No Ordinary Monday

On Friday, when I wrote my last post, I wasn’t fully aware of what had happened at my nephew’s elementary school.  I didn’t know that the tiny community of Sandy Hook in bucolic Newtown, Connecticut, a  community that my brother and his family had settled in because of the great schools and the peaceful sense of community would become a symbol of tragedy for our nation. I was just thankful that my little 7-year old nephew was safe with his dad and in shock that something like this could happen at an elementary school.

Needless to say, the whole country has been in shock over the last 72 hours.  As I found out details, I kept thinking, “What if Declan (my nephew) had missed the December 1 cutoff date to start school and been in the first grade rather than the second? What if Nate (my son who is only 3 months younger than Declan and is in first grade himself) had been in those classrooms instead of his cousin? What if it happened at a school less secure than Sandy Hook Elementary?”

Because of Sandy Hook’s well-trained and heroic staff and numerous security measures, many lives were saved.  My own son’s school is open from the back and the front of the school and unlocked for most of the school day.  The schools where I taught had open and unlocked hallways (unless on lockdown).  The schools where I have been supervising this semester are also open for the most part.  Before this weekend, I really didn’t think much about it in a global sense.  But now, it terrifies me. And quite frankly, the “it” that terrifies me is not an “it” that we can build fences around or increase security to prevent.

Starting Friday afternoon, when the information on the number of victims became more clear, I began seeing a lot of postings about gun control.  I want to say upfront that I personally believe in gun control.  I don’t see any reason for any citizen to be in possession of semi-automatic weapons or magazines that allow for the type of destruction that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Those types of weapons are not used in self-defense or for hunting.  As the mother of a young child and a former urban middle school teacher, I would rather we eliminate guns altogether to be perfectly honest. I have seen too many tragedies, both accidental and intentional, that are as a result of gun violence.

However, to me, the issues behind the Sandy Hook shootings are oversimplified if we look only at gun control or if we blame first person shooter video games or if we simply demonize the killer. On Saturday morning, I shared a link on facebook to the blog post “Thinking the Unthinkable” which was later widely shared under the title, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” Following that share, I looked through my twitter feeds and was shocked to see people harshly judging the author of the text, citing previous blog posts out of context, intimating her personal mental health issues and dismissing those who have shared the post as “not doing their homework.”  What first upset me about this attitude of dismissal was the refusal to look at the content of the post and the call to action around helping those with mental health issues, but what came to bother me even more and was the vilification of a mother sharing her story in the hopes of drawing attention, not to her own child’s issues, but to the pain of many mothers who silently, and in isolation, try each day to do the best they can with children who have mental health issues.

We are right to mourn the lost and not to focus all of our attention on the killer, but we are irresponsible if we fail to address our role, as a society in helping those in need.  On Friday, my post talked about the difficulty we have as a society talking about collective trauma, but perhaps even more indicting is our attitude towards the mentally ill.  According the 2008 statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 8% of US adults aged 18-25 and 5% of adults overall, suffer from a serious mental illness “which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”  Further, the NIMH states that, “(M)ental disorders are common throughout the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year, and that only a fraction of those affected receive treatment.” While national attention is focused on violent forms of mental illness, manifested in these horrible acts of violence against the innocent, mental health issues are all around us in society everyday and often take the forms of homelessness, suicidality, and self-harm, rather than violence against others.  And yet, many of those suffering from mental illnesses and those who are charged with supporting them hide behind smiles or try their best of simulate “ordinary” lives for fear that admitting a struggle with a mental health issue will bring indifference, dismissal or judgment.

We must, as a society, look at how we treat one another and what we teach children about people who are different from us.  As educators (and/or parents), we must provide a safe and open space for students/children to be who they are and how they are, and we must get them help if and when they need it.  This morning, a friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher posted this link about helping students after traumatic violence like that which occurred in Newtown, and it is that blog which prompted the title of this one.  It is not an ordinary Monday.  We must begin to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts, but also those of our fragmented society.  If we are to prevent further violence, rather than giving into fear and isolating ourselves from one another, we must come together and support one another.

Keep Newtown and the Sandy Hook community in your thoughts and prayers, but more importantly, honor the children of Newtown and the world through your actions, advocacy, and compassion for your fellow human beings.


On Trauma and Teaching

This morning, I woke up and did what I always do.  I got ready for the day, packed my son’s lunch, and checked facebook.  But, what I saw on facebook was a tweet from my brother that the schools in his suburban town of Sandy Hook, Connecticut were on lockdown.  A few minutes later, I saw a post and received a text that the lockdown was at my 7-year old nephew’s school.  Soon another message followed that my nephew’s school was being evacuated and my brother was on his way to pick him up.  In the intervening moments before receiving news of my nephew’s safety, I (on the other coast of the US) had to take my own almost 7-year old to school and hope that everything would be okay.

My nephew is fine physically, but some in his school were not so fortunate, and it remains to be seen the emotional toll of such a trauma on such very young children and the faculty responsible for their safety.  For me, this incident immediately triggered memories of my own experiences being a staff member during a lockdown and (in a separate incident) helping students recover from a deeply tragic sudden loss of a friend on our campus.  It then brought me even further back to September 11, 2001, my first year of middle school teaching, when the tragic events in New York City, on what was supposed to be our “Back to School Night” marked my first experience with collective trauma and teaching.

