An Ode to Imperfection

Sometimes my imperfections get to me.

I nervously wipe the mud from around my 2 year old daughter’s face under the scrutinizing eye of another more well-kept mother.

I muse loudly about the state of my boys’ clothes, “I have no idea how you got them so filthy.”

I make a mental note to buy some new pants (or more likely find the next size bin of hand-me-downs), when I notice on the run that a pair has become too short.

I remark how pretty the bow or barrette is in the hair of other people’s little girls, while glancing self-consciously at my own little girl’s wild mane of frizzy curls dotted with bits of leaves and grass or colored with paint.

IMG_3695

Most of the time, I feel confident in our decision to homeschool, to get dirty, to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, and to live differently than most around me. Most of the time, I believe in the value of unstructured play and the power of just being outside and using what the Earth has to give as toys.

Most of the time I feel okay that my own hair is frizzy, my jeans torn, my face untouched by makeup for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Most of the time I can take people’s reaction to my family with pride. Yes they are all mine. Yes I am with them all day long. Yes I teach them too. Yes it is as crazy as it sounds, but also wonderful too (and stressful too).

But sometimes, I feel self-conscious. I feel jealous. I feel unsure of myself and the path that I have taken. I panic that maybe I haven’t been using a rigorous enough curriculum in math or that my kids are not better off with me than at school. I wonder if one day I will regret not taking the time to buy my baby girl beautiful dresses and brush her hair into pigtails of perfect banana curls.

Sometimes I just want to give up, run away, take a nap or do something other than this. Sometimes, if I am brutally honest with myself, I find that I judge others even as my mind is accusing them of judging me.

Most of the time all of us are imprefect. Sometimes we just need to remember exactly that and love each other (and ourselves) and our imperfections all the same.

 

 

 

“Hands On”

Hands on learning has been a buzz word as long as I have been in education.

Most educators sing its praises, though I know a few die-hard traditionalists that think way too much time is wasted on making learning “fun” and students need to just sit down, shut up and learn. I get that too. A little bit more of that would go a long way.

Just to learn your multiplication facts. Just to be able to diagram a sentence or spell basic words or know Greek and Latin roots even. Just to know the scientific method or the names of the 50 states.

With the emphasis on engaging students, teachers sometimes can feel like court jesters desperately performing to win the attention and praise of students, colleagues, supervisors and even themselves. Perhaps the onus has shifted too far away from the students thereby causing a deficit of responsibility, engagement, and creativity in spite of, or even because of, the brilliance of the show that so many teachers put on everyday in their classrooms.

Part of my resilience to the technology movement in schools stems from this idea of the students in a passive role. As testing has become a central, guiding (sometimes choking) force, technology has stepped in as a quick fix. Why wait for your students to read and take notes on a chapter? Instead the modern teacher can just show them a short video and digest the information for them in a snappy Powerpoint presentation with a corresponding note packet, and even review with a hands on game on the SMART Board.

But “hands on” means more than just having a student use their finger to drag and drop on a SMART Board screen. “Hands on” to me means so much more than an elementary student following textbook examples of base 10 models or snap cubes.

The point of hands on is to touch. To play an active role. To experience the learning. To feel. To experiment. To explore.

Take a look at your child’s textbooks, particularly at the elementary school level. You will see “Hands On Activity” every few pages. It is actually quite brilliant. It makes the textbook seem progressive and gives teachers an easy way to add collaborative work into their lesson plans, but is it really “hands on” learning? I would argue that often it isn’t more than lip service.

If the students were really doing “hands on” learning, then they would actually put their hands on more than just plastic manipulatives or computer screens. They would go where they could put their hands on real things. Teachers would fill their classrooms with interesting things for their students to put their hands on like artifacts, organisms, sticks, rocks, tools, old books with tattered yellowing pages, encyclopedias, and even people from different walks of life to share stories and shake hands.

With their hands on learning, students would be less distracted, frustrated, and disengaged. Learning is most powerful when it comes organically.

IMG_2928 IMG_2681 IMG_2684 IMG_2701 IMG_2730 IMG_2747 IMG_2774 IMG_2139 IMG_2143 IMG_2204 IMG_2587 IMG_2650

Happy Birthday, Daddy!

409161_2519977891378_33178289_n

June 26.

Today my Dad would have turned 74.

I had to go back and check the math. It couldn’t have really been four years ago that I got that phone call from my brother at 5 am and collapsed on the back porch uttering sounds of sorrow that until that moment I had no idea my body was capable of making.

With that memory, I can still feel the old splintered wood against my face as I cried there, emptying myself of every ounce of grief only to take a breath and feel myself fill back up.

Four years.

You know, my Dad was right about a lot of things, but even he was wrong about some things.

