Sunday, July 19, 2015

This one's for Ryen...

BatKid, the movie, just came out a few weeks ago, and with its release we are able to relive the life changing event that occurred for 5 year old Miles Scott. This young boy battled leukemia and once in remission found the Make-A-Wish foundation and the nation at large rallying behind him, making his biggest dream come true: the chance to be the real Batman.

If you so much as watch as the two minute trailer for the movie, let alone read this amazing story, you find yourself overcome with the power of the human spirit. In November of 2013, compelled solely by this child, thousands of volunteers, city officials, businesses and supporters worked together to turn the city of San Francisco, California into Batman's Gotham City. Before launching this endeavor, Miles's story had gone viral across the world wide web, and on the day of the event, supporters from all corners of the nation had flown in to experience this milestone with Miles. It is estimated that over 12,000 people lined the streets and sidewalks along the route Miles traveled as BatKid. And along the way a nation united played along as BatKid saved the city from Batman's classic menaces: The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin. His adventure that day were epic, and what started as an opportunity to make one kid's dreams come true, turned into an event that touched and changed the lives of thousands of people.

In light of the class I am finishing, focused on leadership, I can't help but see a leader in a 5 year old kid. Simon Sinek, an intellect who studies inspirational leadership and author of the book Leaders Eat Last says, "There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders are in a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us....whether they are individuals or organizations. We follow not because we have to but because we want to."  He goes on, quite convincingly, to note that followers follow if they believe what you believe. He also notes, if you hire people just because they can do a job than they'll take your money, but if you hire people who believe what you believe they'll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.

Miles Scott had a dream. He's a kid. He made a wish. But he also has the heart of a lion - he fought and overcame cancer, and by doing so made others believe they can to. Make-A-Wish foundation believed what he believed. The thousands gathered believed what he believed. And in response those involved gave their blood, sweat and tears to the cause. By extension, in a single instant, inspiration transpired, leaving a city and a nation transformed.

It's a good thing leaders comes in all shapes and sizes.

(Tell) me about yourself.... the art of hiding behind our deepest fears

To know me is to know that I love to write - for me it's both effortless and essential. I embody the true characteristics of a writer, as I would much rather express myself and my ideas with the pen than with my mouth. Articulating my thoughts on the spot has always been difficult for me. I often, and by often I mean almost daily, walk away from a situation thinking, "I wish I had said...." and then I sigh. With age and experience I have learned to create a template or bullet point list in my mind to guide conversations of significance, and every now and again, I can execute without a hitch. But, for the most part, especially when the stakes are high, my words get lodged in the imaginary funnel in my mind. I find that this most often occurs when I either have to talk about myself or about a topic that I feel very strongly about. I don't often struggle with presenting content at a conference or at a meeting about a student. In fact, I am asked to present at many professional development sessions, and I attend countless meetings about students. I can talk in front of groups by the hundreds and feel perfectly capable, comfortable and successful. But the moment any of those opportunities shifts to questions about me- I stammer and I struggle. I pray to God this is somehow a blessing, because most often it feels like a curse. 

I'm choosing a path of proclaimed leadership, and that's going to come with more and more expectation about speaking about myself, especially as it pertains to my passions, visions, plans and ideas. I need to start now letting go of the fears that prohibit me from speaking with ease, and I need to take charge of the confidence that has led me here in the first place. 

As I move with direction and purpose toward leadership, I am actively reflecting and focusing on the parts of me that will need the most work to be truly successful. And what I know to be true is I need to work on my courage, my ability to speak candidly, and my calling to speak honestly, directly, with purpose and intention. To do so, I look to others to learn ways and ideas on how to exercise my weaknesses, and then I work to practice. 

With an action plan for addressing my inadequacies, I cannot help but recall one of the most powerful quotes I have ever come across. I'm going to scribble these words onto a post-it and carry it with me everywhere I go as a reminder (ok, maybe I'll use many post-its so as to stick it all along my path.....each note holding the same words so that I can say them so much they simply become a part of me):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

