"When All Else Fails, At Least I Have My Belly Power"

This morning, Aidan was heading out the door with a full bookbag on his back and a French horn case in his hand. He asked Liam to do him a favor, to open the door for him. Liam did, and in typical Liam style he shut the door comically, using his stomach. He then proclaimed, "When all else fails at least I have my belly power."

And as is usually the case with the comments Liam makes, my initial reaction was to chuckle and shake my head, before going on with my morning routine. But as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, applying my eyeliner and mascara, his word sunk in a little bit more. And when all else fails, we really do have to rely on our belly power.

Now, you are probably thinking . . .It has been a while since Denise has written a blog, and I think I know why. It must be her dissent into madness which is clearly demonstrated by in the sentence we have to rely on our belly power. But bear with me . . . I think I may have a point here somewhere.

When I look over the past year, I shake my head in disbelief thinking of all that my family and I have managed to accomplish. We produced an enormous musical which I am proud to say did our brand new auditorium justice.  I’ve managed to maintain a 4.0 in my doctorate level classes, some of which had me wondering what on earth I was thinking when I applied to the program to begin with. We searched for colleges and Kaylea decided on the perfect school. We have participated in music, sports, clubs. We've put in long hours and been awarded with positive job reviews and advancements.  

We've had our share of struggles, too.  We supported (and continue to support) my mom through her open-heart surgery/recovery and our son as he becomes a wonderful father.  We've had to juggle stressful schedules and unreasonable demands placed upon us by selfish people.  

But, when all else failed, at least we had our belly power.  That power that lies deep within each of us, that power to show up.  To show up and do the work that needs to be done.  To show up and be the love that needs to be given.  To show up and do the parenting that isn't always easy.  To show up and get up early and write the damn paper that's due tomorrow.  

There have been plenty of times when I wondered what on earth I was doing and why.  And, I some times when I dropped the ball and failed.  But the times that I pulled through -- and used my belly power -- make me proud and inspire me to keep going.  

And so, I apologize for the lengthy blog absence, but as summer twinkles somewhere beyond the April snows, I hope to return to the keys on a more regular basis.  When I'm silent, you can bet I've been using that belly power and showing up elsewhere.  

What are you going to do with your belly power today?


Happiness is Not a Destination

As I mentioned in a previous post, I will be returning to the topic of commitment and relationships as I process the experiences of those around me lately.  I shared my original post on Facebook, and the comments I received were enlightening: 

A fellow teacher connected the way we coddle children to relationships later in life: "One thought which popped into my head was a question I ask my students and a unit we write on in class...ARE WE RAISING A NATION OF WIMPS? Society doesn't allow kids to learn through failure and work through adversity. I can't write about what we see constantly at work! Bottom line...kids are learning and being raised in a society where all the bumps are smoothed out for them. We have to let kids FALL so they can learn."

The wife of my youth pastor as a child remarked, "Love is a commitment, an act of the will. Not an emotion. I think that is where many marriages run into trouble. When we get married or say yes to any worthwhile relationship we are saying we are here for you, we are here to serve, we are here to sacrifice, we are here to work through things alongside of."

Another friend added that the marriage vow comes with grace to  work through challenging times because "it surely doesn’t feel like wine and roses sometimes and those times can last for extended periods."

That last concept -- that it's not all wine and roses -- is my focus today.  I recently listened to a Super Soul podcast in which Oprah Winfrey interviewed happiness expert Shawn Achor. Achor's spent twelve years at Harvard teaching and studying the concept of happiness, especially in connection with success.  The topic of his and Oprah's conversation was not specifically marriage, but as I listened, I couldn't help but make my own connection to the topic of relationships that has been rattling around in my brain for a while.  

Achor uses the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which is: "the joy you feel striving toward your potential." 

Let's unpack this, because it's gold.  First of all, happiness is not a static state, a place of arrival.  Instead of a destination, happiness is a journey; joy is a journey.  I think too often we have a concept of happiness as a state in which we have no problems, no stress, no discomfort.  And we expect our partner to provide that for us.  That alone is placing an unreasonable expectation on someone we are supposed to love -- we are setting them up to disappoint us if we expect them to create a utopia for us. 