Once, when I was going through some hard times at the school where I was teaching, I called him as I often did to have a heart-to-heart. My ear would get red and sweaty at the end of one of our long conversations. I talk to my mother once a day, well sometimes five times, but with my Dad it was different. When we did talk, we talked.

Well, I don’t even remember why I was so stressed about work at the time, but his advice was not to worry about it. He said as much as it may seem that you are irreplaceable at work, you aren’t. Sure you may be great at your job, but if you drop dead tomorrow, you better believe that they will have someone else in there to take your place.

His words stuck with me.

I remembered them when I invited my colleagues to come to a board meeting to hear my passionate resignation speech and only a handful showed up. I remembered them when I packed my classroom and nobody wanted to take my binders full of ideas from 8 years of teaching 7th grade English with creativity, heart, and soul. I remembered when no one wanted my invention project packet that had become my legacy. I remembered when no one had any use for my witch’s cauldron that I would use for various games or for the stacks of charts that I made the old school way with chart paper and colorful markers (before and after Powerpoint and SmartBoards became a staple).

One day someone will find a book of mine, labeled “Vaccaro” in obnoxious red Sharpie ink in the dusty corner of the book room and not know who that is and toss it in the trash. In a lot of ways, he was right. I have only been gone from my school for two years and so much has already faded.

But, a teacher is not your typical kind of worker that comes and goes and the company keeps on functioning as it always did.

You see my Dad is missed, though his replacement probably doesn’t know his name or what it still means to so many of his former students and colleagues. For as education becomes more and more results based, so much is being lost. You can replace a body, but you can’t replace the heart and soul that he brought to school every day and poured into his students.

This is not to say that today’s generation of teachers doesn’t care or have heart and soul. But, what I mean is that there is no longer a sense of reverence for those who came before. The policymakers from the state level down to the local school boards have lost a sense of what it really means to teach. They don’t understand that there isn’t a test, spreadsheet, or rubric that can capture the value of a true teacher nor assess the quality of learning that is being delivered. They don’t know that the kids need their physical education teacher down on the floor playing Duck, Duck, Goose with them (like my Dad did) a lot more than they need to take a benchmark to determine the value of that teacher.

The policymakers think that new ways are better than old ways and that the more technology the better, because it makes our lives easier. But have they really gotten easier? I am pretty sure that my Dad wouldn’t think so. Their new ways have done nothing but drive up spending on curriculum, professional development, and technology while devaluing the human capital right before their eyes in their teachers.

So, Happy Birthday, Daddy!

I hope that you have a cake where you are and that before you blow out those 74 candles, that you make a wish.

Wish that schools, administrators, school boards, and government officials can learn to do more than just replace and instead honor the value of those who came before and those who are there now trying to survive during a difficult time to teach, one of the most important professions in the world.

My Dad’s smile lives on in the hearts of so many of his students from over 40 years of teaching and that is irreplaceable.

I should know, because it lives on in mine.

11150844_10153087461372891_8650372588337724582_n

Support David, Slay Goliath

Americans love underdogs.

Underdogs are more American than an apple pie playing baseball on the 4th of July.

Underdogs founded this country. Underdogs won the fight to end slavery. Underdogs won the right to vote for women and for African-Americans. Underdogs are winning the battle for the right to gay marriage and adoption. Underdogs are fighting to change education reforms.

And let’s face it, underdogs make great protagonists in movies. Rocky, The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, Rudy, Hoop Dreams, Million Dollar Baby, Good Will Hunting, The Pursuit of Happyness, Slumdog Millionaire, and the list goes on and on. Americans can’t get enough of the little guy usurping “the man.”

Then why, in our day-to-day lives, do so many of us allow ourselves to excuse our complacency or refusal to act by pointing our finger at some form of “The Man” who is keeping us down.

“The Man” is the man of many faces, shape-shifting to keep individuals feeling powerless. “The Man” can be anything that stops individuals from acting such as state mandates, politics, administration, money, racism, corporations, or the law. But the truth is that none of these things are insurmountable by individuals. They were constructed by individuals, and they can be razed by individuals.

State mandates can be fought and revoked or altered.

Politicians can lose elections or individuals can run for office.

Administration can be persuaded or fired.

Money can be raised.

Racism can be fought with tolerance and love.

Corporations can lose money or go out of business, if their market dries up.

Laws can be amended.

Nothing is set in stone, but if it appears to be, even stone can be cracked by an individual. If you do not have the power, time, or knowledge to act, find ways to support those individuals who do.Those who fight back and dream big need that support after all, they aren’t superheroes.

Nothing is out of our hands until we let go. But you must support David or Goliath will never be slayed.

IMG_1592

On Top of the World

20150101_143039

Kids should feel like they are mighty.

Like the world belongs to them.

Like they can conquer anything….maybe even a fire-breathing dragon.

Kids should be free.

