Advent – Day 2

Confession time (and if you know me, you’ll not be surprised at all): I am not a hugely sentimental person – not within the context of seasonal decorations and past-times, anyway. For example, I have never had a pumpkin spice latte, and I steer clear of the home decorating aisles for as long as I possibly can. As I fall directly between Generation X and Millennial lines, I tend to have an overabundance of cynicism around any holiday that focuses on frivolous decorations and anything more that consumer culture is trying to sell me. Mostly though, I chalk it up to being too lazy to deal with all the clean up. While my children want to decorate in extravagant (and pretty gaudy) ways for every season, I tend to push back and put off decorating. I tend to focus on the fact that whatever they do to our home in order to make it seasonally acceptable, will stay throughout every season unless I take the initiative to clean it up or kick them to do so. (my son successfully kept a small Christmas Tree up in his room all year – really, it hasn’t moved since last Christmas)

This year, I thought I had successfully subverted the Halloween decorating plans until I drove into our driveway the day before Halloween and was greeted with paper skulls and bats taped all over the garage door, spider webs (generously shared by the neighbor friends) in the trees and on the front step, and paper ghosts hanging from the front gutters. The youngest daughter was extremely happy with herself. Kids – 1, Mom – 0

Christmas decorations are hard for me. I attach cynical ideas to the purchasing of decorations or crafting of them because the cost and effort feel ultimately unproductive. Once they’re up, I do admit to loving the glow of the twinkle lights and the warmth that seems to emanate from every little detail. My own want of traditions that are meaningful strain sharply from something that often feels overly market driven rather than any real tradition driven. Driving home from an extremely fun and productive day of decorating our church this year though, I wondered out loud at why I am so opposed to decorating. Scott commented that it really all started when the kids were little – that I sort of hate unnecessary messes and clutter and generally think of anything taking up surface space in an unproductive way as such a thing. This dislike is even more incomprehensible when I love the look of decorations everywhere else – In every other home or place but my own.

So, this year I’m trying to slowly turn myself toward the frivolous but fun traditions just as much as the ones I truly love.

Therefore, the stockings and twinkle lights have been hung in the living room

I’ve set up my Grandma’s Precious moments Nativity Scene – and I’m trying to remember that it’s not just about what I prefer, but that my kids should love seasons in their own ways, too.

I do hope to pass some of the other traditions along though. I love traditions that are surrounded with words – with poetry and letters – with songs – with simple dances – with games – with people and friends.

Each year, as Advent begins, I regain a little of myself through these types of traditions. I get ahold of the frayed edges and start tying them all back together. Around our house, we sing songs of waiting and of hope – pretty much constantly. Tonight, though, we jumped back into one of my favorite traditions.

For the past 3 years or so, after dinner – still at the table – during every night of Advent, my family reads through Christina Rossetti’s “Advent” poem. Each of us taking a stanza and passing the poem around the table. Generally, there are tears from about the 3rd stanza on – tears of hope IN waiting. Hope for the world as it is and as it was and as it will be. Tonight, as I reminded the family of this traditions – the response was hilarious. There were “No! not the crying!”, “May I be excused? I need to clean my room.”, and “Alright, but I get to go first.” – and then when it was done, Scott and I were congratulated on the least amount of tears they’d ever seen.

I love this pause in a day. I love the words that reference so many stories – crafted in a way that tells a story of hope with a backdrop of waiting. A story of longing for peace, for light, in the midst of the long hours of the night – a story to which each one of us can connect (Even when stretching through the need to clean one’s room).

So, as I stretch into embracing the decorations, I thought I’d share a little of the tradition of Advent season that I challenge my kids to stretch into as well – and because it’s over one hundred years old, I’m pretty sure I’m clear to copy it for you here:

Advent by Christina Rossetti

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
  These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
  And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
  Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
  Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
  The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
  The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
  His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
  Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
  The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
  “All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
  The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
  But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
  They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
  “They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
  With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
  Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
  The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
  Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
  Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
  With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
  We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
  And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
  For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
  He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
  We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
  And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
  Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
  My fair one, come away.”

Cheers my friends. In all of your traditions, I wish you hope and peace.

Wait well.

An Open Letter Re: Grades

An Open Letter to: Anyone who has any claim to, interest in, and/or hope for the education of modern school-aged people (Everyone). 

Stop. Checking. Grades.

