Monday, July 9, 2018

Classroom Microhabitats

Gardens can be well-groomed with precise rows of petunias and squash, or they can be unkempt and more natural. The gate can be kept closed, protecting the vegetables and flowers, or it can remain ajar- letting the wild creep in. Pruned, planned, weeded, tended- these all evoke an image of award winning horticultural masterpieces. All perfectly arranged, meticulously maintained. They are a sight to be seen and not touched. To sit in and admire, rather than to climb in and play. You can wander, but you must stick to the path. Stay off the grass.





The more organic, free-form, untamed, overgrown field, however more distracting, is often in fact, very disciplined, with a hierarchy in place, for flora and fauna alike. Snakes, beetles and butterflies, roam more freely, with little hindrance in their habitat. Even the most beautiful, groomed and cultivated of gardens, has the same creatures, they just simply stay hidden, for fear of removal. Nature untouched or contained, always welcomes the native dwellers, in some fashion. This begs the question; can we ever truly have free reign over nature? We can sculpt and manipulate, but can we ever fully tame it?



We must accept the indigenous animals and plants, if we want access to the potential energy that runs through the landscape. We must embrace the weeds, if we want to see the flowers sprout from their midst. We can choose to pluck them, a nuisance to most gardeners, to allow more daisies and daffodils to flourish, or we can let them find their path in the shadows. But, we must acknowledge the balance of nature. We must see the garden in its entirety, whether sleek and pristine or messy and unpolished. Both styles are alluring and graceful to someone. While many will choose the perfection of a private, charming space, others will feel more comfortable, trouncing amongst the tall grasses, hidden blossoms and complexity of a lush, agrarian patch.

Microhabitats form in every classroom. Various styles of gardens and wild fields. Students bounce between them effortlessly. They are the cultivators, indeed. Some areas are loud and energetic, others are quiet with only the gentle sound of crickets, reminding us they are there. The climate is dictated by the energy level, the focus and the freedom. The more we place the learning in student hands the calmer the weather. There are stormy seasons, but that is good, every garden needs the rain to thrive. Whether monsoon or sporadic showers, it is the continuity of nurturance that counts. A garden, absent of the hustle and bustle of nature, will never fully flourish.


The insects, the animals, the pollen and seeds- these are the components necessary for any greenhouse, nursery or natural space to develop, rise and prosper. Every flower, every lady bug, every worm aerating the soil, each a contributor to the space, each integral to the cohesion. Gardens, both uncultivated and unkempt and structured and maintained provide a flow of energy and a cycle of existence. We must recognize their uniqueness, embrace their beauty and let nature take its course. This is when the balance arrives. The equilibrium emerges. This is when the gates open and the wild and tamed become one.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Looking at the Eclipse through the Cereal Box

Depression is real. It is not easily erased or suddenly overcome. It takes time, patience and a glimpse of what lies ahead. For, when we are dragged down, into the darkest of caves, we may hear voices around us, but we only see the rock: both slippery and moss covered. They seem treacherous and impenetrable. Although, if we just turned around, we could see the way out, our feet stand firm. Our eyes locked on the trap, that lies before us, entombs us. I have been there many times and only because those around me, made their voices louder than the darkness, did I turn and find my escape. 

Eclipses

Eclipses, an obscuring of light, a shadow over an object, a blockage of illumination. They are a sight to see when they are high above us. We can't alter them or avoid them, instead we have embraced them. We travel long distances to be able to encounter them first hand. To us, mere mortals, the moon and sun appear to come into such tight contact, that they seem to merge. I remember as a child, poking a small hole in a cereal box and going outside to take a peak, at one of these events. There really weren't any glasses available to the public back then, so we had to make our own makeshift optical devices. Every child in my class, was told to bring in an empty cereal box, to create our personal telescopes.

   


With Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops boxes in hand, we ventured, onto the grass at school, our teacher explaining the science. I have a vivid memory of feeling very separated from the occurrence, as I peered through the pin-sized opening. The box, smelled sweet of cereal remnants, distracting me. I wanted so much to feel the shadow cross over me, feel like the Earth was disappearing for a moment. But, that cereal box, held me fast to the planet. It was a view both accessible and safe, but guarded and remote. Now, as an adult, these eclipses, both literal and metaphorical, feel more scientific somehow, more meaningful when I come into contact with them. These transitions of light: alter perception, heighten curiosity and ultimately create realignment. They often transfix, but they also kindle our outlook, highlighting the need for change.




