Friday, September 28, 2012

Try to remember

As the words from the classic off-Broadway tuner go,

Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow, and oh so mellow…

WAIT A MINUTE! Those composers of that immortal song may have created a delightful melodic line and sentimental words BUT if they are talking about a slow and mellow September, well, those composers were never school teachers, that’s for sure! September may be the hardest month of the year for teachers and so as we come to the end of September, I am not at all wistful about its passing!

I am not lodging a complaint on behalf of school teachers, nor am I really whining—I am just observing that September is difficult! But, but, but, if we do our jobs well in September, the rest of the school year is easier…

I remember a conversation I had at Hackley, my previous school, sometime in a long-ago September, maybe around 2003, with a colleague named Jennie. Jennie sighed and lamented that “this has been the hardest September ever!” Since I do have a good memory, and by that point I had been a colleague of Jennie’s for nearly a decade, I replied simply, “But Jennie—you said that last year! And actually, the year before that too, and…” Jennie had just forgotten that September is a hard month for teachers. So in my kind, soothing, Dr. Phil-like way, I tried to help her remember (get the joke, the musical joke from The Fantastiks ???!) about the perils of September in the school world.

And no, to all my banker/finance/12months-a-year-working-friends, the difficulties of September are not just that we are trying to move our summer-moribund bodies back into the workplace as we shuffle off the leisure of summertime (and by the way, I do not say June-July-and-August, since my vacation was exactly 8 weeks and not three months this summer—again neither complaining nor whining, simply stating the facts) but we do move from unscripted summer days to highly (HIGHLY!!!!) scripted and choreographed days and evenings with bells going off and major shifts in how every cell of our bodies react to life. Oh no, that last phrase was not too dramatic at all! I decided it would be fun to just look at the last two days and what I did—mostly because won’t it be fun years from now to look back on the minutiae of a September day here at KA.

Okay, so let me run you through my Wednesday this last week. My alarm is set for 6:00 a.m. however I must be so excited about my days that I frequently wake up at 4:30 ready to greet the day. I checked emails to see if there were any last-minute student emails from the night before that might have met disaster as they did their homework on the art of the ancient Aegean world (those Minoans—such fun party people!). I use that early morning time to call someone in the US and I check in with Christy in New York (it is 10:00 pm there) and let her know how our department meeting had gone the day before as I explained and waxed rhapsodically about her TIEL wheel). At 6:00 I go over to the gym and do some kindle-sample reading on the treadmill and do exercises on five of the whatever-you-call-the-machines-with-weights. My goal is to get back to my apartment and shower before most of the boys are up at 7 and use up the water supply for the dorm. I drop off the weekly laundry at the drop-off point, go to breakfast in the Dining Hall, chat with several colleagues, then make the schedule for the day. This is one of those days where almost every minute is accounted for until about 9:00 pm. I meet with headmaster John Austin at 7:30 to discuss some issues going on at the school. My colleague Julianne is in South Africa for a week and so I am picking her “History of Freedom” class up for the week she is gone. I make sure my Xeroxing is done for that class and my Art History class. I spend about 30 minutes making sure my lecture/discussion notes on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are set to help them understand the evolution of the concept of freedom from ancient Rome to the Renaissance. Then I go and teach the class. It is always interesting being a “substitute” teacher, but I know about half the class. From there I meet during the break with my Art History class for practice killer multiple choice questions—they get extra credit for just showing up and practicing! From there I move down the hall and observe Peter’s class as he teaches about Buddhist art. He loves constructive criticism, so I create a transcript of class and then write some suggestions and comments. From there I need to go back and block two scenes for Our Town for my rehearsal that afternoon. Blocking always means I am thinking about the actors as chess pieces and writing down all the physical movements for those scenes, trying to imagine the stage pictures they will create. From there I go to the library conference room where I moderate the weekly meeting of department heads. We are embarking on a pilot year of our new appraisal system so I want to make sure these department heads understand how and by what means they will be evaluated this year. After that a colleague needs 15 minutes to discuss a problem she is facing with her class. Okay—lunch time! I have a sit-down lunch table so I make my way to Table #53 with my new buddy Jae sitting beside me as I serve my table their lunch and make conversation. Finally I get to go to do the best part of my day: I get to teach AP Art History. We are looking at funerary markers from the pre-classical Greek time, so we get to discuss how the Greeks are always urging us to think about what is eternal about life and about death. I draw some connections to how Our Town is asking the same questions! We get to look at some classic Greek vases by Exekias and Euphronius and admire how the balance in those vases also mirror how the Greeks believed balance created order which could…if we are lucky…result in harmony in life, From there I spent 30 minutes with a new teacher who wanted to talk about some of the issues she is facing as she makes the transition to Jordan. I sneaked in a 10 minute observation to Reem’s music theory class before I went to meet with the Teaching Fellow seminar. That is always fun to spend time with the youngest faculty and try and help guide them. Okay at 4:00 I have one more meeting of the day: I am on the Technology Task Force. If you just snickered at that—well, you wouldn’t be the first!! I had to run out of there at 4:25 so I could change my clothes and get to rehearsal to block the actors through those scenes for that day in Our Town. At 6:00 we ended rehearsal, I went home, talked with my dad for half an hour, then sat on the couch for about 20 minutes. I had a dinner invitation at Tessa’s that evening—always good food there—and we were going to discuss how the upcoming Round Square conference might capitalize on watching a performance of Our Town. After about 90 minutes of dinner and conversation I went back to the dorm to meet with Peter and go over the class I had seen him teach earlier that day. So about 9:30 I made it back to my apartment to unwind before another day…

