Ever since I learned that you could make your living as a nonfiction writer, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

I had a few plum internships, my final one sending me to the Florida Times-Union. The job was stressful and enjoyable, but two main articles stick in my mind seven years later.

The first is essentially the reason I left journalism.

Cause of death released for pair.

My metro editor deserves mad props for giving this story to a metro intern rather than one of the other three cops and courts reporters. Except that I didn’t really want to call a family to tell them their parents were buried alive. At all. Ever. Calling them was the biggest regret I have in my reporting career. My and my editor’s choices were questioned by the alternate weekly, and even by our conservative editorial board. As a human, I do not regret my choices. I can see how a journalist might disagree with me.

Earlier that month, I called L. Patrick Gray’s son to add to the AP’s obituary. L. Patrick Gray was in charge of the FBI during the Deep Throat scandal in 1972-73. Ed Gray called me back as I was leaving the Jacksonville Police Department, where I had just finished sifting through the police reports for the day. I sat in the lobby, a bit unprepared for his call. I asked him all the questions I usually asked for obituary stories, about his life, about their last times together, etc. I figured the AP would have all the Watergate and Deep Throat details. Plus, my knowledge of post-1920 history was woefully minimal (nice work, Stevenson High School), and I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

As our interview reached its end, I thanked Ed for his time and expressed my sympathies. Ed cleared his throat; he’d ostensibly been talking to reporters for the bulk of the day. “Thank you,” he said. “You know, you’re the first reporter I’ve talked to all day who has actually asked me about my father.”

Wow.

I’m glad I’m no longer a reporter, but I still love nonfiction. I hope you join me in 2012 for the Sibert Challenge. More information to come.

 

Why I think college football is (sort of) important

I don’t watch college sports much. Or any sports, really. I spent the bulk of high school alternately railing against and scoffing at meathead jock types. Sure, there were a few intelligent, well-rounded sporty types, but we didn’t talk much in class (and NEVER outside of class), so I considered them outliers. Rob LyonsRenee Pomaville, and Marybeth Knoth were always people I admired. I think it’s pretty awesome that each of them have much “brainier” jobs than I do now. I’d love to meet up with them.

Even though I went to a school in the Big 10, I never attended a football game. I didn’t go to any basketball games either (although that was mainly because I didn’t want to camp outside the Breslin Center to enter the student ticket lottery). The bulk of my animosity toward college sports began to fade, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself a sports fan.

But after college I realized that sports give us a large-scale way to stay connected that, like it or not, we can’t necessarily get from our college academic pursuits.

Look at my Twitter feed after last night’s Michigan State game. The tweets are written by, from top to bottom, a former SNewser who I never even worked with, former SNewser now at the Indy Star, former SNewser now at MLive, former SNewser who left a paper where she was treated like dirt to become a professional superstar, former SNewser who was more of a friend-of-a-friend, and one of my top three favorite MSU professors / physics mastermind. I’m sort of in touch with these people, yes, but there’s an emotional connection I feel with them after big college news like this is announced. EVEN IF I don’t talk with them right after seeing their post. EVEN IF I didn’t even watch the game.

Jane McGonigal would call this fiero, I guess. A more cynical person might call this mob mentality. I think it’s just another reminder that our choices define not only the path we take in life, but also who will be a part of our community.

When I chose to go to Michigan State, I knew I’d be a part of an enormous community, which was thrilling to me. I didn’t want to be a big fish in a little pond. But I also knew I wanted to be near lots of like-minded nerds, so I joined the Honors College and lived on an Honors floor.

My closest MSU friends happened to be in the Honors College too, but I love that on any given day in downtown Seattle I can shout “GO GREEN” and almost always someone knows how to respond. I wouldn’t be able to have that same connection if I said, “YO, Who got that last e-mail from Bess German talking about alumni events???” Cheering for sports has given us this common language, right? Sure, there were plenty of people who, in my view, may have squandered the academic portion of their college days, but for the most part, we know MSU is so much more than a basketball team or a football game.

I guess our school becoming an AVID elementary has got me thinking about college a bit more than usual. We had our first college day last week, and at first I was more than a bit miffed that many students’ college apparel celebrated the sports teams, not the academic programs, associated with the different schools.