Next, joy journey is not just a capricious road trip -- it's "striving toward your potential."  It's consciously wanting to become a better person.  The soulmate by your side helps us see that potential, helps us to reach that potential, becomes part of that potential.  But it takes more than illustrated quote posters shared on social media and anniversary cards once a year.  It takes rolling up your sleeves and having tough conversations.  It takes being open and vulnerable with someone you can trust with your heart and soul -- broken and battered as they may be.  It also takes being a trusted caretaker of their heart and soul, too.  

Many times when a couple breaks up, we hear one (or both) say, "I wasn't happy."  I have to wonder if our definition of happiness could affect our expectations in marriage.  I believe there is a real difference between doing the work of love day in and day out and getting nowhere with a partner who isn't trying -- and whimsically leaving a relationship to trade in for something that seems more fun in the moment.  I believe this because I did the real work of love for years and the result was feeling alone and used.  When I said I wasn't happy, it wasn't on a whim -- it was a monumental decision that took me months to finally articulate and execute.  I was not striving toward my potential -- I was striving toward my demise. 

And I am even more aware of these distinctions now that I am in a healthy, loving relationship with a partner who is as committed to our success as he is to his own.  This leads me to a second point that might truly need its own post, but I will move on anyway.  :) 

I have written about this before as well, but I have become increasingly aware of rampant selfishness in our society, and the effects on relationships can be deadly.  In this i-Generation, we are losing our ability to listen without distraction, our willingness to put others first, and our appreciation of community.  Instead, we see people who pride themselves on being "antisocial" or we hear people boldly proclaim that they are "self-centered."  In a relationship, if both people are only focused on themselves and their own desires, the result is a disjointed, disconnected, dysfunctional mess.  

More often, it seems as though one person tends to want the relationship to work while the other wants the relationship to benefit them.  When you are unequally yoked with a partner who is only focused on themselves, then it's impossible to pursue your potential.  

SO... if we humans have these flaws, what can we do to make them right?  I will be the first to admit that I do not have all the right answers.  Ask my fiancé -- I apologize for being selfish, weak, jealous, insecure, petty, and impatient on a regular (and I mean regular!) basis.  But, maybe that's part of the answer, too.  If you can't admit your worst flaws to you partner, what else aren't you sharing? If you can't share who you really are, then the journey isn't authentic.  

I had a great chat with a friend I don't get to see nearly enough yesterday, and our conversation turned to the topic of marriage.  We both agreed that a crucial part of making a relationship work is finding -- and making -- moments of intimacy with each other.  In our hectic lives, we can easily fall into the trap of the to-do list and the me-centeredness that fool us into thinking we are successful.  As we raise children, alone time seems to be non-existent, but when your partner is a priority, you find moments, even if it's just a text message expressing how you feel or a few moments of talking before falling asleep together.  

I can only hope, Dear Reader, that as I have rambled on for a few posts now, that something I've said resonated with you.  I, too, am trying to make sense of the world around me, and I thank you for listening.  May the coming new year bring you joy in the journey, in the pursuit of happiness, in the striving for your potential.  

After Comfort and Joy...

Me: Liam, you need to get a shower. 

L: (flails arms, stomps) I hate showers! Why were they even invented?

Me: How else are moms supposed to torture their kids?

L: (cries) They aren’t supposed to in the first place! 

[5 minutes later...Liam is overheard happily singing from the shower]



Real life, folks 😂

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Merry Christmas to our kith and kin! What a beautiful Yuletide it has been. Gifts were exchanged, and they all came from the heart. Good food and laughter were passed around in abundance, and truly the spirit of Christmas was felt by all in our home. I could not be luckier or happier. I wish you all the same measure of joy, peace, and love this Christmas has brought to me.

Committed to Failure?

It’s 4:30 am. My fiancé is already on his way to work, I’ve got one kid sleeping next to me, and two more out in the living room because they begged to sleep on the couches last night (ah, to be young again. A night on the couch usually means a day with the chiropractor for me!). My ideal morning routine is to run between 4:30-5 am, but since the weather changed, I’ve been hitting the treadmill instead of the streets. Right now, firing up the treadmill would mean disturbing the perfect stillness in the house, and as a mother who recognizes the unique rarity of silence, I have no intention of waking these kids up, even if it messes up my workout schedule. 

