Business or Busy-ness

I didn’t post in the month of May. Ironically, last month marked the one month anniversary of this blog. I should probably feel a certain way about that, but I don’t. Over the last year, I have learned to trust the ebb and flow of my energy more. Sometimes I have a lot to give to a particular area of my life, and sometimes I don’t. Forcing it never made anything better. 

I am DEEP into these rest practices, ya’ll, and I have never felt more whole. 

Now that I am vaccinated all sorts of things feel like a possibility again. Except being too busy. Before the pandemic my personal and professional lives felt very chaotic. Things looked pretty good on the outside, but all of the scheduling and details and logistics were making my mind a messy place to live. A gift of the stay-at-home orders was a hard reset. At work, I was over involved in committees and initiatives and projects and professional development. If there was a pot lying around my hand was in it! My to-do list was never ending, and I always felt like I needed to be working.  Even when it was late.  Even when it was the weekend. Even when I was exhausted.  I relaxed by doing way too much too! I ran all over town attending concerts and book talk and dinners and happy hours and networking events and conferences and work groups. I did not manage the resulting stress in healthy ways. I developed Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. I tore my meniscus. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I am not sure any of this would have stopped.  

This pandemic has taught me that so much of the BUSY-ness of American life is self-imposed. And what does need our immediate attention – like climate change or global hunger or reparations or our health – rarely gets it. I can see now how much of the activity of the Before Times was just momentum or ambition or performance. Start running because everyone else is. Well, I don’t want to do that anymore.

It would be a mistake to just get back into the swing of things and business as usual. That swing often felt like a wild ride. In the After, I want to embrace the spaciousness of an unbusy schedule. The kind of schedule that allowed me to start this blog and dream of writing more. Time to rest. Time to think. Time to get bored. I want to be more discerning and more ready to decline. I recently told someone I was anti-urgency. As I watch people start to travel and dine out and BBQ again, as kids activities open back up, as birthday parties and weddings get scheduled, as we start to look towards the future again and plan, plan, plan,  I am reflecting on how to say “no” to busy-ness with zero guilt, thus honoring the joy that creating space brings.

How does this impact my students? Well for one, I am thinking about how to avoid assigning work that I am not actually interested in, that doesn’t relate to important projects or allow me to assess their growth. I am done with the busy work. You know, the stuff that was more about time management or “rigor” or honoring a relic of the past or another teacher’s interest. This year, we simply didn’t have time for it.  When we gain back instructional hours in the fall, I want to be super careful about what we do with the added time. How can there be more choice time and more exploration? If we start to go off on a intriguing tangent, I would love to be able to say, yes, there is time for that. If there is something urgent going on in the world, I would love to be able to give space for response.

I also no longer penalize work that is turned in late. If work shows up before my grades are due, I will usually give it full or almost full credit (sometimes there are extra points available for turning it in on time).  The truth is I rarely grade assignments the day they are due anyways. And kids are busy too! Teaching them to prioritize means allowing them to tell me that my essay simply isn’t as important as the national Latin exam or the math final or a big science project. As a grownup – I should be able to hear that. Of course, I also tell them that our next unit and more work is on the way. A natural consequence of letting things pile up is having several items to take care of instead of just one. For most kids, this is enough to stay on top of things. The ones who don’t do their work usually need further support in some capacity anyways, and they shouldn’t turn the work in until they have received it. Allowing students to experience organic deadlines has become an important part of building an intrinsically motivated classroom, which is my ultimate goal. Plus, when I say, hey I need that – they know I mean it. 

As we consider the ways in which a more normal version of school will return in the fall, I hope there are parts of this big life lesson that we will keep. For me, it is about the connection between time spaciousness and a mind that is more creative and at ease. As monk and Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim says:

We know the world only through the window

 of our mind.

When our mind is noisy, the world is as well.

And when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. 

Pivoting in a Pandemic

The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form.  Both are illusions. 

~ Eckhard Tolle

I recently read a tweet that described this moment as a “perpetual present”, one where we cannot rely on the patterns of the past or the hopes of the future.  We are trapped in a constantly evolving now.  There are some upsides to this for sure – more presence, more gratitude, more appreciation for the mundane.  Meanwhile we have families, careers, and lives to care for and we must make important decisions with only the information we currently have.  And that is really hard. 

It is no longer a secret that I will be at a new school this year. And yes, I was at a new school last year too. The part of the story that is mine to tell is I was building a sandcastle – a pretty elaborate one. I knew that at any moment the sea could rise and overtake it. I wasn’t building it with any assurances of permanence. It was a risk, but I hoped it would stand for a while. Maybe a few tourists would come through and take pictures. Maybe some other kids would add shells. But a yacht named COVID sailed past and increased the swell unexpectedly. The waves were too high, so I grabbed my sand toys and ran. Then someone pointed at a surfboard. That seemed like a safer activity, so here I am, paddling out. At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know things would end like this. I have been surprised by my own life. When faced with a choice to teach virtually or in person, our family decided we wanted to stay home together. All other decisions became based on that one.

I want to share this video that was posted by Whittle School & Studios before I announced my departure. 

The teacher in this video has never been so clear about her focus, pedagogy, and purpose.  My year at Whittle gave me that.  It was a great gift.  I am STILL filled with so much pride and gratitude.  I grew immensely and had a lot of fun. I taught what really mattered and provided an education FOR THIS MOMENT.  I met wonderful teachers, parents, and families. It was a hard and glorious year.  I am sad that experience is over. 

