Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Wes Moores In My Life

You've probably heard of the bestselling memoir The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. It tells the story of two men from the same Baltimore neighborhood, of similar age and with comparable childhood challenges, whose lives went in drastically different directions. The author went on to earn degrees from prestigious universities, hold high-powered jobs in Washington and on Wall Street, serve in the army and become a successful social entrepreneur. His namesake went on to earn a life sentence without the possibility of parole for his role in the killing of a police officer.

Why did their adult lives differ so much if their childhoods were so similar? Moore writes,
"The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his."
Our environments and childhood circumstances play huge roles in how we get to live as adults in this world. I've thought before about what it took for my life to look the way it does today - it certainly wasn't all up to me and my choices. Expectations, though, can be the make-or-break element in a life's journey, as they were in the journeys of two Wes Moores from Baltimore. How expectations form is an interesting question. It leads to a peeling back of layers revealing the household- to society-level cultural influences at play. That leads to questions about how those influences came to be and what can anyone do about them now to create a better future for people.

It's hard to not think about chilling truths and tragedies around Baltimore these past few weeks. I find it completely horrific that someone can suffer a crushed voicebox, broken vertebrae, and nearly-severed spine while in police custody. That's not how arrests are supposed to work. How did Freddie Gray and the six police officers he encountered on April 12, 2015 come to be there and behave in those ways? What expectations did they have of each other and of themselves? How were those expectations imbued on them?

I saw Wes Moore speak at The Big Event in April. Although I had seen him on TV before, I hadn't read his books. His presentation was impressive and meaningful, and I left thinking about the Wes Moores in my life and the Wes Moores all around. You see, I've worked with students who have experienced similar challenges - fatherlessness, poverty, academic struggles. The students from my early years of teaching are adults now, in their early-20's. I don't know what most are up to now, but I know of a couple who left high school and entered the criminal justice system, despite having teachers who went above and beyond in supporting them in elementary school. Through A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring I've more recently worked with a couple of students living in challenging situations. They are surrounded by teachers who believe in them and expect good things of and for them and they attend a school whose leadership believes in the value of community partnerships in creating excellent educational environments. I hope with my whole heart that they continue to be lifted up in support by the adults in their lives. I hope they grow up to be like Wes Moore, the author, not Wes Moore, the lifer.

#hocoblogs

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

One foot here and now, one foot there and then

About three years ago we began planning for our big trip. One year ago, we developed a rough itinerary and began telling people about it. Through out it all, we went about our daily lives of work, school, and community.

We've been deep in nitty-gritty travel planning for several months now, and throughout that I've noticed a sensation of straddling both time and place. I spend hours and hours each day researching this and arranging that, then the kids come home and I have to remember who has what activities to go to and school projects to complete. 

Now, I'm starting to notice how quickly time is moving towards our departure date, which is just 50 days away. 

50 days. 

In 50 days we'll be on our way there. Until then, I hope to savor the here and now.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Acting on a Major Case of Wanderlust

I grew up, in part, on road trips. At least once a year, we would load up the station wagon or minivan and head up I-95 to visit family in New England. There was the epic road trip to Disney World when I was in eighth grade. Sometime in high school, the New England road trips became Cape Cod road trips, and those trips continue to this day. My kids are growing up, in part, on road trips, too.

My kids are growing up on airplanes, too. While I didn't fly much until adulthood, the girls have been flying since they were infants. Florida and California are two of their repeat destinations, but they've also been to Oregon, Montana, Beijing, and Barcelona. Beginning this July, the list will grow as we leave Maryland to travel the world for a year.

Travel. The world. For a year. Together.

We are acting on a major case of wanderlust that set in a few years ago. Inspired by an article about a couple who sailed around the world for year, I suggested to The Man of the House that we do the same, only I didn't want to wait until retirement as these folks did. Terza was still in preschool at the time and retirement, for me, comes no sooner than when all the kids have left for college. I didn't want to wait.

The Man agreed, and we set about planning and saving for a yearlong world tour. This summer, we go, bitten by a travelbug that has only one antidote. I grew up on road trips; my kids will grow up on this world trip.