Wow…fortunately Thursdays are a little easier for me. I have fewer group meetings. Shall I do the run-down? Why not—I am on a roll now recounting the day. The morning part is the same—except I only woke up 30 minutes before the alarm that day. I start the day with Julianne’s class and we discussed two Renaissance paintings and how they embodied new break-throughs in what “freedom” meant for that era. After that class I meet weekly with my beloved colleague Lilli discussing issues with our Dean of Faculty office, especially working on our plan in the next three weeks to visit all 76 teachers on the faculty. I had a 45-minute meeting with a novice teacher who has found September frustrating (no, she would not find it slow or mellow either!) and that was a great conversation trying to identify some areas in which to grow and how to manage the pace of school. After that—ahhh…Art History class and we explored the complexities of Greek temple architecture!! I love it! From there I went to the auditorium for a guest lecturer from a psychologist on campus for a few days. The speaker provoked the student body in an exciting way and that carried over into our advisor lunch (“I think he is a feminist, Mr. John” charged one of my advisees.). After lunch, wait, Thursday afternoon, and it slows down a lot…oh yes…how nice. I waited for a student who was practically in tears needing help on his writing. He didn’t show up, so I waited in my office, reveling in the AC! At 2:15 another new but veteran teacher came by for an appointment to discuss her frustrations with a whining class and just to get some perspective. We had a great chat and then I spied the errant student from the class before who wanted writing help. I talked with him about what makes writing effective. Hopefully it will help. At 3:00 I made my way down to the gym for my weekly visit with my friend Lubna. I tend to yawn as we sit and laugh about the week. But that visit in the gym represents the end of the week. Oh wow. I have a dinner scheduled with several administrators and the guest psychologist, but that’s it for the rest of the day…oh, wow…some couch time…who knows what else?!

So those are two of these September days. They are long days. And they fly by. They are rewarding, but as I said, bells are always going off and one better have the battle plans for the day mapped out carefully! But as I also said, if we do September right—well the whole year is easier. If I plant the seeds in class, both in terms of skills and attitudes and content, the rest of the year is smoother. If I plan professional development that empowers and enriches the faculty, everybody wins! If I make time to speak with the frustrated, we grow as colleagues and guides. But oh, every step in September seems important. And exhausting.

I neglected to say that one of the things I did when I went to visit Lubna yesterday afternoon was that we looked up the website for the Marriott resort at the Dead Sea. It has been a normal September—so today was the perfect day to spend relaxing at the Dead Sea. I went with old friend Emily and new friend Hadley, and we reversed the effects of September. Ahhhhh…I am not sorry to see September go, and oh, I am excited to welcome my favorite month: October.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mount Cyanide

I am sure you have delighted from to time to time in those articles that appear in the Sunday newspaper magazines like Parade about the bloopers that students write on exams. These bloopers supposedly are drawn from actual student papers and exams, and here is one I remember about Bible history:

"The Egyptians were all drowned in the desert. Afterwards, Moses went up to Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments."

There were many other examples in this article as I recall (oh one other one that is short and sweet: “The epistles were the wives of the Apostles.”), but last week that little gem about Mount Cyanide popped into my head as I watched the news stories about the protests in Cairo in front of the American Embassy. I mentioned to my father on the telephone that just as he would never be one to defame another religion or turn violent, not every Muslim would march and protest and kill an innocent diplomat as well. But the news stories suggest—well, we know what the news suggests. I thought of the Gallup polls in the US over the last 60 years and thought of the overwhelming evidence that Americans admit they do not have broad religious literacy. Most Americans are not familiar with the basic teachings of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. (One may argue that the writers of the above bloopers have but a tenuous grasp on Judeo-Christianity as well!) One important reason for this lack of familiarity is that most Americans do not know a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu.

When I looked at the commentators discussing the angry protests and the ugly anti-Islamic YouTube video, it went a little back and forth, “It IS about the video,” and “No, it’s NOT about the video.” Many felt this was the backlash of the Arab Awakening of the last 18 months, although these situations have occurred in the last 10 years before the so-called Arab Spring.

