Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Observing a Colleague (Math)

Making good on my commitment to watching colleagues teach this year, I observed a math teacher today during my planning period. Math is something well out of my comfort zone and content area.

I found it refreshing to flush the content from my vision or hearing. The teaching was what mattered. Too often, we confuse content knowledge with the stuff that makes an effective teacher.

Effective teaching is about the conditions of your classroom as much as it is about the content...yet, the balance of attention and energy isn't always there. Curriculum, Common Core, Assessment, Tests, Scores, and Rankings share space at the adult table while the conditions of our classroom are often relegated to the unobserved little kids table.

Today, I got to see the balance and the best of both worlds at work.

It struck me that Glen used a technique English teacher's often lament that they don't do enough because we don't have the time--conferring. How can we find the time when we have so much curriculum to get to? You'll find that a shared sentiment across the nation.

Yet, even though a Math curriculum is just as intense and as bloated (and tested) as an English curriculum, I loved watching a teacher plan a lesson that included conferring time with many students.

Conferring was embedded in the natural technique. Nothing about it felt like it was a special arrangement because no "front" of the room existed. Glen is just so natural and good at it, but I know enough to realize that it is also very deliberate and intentional.

Additionally, I appreciated that when the students worked they were encouraged to talk to one another.

I know in the instruction of writing, turning and talking is often one of the best pre-writing tools we could encourage our students to use.

Glen has rapport with students, no doubt, but he also structured his class to encourage that rapport and the building of community. Starting the class with a warm-up designed from a pre-assessment of skills, the students selected one option from four choices.

As they worked on the "choose your own adventure" as Glen put it, he circulated around the room and made time to check-in with students. Sometimes he was by one's side for a minute or two, sometimes a bit longer.

When they moved on from the warm-up they collaborated on definitions for the tools and skills at play today. The class then dug deeper into some guided practice (same skills) and then transitioned to trying some problems on their own.

Throughout the class, I was reminded of the power of talking with our opposed to talking at them. Well done, Glen. I understand the joy and energy on the faces of this kids in your room a little better now. Thank you for welcoming me today!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Energy to Teach

Don Graves wrote quite a bit about teachers drawing their energy from students. I would like to add that the more we get to know our students, the greater the exchange of energy. 

We can energize our students just by our own attitudes and dispositions. 

We can energize our students when and if they see our passion for our subjects.

I asked my 8th grade students to complete an online questionnaire about their reading and writing life. I tried to ask questions that will help me learn more about them individually as well as a group. As the results accumulate, I feel energized.

For example, the last question reads, "I created a theme for the year for this class: 'Writing is a craft. Our classroom, a studio.' React to that in anyway you want. Tell me what strikes you about it, or what you may connect with, or even what questions come up for you about that statement."

Below are some of the student responses to my self-created theme for the year, Writing is a Craft. Our classroom, a studio:

This theme makes me feel confident in my writing because if the classroom is like a studio then no one is judging your writing. JF
It kind of reminds me of an art class. Like writing is the art we are working on and the art studio is our classroom. It makes me wonder what this year truly holds in creative writing for me. What art project will I create in the studio of writing. SL
I think you are saying that writing is something you have to do and work on and that your classroom is a place to build and perfect it. DB
Writing is counted as art, even though all what forms it is black lines stroked across a paper in certain patterns forming thoughts or ideas. I find that amazing because it basically means everything is an art since we express ourselves daily, even if not in writing. If so, wouldn't our classroom be only one part of the studio that makes up our lives? Or is writing only an art because it is made up of drawings / typing's? Or is it because we can strategically express ourselves through the words we place on the paper like the way a painter chooses the colors on her canvas? ST 
What strikes me mainly would be the idea that writing isn't just something people do for school. It's also a talent and a skill. It's a craft, as said in the theme. It is not just any skill either, it's a very important one that you use through your entire life. Saying that our classroom is a studio is, to me, a way of saying that the point of it is not to feel like you're writing for school, but that you have a studio where you can feel comfortable writing and sharing your writings with other people in the "studio". ET
 A simple exchange--a heartfelt and honest exchange--can be a great energizer for the start of the year. I am grateful that my students are taking the time respond to my theme for the year so thoughtfully.

