This is the longer version of Adrien’s short documentary about an extraordinary group of young people and the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) here in Lowell. Take a moment to see what overcoming adversity to hope and to dream about a future really look like. And then,if you are so inspired, support UTEC’s programs and efforts by going to their website.
Last Friday as I watched one of my favorite weekly shows (Greater Boston‘s Beat the Press segment), I heard panelist Margery Eagan describe the atmosphere at the Boston Globe as the “joyless pursuit of excellence”. In our local newspaper world, there is no doubt that the Globe is a superb paper and even when I don’t agree with their editorial positions, the articles are well-written and in-depth.
What I didn’t know until Eagan’s comment, was this phrase is commonly associated as the motto of (former) editor Marty Baron.
The more I considered this phrase, the more powerfully I was struck by its connection to the educational environment today. So often educators – and administrators – talk about the stress of preparing students for assessments, or adhering to standards of achievement. I don’t know anyone really who isn’t committed to their students and to helping those children learn, yet we are all always feeling as if what we do does not measure up.
Even the joy of seeing a student who is (finally) “getting it” becomes overshadowed by the fear that it wasn’t on the time schedule thought up by some faceless bureaucrat in a faraway place well-insulated from actual children.
Certainly we all want to be excellent educators, and more to the point, we want our students to be excellent too. But as to joy? Those moments seem elusive.
I don’t have a solution except to become more cognizant that, along with the stress, we all need a lot more joy. I need to make my journey a more joy-filled pursuit of excellence.
Several years ago, my husband Adrien was working in the corporate world as a software engineer. For a long time, he had worked for large and small software companies and enjoyed both the work and the camaraderie…. and the pay wasn’t bad either.
But some time about five years ago, he had a moment when staying with his engineering job was overshadowed by the desire to do something more creative, to return to his early interest in photography. And so he did. It has been an exciting journey of hard work and worry and determination.
This past summer, he connected with the staff at UTEC with a proposal and a hope that he could explore creating portraits and a film documenting the UTEC program’s young people.
Capturing the hope and resilient spirit of youth who have had some tough breaks, but who are determined to break out of cycles of trauma generated from varied socio-economic factors, has been a journey of enlightenment. While we both were aware of UTEC’s existence, I don’t believe either of us knew the depth of this program’s impact.
These young people also have dreams and goals. How eloquent they are in the expression of where they have been and where they are going! I want my own elementary-age students – the ones who could easily take a misstep – to listen, to learn from you.
Serendipity has put these young people, so determined to overcome challenges, and Adrien, determined to tap into something more, in each other’s pathways.
It is the place where dreams intersect.
To see the images and the film, click on the following links:
Many (many) years ago, I read nearly all of Norman Vincent Peale’s Positive Thinking books. I read them during a dark time: I was struggling with the career for which I had trained (which turned out not to be a match); a spiritual life that was unfulfilling. In need of an epiphany, I ended up watching Phil Donohue where I learned about positive thinking and its impact.
Positive Thought has sustained me many times over the years. It helped me over a career bump. Eventually I found something fulfilling that I felt passionate about. It helped me through a scary illness. It helps me to stay away from the dark side, the part of me that would like to throw in the towel most days.
As a teacher, I’ve found Positive Thinking is a profound impact on my students and their parents, whether or not they know it is applied. When I start a conference or when I am writing report card comments, I try to begin with something positive that the student can do. Doesn’t every parent want to hear something good – I know I always did. Simply providing a laundry list of what a student can’t or won’t do is never met with any sense of partnership between parent and school and the resulting disconnect is hard to repair.
Our students, our families, and our selves – we all respond to positive thinking, positive talk. In our current educational climate, that is becoming more of a rarity, isn’t it?
But positive thinking is also a necessity. It is the essence of moving forward.
I have to touch the third rail: is education today more assimilation into a one-size-fits-all or is it about reaching a baseline of standards for learning?
I ask this because lately it seems that there is an underlying expectation that we plan or are given one lesson and asked to apply it to every student in a grade level or a district or state. Sometimes even the teacher’s dialogue with the students is scripted.
But my teacher self – the skeptic that I sometimes am – says this makes no sense. How can a lesson applicable to one set of students work flawlessly with another? The students who make up my classroom change from year-to-year. so shouldn’t the instructional delivery also change? The ability to assess where students enter a lesson and how I deliver the instructional supports those students need – shouldn’t that be as student-driven and tailored as possible? Wouldn’t the teacher in front of those students be the best at reading the room and knowing what to do — isn’t that what you pay me to do?
Levels or distrust, disrespect, demonization. Those trends in our popular culture seem to drive the rush to a scripted, and lock-step curriculum. Silly me, I thought a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and a 25-year career might provide me with the tools to at least figure out how to move students from point A to point B.
Students deserve more than a scripted curriculum, one that is often developed by profiteers lurking on the edges of education ready to swoop in and make a profit by manufacturing a crisis in education that often is not real.
Resistance may be futile – for now. But as long as I’m allowed to teach, I will covertly or overtly continue to resist those one-size, scripted curricula.
A colleague of mine once referred to No Child Left Behind as No Teacher Left Standing. We laughed – later we cried – and now, speaking just for myself here, we are just plain depressed.
It matters not how diligent an educator is about keeping up with research and data, the stream of new initiatives is never ending. My professional interest in developing curriculum notwithstanding, absorbing the Common Core standards in BOTH English Language Arts and Mathematics, locating resources for teaching – resources that are high quality and (with a nod to my own personal finances, free) are very seldom available, all takes time.