I read earlier in the week about one of the demonstrators in Cairo who declared, “We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” But that isn’t entirely true, either. Editorialist Thomas Friedman wrote in a column the other day about the Middle East Media Research Institute, or "MEMRI" as it is known, and how it tracks positive and negative media, schoolbooks and sermons throughout the Middle East. Friedman uses MEMRI to cite many examples of how there are hate-filled videos, sermons, etc. about Christians, Jews, Shi’ites, and Sufis and anyone else who is not a Sunni, or fundamentalist Muslim throughout the Middle East. So there—hate and bile spew from both sides. Now, don’t we feel better…

I don’t like to see anyone’s faith insulted, but there is a whole lot of that happening. What I wish is that everyone could come to KA and take the term-long World Religions course that is required of every student here. I wish that my Facebook friends who lean dangerously to the right and wish to bomb all Muslims could take this course, and I wish the young Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese who have been taking to the streets might take the course as well.

I didn’t design the course so I am not tooting my own horn. But my friend and colleague Julianne has taught the course for the last three years (among others—I just talk to Julianne an awful lot) and now I visit the course once a week to observe and offer feedback to one of our star teaching fellows named Peter.

While the protests in Cairo raged only an hour-flight away last weekend, Peter asked me if I recommended he discuss the current brouhaha in his course. I suggested that it was important, however, I offered the advice, “This might be the most challenging lesson of your first year teaching.” Peter took up the challenge and last week when I visited his class, his discussion impressed and astounded me. Peter opened the discussion by asking, “Using the skills we worked on last week, what is the tone of the YouTube video everyone is talking about?” Peter helped them navigate between the tricky waters of “satire” and “mockery.” Peter asked “Why does it provoke the reactions that it does?”

The two facets of Peter’s lesson that most impressed me with his handling of the video and the protests were (1) he did not just open class and say, “Boys and girls, we are going to discuss current events today.” When you do that, students just tune you out, and they know it will not be on a test! That is their assumption, at least. Peter also did not ask them, “What are your feelings about what is going on?” Tooooo facile of a question. and (2) Peter did not abandon his lesson plan for the day that had been in place. Instead he wove a discussion about the video and the protests into a discussion about the depiction of Hindu gods and the realities in front of American embassies. Now that takes some skill and planning…

Peter helped his students see that in Hinduism there is a genuine craving to imagine what the divine looks like—Hindus find it helpful and advantageous to depict the gods in visual form. Students offered reasons why the faithful would find it helpful to explore the nature of divinity. Peter taught the class (and me as well!) the word “Henotheistic,” which means how a God takes many forms. That was so easy to see in Hinduism where there are so many facets to so many gods in Hinduism.

Peter contrasted that discussion with a reminder that in Islam the depiction of the sacred is prohibited. Just as he had canvassed the class about the advantages of visual depictions in Hinduism, he likewise helped the class see how the Islamic faithful revel in the mystery of not depicting—much like Jews have always believed in terms of images of YHWH. Peter never allowed it to tread into an “us against them” mentality, nor did he nudge too much that it was a poor decision not to imagine the sacred personages of God and Muhammed. But Peter did return to “Henotheism,” and asked, “Does Islam have anything henotheistic?” He allowed students to think, offer some answers, and asked about the well-known “99 names of God in Islam.” The class looked at the parallels, some surprising, between these two faiths. But Peter’s goal was hardly, “Wow—look at this, we are just exactly alike!!!!”

One student asked about Hinduism and those depictions of gods, “But don’t those depictions limit them in understanding the divine forces?” Just like an expert teacher, Peter had a beautifully planned response. Peter asked them to turn to a Hindu prayer in their readers and in that prayer we read about asking for divine guidance to overcome our “human limitations.”

When my father visited KA in the fall of 2008, he came right in the arc of the course of AP World History that offers a week-long overview of the five major religions of the world. He couldn’t believe how much he didn’t know about them, never had learned or been exposed to the three religions we just didn’t know much about. He realized that these religions all have such similar “human needs.” Hmmmm….such similar human needs and such similar human limitations.

The expressions of intolerance—on both sides of the world—exist, but also are only one side of the story and there are deeply tolerant views on both sides of the world. Both sides of the world have complex societies and those news stories really only look at one facet of the situation. Sadly, both sides echo some of the same rhetoric: They have a problem with us and they should clean up their act. It runs both ways. Both sides espouse so many of the same human needs and both sides have so many of the same human limitations. Thomas Friedman asked the other day in his column, “Our president and major newspapers consistently condemn hate speech against other religions. How about yours?”

The World Religions class explored how the video was a fuse that broader issues lit—the class understood, once again, how the role of religion is so key in our 21st century. Generally secular countries around the world seem to forget that, and generally less secular countries want to remind us—we haven’t yet come to the understanding about human needs and human limitations that might help us imagine a world with greater understanding. Policing speech will probably not make the problems go away, but let’s see if we can increase the capacity for the World Religions class at KA by a few more billion.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cast your bread upon the water…

The other night I did a typical thing for a boarding school teacher. I had heard that a new boy had learned of the death of a beloved uncle far away in his home village and I went over to check on him and see how he was doing. That’s a typical thing for a boarding school teacher to do. However, that night I got to know better a young man who is anything but typical.

