One Year Ago…

Exactly one year ago I graduated from Hampshire College. In some ways it doesn’t feel that strange that a year has passed, but it’s amazing to think back on what this past year post-school has brought for me.

In the past year I fulfilled my dream to work as a backpacking guide (CO), I traveled across the world and worked on my own (China), I met many of my Chinese family for essentially the first time (HK), I returned on my own to a place I love deeply (Cuba), and I settled into a US city as a young person to figure out what the heck I want to do (Portland).

Through all of that there was confusion, beauty, connection, boredom, and lots of adventure. I probably learned as much about what doesn’t work for me (work, living) as what does work for me. I learned more about what makes me tick and how I can be of benefit to others. Here are some brief highlights:

CO: Dressing up like “An Amazing Mountaineering Woman of the 1800s.” That was a theme of ours, and at one point we backpacked in bonnets and long skirts.

China: Co-leading a mangrove field study, visiting a Mangrove swamp with our students.

HK: Farewell dinners with my entire family. They took us to a vegetarian restaurant, which was so incredibly thoughtful.

Cuba: Nelson, myself, and some of his friends listen to a rumba at LA UNEAC. It starts to pour rain, so everyone clears away to hide underneath the outside patios protected by the roof. The band keeps on playing. Nelson and I run through the rain to grab a friend, and we stop in the middle of the dance floor. We look at the band still playing, and that at each other, and stop to dance in the rain. Onlookers cheer us on.

Portland: Yesterday, working at the preschool, I have one child on my lap because if she’s not there she will wiggle and downward dog her way through the whole lesson, and I have one child on each side of me holding my hand because they want to.

I am so thankful for all of these experiences, even when they were crazy or simply dreadful.

Where has the last year seen you?

The Great Bike Race

On Tuesday night I biked from NE Portland to the far end of SE Portland. I had gotten off of work at 5, so I joined the other bike commuters on the Springwater Corridor next to the river. At one point I found myself in the middle of a pack of bikers (a few of them were spandex clad as well), and as we approached a right turn a few people stuck out their hands and made the high five right signal and we all turned seamlessly together. I wanted to giggle or maybe scream out loud, “Hey! We’re all biking together!”

A casual bike ride or a thrilling race with a pack? This was a great pro-Portland moment for me.

Curriculum v. Self-Directed Learning

Lately I have been thinking a lot about curriculum and self directed learning. I know what I have experienced, read, and heard, but I hesitate before making claims about what I think would be best for policy.

I can’t help but think that one of the missing clues in this debate for me is early childhood education. It seems to me that at best those who advocate for school curriculum want to see well rounded, educated and job/society ready young people leaving the mandatory school system. Radical reformers, on the other hand, think that this isn’t happening with our current public school systems. Some advocate for homeschooling and unschooling as the most logical choice to encourage student directed learning.

I know I am an advocate for education where students have a vested personal interest in what s/he is learning (as opposed to being forced to memorize history dates, mathematical equations, etc., only to forget them after the test) however I’m trying to be open to the idea of the importance of curriculum if only so I can better refute it (if that’s where my conclusions lead me.)

Going back to the idea of early childhood education, as a preschool teacher right now I find that most everything I do is useful for these children’s lives. They are learning pre-literacy skills, counting and number matching, and most important: they are learning how to relate to their peers. We are a bilingual school, so on top of all that they are learning Spanish. I’m starting to envision more and more support for strong early childhood programs that help students meet these basic needs in a loving and nurturing environment. It is possible to be attentive to student interests and help build student initiated curriculum even in preschool (just ask any Reggio Emilia teacher), and then beyond that, I would advocate for mentored learning/apprenticeships/community groups/experiential learning whether it happens inside a classroom or outside of it, and for that schooling to not be mandatory. There are many others who are advocating for a future like this.

Where do you stand right now on the public schooling debate? Have your ideas changed recently? Do you think curriculum is valuable, and if so, how?

