This is Real Life

I was thinking today about being a connected educator. It’s always talked about as such a big, important thing, this being a connected educator. It means you’re in the know and at the forefront of educational trends. You are being influenced and influencing others professionally.

I consider myself a connected educator. I’m active on Facebook, not just sharing pictures of my cats and keeping in touch with family, but sharing blogs and articles about teaching, connecting with teachers and students, and following educational sites. I’m on Twitter (@nataleestotz) and Voxer. I blog (although not as consistently as I’d like).

But this week I was floored by the true meaning and value of being a connected educator.

Friday, July 3, my husband had a doctor’s appointment to follow up on the cough he’d been having. A cough we were all attributing to spring allergies. But he wasn’t feeling better, and our GP ordered chest x-rays. On his way home from having the x-ray, he got a call to return to the hospital for a CT; the x-ray showed a significant amount of fluid. They drained nearly 2 liters.

At Monday’s follow up to the ER visit, our GP referred us to a pulmonary specialist. Wednesday, July 8, while sitting with the pulmonologist, he got the final lab results from the fluid.

Stage IV.

That night we called our families and closest friends. We texted other friends, I emailed my colleagues. I notified my ELAFlip PLN and my RuralEdChat co-mods I wouldn’t be involved much for a while. I put a post on Facebook.  It wasn’t long before the love and support was pouring in from literally all over the world.

That’s what it means to be a connected educator. It’s not just about sharing great ideas for lesson plans or classroom management, about following big names in education or the publishing world. Even though many of these people I have only communicated with through Twitter, Voxer, or Facebook, we have built relationship. John and I are just overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of love and support we are getting.

Things are happening fast. He had surgery today. It went well. They drained more fluid, took tissue to biopsy, and sprayed surgical talc into his chest cavity to stop the pleura from continuing to weep. He is resting comfortably and is in good spirits.  Monday he is scheduled for a PET scan, and next week we get the results of these tests and hopefully find out what type of cancer, exactly where it is, and what our course of treatment will be.

We know it hasn’t fully sunk in; we haven’t fully grasped the depth or severity of the situation, but we have accepted it. This is what we have to face and the road we have to walk. We are walking it together, we are surrounded by a tremendous group of family and friends, both near and far, and most importantly, we are trusting in a loving God who is so much bigger than this ugly thing called cancer.

Just last week we heard YA author, Chris Crutcher speak at Boothbay Literacy retreat, and then read his autobiography, King of the Mild Frontier. He spoke about some of the horrible things he has seen as a child psychologist, things that often work their way into his books. He brought up the question that people so often ask, why do bad things happen to good people (or good things to bad people!). The conclusion he has come to is this: take out the adjectives and ask the question again. Why do things happen to people? They just do.

We’re not asking why. It’s happening. We’re asking how are we going to walk through this. We know the answer: head held high, side by side with each other, our loved ones, and our faith.     

April 27-May 30 Reflection by B.B.

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It’s quite easy to hold onto personal beliefs so dear they might as well be set in stone. I previously was not one to let go of deeply rooted principles that had stemmed from long, drawn out, periods of thought. I suppose it’s fair to call me ignorant, because this characteristic still hasn’t been completely scraped off, like how gum or anything tacky can leave a residue when you try to remove it. When I debate and find I’m losing, or a moment comes where I find what I once thought was the only thing that could float in the vast sea of “truth”, has holes throughout and the water is spilling in, I realize these are not necessarily waters of truth, but of ignorance. That’s when life changing moments occur for me the most, when I admit that I am wrong and my once deeply cemented beliefs are chiseled out and questioned. April 27th through May 1st was one of those times.

Before that week, I had a preconception of negativity, and it didn’t take much for me to gain a cynical perspective, toward America and society. It seemed to me that everywhere I looked there was greed, corruption, immorality, and a general sense of hopelessness. “It’s all about consumption here,” I said.

