Thursday, June 25, 2009


I attended two promotions last week. Maia had her sixth grade promotion and Chongo finished up eighth grade. Both were flawless and smooth (my kids had come home sunburned from their hours of rehearsing), and neither was unbearably long or boring. It was in fact a lovely, meaningful transition, marking the end of one school and the beginning of another. And I was reminded of how important these traditions are, that it's worth the clothes shopping and the hour spent on the hair and the rush to be on time and orderly.

We live in a world where change is an everyday occurrence. We change jobs, schools, churches, spouses, neighborhoods, friends, wardrobes and cars far more often than our fore bearers did. Psychologists say change creates stress for most people, and if that's true we are getting more and more stressed out as a culture. But there are some traditions that honor these times of transition, because we know that it's important to celebrate and embrace change. To take time out to recognize that our lives are in flux, and that we feel a great deal at these moments. To say goodbye, to cry a little, and to let our stomachs flutter with anticipation at the new.

In our family we have been walking down to our local school for nine years. On the last day of school the 6th grade teachers led their kids through the school to say goodbye to the places and people they had spent the better part of their lives with. As a family, we sadly say goodbye to those days and the community we experienced at our neighborhood school. But we also welcome the new opportunities, the challenge of middle school and high school.

And there was one more ceremony. Chongo
had a church party for the eighth grade graduates. The youth leaders presented each eighth grader with a journal spoke about each of them with words that affirmed what they saw in them and appreciated about each of them.

In each of these transition ceremonies I felt the right-ness, the beauty of honoring this passage in my kids lives. In those moments I could not imagine any better place to be.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wrong numbers

Today I had three calls which were wrong numbers. One was the standard "hello?"
"Is Maria there?"
"no, I think you have the wrong number" sort of call.
Two were messages on my answering machine. The first was the lovely voice of a receptionist from a local spa reminding me about a massage appointment for someone named Elizabeth. I called them back to let them know Elizabeth hadn't gotten the message. The only thing worse than not getting a massage is getting a phone call for someone else who is. The next message was actually for someone by my name, and this time, thankfully, NOT for me. Apparently my namesake had bounced the check she'd written to her cabinet maker. I called him back too, and wished him luck. He sounded pretty bummed out.
What do they say about things happening in threes? I tried to imagine what the universe was trying to tell me in three wrong numbers. But the only thing I understood was that I was not Maria, I did not have a massage appointment and I had not bounced a check.
Maybe that was enough to learn in one day.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I'm in a kindergarten class. We're at the end of a good day, everything having moved along well, and I'm feeling my kinder mojo might be coming back. Kindergarten is so hard for me, just hitting all the marks of work and time and the right amount of explaining and encouraging. We were doing math centers, everybody working on task. I have a group I'm helping, another group doing a worksheet and the lucky red group playing a math game on the carpet.

Suddenly, next to me is a boy crying, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, but no words or sobs coming out. Hardly a breathe going in. "What is it?" I asked, alarmed but trying not to panic. His mouth opens and closes a few more times and the tears keep rolling but still no words. "Are you hurt?" I ask and he just continues his silent sobbing. Clearly he's in terrible pain and the worst thoughts run through my head. Are his eyes okay? Do I see any bumps? Is it internal? The lucky red group on the carpet where he was playing are oblivious. If he was serious injured they are not alarmed. I get back down to his level and finally he speaks, eeking out the words between tears. "They aren't going in order," he sobs. Ahh, right. No broken bones, no punctured skin. They just weren't going in order.

I tell this story at dinner that night, dramatizing my fear and my reaction. "Mom," says Maia. "Don't ever panic. You'll scare all the other kids."

"Really?" I'm interested in what she thinks ought to happen. "What should I have done."

"Get down at his level and look him in the eye. Then say 'Are you okay, honey?'" Her voice is high and teacher-like. Why does my ten year old have better instincts than I do?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Widespread Panic

At one of our local middle schools, a student let off a series of firecrackers during Friday lunch. It happens once, maybe twice, a year -- not too unusual. Except today. Today 1400 kids sat in silence for two seconds, and then ran. They ran out onto the upper fields and up towards the classrooms. Some jumped the fence and kept running up the streets. Others tired before the fence and waited out on the grass, regaining their calm, telling themselves it really couldn't have been gunfire.

The thing is that on Monday, all of these students sat through an intense assembly entitled Rachel's Challenge ( that recounted to these students who had been preschoolers at the time, the story of the Columbine shootings. It was a moving assembly, which I'm sure had a profound affect on many students in its call for spreading compassion and kindness. But on this day, the reality of that story literally scared the crap out of 1400 middle schoolers when they heard a series of firecrackers explode.