Obscuration does not only happen during celestial events of course. Shading and dimming can take place anytime, anywhere. When we lose sight of our achievements, walk away from our dreams, hesitate to take a risk. My grandmother always called these momentary or prolonged 'fits of fancy,' bone orchards. The cracks in the earth, from lack of rain, the places where we wear ourselves thin. Where we let fear choke us from behind. Fear is not something to be despised, it is a lifeline. It directs us away from danger and pain. It is a part of us, down to a cellular level. We have to coax it, appease it and befriend it. This is when it becomes beneficial rather than terminal.



Labyrinths

To avoid the labyrinths, we may come across, we have to keep a map close at hand. We have to stay on the path. Once you wander off into the wilderness, you can encounter nature at its purest, which is beautiful. But, you can also run into a bear or a mountain lion and if you are alone, they can trap you, in the farthest corner of your trepidation. We all feel this creeping, stinging feeling of certain collapse. We all make a wrong turn and become a statue, even if it is temporary, in the midst of the bends and twists, of the labyrinth of our thoughts. Every day we conquer the mazes placed before us- these lessons and puzzles we must solve to continue. They are placed before us not to trick us, but to test our resolve. For how can we make sense of the world, without the trials and tribulations of being human. But the entanglement, the snarl of self-deprecation, can place us smack in the middle of Mordor, the Forbidden Forest, or at the dinner table of the Queen of Hearts. To steer clear, we must find our own happiness, hold fast to our own grace, our own intentions.




Why take the first thought, best thought approach, when you can take a few more steps up the incline and see all the avenues. When we hyper focus on what we want and disregard what we need, we never feel fulfilled. We take comfort in knowing where we are going, but this can blind us, to alternative roads that may actually be less bumpy, filled with less potholes. The bog sets in, when we try to hard, to keep up with those around us. When we place ourselves in someone else's shadow. This quagmire is self afflicted. We can only escape the slough, if we choose to. We have to want to escape. We have to ask for help. The densest marsh, however,  can easily be sidestepped, if we see its muck, not as a trap. But, instead we use the mud to form stepping stones. The structures that heighten our lowland path, to an elevation both sunny and inviting.



Putting Down the Cereal Box

An eclipse does not have to separate us, isolate us, distance us from the action. The light may be blinding and we may have to look away temporarily, but if we put down the cereal box, we can see the positive effects much clearer. Observing from afar can be beneficial, it can be the coax you need, to allow fear to guide you into the flare. But viewing the world through a pin-hole is limiting. Why erect edges around vast opportunity? Why buffer the sounds of encouragement? Because the cereal box feels safe. It reminds us of childhood, both fruity and sweet. 

Our confidence is heightened, when we can see the bright colors, of the cartoons, on the outside of the box and enjoy the memories of youth. But, then we must place the empty cardboard, in the recycling bin, knowing we have gained nourishment, albeit minimal. Cereal may be sugary and provide us with some energy, but it is quickly burned calories. We need to see them for what their worth and then look forward and revel in the notion, that our next meal, will be a juicy burger, or piece of chocolate cake.


Stay tuned for my podcast -And Here We Diverge- its is all about inspiration, creativity and the depression in between. 






Monday, June 18, 2018

Residue becomes Weight: Departures and Arrivals

This is dedicated to every educator, who packs their bags, peruses the map and continually, journeys to new places. Ventures off the beaten path, sits down with the locals and swaps stories. The teachers that see the climb as beneficial and the setbacks of travel as opportunities to take detours. These educators are the wonders of the world, the world heritage sites and every moment of awe, as we make our way across the globe of learning. Thank you. 






Departures and Arrivals

Arrivals and departures are constant. We may not be standing in an airport terminal or a train station, but the daily shifts of entry and exit are continual. We often feel rushed to make our getaway, to step clear, of the outgoing bustle. But, eventually our minds slow and roll into the gate, leaving us at our destination- the end of the day. We are constantly taking off, coffee in hand, and landing, with a night cap, before bed. 