Friday, February 27, 2015

March 3 - Community Meeting on School Funding

Maryland has long been recognized as among the top three states for public education. Howard County has stood out in this state as a leader and example of excellence. Yet, that may not hold true for much longer because of budget decisions by our local and state elected officials.

Howard County's Superintendent and most members of the Board of Education have argued that due to county and state budget shortfalls, drastic measures must be taken. Like, increase-actual-class-sizes-and-remove-key-support-staff-from-classrooms drastic.

My friend Kirsten worked on the Citizen's Operating Budget Review Committee this year, which formed after the Board of Education suspended it's own OBRC. She blogged about the school system budget and offers her perspective as an accountant and parent. (PTA Council of Howard County shares a very detailed look at the Citizen's OBRC's work on their website.)

Julia, another friend and prolific local blogger, described the school board's recent vote to adopt a budget that removes staff positions from schools. She has been following this process closely, too, and her post "Priorities" identifies some of the spending options before the Board. Julia is an experienced educator who works with many schools and has a keen, knowledgable, student-centered perspective on how various programs and budget decisions play out in practical ways.

Tom, also known as HoCo Rising, gave us some historical budget numbers for comparison in his recent post. It reveals that Howard County has been stuck in Maintenance of Effort funding for some time. The MoE law requires school districts to spend at least as much per pupil each year, with the intention of preventing drastic cuts to public education during economic downturns. The idea behind that intention is that stable, adequately-funded public schools benefit state and local economies (and truly the nation's economy as well). When a school system operates with a Maintenance of Effort budget, they are marking time. They are not trying anything new. They are not investing in technology, program expansion, or enticing the very best professionals to the system. Marking time; standing still. When you are marking time while others move forward, well, then you are falling behind. 

So with that, let me share this invitation from the Howard County Education Association:
Dear friends, colleagues, and community members, The Board of Education voted today to adopt a $780M budget that cuts vital services in media and kindergarten even as enrollment increases by over 1600 students.  The discussion now centers on the new Governor, County Executive, and County Council—and we need to keep advocating for our students. Please join HCEA for an open community meeting on Tuesday, March 3rd, 5PM in the Centennial HS cafeteria.  We will clarify the impact of the cuts and develop strategy for the next part of the process.  RSVP here to give us an idea of how much pizza we need!  
I'm sure the next steps discussed at HCEA's Community Meeting will include how to advocate for school funding at the county and state level, but put this following date on your calendar now. County Executive Allan Kittleman will hold another public hearing on the following Tuesday, March 10th at 7:00 pm. The County Exec is still developing his budget proposal, which he will submit to the County Council for approval later this spring. This hearing invites you to share your concerns and priorities, to advocate for what matters most to you this year. (Details here.) 

#hocoblogs                          *********************************

Here is the HCPSS Budget page. It links to the Superintendent's FY 2016 proposed Operating Budget, some summary documents, a Q&A video, and archived budgets. I assume the Board of Education's adopted FY2016 budget request will be up soon. (The budget proposal passed by the Board differs from the Superintendent's original proposal.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Roots and Wings: Howard County Conservancy Gives Us Both

There is an almost hidden jewel in Howard County, with over 200 acres of rolling hills that are great for hiking through woodlands and wetlands, down to stream beds and up to meadows. This is the Howard County Conservancy at Mt. Pleasant in Woodstock, Maryland. By way of landmarks, it is on Rt. 99 west of Mt. Hebron High School and Waverly Elementary, east of the Snowball Stand on Woodstock Road.


This 325-year-old farm and homestead was held by the Brown family for eight generations. When the last family members, sisters Ruth and Frances Brown, passed away, their wish was for the land to be preserved and used to educate children about nature. Ruth and Frances were teachers for about 40 years. 

Brown Family Farmhouse

Today, Mt. Pleasant is busy with hikers, photographers, gardeners, and children. The grounds are open to the public sun up to sundown every day. The Conservancy operates educational programs for the wee-est of wee ones to the most chronologically endowed of us humans. Family hikes, informational talks, preschool programs, field trips for K-12 classes, School's Out programs and summer camps all happen here.

Hodge Podge Lodge

My family and I love to come up here for self-guided hikes. It's a great place to meet friends and spend some time outdoors, maybe even packing a picnic to eat at the tables near the farmhouse. Exploring the outbuildings, demonstration gardens, and animal enclosures are always a treat for the littles, especially the barred owl Ranger.