And I am already looking forward to tomorrow to hear their thoughts about the rest of the results from the questionnaire.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Remembering Mr. Patton

Tomorrow, our middle school will host a memorial for the man the building was named after: Charles F. Patton--one of the best listeners I have known in education. He was so good at listening that even if you weren't looking for it you noticed it.

You noticed and felt the sincerity of his eyes on you. He was the model of mutual respect. He loved young people, education, and you knew he loved teachers.

credit: Norman Rockwell
Hired after he retired, I could consider myself "second generation Patton" yet I still came to know Charles because he embraced education and our school community as a part of his life. But, I have to admit, there is something in the way my "first-generation Patton" colleagues (those hired by Charles) speak about him. It was as if Charles stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting and right into their lives because when they talk about Charles they all do one thing the same.

They smile.

And you notice and feel the sincerity in their eyes. His example imprinted that sincerity in them.

What resonates best with me is just how many stories from those colleagues begin with, "Charles would take you into his office and sit you down and..."

And talk.

Actually, he would press the right buttons so others could talk and he could listen. He gave them all of the time in the world. All of the time they ever needed. And he loved doing it.

You could see and feel that from his eyes too. I know that is a part of the reason why they smile when they remember Charles.

We all have the same hours in the day, yet Charles made it seem like he had all the time in world for you. He wasn't in a hurry with you. In a weird way that is difficult to explain, he indeed did have all of the time in the world for his staff, his students, and his community.

He freely gave everyone his time. All of it. And it was his joy and honor to do it.

Anytime I was around the man, he would take the time to look at me and ask me how I was...and after listening...he would ask about my class, or coaching, or the school play, or anything I was involved in. You couldn't walk within the vicinity of Charles and not be drawn into a heartfelt conversation with him.

During my first ten years in the building, I directed the school plays. Charles, long since retired, came to many of the performances. He would sit quietly off to the side and leave when it was done--careful not to attract attention or distract from the kids and their mentor. He would talk with me about it at another time.

I saw Charles in a folding chair at so many sporting events. Sometimes he would be talking with others--actually, they would be talking and he would be listening--and it would come as no surprise that he knew the names of the kids on the field.

I saw Charles at school concerts and I saw him in the evenings in the school library as the host for a community bridge night.

I saw Charles stop to talk to people. He always stopped. He stopped to talk to kids, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff--everyone. He seemed to stop time when he did it.

But what I remember is his eyes.

They were so focused on you. He was listening. He was giving you his time. And you would understand that.

Tomorrow, at the memorial, a large part of what I will think about and take a lesson from is his example as a listener and what an incredibly powerful tool listening can be for an educator.

And I am also going to think about time.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote "Love is so short, forgetting is so long."

I used to think about that line as sad. Yet, as I write and think about Charles, I can reinvent it as a happy line. We will memorialize and celebrate the much too short, wonderful tenure of Mr. Patton's love for education, young people, and teachers...and many will smile for a long, long time because they could never, ever possibly forget a man who did so much for so many.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What an Opportunity!

A young girl climbed back onto the ship to place her mask, snorkel, and flippers back in the bin. We asked her how it was.

She said, "What an opportunity!"

A 60 year old woman from New York--her accent revealing that she was a lifetime New Yorker--asked aloud, "When am I ever going to get a chance to be on a sailboat, off the coast of Costa Rica, in the Pacific, so close to the equator?"

It is easy to forget--or lose track of your surroundings. Vacations usually heighten our awareness, but we can forget here too.