F!SH Philosophy

Sixteen years ago when I was just barely twenty, I was touring with a band known as Captive Free. We were out west in the Seattle area, discovering all kinds of sights we'd never before seen. We happened upon the Pikes Place Market on one of our days off and decided to go exploring. Among the many sights, smells and sounds that I can still recall about that place all these years later, one of my most favorites was the F!SH market. You could hear this particular fish stand from several yards away. The bustle of feet shuffling, the sudden roars of laughter from the gathered crowd, the predominant voice of a boisterous man cajoling individuals as they walked by, and even the sound of flying fish slapping against the linoleum at another failed attempt by a random person trying to catch it. Upon approaching the noise and edging our way to the front of the onlooking crowd, there they stood before us THE "fishmongers" - every day men and women wearing rubber boots, plastic aprons and gloves, surrounded by case after case of fresh fish on ice. And behind the counter were individuals who happened to be passing by and persuaded to catch a flying fish with the promise that if they caught it they could keep it for free. Naturally in any crowd, there are those eager and willing to accept the challenge, and for every 1 of those there were 5 of us content to watch - embarrassed at the mere thought of stepping into such a scene. To this day, I'm not sure, exactly, how I ended up behind the counter to participate in this little game of catch the flying fish, but I'm pretty sure one of my teammates had something to do with it (and if I were to dig deep enough, I bet I could find the picture as evidence). Either way, it happened, and I'll never forget the smell of that fish or the feel of it as it coursed through my hands and landed with all its cold and slimy girth at my exposed, flip-flopped feet. It all happened so fast I scarcely had time to feel the rush of embarrassment, but rather caught myself caught in the rapture of the moment.

I recall that memory with a smile, and what I particularly love about the recall of it is that I encountered these fishermen completely absorbed in their every day trade before I went on to hear about their philosophy, which for a time, took the world by storm. If you haven't ever even heard about F!SH philosophy or seen one of their videos, I highly encourage you to look them up, as it is well worth the time. The individuals working that fish stand are ordinary people, and by and large, they are working an uninteresting job of stocking, selling and packing fish. What makes them extraordinary is their vision, attitude and ability to inspire others to be interested in a market that would otherwise be overlooked. The fish market at Pikes Place market is tucked in between all of these textile shops with custom made goods and bakeries and coffee shops with yummy smelling treats. I have to believe the fish market just wasn't as exciting or alluring in such a scintillating setting.  Until one day, the workers of the fish market decide, "Hey, what if we were to BE THERE, PLAY, CHOOSE OUR ATTITUDE and MAKE THEIR DAY?" And as I described above, I know from experience that they not only decided to make this their mantra, they actually live by it. Their ingenuity launched into something much bigger, it became this tool for engaging and inspiring individuals and organizations globally. They have made the 4 pillars of their mantra the hallmark of their success, and even in the presence of a rise in attention, fame and wealth, they continue to run their business in Pikes Place, stocking, selling and packing fish. They effectively remain true to who they are while leading and inspiring others to be a part of a bigger purpose.

Those fishmongers, the ones who got me, the shy one,  to play along in their flying fish game, as well as lead organizations globally to bring energy, passion and a positive attitude with them to work every day, those are the kind of leaders I aspire to emulate.

The Bitter Truth

The quote to contemplate: "Anytime as a leader you choose to not share something with someone that would improve their professional performance you are choosing yourself over them. You are choosing your own comfort over their growth. This is not leadership – this is the absence of leadership. Remember this – if the truth hurts – it probably should." 
                                      - PJ Caposey (Read the whole article at The Bitter Truth)

I am growing to appreciate the bitter truth. I'm not sure I could tell you when the change transpired, as it has happened very slowly over time. By nature, I'm not one for confrontation - not because I don't believe in it, but because I just shy away from it. Furthermore, I've always bought into the lie that filling someone with affirmation about what they do right while avoiding what they don't do well will help to "curb" behaviors, simply by increasing the desired behaviors. And for years I pretended that was actually true, primarily because I just didn't like the discomfort of speaking the bitter truth and I've never liked the idea of hurting anyone's feelings. Until one day someone said to me, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result." 

Through a series of experiences and strong examples/leaders, I have come to learn Caposey's words are quite true. In fact, I have always had a sense of speaking the truth to kids. Instinctively as a teacher I offer kids feedback and expect growth because I care enough about them. I want them to learn, I want them to achieve their goals, and I manage to provide them with honest and productive feedback. I have a pile of evidence to support that constructive feedback, firm boundaries and speaking the truth has worked with kids, it accomplishes the goal. So, if it comes so naturally as a teacher of students, why do I struggle to do the same as a leader of peers? For quite some time I have been thinking about and continue to think about this question. 