I had gotten to know this new young man, Wali, a little bit since he had come to the read-through and to learn about the fall play which I am directing. I encountered a friendly, smiling young man in my room excited to be at KA. The other night, when I went over to serve and check on Wali, the more I learned of his story, the more in awe I became at this young man.

I visited with Wali almost two hours in his room the other night. When I arrived, another teacher was there, a dear friend named Ruba, and she and I both had come to check on Wali. When we left nearly two hours later we could hardly explain and articulate to each other how special and powerful it had been to be in Wali’s presence that evening. Our small act of service to Wali had been rewarded with an astonishingly powerful evening learning about Wali’s life.

In our time talking with Wali, Ruba and I frequently had tears in our eyes—but these were not tears because of the deprivation, struggles, reversals of fortune, and sad life Wali has experienced. That Wali has had a different life from almost everyone I have ever known is not really the point of how powerful the evening was. My teary eyes were not really out sadness for the educational and medical misfortunes Wali and his family have known. This was an evening of, well, spiritual renewal—sitting in Wali’s room, listening to his story of his family, how he came to be at our school, how he has taught himself English, how he has overcome the kinds of adversity that doom most people—I am almost at a loss for words as to convey how meaningful it was to sit and get to know this young man more deeply.

Wali is from Afghanistan. I am not going to recite many of the facts of his life, for I fear that in being so reductive I would drain his story of much of its meaning and simply tell a maudlin tale. But in the briefest of overviews, Wali’s family suffered under the Taliban, fled to Pakistan, lived a refugee life, returned home to a devastated village, suffered under the continuous wars that plague Afghanistan, endured horrendous medical treatment from a vastly understaffed field of doctors, attended a ghastly school with woefully under-trained teachers, and now has ended up at our school. And as I said, friendly and smiling.

Wali explained that there are a number of very good foreigners who make their way through the war-ravaged Afghanistan villages (Wali is about a 90 minute rough ride from Kabul in an isolated village where electricity is a luxury) eager to help people. He described several of these mentors, a Jewish rabbi and a New England teacher, who helped Wali figure out how to springboard to something else. For most of a decade of his 17 year-old life Wali has wanted to be a doctor. That aspiration is nothing new for students at KA to enunciate. In fact, that is the most common career path desired by our students. In Jordan, saying you want to be a doctor is an announcement of status, of your intelligence, of the bragging rights your family will have forever. Many of the students may not want to actually be a doctor—but if you are considered at all smart, well, that is what you must aspire to be. That isn’t all bad, of course, but that decision isn’t always grounded in a burning need to heal people. Wali wants to be a doctor because he wants to reverse the dreadful medical treatment his family has experienced. Wali matter-of-factly explained some of the near-disasters his family has endured with the weak medical system in Afghanistan. He wants to be a doctor to right these wrongs for his family and for others.

As I listened to Wali, I couldn’t imagine how strange it must be for him to come to this boarding school where there are some wealthy students who have never wanted for anything, least of all electricity or books. We have students of modest backgrounds, but Wali’s situation reminded me of when I met Unita Blackwell in the Mississippi delta back in the summer of 2000 and she explained what life has been like in her lifetime. I have seen images of war-ravaged Afghanistan going back to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and we know of the Taliban and United States ravages throughout that land from news stories, but frankly, we become pretty inured to those abstractions.

Wali taught himself English. I sat there a little embarrassed at my lack of progress in my Arabic, but I loved listening to him explain how he taught himself English, and then how he searched for books, books on mathematics, science, and English and American literature. He proudly noted that he has read 143 books in English. He read us some poetry he has written about his hopes and dreams. I shared with him the poem by Seamus Heaney that I love about how “History and Hope” often do not “rhyme,” although once in a great while there is a “double-take of feeling” where they do converge.

Wali does not seek pity for how hard life has been for him. Indeed, as I listened to him and walked back to my apartment at the end of the evening, Wali reminded me a great deal of Abraham Lincoln. Wali and Lincoln never sought pity or exceptions for the realities of their upbringing. Wali and Lincoln did anything they could to find books and to learn more. Wali and Lincoln had an understanding of human nature that strove for, and celebrated, in Abe’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”

This fall, as I trot out the warhorse play, Our Town, I am committed to high school students understanding an iota of Emily’s revelation of life at the end of the play. It is always my hope that we might appreciate life, and seek out those eternal things in life a little better. Wali doesn’t need the play Our Town—his approach to life, his upbeat, optimistic, hopeful spin on how life is is an inspiring lesson in itself.

My great-grandmother loved the phrase, “Cast your bread upon the water.” The old Hebrew idiom has to do with giving to others and then you will be rewarded. Talking with Wali and hearing how his life has taken hairpin turns and now doors have opened to him reminds me of this old axiom. I can only imagine what good will happen from this confident young man’s life. Being in his presence is uplifting!