Free to explore.

Free to get dirty.

Free to make mistakes.

Adults (and let’s face it advertising) have created a world where stress easily rules families and in turn our children.

Stress about how clean our house is. Stress about owning the perfect car, house, or clothes. Stress about our landscaping. Stress about sports. Stress about development and grades. Stress about safety from car seats to child molesters. Stress about nutrition from bottles or breastmilk to organic or fast food. Stress about limiting screen time. Stress about prepping your child for the tests. Stress about yelling too much and stress about being to lenient. Stress about working too much and stress about earning too little.

Stress.

Stress.

Stress.

We even stress about stress and how it affects us, our health and our children.

But what if we let it go. Just for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, or maybe eventually a year or forever. Just let go of all of the expectations for ourselves and our children and just let them be.

Let them climb something a little too high. Let them stay out a little too long. Let the dishes sit unwashed or the bathrooms unbleached.Let their homework go unfinished. Let them yell a little too loud and run a little too fast. Let them wrestle. Let them watch television all day. Let them cook you dinner and make a mess. Let them dress themselves in ridiculous clothes and parade down the street. Let them be silly. Let them do nothing at all.

Let your phone go to voicemail and the text messages pile up and just watch them be kings (or queens). Let them feel like they rule the world.

And you just might feel like you do too.

No One Ever Promised

IMG_0088

My hand.

My father’s hand.

My baby son’s foot.

My father’s eyes locked on my baby son’s eyes.

My face in the gentle expression of a mother and a daughter all at once.

My father wouldn’t live much past that day, a few weeks or so, but no one knew that in that moment. Just as we couldn’t tell the future, many trusted to care for him could not see his past. They saw a sick man, maybe even a dying man, but not the life that he had lived for 70 years. They couldn’t see the vitality hidden deep within that hospital gown, the life that pushed air in and out of that  tracheostomy tube.

This was my father, a proud grandpa, just 2 years earlier with my second son.

dadsim

Life is funny how it can be taken for granted one moment then taken the next. Yet, no matter how closely death happens around us, we still can’t help but forget how precarious life is. Perhaps it is woven into the fabric of the nature of survival itself.

But it is worth it to try. To try to appreciate the time we have with our loved ones right now when they are being funny and sweet or ornery and frustrating. Because, life deals the good with the bad. Life finds the ultimate balance in death.

I wrote this poem for his prayer card and I carry it with me as a reminder to not just appreciate life but to appreciate those who are living it with me.

No one ever promised you tomorrow

So I will carry a heart full of yesterdays

To help me live and love each blessed day

Let the moments and pictures hold the sorrow at bay

So I can carry you with me

So with me you will stay.

When They Grow Up

From a young age, children are asked what they want to be when they grow up. The answers are rarely based in knowledge of the economic times, income potential, or the current or projected job market. The answers come from their heart and imagination.

A firefighter.

An astronaut.

A doctor.

A garbage man.

An animal doctor (or veterinarian for the precocious).

A dancer.

A basketball player.

A chef.

A singer.

A pilot.

The adult who asks usually listens with a smile and offers a word or two of praise or encouragement, but rarely do they stop and ask themselves the same thing. Or if they do, they are not nearly as apt to consult their heart or imagination.

This divide between a child’s world and an adult’s world may seem to be the difference between an imagined world and the real one, but this is not true. The world seen through a child’s eyes is the same world that adults see, there is simply just less obstructing their view.

Many teachers and parents who spend an exorbitant amount of time with children realize that their status as “in charge” has more to do with safety than anything. Children almost always have more to teach us than we them. Children almost always see more than we do or look at things differently with fresh eyes.

When education ignores these truths, bad things happen.Children can become frustrated, disengage, or engage in power struggles. They do not have the words to express how they are feeling and are praised when they obey and punished when they do not. Children are being trained to ignore their hearts and imaginations at a young age.

Many schools are racing to catch up with the new standards of achievement that have recently been set. These schools and the administrators that run them are armed with rhetoric to guard against any criticism that they should slow down and look at the repercussions of the rushed reforms. Perhaps more children will read early or acquire math skills at an accelerated pace, but these are measurable gains that do not show the whole picture. There is no spreadsheet of data to show what is being lost.

On the other hand, there are other schools that see the damage being done. They try their best to work around these reforms and shaking their heads during conversations about the direction that education is heading. There are teachers who try to make test prep fun and salvage as much of the dwindling classroom time as they can for more engaging projects and lessons. Still others are thankful that they do not teach a tested grade or subject (yet). There are administrators that must bite their tongues and hope that the pendulum swings sooner than later. Even a few administrators have been bold enough to speak out.

How can we turn the tide, and support these schools that feel like they want to put the breaks on this runaway train?

If not…

One day when you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they will reply with a test score.

IMG_0544