Tuesday, February 09, 2010

taking the leap

And now a drum roll please. Yes, you are witnessing this blogger about to take a big leap into the unknown. Ready or not...

A bit of background first. Bear with me. Fifteen years ago I embarked on a teaching career. My trajectory has been varied and far from linear. I have taught in so many capacities: from volunteer facilitator to program coordinator, and in settings ranging from preschool to adult education, from non-profits and alternative schools to the private sector. I've taught English (business writing, workplace conversation, literature, and more), Speech and Rhetoric, Cross-Cultural Communication, Czech, Drama, Journalism, Creative Writing, Pre-Employment Skills for adults transitioning into clerical, customer service and health care careers, and more. The bulk—though not all—of my work has been with teen and adult newcomers. You know, my people in the broad sense of the word: African, Central American, Middle Eastern, Asian, European—all first- or second-generation immigrants like I am in this country.

After all these years I still feel the passion. I was born for this profession. The electricity in the classroom as ideas are pondered, discussed, as new ones emerge, as discoveries and connections happen still excites me. When the moment is right in the classroom, I feel that creative flow artists talk about—the thrill of listening, enlisting thoughts and comments, responding, directing, dialoguing...

My favorite parts of teaching are the interactions with large groups of students and the planning phase that's all about brainstorming and coming up with the big ideas, preferably in partnership with other colleagues, as opposed to in isolation. Ask me to list essential questions--the deep, overarching questions tackled when studying a particular topic--and I'll give you a thousand. Ask me to help you brainstorm for an event or workshop, and I'll be there, on fire. Ask me to research an issue that I feel strongly about in depth, and I'm all over it. Ask me to spearhead a new project I can get behind, and I'll do it in a heartbeat.

On the flip side, don't ask me to sustain or maintain projects long-term unless new ideas and reinventions are integral to the process. I get bored and drained with the same old. I'm all about the enthusiasm and energy for the new. Don't ask me to do repetitive tasks, especially office work or anything related to tracking the budget! You get the drift. The parts of teaching that I dread are basically all the paperwork: grading, writing up lesson plans, making handouts, seeking out detailed examples and quotes for lessons, breaking down big projects into small, individual skills to be taught. I also dread returning to the same room every day, seeing the same walls, same desks, same garbage cans... That's why I'm all about teamwork. Collaboration not only keeps me inspired and energized; it allows each person the opportunity to excel at what she loves to do. Unfortunately, almost all the teaching jobs I've had have been very isolating for a team-oriented person like me.

Now you, if you are anything like my inner critic, may say: oh, you like the easy-peasy parts of teaching, the parts that are all about the initial boom and the big show, the components poised to collect the accolades if the show is good enough to be eye candy for the onlookers. The inner berating voice goes on: Don't be ridiculous. Every profession requires unpleasant, mundane tasks; one cannot always do just one's preferred things. But my question these days is: why not? Why not focus on designing my work life with an emphasis on my qualities and inclinations? I can handle some amount of "chores", of course--I'm an adult, but the amount of tasks I love to do needs to far outweigh the ones I consider mundane, so I can thrive. I've been steeped in education long enough to understand my strengths and for me to be able to let my talents shine fully, I need work that demands from me what I do best.

In a nutshell, I am an idea person, a global thinker, an initiator and brainstormer extraordinaire who likes variety and work encompassing a broad scope. I'm a person who loves to launch new projects, and who is most at home leading and interacting organically in a large group setting, and who likes to collaborate in the project planning phase. I think I'm good at listening to and inspiring people. I care deeply about social justice issues and I try to channel that into all my work. And again, I like to team up with others with varied strengths so that everyone has a chance to shine and feel fulfilled.

The main deal is that other than being a dedicated educator, I have also led other lives while allotting the biggest chunk of my energy for teaching. I am passionate about writing and about organizing events that help bring individuals together, revitalize communities, inspire people creatively, and have the potential to affect social change. I have a deep, buried love of the theater, and now a newly found passion for photography.

