The Clock is Ticking…

H  ow did the holidays get here so fast?

A  few weeks ago we were eating turkey

P  retty soon the stores were filled with Christmas

P  iles of gift catalogs throughout the house

Y  esterday we hung the lights outside

 

H  ow will we ever be ready in time for Christmas?

O  n December 17th we are leaving for Germany

L  ots of things to prepare for our trip

I   f only the next few days would slow down

D  estinations: Berlin, Dresden, Weimar

A  lot of miles to travel to see people we love

Y  es, it’s the trip of a lifetime

S  ee you in 2016!

Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

Teachers Are Frontline Workers Too

Driving up the hill past the sign planted by our neighborhood civic association, I realized that although it was a well deserved tribute to front line workers during these Covid-19 times,  there was no mention of teachers. This made me both sad and upset.  Please give me a few minutes of your time to tell you why.

As a retired teacher I know all about the gripes and criticisms leveled at teachers. I mostly think of those rants as disguised resentment for those “cushy hours” and long summer vacations that teachers get. I never let them bother me because I know firsthand how hard teachers work every day under normal circumstances.  

But today’s circumstances are far from normal. Yesterday  I dialed into a zoom event hosted by one of the co-directors of The Long Island Writing Project, a group of teachers that provided a lot of writing instruction and support during my teaching years.  One of the markers of  teachers is that we are in it for life so we continue to learn whenever we have an opportunity to do so. I learned so much during that hour about the teachers who are currently in the trenches. Many are juggling personal lives with school-age kids of their own while trying to learn and adjust to a new mode of teaching and cranking out daily lessons for their students scattered hither and yonder.

I heard and saw teachers talk about sitting at kitchen and dining room tables in their homes with their own kids surrounding them, each family member simultaneously looking at their individual screens while following a lesson or teaching one. Many teachers’ homes have been converted into semi-classrooms with furniture rearranged for minimum disruption to daily life while offering some kind of quasi-school structure for the homebound learners.

All of the teachers talked about the very quick shift they were forced to make from being  classroom teachers to acquiring technology skills on the fly. Remote learning and teaching is a field of study unto itself. I know that because in the late 70s and 80s I helped to produce some on-air programs at the State University at Stony Brook for graduate students. Having to acquire the skills to effectively deliver digital lessons to their students within such a condensed period of time without any support is a tribute to how resilient and dedicated most teachers are.

Most parents (at least those communicating online) seem to be very grateful to their children’s teachers for their efforts. Many teachers are going above and beyond delivering academics to also supporting their students’ mental health. Teachers with low-income students have it doubly hard trying to keep track of their flock who do not have a strong support structure at home yet are the students who need them the most.

This is a work in progress, folks. Fortunately most teachers are lifelong learners and will keep at it until they get it right. Meanwhile they bravely plow forward usually with only each other for support. The online group meeting I attended  made me very proud to be part of a tribe called Teachers. Let’s show them some love, too.

Clearing My Head

There are some annoying and discouraging things happening in my life. Sometimes I amazed that at my age I can still be so upset about some things that people do that cause me pain. Let. It. Go. I tell myself and can feel the tension starting to release. Still agitated. Then I go to the beach.

I needed solitude, the wind, a large sky, the sound of the water lapping the shore and the sight of the winter ducks bobbing in the waves. Fortunately it is only a ten minute drive for me to the shore of the Long Island Sound.

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It was just what the doctor ordered. As I walked onto the beach I loved the contact of my sneakers with the wet sand and pebbles underfoot and the slight angle of the spit of land I was walking on.

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It was a little harder to walk on the pebbles and sand than at the park, but the challenge was what I needed to work out my angst and my knotted muscles.It was almost low tide so there were a lot of wet pebbles and shells to walk on.

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As I stepped forward I picked up my head and noticed what a beautiful S-shaped curve the beach made today. Every time I walk here this sand spit is shaped and reshaped by wind and water.

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Along the way I picked up a few objects as I often do. Although I am overly familiar with what the tide usually deposits along this shore, I nonetheless felt the need to scoop up a few nicely scallop-edged oyster shells (for which these waters were once famous), as well as a couple of pieces of beach glass which are a rare find these days. The tactile contact with these gifts from the sea helped to calm me.

Now and then I paused just to gaze at the seascape and take it all in. I needed those deep inhalations of sea air to clear my body of my personal toxic fumes. There was just enough of a breeze to feel the cleansing action of my breathing.

Overhead sea gulls were plentiful and very busy snapping at shellfish and dropping them from above in an effort to break open their shells. The sea gulls were quite noisy today providing a constant background of squawking and squealing which I found quite soothing in its familiarity.