Instructional planning takes thought and consideration. This often means inventing something from the ground up, something tailored to help meet the needs of very diverse learners. I don’t mind that part as much as I mind getting the curriculum guides a weekend before I actually need to teach the unit.
I work with some terrifically talented grade level colleagues who willingly share – thank goodness! We often meet on our own time and collaborate. If one of us finds something, we share with the others. How lucky I am to work in such an environment.
Because what is happening in education now is putting such stress on teachers, that frustrations and emotions are nearly always at the surface. And that feeling that we are all “in the weeds” just will not go away.
It was at the end of our school day yesterday when one of my students matter-of-factly asked if I had heard about “the shooting”. Knowing about the violent incident this past weekend on a street near my elementary school, I waited for her to continue. Which she did. As if it weren’t something out of the ordinary, this 8-year-old described how her mother brought my students and her sibling to an upstairs bedroom where they would be safe from further gunfire. And this revelation led another student to share that he lived on the next street and also heard gunshots.
Can I just be on the record that no 8-year-old should have to deal with this?
A few years ago, one of my students was nearly hit when a stray bullet went through the front window of her family’s apartment on the same street. When I asked what she did next, she told me she just got on the floor. Simple as that as if a bullet going through the front window was not that unusual.
So yesterday, when I heard about a walk, a community response event sponsored by several city neighborhood groups and UTEC (United Teen Equality Center), I felt the need to walk in support of my students, many of whom are exposed to violence and trauma in ways that are normally quite easy to shut out.
As the walkers traveled from City Hall in silence, I realized how easy it is to detach from the violence my own students deal with. This simple act, made it real – as one speaker said, tonight we would not be driving by, we would stop and reflect on the recent city violence.
I don’t have many answers for my students; they live in an environment that I, a product of white, middle-class upbringing, can hardly begin to imagine.
Eight-year-old or eighty-eight years old, violence is never an answer. Walking with those whose lives are highly impacted by such events made turning away impossible.
If you listen to the pundits, the coming presidential election is boiled down to a single question: Am I better off today than I was 4 years ago?
I think it’s more complicated than a “yes” or “no”.
Certainly my family’s monetary worth is not better, however, I do not blame presidential policy for this. The damages were done long before the 2008 election.
Speaking of my own income, compensation has not increased much over the last several years. After 4 years of Mitt Romney gutting Massachusetts education funding (through state aid, etc.), there were and are draconian cuts to local school budgets. At one point in the last contract negotiations, a school committee negotiating member proposed a NEGATIVE raise. Several years lapsed with either a 0% raise or without a new contract, effectively a 0% raise as teachers worked at salary levels negotiated 1, 2 or more years earlier.
But that’s only the obvious. As school budgets were cut and personnel essential to supporting students disappeared, every line item was slashed. That includes supplies – supplies that teachers need to implement the very curriculum that we are held accountable for. Does this sound like Catch 22? The materials had to be procured somehow; guess where the funding came from? If you said out of my personal money, you would be on target.
In the last year, I’ve seen some improvement to school funding. There is a price to be paid for that – some of that policy I disagree with – but some positions have been restored. And for this change, I can say I am better off. Not restored to what things should be as there is much work to be done – but the fiscal improvements toward funding education are a step in the right direction.
My opinion is that the state of our country’s fiscal health was well-hidden by the previous administration. The recovery process is only in its beginnings; the US economy – tied as it is to world economy and coming from a state of near collapse 4 years ago – is going to need a long recovery.
A simple yes or no answer to “Am I better off” really isn’t that helpful.
In the first few paragraphs of her commentary, Joanna Weiss made me laugh right out loud. In the “old days”, 32 years ago for example, we used to take snapshots of our kids and then make multiple prints to send out to all of our interested or not so interested family and friends. I know we personally spent THOUSANDS of dollars on prints of a particular only child who will be unnamed in this post.
With our news-in-an-instant technologies (that’s you Facebook), sharing any kind of news is done at the click of the mouse. That makes technologies like unbaby.me, well….. funny. I’d like to propose it might be time for a whole product line development: uncat.me, undog.me, unfood.me, unpolitics.me. What ever triggers one curmudgeonly persona to appear could be re-mediated and life as we know it would continue stress free.
Seriously though, reading beyond the unbaby.me reference, Joanna Weiss makes the logical connection to what is at the root of the attacks on social services, especially attacks that come from those who “have”. Having sat at umpteen Town Meetings packed to the rafters whenever new school spending is on the budget, I know there is much truth to the sentiment “what’s in it for me”?
For me, those “haves” making every effort to prevent “have-nots” from the same benefits (SSI benefits, Paul Ryan?) just speaks to what is a lost empathy.
Some people watch for the Back-to-School advertisements to gauge how near we are to the end of summer break. I use crickets.
When I can hear the crickets, I know it’s time to give some extra attention to planning for the Fall. It’s a bittersweet sound for me; the mornings where I can linger over morning coffee are coming to a close.
If you are like me, it is a time when that to-do list becomes ever so much more desperate. The things I put off because I was “on vacation” have piled up. If not careful, I will get sucked into the swirling vortex of wasting every minute of my last unscheduled weeks on errands and chores.
For those of us who begin school before Labor Day, it feels like summer has ended – August is not really time off, it’s the time before.