4/28/11

Starting a DC Chapter of Parents Across America

As if I did not have enough on my plate, I am very excited to announce I am one of two parents in the District currently involved in starting a DC Chapter of Parents Across America. I recently read A Parents Across America Position Paper on the Reauthorization of the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – No Child Left Behind and I was so inspired by their ideas that I looked them up in DC. I was surprised to see they did not have a chapter in DC and emailed to inquire about starting one. PAA's beliefs can be found at http://parentsacrossamerica.org/what-we-believe/ . Therefore, if you live in DC, have children in public education and believe in these ideals, please join us.


4/27/11

Where are you on the Trust-Data Continuum?

Imagine a continuum, let's call this continuum the Trust-Data continuum. In one end of this continuum there is complete and utter dependence on data where we cannot make a move without incorporating it into our decision making and on the other end there is complete and utter trust in our inner knowledge where we fully and utterly trust our ideas and instincts alone. I have had to tread this line many times in my life and have learned that both extreme ends holds no solutions.

When I was pregnant with my first child we opted for a midwife, no drugs; the whole natural, trust your body, birthing process. It seemed the most healthy and natural option and we were so excited to go this route. Since we were considered 'low risk' we felt in our element choosing an out-of-hospital birth. Unfortunately, things did not go as expected. In short, we had a c-section. We did not plan on this of course, but that's what usually happens after almost 2 days of labor and no baby. With my second child, we again wanted a natural birth, but now being categorized as 'high risk' pregnancy due to a prior C-section, we needed the structure and security provided by the hospital. Although being at a hospital was protocol for a V-BAC (vaginal birth after c-section) I no longer fully trusted my body to do the right thing, and I too felt I needed to be in a hospital. I had moved from one end of the scale where I fully trusted my body to do the right thing, to the other end where I became dependent on the structure of a hospital to give me that sense of trust I needed. This ended up being a good thing, for I again had a c-section.

And yet another example.

I am a teacher in DC where the latest corporate reform efforts have taken hold of the system as they are in many other urban cities across the country. As an ardent advocate against these corporate reforms, which are all based on reward/punish paradigms, I am often asked, "What do we do then, with ineffective teachers?" I see reward-punish systems as essentially lacking in all forms of trust. Teachers are not trusted, schools are not trusted, hence we need data to see past the murky waters. The corporate reformers who are seeking to dismantle public education have done everything possible to form the negative myths that now intoxicate and choke the life out of our profession. This is very unfortunate news for our kids, for the public response is a need for more and more data, more oversight, more mania, more panic.
The more we surround and encapsulate education with testing, data and more testing, the more we squeeze the magic out of good teachers. Teacher who know how to teach need to be allowed to teach. My question is, with so many demands on teachers and hoops now set up for them to jump through, who would want to do this job in the future? What is the lure? In this situation, TRUST is the dire prescription. It will breathe back respect into a system that now operates like a dysfunctional home, where one sibling is openly favored and lauded over another.

I believe the answer to all life's problems lies somewhere in the middle of my Trust-Data continuum, with either end being way too fundamentalist and unbalanced to bring true, lasting success. Too much data and no trust is just as distorted as blind trust and no data.



4/18/11

Private thoughts on the world of Private vs. Public

I attended my high school reunion this past week in NYC. You can see some pictures I took by clicking here. Marymount is a private girls' catholic school that runs from k-12th grade. Sounds fairly humble huh? Yet the school, program, facilities and location categorize it as nothing even close to humble. Instead of running down all the changes I witnessed (which were too many to list) or listing all the benefits this school gives its students (which is enormous), I will discuss the three resolves I walked away.......They are much more meaningful and personal. Click here to see the site to the school.