So as I’m lying wide awake, my thoughts turned to my blog. Yes, I’ve been busy and that’s kept me from writing. But a larger factor has been that I’ve been processing many things that I am unable to publicly write about. We continue to love and support our son as he grows into an amazing father, despite intensely stressful conditions. I’d love to write my way to understanding his situation, but it is for the best that I keep quiet on that front. Specific concerns arise at school, but I can’t write about those either. Aside from the happy pieces about how much I love Gene and the kids, my writing has been limited. 

But, here’s a topic I believe I can discuss without revealing the specifics of any one scenario, because sadly, there have been far too many similar scenarios lately. What’s the topic? Committed relationships— or more accurately, failed relationships. 

In the past, oh three? months, Gene and I have been overwhelmed by the number of reports of failed relationships we’ve heard— from close friends to acquaintances at work. There was the man whose wife announced she was leaving shortly after the family Christmas tree was put up. There was the woman whose husband pretended to be working on their relationship problems before he ultimately left his family for another woman. There was the couple whose relationship had grown so distant that they spend entire nights barely speaking to one another. 

I noticed that the more stories we encountered, the more Gene and I talked about our relationship and our ideas about handling conflict and our desire to always be able to talk to each other, no matter what. I noticed that the more stories we encountered, the more subconsciously worried we became about protecting our relationship. 

These stories of pain — of heartbreaking, heart wrenching pain— have made me wonder: what the hell is going on? Why does this seem to be happening on such a large scale?

Because this topic is so large, I think it best to break it into several posts which explore various components. Aside from introducing the idea, the last thought I’d like to leave you with is: as much as we argue over marriage rights in this country, do we truly value marriage and commitment at all in our society?

Think about it. Our appliances are made to break and be replaced; we are told we need NEW and IMPROVED gadgets all the time; commercials run nearly without ceasing. We have to upgrade our tech devices within a year. Is it so much of a stretch to apply this consumer mentality to the shelf life of our relationships? 

In films and TV shows, characters swap partners with casual ease; or the characters in long-term relationships do nothing to maintain them because bliss is effortlessly achieved. Have we bought into the fantasy of “happily ever after” so much so that when we encounter even slight discomfort in our relationships that our knee-jerk reaction is to cut and run? 

As I’ve said,  this topic merits a series of posts. For now, I encourage you to critically examine the messages our society and the media — even friends and coworkers— send us about the value of committed relationships. Do we recognize the genuine hard work love at time requires, or do we expect love to serve our desires until one day it doesn’t, and off we go in search of another? If we don’t evaluate these messages, then we can’t expect to control their influence on our thoughts, our words, or our actions. 

‘Til next time...peace and love. 

On the Road to Learn

Yesterday I had the privilege of traveling to Harrisburg and attending the PA Symposium on the Arts and Education.  I heard about the conference through the PA Thespian Society (a chapter of which I advise at the high school), and because I recently began my doctorate studies in educational leadership, I thought I would find the day beneficial.  My principal approved the request, and I spent the day attending various workshops and networking with educators and arts advocates.  

While the overview of ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind) contained the usual mind-numbing political language, the presenter (a former music teacher) packaged the information in a user-friendly format that helped me understand how monies are allocated from the federal and state levels and the impact the terminology ("arts and music") and placement of said terminology has on schools receiving funding . . . when the government gets around to reviewing and approving requests, that is.  

Part of the day's schedule included a variety of workshops to choose from.  The first one I attended blew my mind.  At Central York High School, three teachers -- English, Art, and Social Studies educators -- team-teach a project-based program called The Apollo School.  Essentially, the program pairs student passions and ideas with the three content areas in a personalized, project-driven curriculum.  Here's an example: one student has an interest in fashion design.  She read The Great Gatsby and analyzed the characters, themes, symbols.  She then researched the 1920s, particularly the role of women in society and politics.  She applied this knowledge to her project, which was an up-cycled dress in the flapper style, but with literary and sociopolitical symbolism embedded in the design choices.  

Students can work independently, as the fashion designer above, or in groups as they design projects.  In its third year, the Apollo program has a fluid yet structured schedule -- "Family Meeting Time" starts each day and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours; students must sign up for specific times to meet individually with instructors to stay on target for their goals.  The instructors provide broad themes that guide the students through their personalized learning, eventually leading to seniors considering their role in the modern world before graduating.  