Then suddenly, in the curve of the shore, I noticed them: a group of Brant floating at the shore’s edge. It hasn’t been a typical winter, warmer than usual as is the case mostly everywhere, so the usual winter ducks haven’t always been around. But the Brant were here today and they were close enough that I got to hear their honking sounds.

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I walked a bit further and turned back. The sun, wind, sand and water had done their job. My raw edges were softened a bit and I was able to sit and read for a while in the fading sunlight.

Bring Back Bildung: Thoughts About the Future of Education

*Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. Wikipedia

On Valentine’s Day 2020, a New York Times writer and a forward-thinking bright student at Starbucks gave me new hope for the future of education.  I share their gifts with all of you!

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My husband and I were having an afternoon of complete self-indulgence on his unexpected day off for Lincoln’s Birthday this past week. (Unlike many institutions, his college celebrates both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays on two separate days.) After doing some banking chores we wandered into our local Starbucks, a place we rarely frequent. As I waited for my husband to place our order, I sat at one of the window seats. Two seats away an attractive young man was reading a slim book by John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934). As he read he took notes on his laptop while wearing the earplugs requisite for all students nowadays.

When he paused for a break, I struck up a conversation with him. “Is that book by John Dewey, the education philosopher?” I asked him. “Yes,” he eagerly replied. “Are you an art student?” I asked. “No, but this is part of the reading for a course I’m taking for my graduate studies at Columbia University.”

That got the conversation rolling and I soon learned that this bright student who exuded confidence was a former alpine skier who had attended boarding school during his high-school training years, then attended Boston College. He is now enrolled at Columbia in their newly revived Philosophy and Education Program to pursue a Master’s and eventually a PhD In order to become a professor/administrator at a small liberal arts college.

I can’t remember when I’ve had such a delightful and uplifting conversation about education. He explained to my husband and me that his undergrad years at Boston had led him to believe in the importance of the Liberal Arts as part of the curriculum. Nowadays, he explained, so many students are pursuing technical degrees, computer degrees, science degrees, but without a liberal arts component which he now believes is essential to becoming productive and well-rounded in any career. His current status as a student  in the Philosophy and Education Program at Columbia is helping him to focus on his personal reasons for wanting to teach as well as learning how to integrate the various worlds of teaching and learning that exist separately on college campuses. We soon parted but I spent hours thinking about him and our conversation. He kept repeating the phrase, “I want to become part of the conversation about….” This academic metaphor for saying he is anxious to get into his field of work made me smile because it is so hopeful.

Today (February 14), I came across an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times Op-Ed section entitled “This Is How Scandinavia Got Great.” Mr. Brooks spoke about how it is the “generous welfare states” that most people admire in the Scandinavian countries. But for him, it goes deeper than that. He firmly believes that “What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.”

As the Nordic countries began to experience the arrival of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Mr. Brook explains, they soon realized that if they were to going to continue to “prosper” as nations they needed to create “folk schools” for the least educated among them based on the concept of ‘bildung.’ A German word for a philosophy of education, Mr. Brook explains that “It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person starting from a very young age.” A simpler definition is “self-cultivation.” He further explains that it was believed that “if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.” To go through the various stages of life that we all pass through with some degree of security and optimism, they would need to be taught how they fit into the larger picture. This would help people realize that making a contribution to the stability of their nation will result in a better chance at their own future wellbeing. In other words, they would learn to develop personal responsibility as well as responsibility toward others.

This makes total sense to me as I think about how divided our country has become. People can’t have “complex inner lives” when they are forced to struggle for their existence. Until we build a safety net for all people that will allow them to thrive and think about the “greater good,” we will continue to experience the deep divisions we are now experiencing that threaten the security of all our lives and our individual sense of wellbeing.

Bringing the concept of bildung “back into the conversation” seems like a good idea to me. Weaving it into the curriculum from an early age seems to offer the best chance we have at producing well rounded, responsible citizens who have learned to care about one another, not just how to create the latest, income generating “app.” We have so much to relearn.

 

Winter Wellness

We are winter souls. My daughter and I spend a lot of time together and share a lot of thoughts and feelings. I absolutely love silvery winter sunsets. She loves sitting by a roaring fire in our fireplace. One of our favorite shared feelings is our “love of winter.” We don’t like crowds or crowded spaces, so we rejoice when winter arrives and fewer people are out and about. One of our favorite places to be in winter is walking in our park.