In the wake of comedian Robin Williams's death, a piece of a quote of his strikes me. After working on a film after getting out of rehab, he said, "I'd forgetten how fun it is to work with your friends."

I'd add doing anything with your friends, but I share his sentiment. I work with some people I consider dear friends and they do, indeed, make work fun.

We shouldn't ever need to apologize for friendships, should we?

Friendships make everything better. Our entire vacation has been enhanced by friendships all around us--new ones, old ones, rekindled ones, and friendships maintained over great distances and time.

Jack Kerouac wrote that friendship is knowing that no matter how much time and distance ever comes between two people, when reunited it is as if they never left.

Since marrying in May 2013 my best friend has led me to Italy and Costa Rica, has helped me through surgery and recovery, and filled in the gaps everywhere in between.

Friendships have made me a better teacher, writer, and coach. 

Friendships have opened doors and presented opportunities that I never could have attained alone.

No one ever apologizes for great marriages, vacations, or friendships...and no one ever forgets them. In my life, all are infinitely better because of the friendship factor.

A little girl and a 60 year old woman gave me some perspective yesterday. After all, when is the next great opportunity to be with friends in a magnificent part of the world?



And next week when I return to work.

Every day is a great opportunity to be with friends and welcome new ones. Every place is a great opportunity to be a part of something new.

The trick for me is not forgetting that...and not apologizing for it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Steeped in Friendships

Twice a day, Costa Ricans sit down around a kitchen table with family and friends for coffee. And they talk.

We had the opportunity to do this last night in Monteverde. A friend of Bill and Lynore, Ken, invited us to his home to taste several different types of coffee with his family.

For two hours, Ken walked us through the process of preparing a great cup of coffee. Using various beans and techniques, we learned about the science and local history of coffee. The type of grind, the weight and ratio of bean to water, the amount of time that water touches the bean all matters.

Ken's passion for coffee was the theme of the evening, but his honoring of relationships impressed me more. 

His life is steeped in coffee, friendships, and helping the coffee farmers. Traditionally, the business model of coffee only returned 2% of the profits back to the farmers. Corporations and middle men chewed up the profit and discarded the farmer. We see this in America--the disappearing act of local farms across our nation is due in large part because local, organic farmers can no longer afford to stay in business. It costs too much to compete with chemicals, GMOs, and farms resembling turn-of-the -century factories.

The night made sense to me when I heard Ken's story. For the record, Ken answered our questions. We were, like I remember my ancestors doing in the 70s, sitting around a kitchen table and just talking.

The coffee he prepared was great; it made me want to know more about it and him. And while the coffee was great, the story behind it elevated the experience of drinking it. The story heightened the experience.

For years, he had several business irons in the fire, but a tangible success touched his life when he reached out to help others. 

Bill shared an anecdote that years ago Ken took an empty building--floundering unused for a long time-- in Monteverde and made a deal with the owner (I hope I have the facts right). Ken proposed that he use the space free of charge and open a coffee shop. Once profits started he agreed to start cutting the building's owner in. He agreed to give it a shot. So, Ken opened and promptly placed a sign in the window: Free Coffee.

And he left it there. And people came and drank the coffee which was so good they asked where they could get it. And Ken started to sell it. It took off. Locals bought it and shipped it all over the world to family and friends.

This is the kind of stuff business legends are made of. I kept thinking about models of success. People who demonstrated creativity and perseverance even when failure was just as close as success...maybe even closer some days. His example is in the fact that while we all experience the fear of failure, some do not let it paralyze them.

Recently, he's excited others to grow his ideas and, like all innovators, smashed an existing business model. Ken is getting 50%--75% of the profits back into the hands of local farmers while producing an artisanal quality coffee.

We earned so much last night--about coffee, about friendship, about welcoming everyone's story into your life. 

The only way I could honor what Ken shared with us last night was to write it all down--to bring you closer to the kitchen table we sat together at and talked.

Like the way our grandparents used to in America.