Resolve #1: As a parent of two growing children the biggest question that rises in me is how do my husband and I provide all these benefits to our children without paying an obviously unaffordable $35,000 a year, per child, for private education. Click here to see cost of tuition. During the reunion, students in 12th grade were invited to speak about programs they were involved in at Marymount. What most impressed me was the ease in which they spoke about current global issues. As part of a club, some girls were actively involved in learning and sharing their knowledge of some very daring social issues with the community. The issues ranged from sex trafficking in the city, some students were in cultural awareness groups, some had traveled to countries far away to do service studies in their areas of interest. The answer to my question above then lies in making global perspective and global education not the school's responsibility, but ours, as parents. By allowing our children to see the world, and not just simplyread it from a book, or see it on TV, children get a fuller picture of issues affecting our world today. This would involve some serious money saving efforts on our part to later fund trips that would put this ideal to work. I don't think there is anything more essential to meeting this goal than traveling.

Resolve #2: My second resolve will address me as an educator. When I was in High School I did not feel very bright. It's not that my teachers were not good. The fact is, my mind was elsewhere. I had also come to learn English at age 9 and did not yet feel very confident in expressing myself in the language even at 14. In addition, my home life at that time was less than ideal and I could literally care less about school altogether. The drive was not there for all these reasons. Yet, one thing I know I was very good at, and still am today, is knowing when people did not believe in me, or when people did not think I could do something. I have always been super-tuned to people around me. Then again, it's not rocket science knowing this about someone; all children know when grown ups do not believe in them. It's embedded in the way they talk to you, sometimes it's in the way they don't talk to you, the people they choose to talk to instead of you, their eyes, how they look at you or avoid you with them. We humans communicate in so many other ways than verbal ways; volumes could be written about them. While most of my teachers were amazing in high school, there were a few who I could feel quite clearly did not think I was bright enough for the task. These experiences are so calcified in children and in me, that even years later, in the presence of the same environment alone, I was reliving that feeling of not being bright. I did not fight it this time though. This time I know who I am, I did not need approval from anyone anymore.

Therefore, my second resolve comes as a promise to myself as an educator. I promise to always believe in my students and to make sure my students know it. If I care about them as human beings, and them becoming emotionally stable adults, the best thing I could do for my kids is show them my unwavering belief in their abilities, regardless of their output at the time. My open and expressive belief in them might be just the very thing to unlock their disinterest.

Resolve #3: My last resolves stems from a conversation I had with a woman from a graduation year much earlier than mine. I don't know how we began on the topic of education, but I found out fast that we stood on very different ends of the spectrum of education reform issues and neither of us was about to back down. Before I knew it I was hearing all the mainstream rhetoric I hear daily as a public school teacher, yet know enough not to believe in them. She unwaveringly informed me about rubber rooms, rampant ineffective teachers just aching to retire, unions protecting only teachers not children, and on and on.

How do you convince a person who has their mind made up? I made a decision after this conversation to always demand from people arguing their points so ardently on public education to list their personal experiences with the 'facts' they speak so surely about. In the 13 years I have been teaching I have never seen a rubber room, or met a teacher who did not absolutely love what she did for a living. Just as I think all United States presidents should see the Earth from outer space to bring them a holistic perspective. For the same reason, I also think all education reformers should spend a few years (3-4) teaching high school kids in the rough neighborhoods of S.E. Washington, DC. I'm sure all the rhetoric about ineffective, lazy, cold-hearted teachers will melt away into a much more realistic and more respectful views of them once they see what they're really up against; poverty.

ART Highlights from my high school reunion----Marymount School of NY

Aside from having a great time, the school was filled with art everywhere....it was a dream come true to an art teacher like myself.

Below, are sample book covers......my mind is already trying to figure out ways to do this with elementary children.
These are amazing portraits!!
Now these are to drool for......they are......clay shoes!!!! aren't they just the cutest things ever....I am absolutely trying these with my kids.
You can tell this artist is growing up in NYC!!!
Paintings.....
These are portraits done on Ipads....



Marymount was the only girl school out of three that got an award from apple for being innovative in education using technology.
This is my favorite painting!!!! love it!
Check out this computer area!!
Dragons....
These are Marymount students here for their 50th reunion.....I hope I look this good at 67ish....