They shared some statistics -- they have a 99.2% attendance rate because kids want to be in school; kids share feeling less anxious about school because they love their projects and the process; test scores have gone up significantly for the Apollo learners (an over 50 point increase on the CDTs, compared to an average of 26 point gain for non-Apollo students).  And they were honest about the fact that this program is not for every child; and about the fact that if the group becomes too large, then the model doesn't work as well.  The teachers were true collaborators who are willing to learn alongside their students -- exactly what education should look like in the 21st century.  

An hour with these folks was definitely not enough, and I plan to reach out to them for more ideas.  

I attended other workshops -- one on using dance in gym class (wait, not "dance,"  "Movement."  A simple term switch makes all the difference, honestly!)  and another on a project-based creative collaborative in Hershey which allows students to write original plays, musicals, songs -- and to perform and workshop those pieces, to add technology components, to compete and produce.  A keynote speaker discussed the impact of race and opportunity on creativity and the arts.  A town hall meeting was held with educational leaders.  

Thankfully, I had a two-hour drive home to attempt to process all that I experienced throughout the day.  Leaving my classroom for the day is never easy, even when I know it's in the capable hands of the retired English teachers we are fortunate enough to have on the sub list.  Taking a day "off" means creating and writing plans for classes, coming back to piles of papers to sort on my desk, and potentially re-teaching some concepts (especially if one of those English teachers isn't available!).  Teachers will do anything not to call off under normal circumstances because of how much extra work it is to have a substitute.  It's a paradox: A day "off" comes with a lot of work.  But, with all that said, I am glad I had the opportunity to take the day to attend the conference, and I am already thinking of ways to apply what I learned yesterday in my classroom and ways to learn more. 



We are Family


We spent an amazing weekend with Gene’s sisters and their husbands and friends in New York. While we worried about taking time off to do this over the weekend, we are so glad we did. Life is way too short to work every weekend, that’s for sure! What a beautiful life we have. 


Game of Thrones Halloween


Gene and  I love to watch Game of Thrones together, so this year’s Halloween costumes were a not brainer. We are camping with his sisters in NY state and rocking the Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen costumes everywhere we go. My day was made when we stepped out of the camper and a random guy yelled, “Winter is Coming!” 



Middle School Misery

Aidan is in the 7th grade, and at times, I wish I could just time-warp his life ahead a couple of years so he can escape the unnecessary drama of middle school.  Don't get me wrong -- I am going to curl up in the fetal position for a few hours when he turns 13 in February, rocking back in forth in denial that I have a teenaged son.  But I can't help but wish these miserable social years away for him every once in a while. 

Most of the drama this year seems to stem from the fact that Aidan is short for his age.  With two grandmothers under 5 feet tall, and a great-grandmother of the same stature, this is not exactly a shock to us.  But, it's also something that is completely out of his control.  His dad is fairly tall, and I am 5'5", so I believe a growth spurt is coming his way soon, but that doesn't help when he is called a "midget" on a regular basis.  The immaturity and downright mean nature of some middle school boys is frustrating and disheartening, to say the least.  My heart breaks for him as Aidan tells me stories of the mean comments boys make in gym class ("I don't want him on my team; he's short") or even in chorus ("You're short and you can't sing.").  Aidan works twice as hard to prove himself (in gym, he won the badminton match 9-3 and Aidan is probably one of the strongest students in the music department right now), which may be a silver lining to this cloudy year.  He is developing a determination that will serve him well in life, but at times the energy it takes to sustain can be exhausting.  

Time will prove these lessons to Aidan.  Last night, Aidan was telling me that he only has a handful of friends, and I tried to explain that having a few good, true friends is much better than having a hundred superficial ones.  He knows that, but the sting of feeling left out remains.  I was glad to hear him say, "I hate everything about school except my classes and teachers."  That means, to me, that he is focused on the right parts of his day.  At the same time, so much of school involves learning social skills and interaction.  Again, even these negative exchanges with kids will teach him lessons, but those lessons are difficult for him to go through -- and difficult for his mother to witness.  