Apparently, there are others who share our feelings because they are also in the park on some of the coldest winter days. We call them our winter peeps. We are always glad to see them as the park can be almost empty of human presence in winter.   We share our secret: That the park is “all ours” on those days.

But we do have company in the park besides the occasional human faces. There are certain birds that arrive in the pond that we see only in winter. For the past several years we’ve had four ring-necked ducks arrive in the pond around December/January. This year there’s another, making a total of five. And they all seem to be males! We can’t figure that out, but we do enjoy their presence

An occasional loon has shown up over the years, sometimes a group of buffleheads and mergansers, and this year a single gadwall. This could all change in a week or two with the arrival of some new ducks, but so far, birdwise, it’s been an uneventful winter.

Last week we walked along the shoreline of our nearby beach in search of my daughter’s favorite winter ducks: Oldsquaw, otherwise known as the long-tailed duck. The name Oldsquaw delights us because it is so descriptive of their noisy squabbling as they bob up and down, barely visible. the waves. They usually show up on a windy, cold day and you can usually hear them before you see them.  We were lucky enough to find a bunch, too far off shore to see very well even though our binoculars.  It’s always worth braving the elements to catch sight of them and hear their noisy chatter.

Today I read a wonderful article online about the psychological benefits of immersion in nature: Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health

(https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health)

A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. Now, policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.   

In this study the author indicates that two hours of nature immersion weekly are essential for a person to have a sense of “well being.” I strongly urge you to read the article, put on your warmest jacket, hat, scarf and gloves, and long-underwear if necessary, and take a winter walk. Become a “winter soul.” You won’t regret it.

Lessons for 2020: How to Fight Back Against Ecological Grief

It’s a new year. Hell…it’s a new decade!!! I took a long break from this writing community… but now I’m back. I’ve spent a year and a half deeply involved in a civic action group I co-founded. It was a tough baptism, but I’ve learned a lot. An article in yesterday”s NY Times Sunday Review section by Emma Marris, Stop Freaking Out About the Climate, inspired me to reconnect today because it affirmed the lessons I have learned in the past year and a half and wish to share with you in the first days of this new decade.

As most of you already know, a third of Australia is burning up; thousands of families there are displaced and millions of unique animals are dying each day. People across the world are coping with floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes undoubtedly due to climate change that are forcing them to flee their homes and sometimes their countries of origin. So what’s an ordinary person supposed to do to avoid despair? My daughter tells me the newly coined phrase for this feeling is “ecological grief.”

The above-mentioned NY Times article affirmed what I have spent the past year and a half learning and today want to share with those of you who might also be experiencing ecological grief. Here are the recommended steps from the article and my “take” on them.

Step 1: Ditch the Shame
“As long as we are “competing for the title of ‘greener than thou’ or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem, and that’s exactly the way they like it.” (NY Times)
I dumped my own feeling of powerlessness in the face of our degrading environment when I co-founded our civics group, a very small cadre of like-minded friends and relatives who decided to join forces to oppose the decisions being made by our local government that were harmful to our town’s ecological health. We have had a few successes, several setbacks and even a defeat or two, but we have developed a following in out town and our efficacy has grown proportionate to our growing numbers.

Step 2: Focus on systems, not yourself
Our small group of passionate citizens bonded over the potential demise of a small business in our town to be replaced with high-rent apartments and boutique shops. To make matters worse the new construction was to be poised atop a crucial wetlands area. To fight this battle we had to dig deep. We searched the local archives and found documents that in fact prohibited anyone from building on this property. This discovery opened a can of worms that has led to the unveiling of the political “systems” at work in our town that demand our constant vigilance. We succeeded in stopping the project.

Step 3: Join an effective group
We became our own effective group through a lot of hard work and inviting others to participate. There are other groups in town that have banded together at different times for different causes and together we are learning that the more we work together and share information, the more effective we become when it comes to voting for or against an issue. We recently banded together to stop a zoning change that would have allowed continued overdevelopment; the town is now considering our input.

Step 4: Define your role
This is an important one. “Take care not to overdo it at first and risk burning out.” After our first year I was nearly ready to quit. And so were the others. We had to talk it out and decide what we could realistically continue to do. Each of us plays a role in our group that we feel comfortable with. “Set a sustainable level of involvement for yourself and keep it up.” I knew I could not continue to be part of a struggle that consumed my energy and attention 24/7. “As a bonus, working with a group will increase the richness and diversity of your personal relationships, and may well temper your climate anxiety and depression.” I now take breaks when I need them, allowing me to have the energy to step up to the plate when I am needed. I have made some great, lasting friendships. Right now we are all awaiting the results of our latest pushback against zoning changes in our town. While waiting, we took the opportunity to get together during the holidays and celebrate our successes.