Ranger
Goats at Mt. Pleasant
I've been volunteering for the Conservancy for almost two years as a naturalist hike leader for elementary school field trips. If you've had a chance to chaperone one of these trips for your own children, you know the kids spend time hiking the property with a naturalist who leads them through some activities for part of the trip and spend the rest of the time in the Nature Center with the Conservancy's excellent educators.


Volunteer Naturalist and 4th grade students
You know that saying about the only lasting gifts you can give a child are roots and wings? Sharing our place in nature as humans, including our similarities and differences with other animals, our interdependence with plants, and our adaptations to geological processes is a great way to give those lasting gifts. You never know what you'll find when you're out there observing nature with the kids.

Name that fungus!
Milkweed is not just for Monarchs

Last fall, the Conservancy began running field trips at the county's Belmont Manor and Historic Park. It's a gorgeous property steeped in Howard County history and backing to Patapsco Valley State Park.

Woodland trail at Belmont 
Dorsey/Hanson family cemeter 

As AnnieRie, HoCo food blogger extraordinaire, wrote yesterday, the Conservancy starts its spring volunteer naturalist training series next week. Join us! The trainings are fun, as are the field trips. (I heard BioBlitz is amazing and I hope to make it there this spring.) You can train for elementary or secondary or both, and volunteer for field trips throughout April, May, and early June. If you like children and nature and have weekday morning hours free, then you are qualified! Our volunteer corps is a great group of retirees, semi-retirees, and stay-at-home parents with school-age kids. I could even see this being a great volunteer gig for a college student. The training info is below. I hope to see you there!

Click image for PDF version

 #hocoblogs

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Hardening Heart

I didn't write "How to Be" out of a feel-good, lovie-dovie, heart-space. I've been in that space before, and yesterday I was not feeling it.

You see, my heart has been hardening for some months now.

I've been taking deep breaths. I've kept my hands busy with a crochet project for a person I love so much my heart grows three sizes just thinking about her. I've been trying not to sweat the little things by instead thinking about some really big changes coming to my family this year. I've begun reciting a mantra. But my heart still hardens.

Why does that happen? Well, I consume news. I long ago turned away from local TV news, and have spent about a year without regular cable news, but I read from three different newspapers each day. There's also this thing called social media, maybe you've heard of it. I spend a lot of time there, and the news-news and the what's-new-with-you-news has been trending toward tough, discouraging, anger-inducing, heart-breaking news for awhile.

I've thought about taking a break, but I feel compelled to tune in, to read up, to know what's going on. I do it like it's my job, and that's because as a teacher and parent it has always been my job to know about the world and to prepare young people for their lives in it.

Some time ago, a friend from my early days of parenting posted a quote on Facebook. It said,


This quote, by this unknown-to-me author by the name of L. R. Knost, has stuck with me ever since. That "cruel and heartless world" is a fear for most parents at some point or another, but it came to the forefront for me when Seconda lost her hair to alopecia areata at age two. Years ago someone suggested we get then three-year-old Seconda a wig for preschool because "you know how cruel kids can be." Wait? How often are preschoolers cruel? Do they hurt each other's feelings? Yes, but out of malice? No.

That one interaction really got me thinking about the idea (myth?) of cruel kids. What if we gave kids information they could understand and just, I dunno, expect them to treat other kids kindly? What if when they made a mistake with their behavior we calmly pointed it out, offered another way to behave in a similar situation, and affirmed our care and respect for them as well as the other child? What if we just assumed the best of kids and helped them to do better when they slipped?

All that's easier said than done in a culture full of shame, and our homes and schools are not the safe-havens we want them to be. Did you see when Oprah and Brené Brown discussed vulnerability a few years ago? Brené said schools were full of shaming behaviors, and it was an "a-ha" moment for Oprah and me...and I thought I was already enlightened. (Visit Brené's site to see the video and learn about her research on shame, vulnerability, etc.)

Yesterday, something happened to a friend's daughter while she was at school. It involved staff members treating this child without respect, thus causing her embarrassment. Today, something happened to one of my daughters while she was at school. The details are different, but the category is the same: teachers shaming students. What on Earth? Why? Teachers, of all people, should know and do better, right? My thoughts swirled, I forgot about my mantra, and then I remembered the L. R. Knost quote.