At this time, I am finding myself at a crossroads and I have decided to take the leap. I am moving away from my tendency to derive security from being someone's employee (though deliberately nearly always with plenty of freedom to teach how and what I want), to steering my own creative life. I have many creative projects in mind (a couple already in the works), one very large one in particular for which I am gearing up as I finish out the school year at the place where I teach. Once the year is done, I am committing to paving my own way as an artist, dedicating myself predominantly to the other passions I've been putting on the back burner for years: writing, directing, and working with visual images. Teaching--or rather facilitating workshops--will still be a part of my life, but in ways that excite instead of drain me. I'll keep you posted on the latest developments, but for now, I'm only sharing this much, because the projects I am initiating are still in-utero and need the sacred time of gestation first. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

a trip seven years ago

I can't believe it's been seven years since Tim and I traveled to Thailand together. What an incredible experience. Short, but unforgettable. We focused on the north of the country, as per the recommendation of a good friend who has lived in Thailand for many years. On our trip we spent time in wonderful and dynamic Bangkok, which, contrary to the warnings we'd received from our friends, we loved.

Our favorite place was the magical historical city of Sukhothai, filled with temples, lush greenery, lakes and statues of the Buddha from the 13th century. We explored Sukhothai just after sunrise both days, before the hordes of tourists arrived. I don't know if there is another place in the world where I felt so much special, sacred energy. The images of Buddha made of stone were breathtaking, the architecture stunning, yet intimate.

Continuing to the north, unlike most tourists who tend to travel to the beaches in the south, we went to the small, quaint town of Pai and the northern city of Chiang Mai, a great cultural and historical center. Last was the mountain town of Mae Hong Son where much of the architecture is Burmese in style.

Along the way, like typical tourists, we supported the local economies by eating street food and getting lots of traditional massages. Oh yes! We even took an all-day cooking class, which was a blast. We rented bikes and rode around the countryside. We slept in tiny hotels on ancient, narrow lanes and in bungalows--many rustic, some new, yet simple. We even got to meet up with a friend from the U.S. and her Thai boyfriend. Fun times.

When backpacking around the country, we ran into so many Czechs, it was uncanny. Thailand must be the top destination outside Europe for the Czechs. There were Czechs even leaping out of the bushes at the hot springs in the middle of the woods, for goodness sakes.

Ah yes, the memories.

Here are some photos I took on our trip:

More photos here

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

on raising a boy

No crying, don't be too emotional, carry heavy things, talk in a deep voice, stand up for yourself, fix cars, like cars, work outside, pay for girls, be a gentleman, drop out of school, fight, show off, work out, respect the ladies, open the door for them, work to support the family, keep the family in line, don't act "gay", be strong, play sports, look good, be thin, be buff, be tough, be lazy, keep the girl satisfied, be protective.

These are some of the messages my teenage students listed about what we are often told makes a "real man."

As a mother of a boy, I have been trying to be very conscious of not reinforcing many of these often harmful societal expectations for boys.

One of the foremost experts on raising well-balanced boys is Dr. William Pollack, who burst into fame after being interviewed on Oprah back in the 90s. I happened to see that show and bought his book, Real Boys, when it first came out. The book has influenced me in a profound way. In it, Pollack, a psychiatrist who spent two decades studying and interviewing boys, discusses the concept of the "Boy Code," the widely accepted ideas that boys must be stoic, independent, tough and brave.

Here is how Pollack defines the three common societal myths about boys, or the Boy Code:

• BOYS WILL BE BOYS-We're taught that boys' testosterone levels make them "naturally" more aggressive, when in truth a boy's behavior is shaped more by his loved ones than by nature.

• BOYS SHOULD BE BOYS-Society expects boys to hide "weak" emotions like fear, hurt or shame behind a stoic mask, and only anger is an acceptable emotion. In fact, there are many diverse and healthy ways to express oneself as a male.

• BOYS ARE TOXIC-We believe that unless they are kept under strict controls, boys are dangerous to society; actually, boys are empathetic and caring with a strong desire for justice.

These pressures can ultimately lead boys to become disconnected, low-performing academically, depressed, violent and even suicidal.

How do we, as a society, and in particular as parents perpetuate these ideas? Pollack writes:

The boy code is communicated through such phrases as "Stand on your own two feet," "Be a little man," "Don't be a mamma's boy," "Big boys don't cry." Such messages begin around the ages of four and five and are reinforced in adolescence. Because we diminish the expression of boys' genuine emotional voices, too many boys believe they are failing to achieve what has become a truly impossible test of masculinity. Since the expression of their natural love and empathy violate such a restrictive code of masculinity and, indeed, are considered feminine, boys are prodded into a homophobic stance, with softness considered acting "gay," their worst fear; and angry emotions accompanied by "bullying" actions may be their only means to express their feelings and still protect their fragile sense of remaining a "real boy."

In our research, we found myths about boys, created and reinforced by the boy code, that become self-fulfilling prophecies:

• Violence is biologically inevitable for boys.
• Boys are less empathic than girls.
• The expression of caring and love by young males is "unnatural" or "feminine."