Step 5: Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.
“As we fight it is important for our mental health and motivation to have an image in mind of our goal: a realistically good future.” This is so important. I keep remembering how pristine my local environment was during my childhood. The beaches were never closed; the seafood and shellfish were plentiful and safe to eat; the air was fresh and our drinking water was safe. Life was not perfect; even then we lived with the pollution of cars and parents who smoked. My personal goal is to help restore the healthy conditions of my youth, for as many people as possible, in the area where I live. If enough people do the same in their neighborhoods, there’s hope for all of us.

It’s good to be back in this writing community. This decade really matters; I’m counting on you!

 

This Is the Story of a Newborn in a Bar!

I suddenly realized that I haven’t blogged in several few weeks. It’s completely unlike me to do that since I’ve been blogging regularly for about four years. But here’s the thing…I have a new grandchild! So this post was actually written a week or two ago, but here goes…

Wynona Jane is about three weeks old now but had a difficult entry to this world. Her Mom and Dad went to great lengths to create her and she will most likely be my one and only grandchild. So, of course, I adore her.

She lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn so I don’t get to see her very often. In fact, this weekend will be only my second visit with her. When she was in the hospital I didn’t get to see her or hold her because she was briefly in the NICU so I don’t count that as a visit…just a viewing. She’s home and fine now and keeping her parents awake all night.

I started a “grandma journal” in which I plan to write about fun things to share with her. My first and so far only entry was about our first official visit with her two weekends ago when we all took a walk with her in her stroller around the notorious Gowanus Canal neighborhood. Formerly one of the most toxic supersites in the country, the neighborhood is now undergoing the rampant cleanup and development that is happening in many cities. I told Wynona the story of how we visited a local restaurant for Easter dinner and as soon as we arrived she started crying.

My daughter-in-law became nervous and was thinking about leaving the restaurant when my son said: “I’ll take care of her.” He scooped her up into his arms and brought her to the bar area so we could order our dinners. When I next looked up, he was sitting at the bar with her in one arm, feeding her, while sipping a martini and chatting with the bartender!

I hope Wynona will enjoy this first family story. I no longer have any doubts that this child is in good hands!

 

Helping English Language Learners Discover Their ‘Voices’ Through Authentic Experiences

Acquiring a ‘voice’ in a new language is essential for English as a New Language (ENL) learners; without one they don’t exist. Our job as their teachers is to make sure that doesn’t happen by giving them every possible opportunity to cultivate, celebrate and use their new voices inside and outside our classrooms.

What about our ‘new arrivals’ who don’t yet have a voice, but urgently need one? How can classroom teachers best help them to discover their unique voices?

Shift the Instructional Focus to
Facilitating Self Expression

When I first began teaching ENL learners, I attempted to make my students feel more comfortable by learning a few words in their native language; by assigning them a ‘buddy’ who could help translate when necessary; by supporting and celebrating each step of their language acquisition process with appropriate lessons. My instructional goal was to facilitate language learning, assimilation to our culture and progress in our curriculum.

But is this how we learn our first language? Think about when you were a baby and your parents and siblings modeled first one word at a time, then short phrases, then longer phrases and questions. They encouraged every attempt at speech you made, and instead of correcting you, they modeled the correct word or phrase repeatedly. There was constant interaction and encouragement. It should not be surprising, therefore, that ENL students of all ages learn English best through authentic, interactive experiences.

Provide Authentic Opportunities for Developing ‘Voices’

Without regular, incrementally challenging opportunities to express themselves in a supportive environment, ENL students lose confidence, and ultimately their unique voice. Here are some examples of how to encourage your ENL students to build confidence:

      •  Encourage and support their participation in sports events and all other school events and clubs. ENL students often feel like outsiders and lack confidence to join new groups.
      •  Support their efforts to write and illustrate journals, poems and books to share how they experience the world by providing them with ‘mentor texts’ they can imitate. For ENL students, imitation is not a crutch; it is a tool.
      •  Encourage them to ‘step up” their language expression. For example, I am presently coaching a group of ENL high school students, (with ‘developing and expanding’ English language skills), to recite some lines from Walt Whitman that they have rewritten at an upcoming Whitman Bicentennial Festival. Speaking in public is tremendously challenging For ENL students, but results in a huge sense of achievement and belonging.

 

https://barbarasut.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/helping-english-language-learners-discover-their-voices-through-authentic-experiences/