Fifty-some years ago John Kennedy wrote a famous book, Profiles in Courage. Wali is indeed a profile in courage. Here he is—enrolled in AP Biology and AP World History, studying with an intensity he couldn’t have imagined just weeks ago. I have just seen the tip of the iceberg though of what I imagine he will teach us.

Once in awhile when I speak to my wise, wise friend Doris Jackson, I ask her how long she thinks I am “supposed” to stay in Jordan. Doris always says, “I don’t think your assignment is finished there yet. I still think you have a few more things to learn.” Doris is always right, and this year, for sure, I know I needed to stay in Jordan so I could meet and learn from Wali.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Looking Backward

One of my most exciting responsibilities as Dean of Faculty is working with our teaching fellows. The TFs are right out of college and are enjoying a “baptism by fire” into the teaching world. Of course, their baptism by fire is a little less brutal than mine was a quarter century ago. Now that is not just curmudgeonly age talking, you know, saying things like, “I had to walk to school, uphill—both ways!!” but back in those old days when I showed up wet behind the ears at Gaston Day School, I was the entire History Department for the Upper School…I still marvel at that, and marvel at my naivete not to be as frightened of that as I should have been. I had four “preps” every day and five classes and boy was it exhausting and exhilarating. No one ever bothered to give me advice or helpful tips about teaching—it was just straight from the college experience to the full-on teacher experience. And I survived, and loved it.

Our TFs are treated with a little more TLC. The TFs have two classes, mentors galore, and a seminar to support and guide them. It is exciting planning what they should study in order to be as successful as possible. The seminar meets four times a week: one day is set aside to help them plan as purposefully as possible for the week, one day they meet with a mentor who observed a class of theirs the previous week, one day is a seminar where we discuss ideas and strategies and reading related to pedagogy and the teacher persona. The last day is set aside to reflect on the week…what worked and what didn’t work.

We have 6 TFs this year—from such colleges as Georgetown, Swarthmore, Brown, Middlebury, Yale and Williams. Two of them did work here last year in another capacity, so they are not so brand brand-new, but they are all marvelous to work with—smart, enthusiastic, ready, willing and able to make this educational project work.

The other day one of them asked me what message I would give to my own 22 year old self if I could travel back in time…

How interesting…

I had two responses instantly, one perhaps helpful, one perhaps not. On the one hand, I would tell my younger self that while I did not have years of experience, I was resourceful and hardworking and smart enough to be of use in the classroom. I knew what contemporary selective colleges wanted in students. In other words, I was legitimate. On the other hand, I would have to break the bad news: that I knew very little about anything that mattered.

You don’t know what you don’t know when you are young. How could you? People who are older nod sagely and say, “you’ll learn!” You’ll learn about love and investments, about failing and falling down and getting up and betrayal. I remember worrying about wasting time and wondering if I would ever get to an Ivy League university. Sigh. I remember thinking that if I could accomplish that particular goal I would have no problems. I actually thought that! Then I went to an Ivy League university and found it quite wanting.

I remember that 22 year old, thinking that I was getting older as fast as I could, but I couldn’t learn enough, or couldn’t anticipate everything fast enough. It’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it, never quite getting the pace of adulthood down “correctly.” You shouldn’t rush it, but then you want to move as fast into this arena as possible…I suppose it goes back to making bread with my grandmother in childhood, she had it all together as she looked at me with the rising dough and warned gently, “Give it patience, or it turns out wrong.”

It’s nothing short of astonishing all that we learn between the time we are born and the time we die. Most of the learning, of course, takes place in the laboratory of own lives—and strangely, the continuum of learning only seems clear in hindsight. That is precisely why the TFs get that Thursday afternoon of reflection. One of them mentioned to me that he had heard one learns more in the first months of teaching than in over a year of college.

So I give advice—oh, there is so much advice to give to the new teachers. There is advice about where to stand in class, how to stand, how to give back tests, reminding them that in any given class a teacher makes maybe 1000 decisions. Some of the advice they can’t hear because it’s in a different language, a language we learn over time, the language of experience cut with failure, triumph, and tedium.

I suppose I am thinking in just this way because this week I begin directing Our Town here at KA in Jordan. It is 20 years ago exactly that I first directed this plotless wonder at Charlotte Latin with some of the best actors I have ever known (Catherine and Chuck as George and Emily, Mike Coyle and Eric Zion, Lyde and Junko, Kathleen and Megan…ahhh….a sigh for the miracles we made on that stage in the 1990s). It is a play that exhorts us all to think about how we live life. As the play takes a tragic turn in Act III, and examines the end of life, the sage Stage Manager says:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take ‘em out and look at ‘em very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for 5,000 years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.

I remember when I did the play in 1992 I really felt I had a good grasp of its message. Then I did the play again in the spring of 2000, and I thought, “Whoa, I didn’t get it all before! Now I think I have a better sense of it!” And then I tackled Act III of the play in the fall of 2006, along with two other works, and I realized, “Every time I come back to this play, I have unveiled a little more of the truth for myself.” I am interested to see what I think of the play now that I have added the Jordanian chapter of my life to it. But the message of seeking out that something eternal, of trying to get a little closer to it resonates with me as I work with these talented, eager young teachers.