On our first day back to school, Monday, I went with the remaining people of my high school, of whom did not go on a trip to Washington D.C. with the other students, to the Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland. My experience there reinforced this negativity. Even the 300 or so homeless people, who came to be fed, were selfish and greedy, only wanting the best of the best desserts, and apples, and not being happy with the amount of food they were given, which was all free. The majority of these people, no doubt, had little money, and did not get a chance to eat warm food like this often, and if they did, it was most likely because they lived off the food of the soup kitchen. You would expect them to be thankful for the times they can come in and get a warm meal. After serving, I left there with a sense of hopelessness for the homeless, and I felt as though how those people acted was the pinnacle of how humankind acts when there is nothing holding them to a standard of cleanliness or morality. All I could see from this experience was the negative aspects.

The next day, however, was much different. I went to the Maine Veteran’s Home, with the group from the day before, in South Paris, where I met a man named Gunny, who was a zealous, genteel, gregarious, elderly man. He had served in the Marine Corps and he shared with me humorous story after story, and if the premise of the story wasn’t all that comical, he still made it so. He had truly the grandest old-time in the Marine Corps, as part of Tank Company. He had driven tanks and amphibious vehicles, played soccer, and loved the food he was served during his time there. I always saw the military as dismal. He made the military sound so eventful and enjoyable I almost felt like joining myself. We then went off the topic of military, and he shared with me amusing details of his current life. I found that even though he didn’t live in his own house, he was without a lot of privacy, and could not go off the property of that veteran’s home often or at all, he still appreciated everything he had. He told me, “I like this place.The food is good, I’ve got a bed to sleep in, and I got a roof over my head, and that’s all you really need.” I went away from Gunny, reluctantly, but also pondering on all these new cognitions I was formulating in my head. This man was so thankful in the face of his circumstances, but if I were in his place, I would be miserable. He clearly is a man who strives to get the most out of every situation. Overall, his optimism was infectious. I understand it can be hard for elderly people in Gunny’s situations to be as positive as he was, but knowing someone who didn’t care about the negatives and only the positives gave me the sense that I should focus more on the positives of life.

The day after the veteran’s home, I watched a movie with the same party called “America: Imagine a World Without Her”. The movie started out by listing all of the negative affairs America is associated with and how people can easily focus only on these matters and develop disdain for this country. However, later, the narrator went on to give logical explanations of why if America did not do the things it did, we would not have the benefits of this grand country we have today. In the instant of finishing the movie, an immense impression of patriotism. I realised there were so many positives to America, and the reality of the fact that I lived here opened my eyes to see this great country in a new light, a positive light. I have a great life, and I’m sure I have a lot more than most people my age would love to have. I’m truly blessed, and Gunny’s grateful heart rubbed off on me.

When I came into that week having been pondering all the problems and issues our society faces, I forgot the concept that deserved my attention. I forgot to be grateful.

Gratefulness brings you, not just one step closer, but two steps closer to positivity. Even before that week I struggled with having a more positive outlook on life and the people around me. I wasn’t grateful for my peers because I, ironically, focused on their lackadaisical attitude and their pessimism. I spent the worthless time to pick out all the flaws I could find in everything and anything. I needed all of these collective moments to spur me into realizing my attitude. I needed to humble myself and recognize that my judgmentalness was not making my life more valuable. I had this condescending demeanor that, “I had my act together and I knew right from wrong”.  I finally realised that life is too short to waste time on being so petty. I have to focus on the positive and see the good. How can I expect my life to be good if i only focus on the opposite? After that week, I truly believe I discovered a concept of life as marvelous as finding the holy grail. I learned that if I looked at everything through the lenses of positivity, life would regain its quality again. Of course there will be hardships and, simply put, lousy moments in life, but that doesn’t mean I should dwell on them. I learned that I have to stay positive no matter the circumstances. By the end of the day, it all boils down to this, why not be positive at all times?