And for that, I have our friends, Bill and Lynore, to thank. So much if our trip has been about the natural beauty of the world, but a majority has been about friendship.

And honoring the people who enter our lives.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rough Roads

Ay! the roads in Costa Rica must keep auto mechanics well-fed. 

Once leaving a paved road, you are in rocky, rutted, compact in some places, silty and slick in others, with nowhere to pull over. Places where you and I might expect to pull over in an emergency is often a deep drain for flooding rains. Pull over into one and you surely snap an axel. The car jolts up and down hill with force that is beyond rattling and rumbling.

I cringe a few times every minute with the concussive force or stress placed on the vehicle. Our friends shared that they know someone who lost a tire...a wheel the vibrations loosened or snapped the lugnuts.

Costa Ricans must be great drivers to maneuver around one boulder in preference of going over the tooth-jarring other boulder in the path. Drivers here have to avoid bicycles and motorcycles zipping around cars; wandering livestock; dogs rooting around or laying in the road; and people walking...but the unpaved roads take the cake.

We stopped for a roadside bite--spicy shredded chicken, lettuce, and tomato wrapped in grilled flour tortillas. They were browned and soft and tangy. 

Behind the hut, macaws live in the trees. They are kept well-fed by caretakers but fly freely from tree to tree.

Climbing the "good" road to Monteverde--the road where our hosts chatted freely while Karla and I gripped each other in the back seat--was another unexpected adventure. Imagine an incline of cinderblock, stone, and sand. Now imagine it snaking uphill for mile upon mile--with sheer dropoffs of a thousand feet or more (no guard rails of any sort). Imagine it as a touch more than one lane and insert occasional oncoming traffic around blind turns.

The ascents and descents were steep as roller coasters.

And everyone used to living here laughed about the road...because it is the GOOD road. Horses grazed on the sheer ledge and shared the road with passing vehicles honking for then to move...where, I don't know. On that road, options are limited unless one has wings.

When I climbed out of the car, I asked our friend, Bill, if he ever gets white-knuckled on that road--nope, but that other road, yes, at times.

There is always another less travelled for a reason.

Everything doesn't always have to be so damn poetic.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Unexpected Experiences

The unexpected experiences--or the experiences exceeding all expectations--make the indelible memories of a new place. 

I've been thinking about these top five surprises for a few days now.

1. Walking
Walking in Costa Rica is a way of life. People walk everywhere--even along the side of the road with the traffic. It can be dangerous at night as most roads are unlit and the countryside can be stark and black.

2. Fences
Many homes--from the wealthiest estate to the spare, rough hewn structure--have fences. Some are barbed wire, some steel gates, and others are scraps of fallen trees and building materials. The fences are in place to keep out the cattle...who also walk everywhere. Through neighborhoods. In the middle of busy roads and halting traffic.

3. Color
Many countries offer buildings as points of interest to learn about it's history, art, and architecture. In Costa Rica, it's art and history and architecture is it's outdoors. Everything comprising the landscape--plants and insects (multi-colored dragon flies!); sunsets and rocky terrain; homes and beaches--are spun from color and story.

4. Friendliness
We've met friends of Lynore and Bill from all over the world, and they live here in Costa Rica: Equador, Canada, Spain, Italy, New York City, Minnesota, North Dakota, Columbia, and so on. They blend in with the native Costa Ricans and create a harmonious community that not only gets along, but carries the mantle of one of the friendliest nations on the planet.

5. Rawness
So much here feels--for lack of a better term--raw. While you can find paved roads between major points of interest or need, you're more likely to drive on unpaved roads if you wander into neighborhoods. There are buses for people relying on them, but scant few bus stops. The buses will stop anyplace that people stand and wait. Anyplace in the countryside. 