Do you know about L. R. Knost? I didn't until today. She's an author of parenting books. Her theme is gentle parenting, which is something I'm drawn to again and again, mostly when I'm feeling decidedly not gentle and altogether too crabby with my kids. So I read some of her site.

Y'all, this woman has been through some stuff, some real serious stuff, and she's going through more of it right now. Yet she continues on with her gentle parenting. Her example lets me see that hardening my heart was an attempt to stave off a sense of futility about understanding the world and preparing my children for it. So let me soften it right up and get back to job of preparing my kids to make the world less cruel and heartless. Thanks for the roadmap, L.R.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Be

One of the essential questions of human life is how to be in the world. How do we do it? How should we be it? Every religion, every government, every social organization, every song, every painting, every play/show/poem/sculpture, every invention, every marketing campaign and every journalistic thinkpiece are attempts to answer that essential question.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a holiday and season for a religion that is not my own but one of many sources I look to for my own essential answers. Lent is a season of sacrifice and reflection, often observed by the "giving up" of things.

Things. The giving up of things. People give up caffeine, alcohol, sugar. People give up television. People give up clutter. I am sure that faithful Christians observe Lent with practices more closely in keeping with the dictates of their religion, but often the secularized practice leads people to give up bad habits for 40 days in the name of self-improvement.

You may have seen this list and explanation of 40 Things to Give Up for Lent.

credit: Phil Ressler
Fear of failure. Your comfort zone. Complaining. Impatience. Worry. Overcommitment. Lack of counsel. If you're looking for a spiritual experience, these are all good things to practice doing without, and probably require a lot more work than giving up coffee for a longish month.

You may have also seen this post by Ram Dass regarding mantras. An excerpt:
In Buddhism, the word mantra means “mind protecting”. A mantra protects the mind by preventing it from going into its’ usual mechanics, which often are not our desired or optimal conscious perspective. Mantra is a powerful spiritual practice for centering, and for letting go of strong emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger. The more you practice mantra the more it becomes a part of you. When you need it on the psychological level – for example when you feel afraid, using your witness, you notice the fear and replace the fear with your mantra. This will occur naturally once mantra becomes an established practice. Mantra is a daily reminder of the presence of the Divine within ourselves and all beings. 
A habit to remind us of the good in all beings sounds like a great practice to help give up most of the things on the 40 Things list. Ram Dass goes on to list some traditional mantras from the major world religions. I'm partial to "om" because I personally feel more connected to all when I'm in a state of wordlessness, but I have another mantra in mind right now. It's like an earworm, popping to mind without any obvious source. (Speaking of earworms, Hozier's "Take Me to Church" is playing on repeat these days. Hmm..)

What you're not likely to have seen, unless we have a very specific mutual friend, is a bit of a game or challenge to write the six-word story of your faith. My childhood religious education was brief. I had no spiritual practice or community for the first dozen years of my adulthood. Still, I had one consistent belief that I've held for so long I don't remember not believing it: we're all connected. For you all counting at home, that's three words, four if you decouple the contraction. What is my six-word story?

I believe in a wholly One.

We are one with each other, even when we don't know it or don't want to be. We are one with all that lives and dies and exists in nonliving ways on this Earth and in this universe and beyond that if there is a beyond. We are all connected, which is why it hurts when some of us act like that's not the case. It is why it hurts when I gripe at my family, because in the moment I have forgotten my connection to them. When we forget our connection and act like we're separate, well, we kind of are. We are little less whole when that happens. Yet, I still think of us as one, and when I want to consider our oneness in a spiritual way, I capitalize it. One. And I like the idea of holiness reliant on wholeness.

So, all this came to mind today, Ash Wednesday, because I was interested in a adopting a Lenten practice of giving up some things that do not serve me well. I liked that list, but it is kind of hard to give up those thought-habits without a substitution or other habit to lean on. Enter the reminder about the mind-protection of mantras.

For Lent, I will work to give up the twisty thinking that brings me and others stress and pain and worry. I will protect my mind from those twisty thoughts with a mantra, a mantra based in my six-word story of faith. That's how I will be.

#HoCoFaith