4/15/11

Tree Goddess, a self portrait

If I were to tell you this painting is a self portrait, where would your thoughts take you? I brought this painting into class and told my students this tree/woman painting I just finished was a self-portrait and asked them to interpret what that could mean to them. I was absolutely blown away by their responses. George Lucas, creator and mastermind of Star Wars recently expressed the importance of teaching children the different 'languages''; art and music being these languages. With this conversation with my kids I finally experienced what he meant.


To see this item in my online art store go to http:www//miriamsart.etsy.com.

The body, branches and roots are modeled tissue paper, painted over when dry.
The swirls you see are melted wax used to 'write' the lines.

4/13/11

Thought patterns that hurt and thought patterns that HEAL

I think the book that has had the MOST dramatic and positive affect on my life has been I Need Your Love is That True? by Byron Katie. Before reading this book I would do two very detrimental thought patterns that made me and the people around me very unhappy.

One, I would make bad assumptions about people and situations and string them together into a very neat and logical (yet not true) narrative that would place me as the front and center 'victim' of any given situation; allowing me the power to then to justify carrying on as a victim. This process of stringing together negative ideas has become so calcified in my mind, so part of my being that I did not even know it was happening anymore. I could literally come up with these narratives within seconds; I was great at this. And oh! how miserable these narratives made me and the people around me. Sounds like a whacky and crazy condition huh? but in fact, humans do it all the time. I see the 'narratives' being constructed all the time. We combine the words that one person said yesterday to this other person's actions and connect it to a compliment from someone else and voila we have a narrative that must be true!

The second thought pattern, and it's somewhat connected to the above pattern, is the pure and utter belief in these assumption; no matter how painful and self detrimental they might be. A few years back, a person could literally tell me all the loving and wonderful things I could ever want to hear, yet, my mind would immediately twist it and morph it enough so that in the end my perception of it would be something else completely, something quite negative in fact. This second thought pattern, seems like quite an exotic condition as well, yet, unfortunately, it happens all around us, all the time. How many times have we heard simple kind words come out of someone else 's mouth and automatically labeled these comments as something else than what it was? Let me give an example. Having always had issues with my body image, I grew up being incredibly sensitive to comments made to me about either my weight or my look. Even an innocent and genuine compliment relating to my body would be immediately met with doubt and suspicion.

Since reading this book, I have since cured myself of this hurtful translation pattern and since then, I take people at their words and actions and don't read into them with all my garbage in the way. It feels absolutely amazing to really see and experience people and their actions without all my personal stuff getting in the way to translate them into something other than what it is.

4/11/11

Difficult Conversations - Setting boundaries we can live with

I have always hated difficult conversations. You know, like the one where you tell a friend he hurt your feelings, or the one where you might tell a coworker about an issue that needs to be mutually resolved. But the more I 'grow up' the more I find these difficult conversations an integral part of setting social guidelines as well as an essential key in establishing one's self respect.

I grew up being taught not to 'shake the boat'. As a child, I learned by watching my family that the right thing to do was excuse yourself when offered food or drink by a host. "Oh, no, I don't need a drink " or 'no thanks, I JUST ate" were the standard responses, regardless of whether it were true or not. In the process of becoming an adult I aimed to be more deliberate and logical about my choices and not have them simply be an opposite reaction to the way I was brought up. Part of this process has been addressing difficult issues that come up head on; regardless of its awkwardness level, regardless of how that might affect the relationship. A good friend once told me that 'you teach others how to treat you'. Taking that first step and directly addressing miscommunications and social issues as they come up is an integral part of teaching others how to treat you. The two are inextricably connected.

Having had many of these difficult conversations in my short life, I am painfully aware of the relationship between the purity of the intentions behind the words and its effectiveness level. There is no doubt in my mind that the effectiveness of the conversation is only equal to the purity of the intention behind the words exchanged within that conversation. For example, have you ever had an argument with someone and you just wanted to sting them with your words? I have. It felt great at the moment, but the argument only led to more anger and pain and ultimately after doing this several times you learn that nothing comes from breeding negative intentions and spewing hurtful words. Yet, if your intention derives from a good and honorable place, the results are bound to be more pleasing. You still may have hurt feelings, but at least on your end you know you operated from a place where hurting the other side was not the primary goal.