There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from who we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes.

I would tell my 22-year old self that what lasts are things that are so ordinary he may not even see them: family dinners, catch-up phone calls with old friends, reunions of singers and buddies, talks with treasured mentors, watching a student understand a concept, feeling the upward trajectory of progress, fair fights, play rehearsals, lingering and savoring. I would also tell him that while we are dreaming, time flies. I loved those years at Gaston Day School, fresh out of college, but I was also rushed to “get on with my life” at that problem-solving Ivy League place.

But of course, the young man I once was cannot hear me, not just because of time and space, but because of the lessons he has yet to learn. It’s a miracle—somehow over time he learned them all just the same, by trial and error.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Great Expectations

As I wrote last year at this same exact time:
“This was the week that the three weeks of orientation (yes, I know we must be the most and best oriented school on the planet!) finally melted into the first week of school. That day that is the joy of joys!

But before we get into blogisodes about the new school year, I want to dwell for a moment on this year’s orientation. We went from orientation for senior staff, department heads, new faculty, returning faculty, student proctors in the dorms, new students and finally, returning students. Whew! But the other day came one of the most fun things I have done in our time here at KA. Julianne, the intrepid and fearless Dean of Students wanted to foment a little inter-dorm competition as we got set for school. She came up with the idea of “Madaba Games,” an Olympics-style competition that would accrue points for the top 3-placing dorms in a variety of competitions. Not just physical competition, although there would be that, she came up with a science competition in the form of a Project Egg Drop, and a crazy hair-styling competition, and an art competition and skit competition and music competition and a bake-off competition.”

So that was from last September…since we had already done it one time, well, of course the Madaba Games are already a time-honored, time-worn tradition! The hooting and hollering and desire on the part of Dorm Nihal—we were second last year—to try and best perennial champion Meissa House…it was exciting.

So this year the bake-off was to be a Cupcake Competition. Last year was so much fun, and about half my team this year was from last year’s outstanding Chocolate Chip Cookie team. We were ready to spend three hours creating the most spectacular cupcakes Jordan had ever seen. Just like last year, we first studied the criteria by which we would be judged—four points, (1) Taste (2) Texture (3) Presentation and (4) a WOW factor. The other interesting thing is how many points the bake-off counts in the overall Madaba Olympic Games—they count as much as all the sports competitions combined! Well, we weren’t too worried since last year we earned the Silver Medal. This year—the gold was practically within our grasp!

The bloom was off our rosy plans though as we pondered where to start…last year was a little easier since “Chocolate Chip Cookie Bake-Off” really means exactly that. Now with the only criterion that they are cupcakes, well, we spent over half an hour debating what flavor to try. I suggested something different like Orange, or Spice Cake, but we couldn’t come to consensus. So I went to again and found something intriguing—a “Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake” made at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. The guys liked this since it had an unusual twist—they kept wondering if the Coca-Cola part might be the WOW factor we needed. One of the boys ran downstairs to another faculty apartment to get some cans of Coca-Cola.

We created teams for the baking and pretty quickly a new student Ahmed emerged as a leader. In a wonderful moment of serendipity he announced that his American passport lists his family name as “Baker.” (In his Jordanian passport it is similar but it has ‘Abu’ in front of it and an extra ‘h’ in there. How great to have a Baker act as our Head Baker. Ahmed also explained to the non-scientist (that would be me) how the Coca-Cola and baking soda would act in the chemistry of the cake and create a special texture.

We were off and going! Uh-oh…we didn’t have buttermilk needed, but no problem. I showed the guys how to make a buttermilk substitute with regular milk and lemon juice. As we got to the end of the recipe, a few more gulps—we didn’t have several of the ingredients to make the really interesting chocolate fudge frosting. We were gonna just have the cupcakes. We scoured the refrigerator and pantry to see how we could make a frosting that we would help us out with the WOW factor.

At this point we started to go into overdrive about the presentation. Remember last year we had team member Mohammed Attar in a tux shaving fancy chocolate over the perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies in a Nihal-orange Hermes box. So as the first batch baked we brainstormed about the presentation. Should we sculpt a Camel out of cupcakes? Should we make the map of Jordan with the cupcakes? We got nervous since no idea made all of us excited.

Ahmed decided we should create a Domino game out of cupcakes. Let’s make a white angel food cake and contrast that with the Chocolate Coca-Cola cupcakes. As we got out the eggs and started on another cake recipe, Ahmed explained his idea. This guy has obviously watched “The Cake Boss” from the US—yes, indeed, he does watch the show. Ahmed wanted to make rectangular cakes from the dark and the white recipes, cut them into strips, make a game board of alternating colors, and then turn the cupcakes into domino pieces.