It was a little reminder that timing can be everything.


Chongo got a 93% on his last math test. Exciting news in our house since his math grade has been dogging him this year. It's 8th grade Algebra and he needs an A or B to take Geometry next year. We're in the car when he tells me this and I raise my hand, "High Five!"

"Mom, don't high five me."


"It hurts me. It hurts me inside." The rascal, he's teasing me.

"I'm happy for you," I say. "What should I do to celebrate?"

"How about $5?" he suggests. Right. I'm not paying for test scores. I already pay for semester grades and at $20 per A and $5 per B sometimes it costs me a chunk.

"Consider it a donation to the the "Cause for a Better Chongo." We both laugh out loud at this and he starts to riff on an ad for his new cause.

Inside myself I celebrate his sense of humor. Today I like it even better than A's on math tests.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Learning to Wait

This week I learned something about myself in Sunday School. Yes, I actually go to Sunday School, much as I hate saying it. Sunday School sounds like a place where somebody's mom shows a flannel graph story from the Bible and then tells you how you can know Jesus as your personal savior. My Sunday School is not that kind of Sunday School. It's just a place where some wonderfully diverse people get together for some damn good coffee and conversation and to engage a teacher who likes the questions more than the answers.

Sunday's discussion was about waiting. Active waiting. Waiting like Habbakuk pictures it standing on the watchtower scanning the horizon for God, for God's answer to his complaint. We read from the prophet Isaiah that God works on behalf of those who wait. And we tried to think about what it meant to anticipate God, to look for God, to wait for God. We recognized that the life of waiting is a life of tension and not always a happy place to live. We talked about how much we seek resolution, diminishing the tension of waiting either through controlling our circumstances or disengagement.

I thought about all the times I wait. As a child I waited eagerly for Christmas morning and the toys we would get. As a teen, the anticipation of seeing the boy I liked at a party held a a deep thrill. Now that I'm older I can't think of much I wait for with the same hope. I've learned to diminish the excitement of waiting. By anticipating less I've managed to lower my expectations. Expecting less leads to less dissapointment. Also, I've found that when you expect too much you often diminish the lovely reality of what is. Like this afternoon, when I saw the large manila envelope sitting in the mailbox, for one moment of wild hope I thought it might be the response I was hoping for about a piece of my writing. Imagine my disappointment to discover it was (just!) a letter from my nephew. (I waited for my cup of coffee to open the letter and very much enjoyed reading his journal about Flat Stanley.)

But what does that mean about how I wait for God? It seems what I believe about God informs how I wait. The problem is that although I believe with all my heart that God is good, I also believe with all my heart that he desires character and wholeness in me far more than indulging the pansy ass easy life I'm trying to live. While I'm sitting on the couch reading a novel, I'm tensely anticipating God, the parent, yelling at me to get my homework done. So I feel, ultimately, like I'm waiting for hard things to come from God. While I believe God's outcomes are good, I can't bring myself to desire the process. All I'm left with is a question: Do we have to desire what we wait for from God?

And that begs another question for educating mama: If I'm just left with a question, did I really learn anything in Sunday School?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Career Moves

Chongo and Maia's kindergarten teacher once told me this story.

She was at a dinner with her business exec ex-husband. Someone asked her what she did.
"I'm a teacher."
"Oh, what grade do you teach?"
"Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be able to move up."

I'm not sure which is harder to teach -- middle school or kindergarten. All I know is that both of those grade groups take a teacher who is particular to them. Otherwise it would be easy to give up the teaching thing. Most teachers of other grades say they'll teach anything but kindergarten or middle school. So I consider the teachers who prefer middle schoolers or kindergarteners as teachers who've chosen a specialty. Otherwise known as experts in their field.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A new strategy

I realized, only this morning, that there was a better way to handle the whiner I had in my class yesterday. Yesterday, I engaged him and his endless commenting.

The boy began the day complaining about his seating arrangement which was just under my nose at the front of the class. "Can I move seats, I don't like it here. People bother me here. Can I take my quiz next door so I can concentrate? " This concern lasted for the the first 10 minutes.

Another student was given permission to go to the bathroom. Mr. Talker begins "Can I get a drink? My throat hurts. Can I see the nurse? Please just a drink?"

They had to leave for an assembly and then return to get their backpacks, proof they had actually attended. "Can we take our backpacks with us? Please? Please? Why? Why not?"