Fern Feast

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Five minutes away from my back door is a trail head into Forest Park. Today as I walked on a loop I let myself take in all the different greens of these new Northwest plants. When I lived in Massachusetts during the Fall I would look at the leaves and feel like I was visually gorging myself. In CO, I feel myself welling up with love and adoration when I surround myself with mountain views.

Here, the climate is much more humid and lush than arid Colorado, and the greens of the forest are filling my eyes with a new sense of wonder and appreciation. It feels very right to be surrounded by so many shades of green.

What fills your eyes and heart with appreciation where you live?

Tales From the Teaching Front

Photo by apdk.

Today we had parent teacher conferences at our preschool. One parent shared with us that her son plays an imagination game at home with his brother where they pretend to be two of the older boys at the school. None of the teachers had heard that this student played this game, and we laughed at the absurdity of it. Our school is for 3-5 year olds, and I realized that for this three year old, those two five year old boys really must seem like pretty cool cats.

I know that the students go home and talk about their teachers too. One of the things that I love most about teaching is that you are a role model, for the good and the bad. We all have flaws and personality quirks, so it’s embarrassing when students pick up on those, however we have the incredible choice to act with kindness and grace and humility everyday and to show how it can be done. It is so important to model these behaviors for children, however it’s another great example of how working with children is essentially working with people: as adults we make choices about how we act everyday too, and we influence other adults (and children, and teenagers) and show each other how it can be done.

PS, This is day 2 of my personal challenge to blog every day for 30 days! My sister is on her own 30 day challenge, so I’m joining her.

Here v. There

An important theme in my life has been the contrast of movement and staying still. I grew up and lived in the same place until I left for college, and since then I have shaken things up by moving every 3.5-4 months either by choice or system default (you have to move out of the dorm rooms when Summer comes.)  Going to school at the same place for four years kept me somewhat grounded in Massachusetts, but with long winter and summer breaks, moving rooms/houses, and spending a (non-consecutive) year abroad, I developed the ability to pack all of my earthly possessions into two suitcases and a mentality to match.

The more I travel, the more the wanderlust spirit is ignited in me. I know I’m not alone, as there’s a whole community of folks who value movement, travel, and adventure, and sometimes our attitudes and our paths look similar.

Here in Portland, I know that the time is coming shortly that I will move again. This was more or less my original plan, to stay here for the Spring and Summer and then move on, unless I found I didn’t want to leave. I wonder what comes next, and already I dream of faraway places: Cuba or Hong Kong, for example. I struggle, though, with the big questions of how I will care for my existing communities and find new ones, be of service to others, use my talents, provide for myself, feed my spirit, etc. I have seen how travel and living abroad energizes me in a way that living in the US doesn’t right now (with the exception of its wilderness spaces.) I have also seen how growing and having roots in a community for an extended time (Boulder) creates some of the most meaningful relationships of life. I highly value qualities from these different types of lifestyles, so I find myself caught wanting both.

Ultimately, I don’t feel too bad for wanting to leave Portland. While I want to have a “mind over matter” attitude, Portland isn’t a “here” that I want to set deep roots into, not at this point of my life anyways. I’m pretty sure that 80% of this stems from how I feel during the rainy season, which is to say miserable. The people and the food are as fabulous as they say.

I trust that finding balance between these paths won’t be easy, but it will be fruitful. So here is to dreaming of the next adventure.

Breathe In…

One of the biggest developments in my life recently is that I am now a proud… bike commuter! This is a life current mostly dictated by necessity, as I live in Portland, OR without a car and I need to get to work somehow. (And for a city renowned for alternative transport, taking a bus to work would take more than an hour one way. It’s literally a ten minute drive, and a 35 minute bike ride.)