I do believe I am growing in my ability to speak the truth my peers. In fact, I know I am. Very few experiences in life will shape you quite as much as being a new member in an already established community of educators in a very small town. When subject to judgement and unwarranted unkindness just based on the perceptions of others, it becomes a huge life lesson in holding your own and speaking the truth. As that kind of experience transfers into the leadership setting, I will go forward keeping the characteristics of strength and honesty at the helm knowing that progress doesn't happen without courage, and also knowing that the time has come to care about leaders the way I care about kids. Only in facing and speaking the bitter truth as a leader will the greatest number of students be impacted - and they are worth it. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Brave New World

In a class exercise recently we were asked to read through a list describing twelve different kinds of people with different gifts, abilities, successes, failures and experiences. We were then asked to work as a group to decide which six people should be ones to be sent to the new world to escape this earth that will soon be destroyed with no survivors. Perhaps you've even participated in an exercise like this one, and you know how quickly these conversations can escalate and turn a group full of friends into competitors vying for their choices based on their own beliefs, ideas, experiences and passions. Voices rise, temperaments become volatile, and throughout the group you can watch some become more aggressive while others become quiet. In this instance, I never sensed any undertones of anger or true frustration, and in hindsight, I am pretty proud of our group for keeping the tone of this exercise in good fun and with a healthy dose of challenging one another but not crossing the line or disrespecting one another.

As the exercise evolved into dialogue, I quickly began to draw parallels from what had just occurred to the context of leadership. Of course, our professor closes the exercise by stating, "Why are we quick to fight over causes like this one, but we won't do the same for our students?" And in a single instant I feel my heart twist. His question, the heat still subsiding from the exercise - the whole thing is causing a stirring in my gut, heart and mind about my calling and commitment and courage (or lack there of). How often has my leadership been called into action, especially as it pertains to kids, and I have just shut my mouth, dropped the defense and chosen the path of least resistance because I fear my own consequences? And as a consequence, I choose my own protection over advocacy for my students. Crap. The sensation of disappointment washes over me, and the inner struggle with past and potentially future decisions weighs on me.

As a take away, this entire exercise is reminding me about the kind of leader and person I want to be in the profession. And the words return, "Every child needs a champion..."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Sugar" substitutes, and it has left me HUNGRY...

So when a professor spends an entire class building all of your documents on Google (which is a truly happy, effective, resourceful and appreciated decision!), you sit up and notice when he hands you a paper article printed in color, especially when it's called: "How Not to Talk to Your Kids". (Read it now, it's a game changer: How Not to Talk to Your Kids.)

For me the reaction began with the usual ferocity of highlighting, evolved into internal high-fiving, and resulted in my personal version of making it viral - i.e. creating a mental checklist of everyone I would send it to before the day was done. 

It made such an impact because it hit close to home. It discusses a practice I have done all my life and never stopped to consider might have a consequence. FOR YEARS, our culture (myself included) has believed in self-esteem research from decades ago telling us as parents and educators alike that we NEED to tell kids how smart they are. Whatever the motive or logic behind said research, they effectively programmed us to internalize this thinking, and today we say, "You are so smart," to students and our children with as much ease and sub-conscious effort as, "Thank you" and "How are you?". It's just what you do - it's what you say....."You're just so smart."

Along comes recent research and pokes holes in that thinking all over the place! Recent studies, extensive and multiple studies, reveal that praise, self esteem and performance rise and fall together. This means that the 1960's concept of self-esteem was littered with flawed science. It also means that as a result we have raised the most recent generation as the most entitled generation our nation has ever known (which, by the way, is my #BIGGESTPETPEEVE). If I had even thought about uttering words even resembling  "you owe me" to an adult or anyone my parents would have knocked me into another time zone. But as it is now, we have this entire generation of kids willing to stake the claim, and we as adults "are so confused about how that's occurring." (note my sarcasm)

If I'm being honest, I've contributed to the problem, moreso as a teacher. (I'm pretty new to the parenting role). But here's what the newest research has taught me (already!): "Esteem-building praise causes grades to sink further," and the article goes on to imply that it also makes entitlement rise. And here's how they know: "Dweck's research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern - they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down." Furthermore, the article states that people with the trait/ability of repeatedly responding to failure by exerting more effort - instead of simply giving up [and instead of receiving praise] - inherit persistence, rebound well, and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification.