I kept responding to him firmly and clearly, but he just seemed unable to stop the flow from his mouth. Today I realized that next time, I'm going to try ignoring him, except for when he raises his hand SILENTLY.

How do I know to try this? Maia was telling me about a show she has been watching called "Me or the Dog." It's a show about pets who are coming between a household relationship. In one episode, Maia saw the owner is told to turn her back when the dog tries to jump up on her. By not responding, she won't reward bad behavior with attention.

Hmmm. Maybe the talker in the front row needs a little less attention. Next time, I'm going to try a little dog training.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I was in the office of an elementary school the other day when the phone rang. It was a teacher calling to ask for help from the teacher specialist. Apparently one of her students was being defiant and refusing to remove his hat in the classroom.

The teacher specialist rolled her eyes and headed out the door. In only a few moments she returned. "He just got a buzz haircut yesterday," she informed us. "He didn't want anyone to see his hair."

"So what did you do?" asked another teacher.

"I asked to see his haircut, then told him he looked handsome. He wasn't defiant," she reported, "He was just embarrassed."

And what is the difference when a teacher can't get a student to remove his hat?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the good, the bad, and the caffeine

Is it possible that there's just something enlivening about a poorly behaved class? Today got started on a very bad note. Eight grade science in a rather rough middle school. The whole group of them came in with attitude, ready to take on the sub. Maybe I hadn't finished my coffee, maybe there were just more of them than there was me, maybe I just wasn't ready to be taken on. I started off firm and clear, still there were a couple of boys who simply wouldn't be quiet, one boy in particular who consistently called back to his friends in another language. I had only just taken roll, but I had to give these kids a test and no way was it going to happen with this boy in the room. So I referred him to the school's discipline office. Disrupting class, incessant talking, profanity, defiance. You could have heard a pin drop for the rest of the test.

The rest of the day the classes gradually got better, and the effects of too many late nights began to get me going on the yawns. By the time my best class sat down in their seats working diligently and silently I thought I was going to have to scream to stay awake. How could I be so bored when only a couple hours earlier I was working to play at the top of my game not to loose control of an entire classroom? Fortunately the final class of the day hit the perfect mark. A few testy kids who needed a little wrangling to get focused on learning science. I was surprised to feel almost grateful for their misbehaving -- anything to ease the boredom of too many students doing exactly what they were supposed to! There's something to be said for a little attitude.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The third most spoken language in the world...

I was at a Los Angeles area middle school teaching Spanish to a group of 7th graders just learning about the language. We read that Spanish was the third most spoken language in the world. So I asked them what they thought number 1 and 2 were. We agreed English probably had to be one of those, but the other was a stumper for them. Several students raised their hands. "Armenian" was their response. I asked one of them why Armenian. "Because everyone I know who speaks English also speaks Armenian."
I told her she needed to consider the whole world, not just where she lives.
Another student tried something else. "Persian?" he asked, a little more hesitant.
"No," I said, "I'm sure it isn't Persian. Do you know a lot of people who speak Persian?" He nodded. I called on a third student.
"Russian?" There was a community of people in this neighborhood who had immigrated from Russia. But at least this was a closer guess, Russia being a country with a huge landmass, although not a huge population. I was amazed at the students inability to think about languages outside of their own experience. So although I also did not know what the two most spoken languages were, I tried to help them think about the large world, about what they knew of populations and country size, and we eventually all agreed it was probably English and Chinese (Mandarin) or maybe a language from India.

Everyone talks about how small the world has become with the advent of the Internet, still, when it came down to engaging that world a group of 7th grade students couldn't evaluate their own place in it. It worries me, but I'm not going to solve it in one day of subbing. It's a problem as old as time, being unable to imagine a universe that doesn't revolve around your place in it.

What's your guess? You might be more right than you think: geography lists these most spoken languages from 2007
1. Mandarin Chinese - 882 million
2. Spanish - 325 million
3. English - 312-380 million
4. Arabic - 206-422 million
5. Hindi - 181 million
6. Portuguese - 178 million
7. Bengali - 173 million
8. Russian - 146 million
9. Japanese - 128 million
10. German - 96 million

But here's another site that explains the complications of coming up with any real data and offers a list of interpretations:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Starting Kindergarten

Last week I had subbed in the kindergarten classroom of the teacher who had taught both Maia and Chongo for kindergarten. It was fun to be reminded of Ms. B's teaching style and the ideas she brought to the classroom. And it took me back to Chongo's first day of kindergarten. I couldn't help but remember the trepidation I felt watching that beloved boy climb the stairs into her classroom chanting under his breath, "I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm scared."