At the same time, I am thrilled about the opportunity before me. Maret School has long been on my radar.  I love that Joy is a part of their mission. Several students of mine left my previous school and went on to thrive at Maret.  It was always a bit curious that so few jobs opened, but it meant people rarely left. So far I have been impressed.  It is becoming clear why I have been placed in this particular community at this particular time.  I love that my first professional development activity was a weeklong mandatory workshop on anti-racist teaching. It is highly ideal to have such a training in place during this particular moment in the fight for racial justice. They have the format down and the result was an extremely meaningful series of conversations.  I really appreciated being asked to reflect on WHO I want to be in this school space before thinking about WHAT I do.  Putting my humanity first is a great model of how to approach relationship building with students. 

The greatest lesson of this experience is to continue nurturing the resilience of my career. I am entering my 15th year of teaching. I am by all accounts, a veteran. I didn’t get this far carelessly – my moves have been intentional and divinely directed. It has paid to stay nimble. There is a fine line between committing to a community and either being a martyr or getting too comfortable. Life is weird sometimes and the only constant is change. One must always be prepared to pivot. Even in a pandemic. “Stay ready and you don’t have to get ready.” This past month has been a whirlwind.

Onward.

Why I Chose Whittle

One of my ancestral stories goes like this:

In 1891, my great-great grandfather Jordan Young (no relation to YoungeE) decided to move from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had previously been enslaved, to Fowler, California. He and his three brothers received a letter from their sister, Julia Bell, who told them they should come. Jordan took the train out west, found the dusty land to his liking, and started a farm. A few years later, he sent for his wife, Louisa, and seven children. Eventually he would own a 160 acre ranch and several lots in the growing city.

I am a descendant of pioneers.

(Jordan and Louisa Young)

In 2018, I made the decision to leave my cushy job at a prestigious and historical independent school to join a new, for-profit, global school network. Why? Well, why does anyone join a start-up – for an adventure, dahling!

I was good at my job, but I saw an opportunity to be great. Whittle School and Studios came to DC with marketing banners blazing. They promised to be a modern school that prioritized global, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning. Those words are literally at the top of my resume. Instead of fighting to validate those things in a school community, I would simply get to teach them. This move would baffle DC Urban Moms. No one could fathom it.

The 2019-2020 school year is turning out to be an insane year to have gone rogue. A pandemic; civil unrest to end racism; impending cicadas, locusts, and murder hornets…we just keep asking, “What’s next?” So how it is that this June I find myself not limping to the end of the finish line, but skipping? Why am I not squeezed, fried, exhausted? Why do I have even a twinge of excitement for the fall? Why does my summer PD and project list fill me with joy?

Because. This. Was. Awesome.

(I did not say perfect.)

There have been massive ups and downs. But wow. It has always been important for me to teach as my full self, and Whittle is a space where that is welcomed. I brainstormed and co-taught with incredible artists, mathematicians, historians, writers, and scientists. I have colleagues from around the world on our campus, as well as in New York and China. I went to nearly every Smithsonian and connected students with the city in new ways. I taught things that would have been impossible elsewhere. I centered marginalized voices and real American history. I chose books I love and a diverse group of children saw themselves reflected in their pages. I learned to differentiate my math class so kids who would otherwise be labeled as needing support simply got to take their time and others, who wanted to accelerate, were able to fly.

The problems we tackle are exciting. What counts as an experience? What real world problems are developmentally appropriate? Is there such a thing as too interdisciplinary? How do we put the “authentic” back in authentic assessment? What reporting system effectively communicates student progress to parents while reinforcing our core values? It has been extraordinary to work on these dilemmas with a team of people dedicated not just to innovation, but smart innovation that learns from previous experiences and draws on best practices. While it is brutally hard work building a new school, we have a chance to get things right, and that is something in which we are all invested.

During my students’ final reflective presentations this week, they highlighted three pieces of work that showed their progress. They based their reflections on our Graduate Profile, which provides a framework for thinking about the goals of a Whittle education:

Our middle schoolers spoke with great vulnerability about mindsets, frustrations, setbacks, comebacks, and triumphs. They spoke about being whole children who loved growing in math AND art AND basketball AND Chinese. Not a single one said, “I know I did a good job because I got good grades.” Instead, they knew they did a good job because they were proud of their work. They were uninterested in comparing themselves to their classmates. They were focused on who they had been and who they were becoming. Before, a truly intrinsically motivated student seemed as rare as Sasquatch. Now, I believe it is possible to engage children in work that is meaningful and relevant and to see them respond with curiosity, tenacity, and joy. At Whittle, we are slowly uncovering the secret recipe, and it tastes good.

My year at Whittle School and Studios has changed me. A student speaker said at our closing ceremony that this roller coaster of a year has made Whittle the special place that it is and also helped to prepare all of us for the uncertainty of these times. I couldn’t agree more. My ability to adapt and be flexible has increased ten-fold. I am absolutely a better teacher. A better curriculum designer. A better advisor. A better advocate. A better colleague. A better leader.

Faith is the hope for things unseen. 130 years ago, my ancestors set out for a land they’d only heard of. Their journey took courage, guts, and imagination. I’m sure there were days when they wondered if they had made a big mistake. If life would have been better back home. Perhaps on those days, they thought about those of us coming along, just down the road a bit. Perhaps, because of us, they decided to keep building. They had come so far and were just getting started.

As we close this remarkable 2019-2020 school year, I never want to forget how it feels to have taken a risk – a BIG risk – and arrived at the destination knowing the road ahead was totally worth it.

Onward.