The world is not a perfect place. And as the Buddhists say, the only thing that is predictable is that everything is unpredictable. Expecting life to go smoothly, and for people around us to always just know what to do and how to behave is a bit of a tall order in a world where not one person is like another. We may not be able to control the outside world, but we should absolutely know ourselves enough to respect our own personal boundaries and speaking up for ourselves by having those difficult conversations.


4/9/11

Yes, you can play with sticks....

We let kids play with toy guns,
and play video games based on death and destruction,
YET, we somehow justify a restriction on sticks
..............as if they were a symbol of pure violence.

Sticks are simply THE most amazing boy toys,
they can become anything, anything at all.

In an instant,
it's a sword,
a spear,
a laser beam,
a fishing pole,
a broom
a horse
a magic wand
a magic anything

Suddenly with a stick you are a royal king,
in a kingdom all your own.

Set some guidelines and allow
allow
allow
sticks back into your child's world......

Childhood is can't be magical without it.

What!! Would you live here?

On our drive back from a national park in Maryland last week we kept driving past these signs for new homes for sale under 300K. We got curious and followed the signs to a very scary development. The houses were enormous, but were literally a few yards from each other. There were baby trees planted and when I got out of my car the take photos, I heard total silence, no birds, no people.....silence....I would not live here even if they paid me....no character, no yard, no trees.....
I began to get a headache driving around and I thought I was in a set for a movie, like in the Truman show....where everything looks just a bit too plastic.
Now couldn't the developers have left some extra land so that each home could have a real back yard. The homes literally had NO back yard....nothing....I suspect they got the land and the plan was to make the most out of their venture......
I think developers forget that ripping out trees and planting new ones makes the place look blasted out for decades......How could anyone live in a place with no trees......these baby trees will take years to get big enough to even shade a car.

And the Dramatic Award goes to....

Nora has been singing lately....but in a very dramatic way. I asked Chris if perhaps she caught a PBS arts special or something, yet we have not been able to determine what has inspired this upsurge of mini operas in our living room nightly.






4/7/11

Brookside Gardens, Maryland

One thing we love about DC is all the FREE nature all around. This was from our hike in the Brookside Gardens a few weeks ago. Climbing trees....a MUST of childhood.

Nora always picks flowers for me....aww!!

The LOVE tree....check out all the initial carvings....
Publish Postthe most climbable tree I've ever seen.....

DC/NY Culture Clash (from rain gear to walking speeds)

DC folk love their rain gear. I can see that because I'm not a DC native and non-natives can see things natives miss about themselves. Yesterday was a misty day, not a rainy day, JUST misty. I walk out of my apartment to go to work with my coffee in hard and see all these umbrellas up, I cautiously walk out into the open space (for I DON'T see rain) and what do I feel? Mist! MIST!!! But by looking at the people bustling around in umbrellas you'd think we had some major rain storm, plus some flooding to boot. Each woman I see has these tall, tall galoshes. I always hated these anyway because I have too much calves and being 5'2" they make me look 4'5". All I see on this misty morning are galoshes, galoshes, galoshes. I see flowers, polka dots, lines, argyle, etc. OH! and of course everyone has an umbrella; not a regular umbrella. No, an umbrella that folds up into a 'pill' (like in the Jetsons), so that it fits in their perfectly tetris-ed briefcase when it dries. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit.....but most of it IS true.

Similarly, being a native New Yorker I would have never known what we, new Yorkers, are like had it not been for the fact that I went to college in Massachusetts and people there told me what New Yorkers are like. I had no idea I was a fast walker until in college a friend protested I kept rushing her. Even today, with years living in DC people still comment about the speed of my gait. From another 'trusty' source in Massachusetts I discovered New Yorkers are brash. I had no idea that applied to me until a coworker years later told me she kept thinking I was mad at her when I answered, "what!" every time she called my name. Apparently I am supposed to say, "YES". DC folk need to hear "YES". So now, I curb my "what" to "YES" so as to not hurt feelings. Every once in a while I still hurt feelings.