In My Own Backyard

This afternoon I celebrated the end of two very stressful, busy weeks and National Readathon Day by reading Paper Things by Jennifer Richards Jacobson. The book doesn’t officially release until February 10, but somehow Letterpress Books of Portland was able to secure copies to sell at the nErDCamp Northern New England Author Night last week. I love Jennifer’s writing, I’ve been hearing good things about the book, so of course I needed to get a copy and have it signed.

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I wasn’t very far into the book before I was wiping my eyes, moved to compassion for Ari, the 11 year old main character/narrator. Ari, through a series of events completely out of her control, becomes homeless. The story takes place right here in Portland, Maine (called Port City in the book). This is a fabulous book that I really think should be read by every teacher and young person.
Just as I think everyone should read Kate Messner’s The Exact Location of Home. Although first they should read Kate’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, so they meet Zig before they read his story in The Exact Location of Home.

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Books like these always remind me that my students are dealing with things that I often have no idea about. Although, reading Paper Things, I realize that the chances of my students actually dealing with homelessness is pretty slim. I teach in a private school. I know it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, there might be a student who is blessed to have a grandparent or a generous patron pay their tuition, but most of our students have parents who are making incredible sacrifices to pay our incredibly low tuition, but they aren’t in danger of being homeless. Of course, I realize I am making an assumption about our students.

But books like these also make me grateful for what I do have, because in our depressed economy, working in a small Christian school, I realize how close so many of us are living to that line. How easy it would be for us or for the families of one of my students to slip into the place where what money is coming in doesn’t cover the bills and the situation snowballs.

This is the second book I know about to come out this winter that deals with poverty and homelessness among school children. This is a growing problem, although I wonder how much the problem it’s self is growing and how much we are simply just becoming more aware? In The Exact Location of Home, Zig lives in a town on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Ari, in Paper Things, lives in Portland, Maine. These are not necessarily communities where poverty and homelessness are the first things to come to mind, and yet it is a reality.

I’ve recently read some articles about how the issues with our supposedly broken education system aren’t that the education or schools themselves are bad. It’s that there is a high percentage of kids living in poverty. How do we expect students to complete homework, pay attention in class, and complete projects using technology when they are wondering where they’re going to sleep that night or when they’ll get a meal? Common Core isn’t going to do a single thing to improve schools, it will simply widen that gap between the haves and the have-nots, drive failing schools deeper into depression, and make it even more hopeless for a large percentage of the population.

So I wonder, how much do my students know or understand about the world around them? We want them to be concerned about children starving in Africa, to donate so we can help people in India get clean water and Bibles, but how much do they understand about their own community and state? Are they living in ignorance that because they are able to afford a new iPod, or buy fast food for lunch they assume everyone can, and they don’t realize that while its frustrating to wait to upgrade their cell phone because they need to save the money, just a few miles from them kids their age are hoping to get a bed in a shelter and a hot meal?

Reading Paper Things has gotten me thinking. A few weeks ago we had a really good planning session with the middle school and high school teachers. We talked about restructuring our school so that spiritual formation is the linchpin for our whole program. Part of the conversation was about how to incorporate service, so that it wasn’t some external thing, but an outpouring of their developing faith. In order to do that we need to approach our academics differently. We need to provide opportunity for real world experiences. I’m starting to think about the idea of exploring poverty or homelessness. I can see having the students read and discuss books such as Paper Things and The Exact Location of Home as part of a larger study on either of these topics.

I have more reading to do, including A Framework for Understanding Poverty, but I’m starting to ruminate on the idea of developing a problem based learning study that will incorporate spiritual formation, academic subjects, and service.

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I want desperately to transform my school, our teaching, and our learning. I want to be do problem based learning and inquiry. I want a richer educational experience for me and for my students. I want to delve into difficult topics that break my heart and the heart of my students. I want them to have the opportunity to see beyond themselves and to develop gratitude for want they have and a heart of compassion for those who aren’t as blessed as them.

It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work on my part, but it will be so worth it.