The whole team wasn’t sure it would work. Ahmed is busy showing everyone his technique for separating eggs (very elaborate with a pinhole in the egg and shaking out the white!) and we are debating the plans. As the voices died down, someone always said, “So what is our plan?” The voices crescendo, and then: rinse and repeat. “So what is our plan?”

Walid and David are trying to nail down what the plan is. Bryan has gotten a little bored with the lack of a plan so he has taken a seat and is paging through an art history book. Mohammed has made himself useful and started to wash the dishes. You wouldn’t believe how many bowls and pans and utensils got used in the making of the two recipes!

Ahmed wonders if we should have another back-up cake and plan. “So what is our plan?”

Hamza takes one of the cupcakes, sticks a fork in the un-frosted top and says, “Maybe that should be our presentation. We have no plan.” Oh, my…darkness before the dawn business. Hamza is getting a little edgy. He says, “We should have won last year. Make sure we win next year.” Is the ship of dreams going down? Is this how Michael Phelps felt when he did not win every single gold medal?????

While others are distracted, giving up, washing dishes, milling about the apartment and the hallway, Ahmed remains undeterred. He announced that we should try and make a cream cheese frosting although we have no confectioner’s sugar. He wants to experiment. He finds a packet of “Wonder Whip” and decides we need to make this whipped cream. He gets out the hand mixer, accidentally spills an expensive bottle of vanilla, and there are shouts about the plans again. What is the presentation????

So Ahmed takes over and says the domino board might be too hard, but what about creating a geometric presentation: he would cut the rectangle into squares—wait the white cake rectangle, and then cut out a circle from that square, and then nestle the dark chocolate coca-cola cupcakes into that opening in that white square. Then he would slather the dark cupcakes with the whipped cream (the cream cheese frosting experiment lay abandoned now). Ahmed found mint cookies and vanilla wafers in my freezer and practiced crumbling them to see what the effect was.

“So what is our plan?” resounded again. Well, we got out the silver tray from last year and thought about it. What was the WOW factor? Ahmed seemed a little miffed since it seemed obvious to him that the WOW was the geometry and the dark/white contrast. As we thought, someone—it might have been me, I can’t recall—suggested that our cupcake offering represented the Five Guiding Principles of KA. Bryan noted that the bakers came from 3 different continents so that has the Global Citizenship thing going. Walid started to write down the ideas of how the cupcake bake-off reflected those Five Guiding Principles—we actually baked them into the cupcakes!

Working on this restored the fun mood. We now had only a short amount of time left. We elected David to read the speech about how this humble bake-off embodied and celebrated the Five Guiding Principles of this school…and decided that he should look like one of the guys from “Animal House” in a grungy bathrobe as he read his speech.

We also ate the cast-off rectangle cake of the Chocolate Coca-Cola cake.

We get to the competition and check the screen and notice that Nihal, our dorm, was in first place. In all the sports except Volleyball we had come in first. We are last to present our cupcakes to the judges. David’s speech rings through the auditorium with Lincoln-esque fervor. As the judges leave to deliberate, my friend Mazen said to me, “That was really good, John.” Thumbs up from a judge!

How does it come out? As I wrote last year in that blogisode, “Oh dear reader, it is not quite the climax of the movie that I envisioned.”

We didn’t even place. Hamza repeated to me what he had said earlier: “Make sure we win next year.” Hamza is a senior so he won’t be here, but he cared enough about this. Oh well, we had fun, again, and evidently, according to one judge, Cassie’s cupcakes she made for her dorm were 1000% better than everything else.

As it turns out, our lack of points in the end did not hurt Nihal. The dorm skit put us over the top and we emerged the victors in the 2nd Annual Madaba Games. Wonder what next year the competition should be?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Let’s have a hand for Rae!!

True or False? Teachers like hearing administrators make presentations.

True or False? Teachers like being evaluated.

True or False? My family is obsessed with Disney World.

Okay, everyone—school is back in session now, so we need to have quizzes! What are your answers to the above questions? I will give you a hint—one of the three statements above is true!

Early last week I was on the agenda for faculty meetings for a discussion of the professional development calendar and our upcoming pilot program of the new faculty appraisal system (we have tweaked the word to be ‘appraisal’ instead of evaluation since the word ‘evaluation’ tends to make faculty have heart palpitations.) Oh, goodie! One more presentation for people to sit through—and about a topic that is as welcome as say, a cookbook by Hitler! Since I am in charge of both of these initiatives, of course I should make the presentation. In thinking about how to organize my presentation, I decided to use a technique that works well in the classroom: subverting expectations. Here is how I opened my presentation:

“My family is obsessed with Disney World.” [Oh, now you know the answers to the above quiz!!] I then showed a slide of the picture you see above. “A month ago we went to Disney World for the sixth time in 8 years,” I continued. I switched to a slide of the family at a Mickey Mouse Luau breakfast—Mickey had joined our family for a photo shoot. I am not sure what the faculty thought, but I launched into a travelogue about our Disney vacation. They laughed, seemed delighted to change the subject from evaluation, er, I mean, appraisal.