Modernized life is present--electricity, cable tv, ATMs--but it feels like a tolerated neighbor. Costa Rica has it's own energy--a unique charge that is long lost in America.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Unexpected Gift

The beach at Tamarindo, Costa Rica is wide and curves like a hanging palm frond. Out beyond the point to our left, the breakers explode before they reach the shore. For a moment I thought whales were leaping and splashing--but it was the incoming waves crashing against black, volcanic rock.

Far to the right, over a natural rise of vegetation, an estuary is home to alligators.

A thin man, well-creased like stirred, simmering caramel, pulled a red cooler behind him. He approached and asked if we would like ice-cold beer. We passed: "no, grĂ¡cious."

Others selling trinkets and souvenirs approached. Each time, we passed as Lynore instructed us, "no, grĂ¡cious."

Straight ahead, several hundred yards into the Pacific, dozens of fishing boats anchored for the afternoon.

Clouds, pale and calm, lingered. Yet, the day was still bright and warm.

The man dragging the cooler doubled back at the end of the beach, and we waved him over.

Ok, we will have one beer each. But only one. One. 

Asking our names, he bowed to the women and shook all our hands, appreciative of the sale. 

Our friend Lynore, introduced herself as Dolores. Taking her cue, Karla and I introduced ourselves as Camille and Andre.

He smiled and said that he would be right back, "Uno, momento!" And he asked us to watch his cooler.

We were confused. He was going to buy us beer.

What was in the cooler? 

He was gone for half an hour. During that time we speculated as to what might be in the cooler if it wasn't the ice cold beer he was "selling." Water? A severed head?

He cradled three beers--more cool than ice cold--and charged us one American dollar for each of them. 

Bottled water was mentioned as we handed him money--and expecting change in return. He heard "water" and said "uno momento!" and started off for another 1/2 trek with our cash in his fist.

Wait! We called him back.

In Spanish, Lynore sorted out the money--he'd actually given us too much change-- they haggled over the paper currency and the coins and he looked off to the ocean, exasperated (maybe that we didn't quite trust him) and he called us difficult. 

Before he left, shaking our hands again and calling us by our fake names, I had Lynore translate my question for him.

"What's in the cooler?"

Smiling, he reached in and pulled out a small bottle of rum.

We each had our one beer and watched the afternoon grow dim. The clouds never left.

Several times, friends muttered that we'd have to catch a better sunset or sunrise another day--the clouds were obscuring this one.

The sun sets right around 6:00pm in early August. Just as the sun was touching the horizon through a tiny break in the clouds, what was seen as a hindrance provided opportunity.

The colors shifted every few moments, but the sky awoke in color in the way that a silent concert hall erupts with a symphony.

My words can't do it justice, but for ten minutes we were surrounded by an unexpected gift.

 This gift of ten minutes is reminding myself to think of my parents, my wife, and my friends this way--to take the time to stop and just "be" with them.

A gift that we never saw coming, but when it arrived it was obvious and present and made everyone pause and watch.

Even the youngest children. 

You can see a boy named Conner sitting in the center of the frame.

When we leave Costa Rica, this might just be my favorite moment--something that makes even a child just stop and be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Following Friendship into Costa Rica

It was 93 degrees yesterday in Costa Rica--fans whirled through the airport in Liberia--and after a warm welcome by our friends Lynore and Siena, we went for a bite to eat in the town of Liberia. Fish seviche--normally made of Corvina--for most of us.

Lunch was a great introduction to the slower, relaxed pace of life here. The food was fresh and bright--the service was pleasant and attentive--and the food came out...eventually. But, no problem.

Lynore's daughter, Siena, indulged in a fresh, tall blueberry smoothie while we waited and it immediately made me anxious to taste the fresh fruit of this region. As I write now, I am enjoying a surprise Mango smoothie that Lynore whipped up.

After lunch, we followed Lynore's car to a waterfall about 2 kilometers from the main road. The major road was under construction for most of the ride.

On either side of the road we passed deserted, once glorious, farm estates that must have been something to see when they thrived in the late 19th century. 