Close your browser. Delete the app on your phone. Forget your login. Turn off all gradebook notifications. Enjoy the silence. As you sink into that silence just a little, notice how the silence of the gradebook, similar to social media silence if you’ve ever attempted to let it be so, screams at you to look – to wonder what the grade is – to see what assignments are missing, what assignments are due, how many points an assignment is worth, and oh my goodness why hasn’t that dang teacher put in that grade yet? 

Feel the pull? Hear the silent cacophony?

Now, a little meditation to drown out that unnecessary babble: 

Breathe in;  Picture in your minds eye, right now, the best moment of your day, breathe out. 

Breathe in, Picture the most fulfilling part of your day, breathe out. 

Breathe in; Picture the part of your day that made you smile. Breathe out. 

I’m going to take a quick shot in the dark and guess that the gradebook did not inspire these pictures. So, I will say it again. Stop. Checking. Grades.

Education-based software companies: 

Your technologically advanced solutions that address the school to home communication dilemma are extremely efficient. Obviously, a lot of research has gone into what needs to be communicated, to whom, and how best those people receive communications – however, I ask that you pull it back just a bit. Making education based software the school accepted equivalent of social media – as far as who wants to check and when, has been amazingly successful  – However, it has not helped to address the actual information that is being communicated. Somehow, the issues being communicated, have been lost in translation – now we have the knowledge, but not the motivation to, or recognition of the need to address those issues in ways that create self-advocating, responsible human beings who are well-organized and functioning; soon to be independent and successful members of society. Instead, we are creating a mass of people with access to information over which they feel no ownership. We currently have too many options to choose from in the education software industry, so unless your company is trying to combine some of these programs, please desist.

Teachers and Parents: 

I address you together because you play a similar role in a student’s life right now. It is your job to pass along the information and life skills necessary for a student to become an active, engaged, healthy member of this ever-changing society. You are collaboratively raising the next leaders, thinkers, and creators of your community. Lighten up. Stop blaming yourself and each other – we are all human here, parent and teacher, doing our best. As we start to work together toward a common goal, take a minute to think back to your own days in middle and high school. Realistically think about how often you knew your cumulative grade in a class. Unless you have very young children currently, the internet, smart phones, and really any digital technology was not the way your grade was communicated to you. Your grade was communicated maybe at a progress report, but definitely at a quarter or trimester – a time when the grade would actually be recorded on your transcript. This lack of specific knowledge meant that you paid more attention to each individual assignment. You turned in assignments on time, and when they were returned, you asked about how to get a better grade, about extra credit, and maybe whether there would be a test on the information later. In most high school classes, you filed the assignments in your binder, because it was likely that a teacher might lose a grade at some point and you would need to show proof that you turned that assignment in, or you might just want to use that paper again next year. Compare your experience with that of a modern students.  These students have the same social pressures (perhaps amplified by connection), same fickle emotions, same inexperienced fear of the future, same ability to learn. Yet, they are constantly overwhelmed by teachers and parents and devices telling them what assignments are missing, what grades are low or high, where they need to be in the next five minutes, etc. Most of these students are unable to recall what a missing assignment is due to the fact that there are so many assignments that they’ve lost any individual worth as far as actual learning goes, now those assignments are a jumble of points and missing directions.

Teachers: 

I know that you may have specific directions from your school administration that say how often to post grades, and I’m all for keeping track of a students progress, however, take some time before you put an assignment into a gradebook and think about what that assignment communicates to the student and parent. What progress are your tracking and how does it help the student understand his/her level of understanding? Does the assignment reveal knowledge? Mastery of a skill? Ability to follow directions? Participation? After this is decided, put that grade in. Be able to explain why each assignment matters to a student’s understanding of the subject, or to a student’s general ability to be responsible and engaged. Don’t use grades as a behavioral punishment – some kids do school better than others. Don’t tell them to check the grades themselves, give them a list – ideally printed – along with the actual assignments that are missing, so they have actionable steps to rectifying missing or late assignments – not just a multi-colored screen of assignments they don’t remember getting.

Parents: 

Teachers are human beings who herd a mess of anywhere from 30 to 250 students per day (depending on the grade and subject taught). When that lovely education software sends you a daily report on your student’s progress, it’s likely not always up to date. We teachers are not wonder-people, and we try really hard to have some semblance of a life outside of school. This means that it may take a day, or a week, or even two for every student’s grade to reflect exactly what a student has mastered. Punishing your student for a missing assignment is annoying. Not only to the student, but to the teacher who has the student asking daily to have the assignment fixed. Please take a moment and breathe. If the student says an assignment has been turned in, give them the benefit of the doubt – These are your children whom you should be able to trust – give it a week and check in with them to make sure. Stop checking grades – and while you’re at it, turn off the daily notifications.