I didn't worry about his ability to succeed at learning. What I feared was what might be lost of him in the process. If he really did get along, if he really did do as he was told who would he become? Would anyone recognize the hidden beauty of him? The Chongo-ness that sometimes required special glasses to appreciate. It may be a generalization, but there is some truth to the fact that only your mother can really appreciate who you are. Everyone else just wants you to follow the rules and not raise a ruckus. This can be especially true in school, and I woke at night terrified that sending him into the school "system" might be wrong.

But, Chongo was fortunate. Ms. B. was not that sort of teacher, and I suppose it helped that Chongo's being fully Chongo did not include disrupting the class. Yes, there were a few paintings that looked like every other kindergartners, but there were also these wonderful, imaginative books that Ms. B. put together for students to practice their writing. Based on the book "If You Give a Mouse a Muffin," they went through almost the entire alphabet with five pages of open ended statements such as "If you give a turtle a ticket he might...." Chongo became her best writer (or so she told me) not for his ability to spell or write neatly, but because of his confidence. He had an answer for every jaguar, girl, mouse, or baboon and every possible thing they could be given. The last page was always blank, and the students had to fill in the object. Chongo never wavered. Whatever happened in all the rest of the centers, cutting and pasting words that began with letters and circling the number of fish in the bowl, every week, in these books, Chongo had his imagination set free.

It wasn't long before I learned that it would take a lot of system to get the Chongo-ness out of Chongo. Now that he's a teenager, I sometimes wish Ms. B. had been the kind of teacher that whipped kids into shape. As I sat at her workstation last week and collated the "If you give an Elephant a..." books and thought about the variety of five-year olds who still came to her every day to learn, I was happy she was still setting students imaginations free.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I am continually amazed at the ability of kindergarten teachers to get 20 just-out-of-preschool kids moving in the same educational direction. Making all the right things happen at the right time is just about the most difficult thing in Kindergarten.

I'd had a very bad time of it one day with a new class of kindergartners. Inadvertently I'd gotten an hour off on my time. I raced the kids through centers started hurrying them out the door to snack when the teacher next door stopped us. "Isn't it snack time?" I asked
"Not for another hour," she said. "Have you already finished centers?"
The truth was we'd hardly finished centers, and certainly not with any quality. But now we were all moving towards snack and I had to bring them back into the world of cutting out words that started with the letter "p." I brought the kids back to the carpet and told them I was sorry I had made a mistake, but we would work it out. And we did. They were very forgiving, but very hungry they told me. I told myself kindergartners can learn that even a day with mistakes can be salvaged for something good.

Two weeks later I was back in the same class. As we settled in for the morning calendar routine. I reminded the students I had been there two weeks before. "And we had a little mistake," the boy in the front row reminded me. I grimaced. How is it that a five year old can remember your mistake from two weeks before but can't remember the directions you gave him five minutes ago. "Yes," I admitted in my calm, pleasant kindergarten voice. "we did have a little mistake. But I think things will go better to day." He nodded with what I hoped was confidence.

Fortunately for my confidence, and in rather a lovely gesture, the teacher who caught me in the middle of the snafu, asked if I would sub for her kindergarten class the following week. One thing you learn in kindergarten is that mistakes can offer you another chance to suceed.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Getting started

The first post is the scariest. Set the tone, get it right, be compelling enough to capture those millions of cyberspace readers just drooling for more words. More words? Well maybe my sister will read it, and that would be a start.

With those four sentences my New Year's Resolution is now a reality. Except I didn't make any New Year's Resolutions, but if I had, starting a blog would be one of them. Either way, I'm not giving up the feeling of accomplishment oozing up in me right now.

But this is meant to be a blog about Education. About my education, about my kid's education, about other kid's education and about how I am trying to make a difference in that process. Sitting here at my computer today isn't helping since Maia, the only child I am responsible for right now, is watching TV. The other child went off mountain biking with his dad and his grandpa while I stayed in bed to read The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian. I've been trying to read this book for years, but such good fiction gets in the way. In it Gurian talks about the need for boys to have a tribe, a first, second and third family, who invest in his life. And I think what a good thing Chongo and his dad and grandpa have ridden up the hill together, three generations of men and almost men. Of course Chongo doesn't care about biking with dad and grandpa. He cares about his computer. What Chongo is learning is that his parents mean it when we say you have to get exercise if you want to play your computer games for hours.

Maybe my next post will be about school.