From watching the DC Housewives show I learn that DC folk are conservative in their way of dressing and being. I see that daily working as a teacher in a school. At my last job as an art teacher in New York City for 4 years, each art teacher, regardless of age, stood WAY out in the way they dressed; one was funky, another jazzy, another punky, another grungy, another international, another organic, and the list goes on. In DC, things are visibly more subtle; by subtle I mean everyone looks like they walked out of a catalogue. I know half my wardrobe would shock some of my kids' parents and alienate the rest. Every so often I find myself wishing for some more daring views. I see perfectly coordinated trousers with catalogue shirt tops, and perfectly stored trench coats with all their buttons still on, and LOTS, lots of sensible shoes.

I find myself wishing for something over the top, anything over the top....color, a vintage jacket, shoes that yell, jewelry that are not worth anything but say quite a bit, a safety pin showing. A new DO.....

Maybe today is the day I will see it.....In the meantime I wearing my handmade earring today....


4/5/11

Which came first, the need to fight for a cause or the cause?

Being a feisty Latina growing up in New York City, taking sides and fighting for a cause has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember. Just recently I found that taking sides can be more part of the problem, than the solution. When I was a teenager I read the book 50 Simple Things YOU Can Do to Save the Earth and my life all of the sudden had meaning. I went around turning off faucets, writing letters to congress, and giving speeches about water consumption at my high school. This is funny to me now, but back then it literally hurt to see water being wasted. I talked, slept, ate trying to save the world. How amazing it felt to be part of something, but more importantly it felt great to feel on the 'right side'. Later on, I saw a video of a cow being slaughtered and the whole fight instinct rose up in me again, and as before the most important piece I was walking away with was the knowing that I was ultimately on the 'right side'. Yearly, I would pick a new cause to fight for and not once during those years did I question my methods. Only when I began to read Buddhist authors, and about the nature of peace did I begin to see how "fighting for something" as war itself. I learned that as long as these is a battle, a war, two sides, a good and a bad, these will not be resolution to any conflict.

If we look at the ultimate nature of war, it's about being on a side, and most importantly the identity we get from feeling we are on the 'right side'. Each side believes firmly they are right and on they bump their heads in battle until one of them either tires or dies. One of the characteristics that seems attractive to 'followers of a cause' is an unwavering warrior. As much as I disagreed with his policies, Bush was an unwavering warrior. I understand his attraction to people. He picked a side and fought without ever looking back. The guy did not flinch once, even when they whole world thought he should change his mind, he kept on staying on his side and fighting strong. Similarly, Michele Rhee is attractive to parents for this same reason, she was even pegged a "warrior woman' (as pegged by Oprah). Her unwavering and unfortunate charge against teachers is attractive to people who need to see their leaders take a strong decisive stand. Unfortunately, people who are attracted to warriors, often don't care who or what they fight, as long as they are fighting. It's not about the cause anymore, it;s about the motion of fighting that's attractive here.
Another form of this idea of "taking sides for the sake of taking sides" can be seen in Nationalism. Have you ever seen the bumper stickers that read, "God Bless America"? My question every time I see these ridiculous stickers is, "Why just America?". Why not the rest of the world? Why should only Americans be blessed by God? Don't other humans on other parts of the world deserve what we think only we deserve? Or should only a select few deserve them? Perhaps in taking away Nationalism we also take away the identity that has calcified around it, and that can be hard to do, for who are we then without our labels? Becoming a mother has been life-changing for me. Once I had a child and experienced the enormously beautiful and pure love coming from you towards this tiny being, you come to understand that parents all over the world must feel this same pure and precious love; not JUST Americans. People in Gaza feel this way for their babies, people in Tibet, people in North Korea.....all of the sudden I know them all intimately. I love being an American, but I am first a human being. I much more prefer 'God bless all beings'.