Collective trauma is a subject we have a lot of trouble talking about.  As a society, we don’t like talking about personal trauma, so collective trauma seems even harder.  Generally, we express our emotions in outrage, anger and confusion, but then we just try to get back to “business as usual” as soon as possible. However, for children, who depend on us and look to us for guidance, we can’t just brush what they’ve been through under the rug.

In my most recent encounter with trauma and the classroom, one to which I’ve already referred in this blog, I realized that as educators, it is our responsibility to be with our own emotions and help children heal through theirs.  Rather than going back to business as usual, we must acknowledge loss and share in our common grief.  The only way through pain is through pain.  There is really no way around it if you are experiencing it (at least, no healthy way around it).  We cannot protect our children from loss, but we can help them understand that we can honor and keep those we’ve loved and lost in our hearts and alive for others.  We can teach them that it’s okay to cry, to wonder why and to have a hard time going back to “business as usual”.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that we put learning to the side, but it means that we learn through our experiences and alongside of those who have shared them with us.  We can teach community through trauma and hopefully prevent even further trauma in the future.

My heart goes out to all the families in Sandy Hook and to families all over the nation who have had to go through trauma (highly publicized or not) in their schools.  May we teach peace and prevent any further pain.

“Every New Beginning Comes from…

…Some Other Beginning’s End” — Dan Wilson, “Closing Time”

It is (almost) officially the end of my first semester as an assistant professor.  I’ve been thinking about this post for almost a week, trying to perfect it in my mind before the words could flow through my fingers and on to the screen; but then I realized that, like this semester, this closing blog post would be composed through trial and error. And, if I didn’t get started, it would likely fade into the ether without any reflection at all.

The Ugly:

Me, at the beginning of the semester, trying to generate 3 brand new syllabi, design new lectures every week, and balance 5 observations a week while trying to shuttle a 6-year old from his American school to his Chinese school, both of which were WAY different from his previous bilingual school. It was truly the stuff of nightmares.  Long, recurring nightmares.

The Bad:

I struggled a lot with professional identity this semester and even more with the overwhelm of academia.  Being a young-looking adult has always had both its perks and its drawbacks and this was the case in my new role as well.  For the first few weeks, some of the feedback in my courses felt very personal: comments about my voice, about the strategies I employed, my apologetic nature.  Being the responsive educator that I am, I tried to address each of these comments and adapt myself. (It’s an old battle, the identity one–one which those of you that follow this blog have seen emerge several times already)  And then, somewhere around the 5th or 6th week of the semester, I realized that the strength of my teaching was my authenticity. And that’s when I started to hit my stride.  (Well, until I hit my student teachers’ second placements, but that wrap up will come later)

The Good:

This semester, I had the privilege of living out my dream job: teaching future teachers about teaching.  Not a lot of people get to really live out their dreams and even fewer having dreams of teaching teachers, but hey, my strength is in my authenticity, right? Or was that my nerdiness?

And let me tell you about living the dream….It was awesome.

For half my students, I got to “cover” the basics, which are not really basic: Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Classroom Management (Note: These 4 areas take a lifetime for excellent teachers to master and I got about 4 weeks a piece with a high stakes assessment thrown in).  We explored the worlds of curriculum mapping, backwards planning, and authentic assessment.  We discussed what it meant to be fair and consistent, the differences between equity and equality, and how to think about essential questions that really prompted high level thought and discussion among students.  We touched on differentiation, the importance of relationships with students, and on what standardized testing might mean for them and their job prospects. It was so much, so fast.  It all seemed like a blur.  But, it ended with connection:

The Most Important Thing I’ll Take from This Class is…that learning doesn’t look the same through everyone’s lens.

In my other course, I got to teach future teachers about literacy and language and how literacy is embedded in and important to all content areas.  This course is my passion.  No, really, I LOVE CONTENT AREA LITERACY.  I love to teach strategies about it, talk about it, practice it (seriously, I can’t even read a cooking magazine without underlining or annotating). And the most exciting thing is that my students actually listened…and engaged…and thought deeply…and applied…and grew:

Yes, Emma, they do.

Reading the end of semester reflections really reminded me why I do what I do:

“I’ve realized through this class that I will not always know the answers to everything (shocker!)…and that’s ok. Teaching goes both ways. I hope to learn from my students as much as I hope they learn from me.”

“This course has helped me create multiple access points to deliver my content. It might have felt like second nature at the beginning of the semester, but today, it feels tactical. I have a framework for success.”

“My own identity as an educator relies heavily on the belief that learning never ends”

“My opinion of language and literacy in the classroom has drastically changed and it is because of the way I feel my content area was included in this course.”

And my personal favorite: “Your willingness to make this content applicable to each individual is a testament to your absolute passion for education.”

So, the semester ends (well almost, I still have 4 observations and evaluations and 1 seminar this week).  I’ll never ever have another first semester as an assistant professor.  I’m thankful for that, but even more thankful that I’ll get to do it all again next semester and it will be a completely different experience with a new community of learners.  So awesome.