We passed what I can only describe as shanty towns or what I think of as Hoovervilles--ragged, doorless, homes constructed with recycled building material. The images of rocking chairs and wandering dogs and people on old bicycles completed the scenery...until we passed the horses. Some were tied to side of the road, others ran free on dry farmland. We passed cattle and we passed children playing and laughing in the cloudy dirt. People walked. Men sold local fruit under the shade of roadside stands. And people waited for buses.

The volcano Tenorio loomed far in the distance.

The sign to the waterfall is easily missed. Faded paint on a small scrap of wood blended into the vegetation and trees. The history of the waterfall is that it used to be a local, unadvertised secret spot in Guanacaste.

We pulled onto the dirt road, uneven and bumpy, and followed it passed a sign indicating a hotel and restaurant existed, or once did. 

A woman waited under an awning and took donations for the construction of a local school before letting us take the road up to the waterfall.

The unpaved road was the roughest if ever driven on. We had to ease the (rental) car--a Toyota Corolla--over a mile of a winding stretch if jagged stone and hard dirt ruts. Even at 5 miles an hour or less the car rocked and bounced and scraped and rumbled. I thought through a silent prayer that we wouldn't snap an axel.

Once we parked, the walk to the waterfall  made for treacherous footing. It was a steep downhill (climb?) journey on a natural path of (more) jagged stone and tree roots. It was a winding zig zag about fifty yards down.

Lynore advised, "Watch where you put your hands if you need to grab something for balance."  We didn't want to surprise any snakes. We didn't see any.

Once reaching the first glimpse of waterfall--the first I've ever seen--we stepped onto a small beach with a really fine sand. Around us were a kind of fig tree--a strangler fig--that didn't seem to bear fruit, but the roots grew up out of stone and twisted and hugged and entangled.

The mist from the falls was cool and subtle--we were still over a hundred yards from it--and we wades out into the pooling river water to take pictures. The water was refreshingly cool.

Lynore and her daughter climbed to the falls and walked behind it--not as treacherous as they imagined--and reported there was a dark cavern which they left unexplored...much to Siena's disappointment.

Our ride home took us past many little towns--one even named Filidelphia (after our home)--and again we saw the tiny, simple homes, but as it was late in the afternoon, we passed more people of all ages. They walked everywhere and as a driver I had to be ultra aware as twilight came. We drove incredibly close to people who didn't seem to be fazed by the cars zipping by them, inches away.

Even when the area seemed remote, we passed a lone woman waiting for a bus or a solitary silhouette of a man crossing a flat field. 

By the time we reached Lynore and Bill's home it was six o'clock and night has fallen. We reacquainted with their son Liam, a soon-to-be senior in high school, and two of his friends. All great guys. We had a beer to unwind and Lynore put marinating ribs on the grill--which made the eyes of the three teenaged boys light up--and we shared in a nice feast at the end of a memorable first day in Costa Rica.

Which leads me to something I am (re)learning. Costa Rica is similar to many other amazing places in the word in that the landscape and lifestyle and history is memorable and worth experiencing. But it is only through the people of a region--and if one is lucky to make friendships, the friendships forged in a region, that make places like Costa Rica and Italt worth knowing. 

The people of a place injects its beauty into your blood and bones that our memories and photographs just can't match.

My wife and I are grateful for our friendship with Bill and Lynore and their children, and we are looking forward to meeting their friends, neighbors, and any passing stranger or two...even if some carry machetes here as a way of life (for vegetation, not people)!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I Remember..., Episode 2, Aram Kabodian

Aram Kabodian, writer and teacher, is my guest on the podcast series, "I Remember..." The series is dedicated to conversations about our family history and heritage.

Any who would like to participate in the podcast can contact me at or through Twitter @_briank_

Enjoy Aram's stories about his great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents and their connections to Armenian culture, history, and tradition.

Note: you can subscribe to "I Remember..." through the Apple iTunes podcasting app or online.