Sometimes we travel with luggage- papers to grade, lessons to write, while on other trips, we are free of our purchases along the way, our acquired gear. If we are to slowly make our way down the summit, after reaching it, with hard work and determination, we must make sure, that we leave our hands free and our backs clear of excess packs. It took us a school year: two semesters or six quarters, to reach the precipice and now, on our descent, it merely takes a few weeks before we have nestled in at base camp, and have eased, into a flow, much less natural to us.

At first we feel the weight of the educational world upon us. But, after some personal excursions and quests, we accept the residue and release the heft, of the burden of teaching. A burden of gratefulness, and sheer joy, not a burden of grievance or hindrance. Anytime you commit yourself unconditionally and unwavering, it takes a toll. It puts a strain on your energy. As educators, we feel we can't talk about the burden, yet it is there. It is the nap sack on our backs as we climb. But it is also the rope we cling to, the line of strength that pulls us through the bog. When we have conquered the peaks and swam across the roughest of channels, we are inevitably exhausted. Even those in the best of health, will feel the exertion. This burden is both welcomed and embraced. It is also this burden, that becomes difficult to let go of, after a fruitful year of teaching.




Residue becomes Weight

The residue, however, is permanent. We want the residuum. It reminds us of where we have been, like a stamp in our passports. Even as we pack the last box in our classrooms and wipe the last agenda from the board, the debris of our experiences remain. The silt nourishes us. The echoes of laughter, album of memories, lingering conversations, invigorate us. As we step outside our academic arenas and catch our flight to summer, these remainders vitalize us for the months ahead. It is hindsight, forethought and mindset, that steers us on our summer venue. 

The summer is a cornucopia of options for educators. Many attend professional development. participate in chats on Twitter, read insightful books on education. Many leave the realm of education behind, temporarily, and instead find solace in family and relaxation. Most, of us, however, combine the two. After our yearly trek, reflection and a free spirit becomes the stop over, on our ticket, not the destination, but the connection, the space between home and adventure. Our summer haven is personal. It is flexible and purposeful. While some need the splashing waves, others desire the cold mountain air.

Residue becomes weight, becomes familiarity and embodies our well-traveled character. The more we experience new ideas, exciting ways of changing our surroundings and embrace the embarkation from our old habits- the farther we venture out. The more open we become to leaving the comfort of hotels and 5-star restaurants behind. Instead we get comfortable with pitching a tent and letting nature take its course, making our classrooms more organic, accessible and free. But it also, brings our summer to a more balanced and calm place, so we can truly reconnect with ourselves.




A Holiday of Balance


The more we let ourselves unwind and sink in to summer, the more prepared we will be to jump our flight in the fall. The turbulence, frenzy and commotion of travel, will be just a hiccup in the scheme of things. We will have had a holiday, a respite that fueled our spirit. This spirit will happily and eagerly take on the burden of a new year. Not only will it accept the residue of the previous year but also the weight of the new. This is when residue becomes weight- becomes the tote, backpack and carry-on, for our next expedition. It is our belongings and possessions, that help us feel a little bit of home, as we continue to explore.

It is summer, for most of us. While it is near, for others. I hope you set forth on odyssey's of the mind, sojourn's of solace and fulfillment and voyages of personal growth and revitalization. I wish you a joyful and rejuvenating vacation.



Monday, June 4, 2018

Listening While We Listen, The Hidden Tracks within Student Communication

Vinyl and 8-track

I remember a time when vinyl and 8-track were the only method of personal music immersion. In our cars, plastic on plastic, sliding under the floor boards, large colored capsules, holding within them, the reels of history: Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Elvis Presley. I would kick them out of the way as I climbed in my parents car. The shoddy tape organizers, always sliding to the floor and sending the contraptions sprawling. They felt durable to me, a kid, but actually they were fragile. More often than not, they became cracked and the tape, exposed, ended up in the garbage. But, soon, I would see a new one appear, like magic. As a child, music was very important to me. It was a connection with the many, that I lacked with my peers. It was an anchor. I would race home from school to listen, to ABBA, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few. It was a time when my voice became music and music became my voice.