Aside from praying for that growth spurt, I am a shoulder to cry on whenever he needs me.  I try to advise him the best I can, but the terrible truth of parenting is that we can only do so much for our children.  Once they walk out the door, the choices they make are theirs.  I've suggested that Aidan focus on the positives in his day (he has a tendency toward pessimism), but I can't force that to happen.  I can only be consistent in my encouragement and hope, "This too shall pass." 

Fall Reflections

After weeks of summer-like temperatures, fall appears to be truly upon us.  If the frost advisory notification from my weather app is any indication, that is.  Nearly a marking period under our belts at school, and nearly a flip of the calendar away from November -- it's that time when the new begins to wear off the school year and the shine begins to fade a bit.  Classroom routine begins to feel, well, routine.  Habits begin to emerge: absenteeism, misbehavior, inattention -- and of course, enthusiasm, determination, persistence.  

Around this time of year, I like to take a bit of a personal litmus test.  What's working? What/who needs more attention? and also, as a self-professed over-Giver, I have to ask preservation questions: Can I sustain this effort and work load for three more marking periods? How will I manage this when the musical starts? Am I doing too much for students who haven't met me half way? 

I have always found benefit in self-reflection.  So far, I am very happy with what's happening in my classroom.  My English 12 students are writing on a regular basis (we are on journal #25 and we've had 35 days of school); we've just finished a book that they really liked; in addition, they have been reading current articles and responding to them on a weekly basis; and we are starting a personal essay assignment that I am excited about.  I have established a good rapport with the classes, and we seem to have a decent balance between a relaxed atmosphere and an academic one.  Yesterday, a substitute came in to get a reading for a class he's covering next week.  One of my seniors piped up after he left the room:  "When is he in for you?"  I told her, and she replied, "That's it.  I am not coming to school that day."  I asked why not, and she said, "I like him, but he's just not you.  If you aren't here, I'll just come in late."  Of course, I told her to get her butt to school anyway.  

My AP classes are small but mighty.  I find in one particularly quiet class, I need to do a little more lecture style than I am used to, but it's good for me to switch my delivery strategies up as well.  They have been journaling; they blog once a week; they wrote a formal essay; they have regular quizzes on rhetorical terms; and we just started my notorious notes chart assignment that students initially hate and then grudgingly admit was really good for them.  Because I have half as many AP kids this year, I am able to do some of the assignments that I altered last year when I had 52 in AP and 50 in Honors, plus drama classes.  I am very fortunate to have the schedule I do this year, even though I still have 130 students on my rosters for various classes.  

130 students to 1 teacher (plus learning support staff to help students who need more assistance).  At times, that number is staggering.  At other times, I am fully aware that there are other teachers in our building with far MORE students in their care.  In my doctorate class, there are teachers from all levels -- a kindergarten special ed teacher, a 4th grade teacher, two high school health and phys. ed teachers, a handful of English teachers, a high school learning support teacher, an AP history teacher -- and some administrators.  Across the board, these educators face demanding schedules every day.  This is the norm in the field right now.  (It's also part of the reason that young people are not attracted to education careers right now as well.)  In fact, I wrote my first research paper on teacher/school morale -- how do these conditions affect the school climate?  What happens when teachers feel overwhelmed and under appreciated? How does this affect students? What can be done about it?

Unfortunately, most of what effect teacher morale comes from on high -- the State demands tests, the Board cuts positions, the Administration creates large classes.  So the responsibility falls on the staff to remain optimistic and to support each other.  I have made it a point to get out of my room more often and talk to people in my building.  I try to remain as upbeat as possible.  (Yes, there are days when we just have to vent to each other, but even on those days, I try to make a joke or leave on a positive note.) I've noticed that in being encouraging to others, I find myself encouraged as well.  There are always ways to improve what goes on in our school, and I am not suggesting we all wear our rose-colored glasses and pretend everything is wonderful all the time.  But, there are many amazing things happening at our school, and being in classes with other teachers from other school districts has reminded me of how fortunate I am to work where I do.  

So, with three more marking periods to go, I'd say we are in a good place.  As the frost turns to snow and the calendar marches toward 2018, I feel confident that both teachers and students will be learning and growing through meaningful experiences and challenging situations -- and we will all come out better for it.