Finally,

To the most important stakeholders in this business of education: 

Students: 

A small secret that I think, as a teacher and a parent, I’m probably not supposed to just tell you: your grades don’t define you. Grades don’t show that you are a good or bad person; don’t reflect your ability to think or create, or imagine or believe. Your grades are a number, or a letter, that tracks whether you have done what you have been asked to do. Sometimes, if your teacher is discerning – your grade also reveals whether you are displaying an understanding or mastery of information expected for someone your age. In the grand scheme of your life, grades matter for a very short time – long enough to provide a shred of data to another academic establishment about whether or not you do school well; long enough to show a nosy employer whether you follow directions well. Stop checking your grades. Looking at a grade doesn’t change it.

As a teacher and as a parent, I want you to do well. I want you to not only feel successful, but I want you to be successful. There is a huge difference. In this life, success is not a trophy that everyone gets – not a one size fits all plan for child to adulthood. In this life, success is a feeling and it is entirely dependent upon your own goals for the future. As you grow out of being a professional (albeit compulsory) student, you have to have some self-efficacy, to believe in yourself, to be motivated to become responsible and to strive to display your best understanding of whatever information you are mastering. Education is ongoing in the sense that you will learn for the rest of your life, however, for most of your life, no one will tell you what you need to know in order to do well. Take advantage of the people around you right now: the teachers, parents, coaches, and administrators – people who were once students themselves and who, as adults, have chosen the profession of trying to pass along what they know about life to you. Ask them questions and listen to the answers. Choose someone you trust and strive to impress them – not with your grades, but with your want to do well. Do your best – your absolute best. And really, Stop. Checking. Your. Grades.

Sincerely,

A concerned Parent, Teacher, Friend, Colleague, Human

For a Thursday

Chameleon – I am

Until I need to be me.

and then my constantly

adapting skin gets confused;

Breaks out in spots that don’t match.

I seem to lose

Focus on

what I love

imaging and reimagining

second guessing

eyes wide

caught in the headlights

of an unfinished backdrop.

And I don’t blend –

No longer comfortable, standing in –

Standing out

against the background

Into which I wish to disappear.

How does one not blend

but still not break?

Books

When I get anxious,

I make stacks of books.

I set them on tables around the house;

The kitchen table,

The coffe table,

The small table next to the bookshelf – redundant and comforting.

I carry them with me from room to room – always a stack because I cannot decide which words I should read before I sit down.

A cup of coffee and a water bottle are constant companions to these books;

These and good intentions.

Sometimes – like I have done the past 3 days – I pick up a small novel and tune out the world for an hour – getting lost in the story and crying at the end.

I cry at the end of most novels – children’s novels especially.

Not because the story is ending,

Not because the story is particularly sad;

Usually, because there is newfound joy or hope, even amidst sadness or epiphany. This is how children’s stories – end.

This is how most stories end.

I love that.

Maybe, this is why I make stacks of books when I’m anxious.

Maybe, I recognize – even without stopping to reflect in this way – that these stories might carry little glimpses of hope and joy – contrived in the experiences of fictional and real characters, alike – Glimpses of hope and joy that quell the anxiety. That tell me to keep going – remind me to keep trying.

And how about you?

What’s in your stacks of books?

What is your stack of books?

Scattered starts and stops

It’s nearly the beginning again –

Cycles of life and learning.

Exhaustion brought on by worry and doubt; preparing and planning

Papers strewn about – edits everywhere – log ins not working, not connected, not important.

Summer slipping silently away –

A long awaited time of Time – not wasted, but too quickly past

Last gasps and soft warm wind – a breathing in and holding on.

Routine and regulations –

Not ready.

All Set.

Go.

Wednesday Night (delayed) Haikus’

In honor of the ‘Immoral Minority’ – Softball at it’s best every Wednesday night.

Dust. Dirt. “Crack” and Run.

Always a hole in the Right Field

Jeering the next team.

Strike – ball – strike – hit – run

Batter up, and batter out.

Balls in, and Game on.

Ball, strike, swing, and “crack”

Legs and lungs burning – – Safe.

Under the lights – safe.

Dust, dirt, sweep the plate

Slap of mitt in the dugout

Run it in! He’s safe.

Pitch over the plate

Jump and get out of the way

Pick it up and toss.