These vessels of rock, classical and blues they embodied my generation. At home I placed the needle, gently on the spinning plastic, anticipating the first note, creeping in from underneath the crackle and static of the record. Each album, a story. Each track, a monologue just for me. Music spoke to me, as if the performers, band or solo, were in the room. It wasn't just the tunes, it was that sound, that underlying hollow presence, beneath the vocals, it was almost another instrument. It was a cadence that I heard throughout my childhood. Then with the onslaught of cassettes, Cd's and iTunes, that intimacy, that rhythm of imperfection, even if remote, vanished. The crisp, studio quality performances - that is what we hear now. There is no more standing in line outside of Tower Records, for one of the first copies of Purple Rain. Now I can download it in seconds. Again, that intimacy, that personal connection, lost to a world of technology.



Texts and Emails

I remember when my birthday cards would come in the mail. My grandparents would send me, my age in cash. As a five year old, five dollars was like a million. My parents would take me to Albertson's and let me buy my weight in candy. I remember the smell of the envelope, usually bright in color, the stamps in the upper right corner, each a different design or emblem. That moment, where I gently ripped the envelope, trying desperately to keep it in tact, that sound, it still resonates. Those envelopes and cards, still in a trunk in my closet. I still envision myself running to the mail box, warm pavement beneath my feet. I have an August birthday, so they would arrive in deep summer. It is the tactile memories, that have stuck with me most. The interaction of my hands with paper, the smell of the post-office, the gravel on the driveway.

Those times, were built around phone calls and letters. Not text messages and emails. Not to say that, speedy communication is necessarily bad, but they are removing something from our society, interconnectedness, eye contact, the sound of a voice. That hidden track behind the tone, pitch and vibrato of human speech. We seemed to have lost the ability to listen, while we listen. To pay attention to the subtleties of facial expressions. How often do we pause and take notice of the intonations, modulations and articulations of the emotions of sound? How often do we hear these same qualities in conversation? Words are letters with meaning, but emotion is truth, even if we do not always recognize or acknowledge it.


Listening While We Listen

We have all been guilty of it. Making eye contact, nodding our head, but simply waiting for our turn to speak. We have all been on the receiving end as well. Students, children, they want to share their opinions and ideas, but are often placated with a "That sounds good," or "Tell me more." But are often, put into a situation where, an adult is listening, genuinely caring about what they are saying, but have no follow-up conversation. They as students, were herded, like many conversations of the day into one giant conglomeration, of words and thoughts. But, in actuality they were not heard, not really. How can we prevent a herd mentality and adopt one of hearing- a heard approach?

How can we as educators, pause and hear our students, even those who do not speak outwardly with words, but with emotion? We have to listen for the hidden tracks, that crackle, hollow presence underneath the sound. We have to listen while we listen. Hone our senses on the sound: the quiet hum of the microphone, the reverberation of frustration that overwhelms quietly. We have to find the discrepancies between what they say and what they feel. This can be challenging but not impossible. We will never be able to identify with our students if we fail to remember the sounds of our own childhood. Those vibrations, memories, are eloquent gestures, memorials of our youth. If we can, as the saying goes, "put ourselves in someone else's shoes" we will be able to understand their motives, actions and experiences. If we can listen while we listen, hear the acoustic melody all the while picking up on the harmonic refrain- we will be able to find the hidden track.

How can we find the hidden track? It is hidden right?
  • Do not ignore the static- it tells a deeper story than the notes do
  • Concentrate on the minor key changes, they are the underlying story
  • Clear your mind, for when you do, every bridge, every chord finds its purpose
  • The brass, percussion and wind, of every conversation softens and becomes louder when necessary- they are the clues
  • Every moment we speak, we are the gentle strum of a guitar for one student and the cymbals for another- it is our choice of intensity that makes all the difference
  • The hidden track is there, always, like the needle bobbing at the end of a vinyl album- just waiting to be picked up and moved to a new position
Let's not be the headphones, narrowing the sound or the speakers amplifying it. Let's be the fan, the audience. The spectator that hangs on every note because they know the chorus is going to blow them away. This is how we listen while we are listening. With anticipation that within the ensemble of instruments, the meaning and expression, there will always be a melody and this melody is why we listen in the first place. Music is the story of our lives- these conversations we have with students, they are the music of the future.