Back in first grade, when I was mocked for wearing a MSU sweatshirt rather than a shirt from football powerhouse U of M, I protested, “Of COURSE I’m wearing MSU.” (I imagine you can hear the shrill tone my voice achieved as it reached into the stratosphere) “My Dad is a POLICE OFFICER, why would he go to U of M if MSU has the best POLICE program in the country???”

I’d like to think our kids, especially those who come from families where college isn’t a part of their legacy, understand that the sports spectacle is distinctly different from the learning that happens at college. But the truth remains that when you don’t have time to wax philosophical, the most effective way to express that belonging is with a battle cry or a round of the fight song.

Back to football. If you want to see the big play that everyone’s freaking out about, you can watch it here. But I think you should watch the video that I posted earlier in the season, which shows MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins is an absolute class act.

So I’m not going to start watching any football games (although I might catch a basketball championship game or two). I remain skeptical of the messages families send their students when they put together elaborate tailgate extravaganzas. But I’m definitely proud to be a Spartan.

 

Living with Intensity

I’m been reading the most therapeutic professional text I’ve seen in a while. When I first checked out Living with Intensity, everyone laughed at me — my husband, my colleagues, even my students (I post in our classroom what I’m currently reading). They thought I was reading a book that would teach me how to be even MORE intense. Rest assured, that’s not the case.

Instead, Living with Intensity is a guide about how to nurture gifted children, adolescents, and adults to channel their quirks and use them for good. I say it’s therapeutic because as I’m reading, I’m also finding elements that apply to me in my adult life. The authors are always cognizant of toeing the line between helping students cope in a neurotypical society while being careful not to dampen students’ gifts. This part of the book DIRECTLY related to a conversation we had in class earlier this week:

One way that parents and teachers can best support gifted children in their development is by recognizing that emotional growth and personal growth are a necessary part of the educational process (Roeper, 2004b, 2007; Piechowski, 2006). Most educators and parents these days seem to believe that, for gifted children, emphasis must be placed first and foremost on their intellectual development. But intellectual development rests on the development of the child’s Self, on his or her insights and deeper sensitivities. In fact, we cannot separate one from the other. It is this very separation that makes gifted children experience stress as a negative force. (p. 81, emphasis mine)

I really want to copy some of these ideas and share them at conferences later this month. For example:

There is another dimension of how stress affects gifted children. They not only receive stress, they also create it. Gifted children create a kind of discomfort in their surroundings, for by their mere existence, they uncover shortcomings. They question and challenge traditions and the status quo and are not comfortable doing things just because everyone else is doing them. Their experiences are unconventional; their needs are not typical, and society — many schools and other institutions — is unable to fulfill them… The gifted do not accept neat, simple categories; they expect society to think in complex ways, as they do. They expect society to look honestly at itself and to perceive things about itself that it cannot and does not want to see.(p. 79, emphasis mine)

I’m sure there will be more as I continue reading, but I needed to share these publicly. Additionally, there’s apparently a family guide and a teen guide available from the same editors. It seems like these are the more current, in-depth version of the Gifted Survival Guide.

Yesterday, a primary teacher told me how lucky my students were to have me as their GATE teacher. Normally, when I hear comments like that, I blow them off because praise makes me feel really uneasy, especially when I feel like I’m just doing my job. But she looked at me and said, “You know exactly what they’re going through, you know how to listen to them.” She shrugged and sliced some math work on the paper cutter. “I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say to them, much less teach them.”

I realized she was right. Ever since I received my position as the gifted/talented teacher, I had been doubting my beliefs. Did gifted students really deserve a more challenging, “better” education than their peers? Was it “fair” to have a gifted teacher working with students who are already meeting standard when there are dozens of other students struggling who could benefit from her support? I would honestly not be alive today if it were not for the gifted and talented support system I developed in high school, but now I fretted that maybe the gifted program wasn’t what was best for kids.

When I was applying for the 2/3 GATE position and right after I received the job, I’d heard plenty of people say things like, “Hey, better you than me” or “You’re the best choice to work with them,” but this moment in the staff workroom was the first time where our educational experiences, both my students and my own, felt validated. We really do have special needs, and we really do benefit from this least-restrictive learning environment. I can’t wait to see what we achieve this year.