Now, for those of us like myself who are ingrained to offer affirmation that sounds like, "You're smart", the authors caution us on the withdrawl we will feel, but assure us that the children won't feel it like we do. And they give many suggestions for "sugar" substitutes of yore, such as, "I am in your corner and I believe in you." You can troll the article for suggestions that work for you. Either way, we all need to straight up pinky swear that we will stop the madness that has become enabled and coddled self-esteem minions. 

I have parents who became parents in the early 70s, so for all intents and purposes they should have bought into the 60s philosophy of instilling in their children praise self-esteem. But every time I failed a test - which was often and almost always in math - my parents would say, "You will try again. But from this test you did not fail because you learned perseverance. We believe in you." Pretty proud of the peeps right now....turns out they had it figured out long before the rest of us. 

Every Child Needs a Champion

I have watched Rita Pierson's TED talk called, "Every Child Needs a Champion," over and over and over again. This is a true story without exaggeration. I first discovered her talk a year ago, and occasionally throughout the year I would just pull it up again to re-watch, both on a lunch break at work and in the evening at home. Every now and again there is a certain message that just resonates with you - that gets inside your thinking space and invites you to  stretch and grow and deepens your capacity to learn and feel and imagine. And this was one of those messages for me. This happens to me with music, also. Sometimes you just CONNECT.

Every time I listen again I either hear something new or find myself saying the words along with her. Either way, in the words of Rita, "You do something long enough and becomes a part of you." As I have sat with and reflected on the notion that every child needs a champion, I have thought about my students, of course. I have thought about my step-daughter, absolutely. And I have also thought about the teachers who helped to shape me along the way... the teachers who championed me, and they inspired me to want to go on to do the same. We all remember a teacher or two, and they make a mark on us for any number of positive or challenging reasons. I remember the first teacher to matter to me: Mrs. Neff, my first grade teacher. She had this rocking chair and every day after lunch we would sit by her feet and she would read with imagination and enthusiasm. I always felt like for just a moment she was the character or narrator telling the story. She was also the reason I came to believe in leprechauns. Every kid that age knew Santa was real, but leprechauns were myths.....until we had Mrs. Neff. On St. Patrick's day that year we came into school to see little green foot prints up and down the walls and floor of the hall and in our classroom, and they had turned over all kinds of articles in the room! We were alive with excitement and wonder and for the first time we believed - it was spectacular, and I remember her for it. During my spring break my freshman year of college, I went back to co-teach with her for the week, just to experience her from the other side - as an educator.

After Mrs. Neff, my education experience contained a few sparklers, but no one else held a match until high school when I met in my small town (graduating class of 54 in 1996), my English/Literature and Writing Composition teacher for my Sophomore, Junior and Senior years: Mr. Tom Howard. He was "old" then. Lord knows he's still teaching now! But, he was tall and svelte with white hair and every day he wore blue jeans, a denim shirt and a bow tie. Of all of his fantastically mysterious methods and strategies to instruction, what I remember most was his Garbage Word Hall of Fame, from the first day forward we would NEVER, and I mean NEVER be allowed to use the words: IS, IT, WERE, BEEN, BEING, ARE, BE, OF, BECAUSE, HAS, WAS (and a few others that escape me right now). When composing writing he would circle the first garbage word with a red pen and give it back to you rewrite. You'd resubmit, and he'd repeat the process. The kicker was in the days before computers hand written submissions were all you could do. So, you start re-writing your 4 page paper enough times, and you QUICKLY learn to never use the garbage words again.  Clearly I have gone on to use some of those words today; however, I owe everything I am as a writer to him. He expected the best, and while I don't consider myself the best, I do believe I have learned the craft of composition well. I even went on to consult his expertise well into college, and he always gave me scruffily honest feedback - which I always respected, appreciated and expected. I miss him.

Before I close this nostalgic tour through my past influences, I would be remiss to end without mention of Dr. Ann Reiser, God rest her soul, my literary professor, as well as Aimee Tomasek, who continue to teach today - both of these women hail from my Alma Mater,  Valparaiso University. These women were/are the essence of creativity, ingenuity, and both led me to my current practices in Literacy and Photography. All in all, each of these teachers saw in me the kind of person that I went on to become, and I believe there were times when they saw it before I could. They were my champions, and I am forever grateful.