So how do we fix problems then if we don't take sides? How do we 'fight' against what we believe to be wrong and not have it feed us our entire identity? How do we not get lured down the easy path of wanting to feel 'we are on the right side?' and still do the right thing. Here are some guidelines I now try to follow whenever I see a wrong that needs to be fixed.

1. Humanize it: We almost always dehumanize the 'other side' in order to justify being harsh ourselves. Once you are aware of this you will see it everywhere....How many movies are out there that can be classified as revenge movies? I could go onto Netflix right now and find 100 'violence-justified' movies in less than 2 minutes. These movies set up their storyline to later justify using violence and killing. If our true goal is finding a solution we need to see the other side reasonably and always trying to understand their reasoning, their intentions. In war, it's so incredibly easy to toss our hands up in the air and claim they are all animals, but only in seeing the world through their eyes do we hold the key to true peace. An amazing movie that parallel our dehumanization of the OTHER is District 9. Amazing movie; a must watch.

2. Is it who I am ? If it feels so good being on 'the right side', we are then deriving an identity from it, in which case we need there to be a fight for us to feel right. How anti-productive is that? We are addicted to the very thing we are trying to abolish.

3. Live your priority. Right now in my life, raising our kids ourselves is our priority. So as much as I would love to go to see Diane Ravitch speak in New York, or protest with fellow teachers in WIsconsin, or start an arts school, no one else is going to raise them with the same love as I can give them. They experience the magic of youth only once and then they are grown and gone. I am not about to miss that for anyone or any cause.

4. Come to the table with win-win solutions. In seeing the other side's intentions one needs to then incorporate what their needs are into the solution in addition to your own needs. Again, we see half solutions that work only for one side all over; by their very nature, they will not last. The business education reformers who are trying to fix education today forgot to include teachers in their equation, making it a half solution. Half solutions only feel right to one side and totally disregard what the needs of the other side may be. These type of solutions require you to see the other side as human though, and that you minimally converse with them to get their side. This one is particularly important in keeping marriage working right. If it's always only one partner's needs that are addressed, eventually things fall apart. One must seek a win-win solution to both sides in order to end any conflict. Half solutions never last, and may even cause greater pain.
5. Watch your body: Spewing anger, yelling, and losing control of our emotions are all essentially part of 'war'. Do you have war in you? Often we say we want peace yet we carry war in us in the way we talk, and in our voices? We can believe and strongly fight for something yet still remain calm. In fact, it takes a much stronger will to remain calm than to go off the wall, losing our calm. As a parent I make it a habit of not engaging angry words. Then I started applying that rule to grown ups. There is no sense engaging a raging bull, just walk away. No solutions will ever come from it anyway. When my daughter yells commands at me, I say, "Talk like a big girl", we should try applying that to adults too.

6. Bang away. Have you ever gone off on someone and it felt great? I have; way too many times. Did it solve anything? NEVER. I am one of those people that just likes a good battle, regardless of the cause, I am unfortunately drawn to taking sides, for it feeds me. I work hard to curb this and to pull away and look at what I am really fighting for so as to not blindly fight for the sake of fighting. Most of the time it's the need to fight that drives us to build up conflict. when it should really be the other way around. Have you ever been in a bad mood and all of the sudden you get in an argument with someone? which came first, the need to argue, or the reason? Have you ever watched the military channel? We continuously invent amazingly sophisticated machines to help is kill people in all sorts of innovative and creative ways. With all this new innovation and money going into creating pumped up killing machines, you think we really want peace?

I will end this post with a story from one of my favorite self-help authors, Byron Katie. She tells a story of a client who came to her claiming she was an activist who could not live without thinking of her cause. She was essentially being constantly haunted by thoughts of the injustices being done in the world as she walked around free, undisturbed by these injustices in her own life. Byron looked at her and told her that in essence she was living with these injustices minute by minute; for she was herself in war. She explained that she would be no help to her cause while she personified war in her heart. To be more effective in fighting these injustice she would have to have inner peace first.

Therefore, before we take on any worthy cause, we must first calm our own minds, bodies, thoughts and voices; at least if we truly mean to find an end to the conflict.