I confessed to my colleagues, “I didn’t tell my family, but I must admit I was less than enthusiastic about another trip to the Happiest Place on Earth." I guess my sister, the Generalissimo of the family trek, sensed this, and she signed me up for a six-hour “Behind-the-Scenes” tour of the Magic Kingdom. I arrived for the tour an hour before the park opened—which in itself is very interesting to see a deserted Main Street USA. As I checked in and got my special nametag I met Rae, our tour guide for the day. Rae gathered us outside of Guest Relations and began her tour. Rae did not spew forth just the history of Disney, or reveal a list of gossipy, backstage sins. Rae subverted our expectations, and launched into the mantra of the decision-making process of the Disney Company. Rae said that in every step of the process to create the Magic Kingdom the designers and execs used the “Four Keys to the Kingdom.” Rae taught us the keys, had us repeat them after her, in the order of Disney priority: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. Rae had us walking around, scrutinizing and evaluating various things, seeing if we saw the four keys. She had us ponder the design of Main Street USA, we got to go on a ride—no, we call them “attractions” at Disney, she had us listen to an announcement for the waiting hordes beyond the opening gate—just like a brilliant teacher, Rae had us internalize the mission statement of Disney, and evaluate how they had done with the four keys. Where did we see them? What examples did we see? The tour was invigorating! She challenged us to see the “Keys” everywhere. The tour opened my eyes to their thought process and it invigorated me to no end…

Then it came time for what Rae said the employees call, “the running of the bulls,” or the opening of the gate for the day to Magic Kingdom. But instead of mocking all the hundreds of people and their rush into the park, Rae had us stand to the side and watch them. She said with a moving sincerity: “I want you to watch their faces as they come in. Each one of them has a story. Each one of them is somewhere on that continuum trying to embrace wonder.”

Wow…This behind-the-scenes-tour had become a powerful little bit of professional development. I reminded the faculty that just a few days after this presentation hundreds of students would be streaming through our gates. Would we look into their faces? Would we remember that each one has a story? Would we remember that each one of them is somewhere on that wide continuum trying to embrace the wonder of education??? I had gone on that trip to Disney with an attitude that I have seen in veteran teachers—that been there, done that, let’s get the whole goin’ attitude. Instead, Rae exhorted us to revel in those faces, and imagine each story and how they sought wonder. What a great reminder for teachers.

KA has a mission statement. Well, of course, almost every school has a mission statement, but the most powerful piece of the mission statement in my mind is at the end when we vow to “cherish one another.” Rae hit that magical nail on the head—we needed to cherish those stories and that wonder at Disney, and certainly the same should be said about school.

So I morphed into my presentation about our school’s 5 guiding principles (one more bullet point than Disney!). I wondered aloud to my colleagues if when those families streamed through our gates if they could see as transparently our mission statement and guiding principles as I could see the Disney Four Keys. We make a promise in writing about what we aim to do…when people come to our classes, are they able to see our guiding principles and mission statement???

That is surely our goal. That is why we need professional development and that is why we need an appraisal process that keeps us in check. “The Appraisal System will help us thoughtfully make these promises a reality,” I said.

I loved making the presentation—trying to assuage the fears of the faculty and remind them that we do so much on a daily basis what is desired…the process will simply reinvigorate and remind us of our goals.

“Rae said…” became a constant phrase from me in the days after that enlightening tour. But one of the great things Rae said was a quotation from Walt Disney himself about his work and his efforts: “Founder Walt Disney always tried to “plus” whatever the expectation…be it about an attraction, service, look, happiness factor or sense of wonder.” That’s it! That’s the secret to professional development—keep trying to plus yourself! I then quoted our headmaster John Austin, who four times in the previous week had publicly that our appraisal system must be about “continued and sustained improvement.”

I went back and forth from our school expectations and hopes and the family Disney trip and how exhilarating it was to be on this trip.

I concluded the presentation explaining that one of my last questions to the fabulous and wonderful Rae (anyone know how to start a fanpage on facebook????) was asking where the plaque to the late Randy Pausch was in the park. This celebrated teacher, felled by pancreatic cancer, had also been an “Imagineer” at Disney. Rae said the plaque was over by the Tea Cups—Randy had loved to begin his family adventures in the Magic Kingdom with a ride on the Tea Cups. The following day I took my family to see the plaque. Here is a picture with my brother-in-law Steve beside it. It reads simply with a few words from Randy Pausch:

“Be good at something; it makes you valuable...

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.”

What a great reminder about collegiality and professional development—we will help each other grow and bring more to the table.

Oh, Rae, I don’t even know your last name, but you did what my friend Maxine Greene always said a genius teacher does: you made the strange familiar, and you made the familiar strange. We kept unveiling more truths, and our curiosity compelled us with vigor. I am hoping Rae sensed the look of utter wonder and enjoyment on my face during the rour. I will seek that seem exhilaration in my students.