Saturday, June 2, 2018

Introduction Podcast: Rhymes, Collisions and Relevancies

https://soundcloud.com/melissa-chouinard-149000412/introduction-podcast-rhymes-collisions-and-relevancies

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Coming to the Center: Desks Pushed to the Middle, Last Student Out

Coming to Center

As much as every school year is unpredictable, aqueous and complimentary, each with their own chorus and melody, they are all dependent on one thing- relationships. While some days are eventful and exciting, others are monotone. Not every day can be a roller-coaster ride. Many are rides on the merry-go-round. It is the optimism and passion, the thrill of the ride, that sets the tone. As consistent and repetitive as merry-go-rounds can be, you still have options: horse or carriage, tall or short pony, pink or white mane. This is why each time the music stops and a new batch of riders, runs to their 'spot,' the excitement elevates. As the organ chimes, to begin the round-about, smiles cross every face. Everyone is ready to begin, it increases in speed, then as it slows, the landscape becoming permanent once again, passengers disembark not with sadness, but with a contentedness, that the experience was worthwhile. This is what great teachers do, they make a merry-go-round as exciting as the tallest of free falls.





I observe, with a calm spirit, knowing I made an impact. Last day of school, last class period of 2017-2018.


Desks Pushed to the Middle

The classroom an ocean, both salty and agitated, but also hyper with an energy, felt no where else. There is a buoyancy to their humor, each student drifting on the surface, some on flotation devices, some on their backs looking up at the sky. A lightness, simplicity is in the air. There is no more pressure of exams or grades. Just a few minutes of hovering and bobbing before, the last bell of the year rings out. Desks, once spread out across the tile floor are now centered, each touching one another, forming a pier, in the middle, of the empty room. Students are converging on it, climbing on the slate tables. It looks like a playground, rather than a classroom.



Giggles and hugs begin. One student starts to count down-"Ten seconds until we are no longer 7th graders...ten, nine, eight," the rest of the class chimes in. The anticipation is growing, it is palatable. Some run over and hug me, others crowd around the door. The bell rings and like bands of surfers, they ride out into the hallway, most turning around, for one final wave. Then the room feels very empty.  I teach 7th grade, I had 156 students last year. Each one, adding to the salinity of my ocean of education. These are my last 30, exiting into the realm of summer. But, as they enter the wave of freedom, I see every face, I hear every giggle and they engulf me like a gust of wind, guiding my sails out into the current of boats and dingy's. The silence lingering in my room, almost swallows me, I rush into the hall to usher the crowd, rather than sink into its darkness.

It's just another day. I tell myself as I click off the lights. There is a heaviness though. The vibes might be easy going, but the tone is solemn. It knows. This was the last day of school. Although, being a 7th grade teacher, most of my students will be here next year and I will see them in the halls, they are no longer my students. They are now simply, travelers, passengers, participants. They are the crowd at the amusement park. I may join them on a ride or two, but they will be fleeting images of last year. Every face emblazoned on the walls of my classroom. But, also a wisp of laughter, swirling out into the breeze of progress and continuation. It is a hard day, even for the most veteran of teachers. This is my 15th year coming to an end. It doesn't get any easier per se, it just feels more rewarding. As a long-time educator, I am better at reflecting now. So even after a year with the most challenging of classes, I see progress, I recognize how far we have come and I appreciate the opportunity to have experienced my time with them. For, every class, every student leaves a mark and these marks, create the constellations that brighten my night sky. They are the X's on the treasure map that I use to navigate my next year. For without them, I would not have had an opportunity to grow myself.



Last Student Out

This is one of many last days, where there is a changing of the guard. A new adventure awaits, but the indelible aura of every class, settles in to the nooks and crannies. Adding to the flavor and texture of the classroom spirit. The castle remains, fortified with the interactions of the previous year. New students will enter in August and leave in May, and with every transfer, comes new memories. This is why we do what we do, to reach as many students as we can. If we build strong relationships, even over the summer, as they splash in the pool and play in the sand, they will have a bit of our spirit with them. Our words of kindness and encouragement will echo, quietly, as they dive in to the deep end. Our mindfulness and joy will be the hug they need as they try a new adventure. For after all, we were their bridge, luminosity, and warm blanket, for the last nine months and that may end with the final bell, but the memory is durable, lasting and integrated into who they are and will become.




Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Picnic in the Park or A Day at the Beach: The Excitement of Unpredictability


Grass and Sand

A blanket, some refreshments, a tall tree, or large canopy. You ease in to a picnic. You wander around until you find the right spot. You may bring a Frisbee to get some exercise, or a good book to just sink into a quiet niche, with a cold lemonade. The sayings go "Life isn't always a picnic, or life isn't always a day at the beach." I have heard both. I guess it all depends on your ideal outside excursion. If you live near a beautiful park, or on a coastline, an afternoon outside, might be your jam. But, in an urban area, with little sandy solitude or grassy knolls, inside might be more to your liking. If a beach is nearby, a quick dip in the ocean might be a weekly event. If you have options, you are more likely to partake in the offerings.

Like life, where you live, play and relax is dependent not only on your location, but your personality and outlook, as well. I grew up at the beach, it was literally a two-minute walk from my high school. I however, gazed upon it daily, but only in the evening, did I venture onto it. I am not a sunlight person, I prefer the shade of a park. You often take for granted what is right in front of your eyes. These wonderment's are still a beauty to behold, we see them for their glory, we simply forget to pause and take it all in. Do you make lemonade from lemons, or do you use the juice to remove grease and grim? Either way, lemons have multiple functions. Its your need and purpose, that decides how you ultimately use them. How often do you hear the waves splash on the shore, feel the cool breeze, but focus on the hot sand burning your feet?

The reverberation in the halls, alternates between silence and laughter. Students are taking finals, this last week of school, and the mood may trough, to a focused energy, but soon after each bell, it crests into a wave of sheer excitement. The end is near. The wave is about to break on the shore and everyone is riding the surf. Boards are all pointed towards the beach. While some are in wet suits and ready for the undertow, others are paddling slowly, trying to avoid the larger peaks and ridges. Either way, everyone will float onto the sand in three days. They have left a footprint that will be everlasting, regardless of tide. Whether on grass or sand, park or beach, a picnic is based around family and friends. If the drink of choice is, lemonade or fruit punch, it doesn't matter, as long as the weather is good and the ants are at bay, fun is on the horizon.



Weathering and Deposition

A school year, like a sandcastle, is both sturdy and solid, with the right amount of planning and foundation. If you build it far enough away from the tide, it will prevail, at least for awhile. If the water to sand ratio is not consistent, it will topple quickly. It takes patience, buckets and shovels and a keen eye. You have to be observant, not only of the ocean, but of pedestrians on the beach. There is always commotion nearby, you have to anticipate it. Each wall, building the structure, each class, adding a layer to the day. Every grain: large silica, or shiny quartz, adding to the composition. While some beaches are smooth and silky, others chunky, with shells and coral.

Regardless of texture, however, beaches are revered, visited and appreciated. Many tourists and locals pass through, parks and beaches, many build their residences near by, get comfortable, build a community, in their adjacency. These landscapes are a selling point for any realtor. Their qualities and characteristics, a desire for students in their classrooms. For teachers, who traverse many different environs every day. In the morning it might be a woodland area, shaded and relaxing. By, the afternoon it may be a bustling lake shore. They must be able to navigate smoothly, to avoid disturbance.

There may be forecasts of impending weather conditions, or circumstances that close off the area from fellow travelers. There may be obstacles and events that create setbacks and succession. But, there are also sunny days and beautiful memories. Children frolicking, dipping their feet in the water, or feeling the blades of grass, between their toes. This is what you do at the beach, play in the sand. This is what you do at the park, lie on the lawn and embrace the serenity. This is when, you feel at home. You feel safe, you feel free. This is when you make memories.

We meet them, in a crowd, as our summer ends, with some unpredictability and uncertainty. They gather, on common ground, nervous and anticipatory. They seem very unfamiliar, but quickly we see a personality, behaviors emerge. Some visitors raise large, colorful umbrellas that they hunker down underneath. Others simply plop down on a towel and take in the scenery. Either way, they are present. They ventured to the sand and grass and are expecting a day out. Both recreational and rustic. They are carrying with them a basket, of expectations and requisite. They want to explore, but also feel a kinship with their landscape. If they are aware of their options, they might just step out from under the shade of their canopy and bask in the sun. Will you join them?








Classroom Microhabitats

Gardens can be well-groomed with precise rows of petunias and squash, or they can be unkempt and more natural. The gate can be kept closed, ...