Pollack says that mothers especially tend to fight their innate desire to nurture their sons, and to push away their little boys by the age of five or six.

Tim and I are doing everything in our power to break the cycle of these destructive pressures on boys, at least in our own little sphere. We are affectionate and open with Jonah, we encourage him to express his emotions and to be affectionate back. We work hard on counteracting the homophobia, sexism and machismo found in the dominant U.S. (and Czech) culture. For instance, we don't discourage Jonah from being affectionate with his guy friends and I talk with him about same sex relationships as I do about heterosexual relationships.

Another thing Tim and I try to do is not talk about weight or appearance issues we may be burning to discuss together. I don't want my son to grow up listening to his parents' body image issues d'jour, so those don't get passed on, however petty they may seem to us at the time. I will admit we don't always do a good job NOT voicing our own internal body image obsessions in front of our son, but we are trying remember to cut the doubts out internally and in conversations.

Yes, Jonah is obsessed with guns, robots, the police, construction and everything space war and space exploration related, but we let him indulge while steering him also towards other activities--physical, educational and creative. Neither Tim or I feel that it's unhealthy. Imaginary play--even if it has to do with fighting and aggression--can be a healthy outlet for pent-up energy and exploring identity and relationships, as long as no one is hurt and we build compassion and empathy in him (or more so support its natural development), to counteract the destructive presence of violence in our culture.

So far, I'd like to say that our deliberateness on counteracting the Boy Code is working, but Jonah is still young and the messages of what it supposedly means to be a man are everywhere.

Pollack writes that though boys often naturally tend to want to play in a more rough-and-tumble way than girls, "the way we nurture our boys is an equal, perhaps more powerful predictor of behavior than most biologically based tendencies."

Here are the suggestions on strategies Pollack offers to parents and educators on raising boys with healthy self-esteem. I use the "timed silence" and "shame-free zone" concepts in my approach to communicating with my male students quite a bit:

Active learning. A majority of boys learn and connect better through action or activity. At school, that means boys need more freedom to move around in the classroom (especially in the early years), more recesses, no punishments that take away recess or physical activity, "gadgets" boys can manipulate while they attempt to listen, and the incorporation of videobased and computer learning, even during traditional instruction.

Literacy. The typical boy will learn to read and write approximately 12 months later than the typical girl. Many boys prefer nonfiction stories involving action (violence not required). Reading and writing materials that cater to boys' learning curve and tastes will help boys get excited by and stay engaged in learning.

Communicating with your boy
If your boy isn't very comfortable talking with you about his day or his feelings, use our practical research model of Action Talk:

• Timed silence. First, although we always helped boys to express a wide range of feelings, we recognized that the "boy code" often made it hard for them to express their painful emotions in words and overcome their hidden feelings of shame. Thus, we allowed for "timed silence," not pressuring them before they were ready and giving them some time to connect.

• Shame-free and safety zones. We created safety or shame-free zones with adults where boys knew they were safe from teasing, shaming, blaming, and lectures. We also monitored our own attitudes and prejudices.

• Communicate by doing. Since action was still their preference, we did not force words upon the boys. First, we engaged in an activity of their choosing, such as a game, a walk, or a car ride. Only then did we make a very brief statement, and waited patiently for their unique responses, resisting the temptation to lecture.

• Share experiences. In an attempt to diminish boys' loneliness and disconnection, we shared a few of our own experiences of boy-code pain. When such sharing comes from a father or father figure, a boy learns in the deepest sense that real men have pain and can share it. When a mother or maternal figure shares an experience, a boy learns that women respect boys and men who can be openly vulnerable. Importantly, she also communicates that for all our apparent gender differences, we really do come from ONE planet.

• Express love. We sometimes hesitate to tell boys and young men not only how much we admire their hard work, but also how much we really do love them. As they grow older, boys hear that word from the caring adults in their lives 10 times less than the girls we cherish. Ignore the friends and relatives with tough-love advice, or the principal who doesn't understand that boys need emotional support at school, or even your son's own fears about turning into a "sissy." You really can't express your genuine feelings of love for your son too much.

Like I said, I'm sure Jonah is getting messages about culturally accepted forms of masculinity already from cartoons, observations of people's interactions with each other, and other sources. But by not having a TV and by making room for emotions and encouraging affection and good, open communication skills (which incorporate Pollack's suggestions of allowing for silence and communicating by doing), I'm hoping we're building a strong, positive foundation here.