The things I have learned (and am still learning) from bike commuting daily since starting in February could fill a book. Something in particular that strikes me, though, is that I’m much more aware of the city’s air quality. Sometimes I smell industry waste near my house in Northwest. I breathe in car fumes anywhere I go. If I was driving, or even taking a bus, I could shield myself from these unpleasant smells and forget that they exist, and what causes them. Bicycling forces me to confront the pollution that exists even in a “green” city, and because of this it’s more likely I’ll do something about it. Do you think we would have more activists if all of us (not just marginalized communities in the US or developing countries) had to smell, feel, and taste pollution daily?

(Photo shared under a cc license by Richard Masoner)

The Art of Practice at YogiPianist

My sister Angelica has been writing a lot over at YogiPianist about practicing, creativity, and entering “flow.” I just wrote a guest post for her on “The Art of Practice.”

It has me thinking, though, that figuring out how to practice best is a very experiential task. It takes testing to see how one works best. I don’t think I have really settled on when I write best, with the exception of having to write for the pressure of a deadline, but that’s often stressful and sometimes not conducive to work I’m proud of either.

I’m curious about your experiences with practice and when you do work best. What patterns have you noticed?

Learning with the Kids: Compassionate Communication

About six years ago I volunteered with a Restorative Justice group in Boulder, CO. We met once a month to learn Non-Violent Communication (also known as compassionate communication) and mediation skills, and sometimes we would be called in to co-facilitate or act as a community member in restorative justice sessions.

At the time I didn’t exactly understand what “non-violent communication” meant. I liked the mediation skills I was learning in the group. We were taught to use active listening and repeat back what we heard in a descriptive (read: nonjudgmental manner) so people felt truly listened to. In my training at that time I didn’t progress to the next steps in NVC, clarifying needs and requests.

So what is Non-Violent Communication? It’s a method of communication that comes from a place of compassion for all beings and an acknowledgment that our actions are strategies to meet our human needs (which we sometimes do effectively, and sometimes don’t.) The methods of NVC are designed to help people more clearly express what their needs are in a way that can resonate with others. Communicating using NVC methods often uses this model: 1) Observation 2) Feeling 3) Clarifying Needs 4) Making a Request.

To borrow an example from Marshall Rosenberg’s seminal book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, a mom frustrated with her teenage son’s mess could say: “I see that there are clothes on the floor in our living room. I feel frustrated when I see this because I have a need for a clean and tranquil space. Do you think you could pick up your clothes and keep them in your hamper?” To be fair, the teenage son may not respond positively anyways. But there’s probably a much greater chance of empathy and understanding the needs between them then starting off with a screaming match.

One of the most amazing things I have realized as I’ve been engaging with these ideas is what can come out of our mouth after the words “I feel…” We use that phrase to describe all kinds of sensations, thoughts, and judgments, but it’s not often what we’re feeling. How many times have I said something like “I feel like that’s a good movie,” or “I feel like that’s probably a bad choice,” etc. Those aren’t feelings. They are judgments or thoughts. In contexts like these, “I feel” would better be replaced by “I think.”

This is where I realize that I’m very much so learning alongside the kids I work with right now. I have been using NVC methods with the preschoolers, especially as conflicts arise, which is at the very least ten times a day. I asked one of the boys to empathize with me, asking him how I might feel when he ran away and didn’t respond to my calls for him to come back. He looked up to me, and said, “Upset?” He was right, and he chose the word that I have most often been identifying in myself when I try to clarify my feelings when my needs are not met.

Lately when I pause to consider what it is that I am “feeling” in a situation if it is negative, so often the only words that come to my mind are upset, frustrated, irritated. Shouldn’t there be more words? Shouldn’t I know how to describe my feelings more aptly, or do all the negative ones fit under those three? Just like the preschoolers, I am learning to expand my vocabulary, this time in a way that is more direct with what I am feeling in response to my needs not being met. (There is a helpful “feelings” inventory list through the NVC website, and a needs list as well.)

In the heat of conflict or just in general, is it easy for you to actually pinpoint what you’re feeling, and why? Have you come across ideas of compassionate communication/non-violent communication before, and have you used them in your life? What methods of communication work well for you?