Show up, win or lose

Kingdom glimpses – fun and friends

Showing up again.

Rag tag bunch of guys

Brought together – love the game

Weekly ritual.

Patriotism and putting on a show

*** Warning: Political views and ranty things – I do not intend to offend, only observe and obviously observations are biased, because I am me.***

I live in a medium sized city/town in California. I would say small – because after 16 years I feel like I know or recognize everyone, however, it is not actually small. It is a university town made up of students, people who came to school here and never left, families that have been here generations, resident transients, and various other people from all sorts of walks of life. It is, for the most part, a liberally minded populous. During the year, it is not uncommon to find politically minded people picketing at the Farmer’s Market, soliciting support for a cause or a candidate, and typically these people protest our current Conservative Federal Representatives; and are of a very liberal leaning, perhaps swaying toward socialism (in a decent way). Even last night, during the Fourth of July Celebration at the community park, protestors made themselves heard in the grand style mimicked in the aptly title movie PCU (If you like social commentary, and silly college movies in the vain of Animal house – watch it). There were signs and demonstrations, upset over walls and camps and the maltreatment of fellow human beings. Things that should be protested, things that could be handled so much differently, things that should change.

As I sat on a picnic blanket with family and friends, however, I just kept wondering: why protest in this fashion, in a town which already agrees with you? Just to be seen? To ensure no one forgets? To feel like you’re doing something?

At this juncture, honestly, the awareness has been raised – the masses are upset – and the voices have been heard (even annoyingly and rudely over the last song of a fabulous band which was there playing) – what good is such a protest then? Hundreds and hundreds of miles from any place where these voices cry out, what good does this do the people experiencing life as refused refugees? What good does this do?

Pomp and Circumstance. The entire evening.

And I don’t mean the song, I mean the entire event. Distractions and more distraction. Besides the protestors, I watched thousands of people gather into the park – some for the concert, some for the fellowship, some just for the fireworks. Children and adults, glued to their phones as they sat on picnic blankets – ignoring the fellows in front of them for the false community the screen provides, engaging in the American traditions of capitalism by purchasing lights and glow sticks and snacks, doing the “American” thing – dressing in colors that they might mock the rest of the year. Is this what being American is? Having the freedom to fit in, to celebrate and be cynical, to love the self-touting ‘land of the free’ and in the same breath complain about it? perhaps.

As the 25 minute display of fireworks amazed the crowd – as the crowd pulled out their phones to record the event – as the music of a recorded orchestra played Americana music in the background (including, ironically, religious, patriotic, and rock songs) – I stepped back to our picnic blanket. Crowds freak me out, and being jostled by the masses was not priority for me – even if it meant I missed the best view of the fireworks. I couldn’t get over the fact that for the most part, this little city strives to be anything but stereotypically American – strives to be a radical little university town with transcendent views, who claim to be above the chaos of our government, who claim to have ideas about how to fix it – and here they all are, celebrating the monster.

It’s probably the English teacher me, but I couldn’t help but flash to the final scenes of Animal Farm when the pigs and humans are no longer different enough for the other animals to recognize which is which.

We are the masses – we are the reason things are messed up – but we just can’t stop consuming – consuming things, consuming ideas, consuming people, consuming tradition as if it still represents who we are – not understanding what it represents, but ooo….looks at the pretty fireworks. The mentality of this world is so scary to step back and observe.

When we don’t, we don’t notice the words subtly changing, the walls being built not only on our borders, but around our recognition of what it means to be free, what it means to participate in a way that might inspire and enact change for the better. And if we notice, we either feel powerless to do anything, we stomp around and make noise like that actually will fix anything (and I’m not just talking about protestors here, I’m talking about social media posts that are not researched and/or are posted but not attached to any action – even so small as a vote), or we don’t mind the distraction of a screen that can show us our every dream, even if it is never attached to the possibility that watching that screen will ever help us obtain it – so we let it happen.

I’m not throwing stones, I’m just observing. I have obviously done nothing today but write down my observations, and this will not change the world. The things that will, will happen slowly and steadily and most of us won’t notice until the shift has happened – the thing that we have to decide is: are we going to be a part of moving toward change, or will we let it happen around us and just accept it and move on as if we didn’t have a choice?

Within this system, we can vote. We can run for office. We can be informed in more ways than our echo chambers of social media news. We can discuss and refused to consume – we can entertain other ideas. Get involved and make a difference. I don’t know what to do on more than a day-to-day basis, but being informed in where I plan to start. How about you?