Saturday, August 31, 2013

New challenges, new directions

Here I am at the Labor-Management Conference, 2012

It's the end of August and I'm getting ready to start a new position as the Gifted and Talented Specialist in a New Jersey suburban school. At a community presentation on my second day on the job, a gentleman said, "I read your blog" and I realized that I had abandoned this enterprise of writing down my life for quite some time. NJ TOY Travels had been waiting for a bit of narrative for far too long.

In 2011-2012, I spent the year in D.C. as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow. I worked on a team of 5 Fellows, based in the U.S. Department of Education and with 11 more who remained in their schools around the country. At ED, as we called the U.S. Department of Education, I had the honor of working with Jo Anderson and Massie Ritch as my designated "Leads". I was on the Labor-Management Collaboration Team (LMC) led by Joanne Weiss with Brad Jupp, Jo Anderson, Aurora Steinle and Tyra Mariani and student intern, Shane Smith. I saw and learned how the top unions work and how collaboration can happen when everyone puts their cards on the table and speaks frankly about their perspective. I worked on the International Summit on the Teaching Profession with the LMC team under the stunning leadership of Maureen McLaughlin. What a year!

My Ambassador Fellow colleagues, Genevieve DeBois, Shakera Walker, Greg Mullenholz and Claire Jellinek sustained me and kept it real through the year while teaching me so much about what it means to teach and to lead. Together, policy folks and teachers forged an exciting initiative called RESPECT, which is an acronym meaning "Recognizing Educational Success Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching." I worked in the Office of the Secretary, but also under the Office of Communications and Outreach, learning an amazing amount about what it means to communicate sincerely with people in all kinds of contexts across this nation.

Peter Cunningham, the head of OCO, was a big mentor in this area as I watched him seek out the perspectives of the teachers on staff to make sure that we were hearing what teachers needed, believed and wanted. The Fellows traveled the country to really listen to over 5000 teachers' perspectives on the RESPECT initiative and the year after I left, fellows captured the thinking of 5,000 more. Once we listened to the teachers, we would create reports that would go directly to the policy people so that policy could be responsive to educators. Gillian Cohen-Boyer, the Ambassador Program Lead, fostered and supported this national conversation with teachers. Laurie Calvert, an Ambassador Fellow from 2009, stayed on at the Department as the head of teacher outreach, to continue inviting teachers into the department to share their perspectives and expertise. Laurie would also include the teacher's words in newsletters as she continually looked for ways to make RESPECT come alive in schools across the country.

When my Fellowship year was finished, I returned to my position at Northern Highlands Regional High School. My family and my students were waiting and I totally enjoyed my homecoming. Being back in my old classroom felt terrific and seeing the familiar faces of my students couldn't have been better. Nevertheless, all of these experiences, both in D.C. and as Teacher of the Year, had changed me. I had learned how to think of schools as organizations and I wanted to be involved in crafting their future. I loved my interaction with students and found it sustaining, but I also wanted to participate in exciting initiatives that would tap into my new skill sets. Though I had some opportunities at Highlands to lead, I had a lot more in me to share and do! Around April, I came to the realization that I would have to eventually look for a new school which would be the perfect fit for me for a new chapter in my career. Sad as it was to let go of a place that had been so very good to me, I realized that I had to do it. Almost immediately after first having this thought, I saw a position posted as a Gifted and Talented Specialist in a great school district nearby and when I clicked and read the description of what they were looking for, the position spoke my name.

It wouldn't be the first time I had left a school I loved. Before working at Northern Highlands, I had been a founding teacher at Bergen Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey and in that role, I had been actively involved in developing the talent of very gifted young people. When Bergen Academies started, under the leadership of the late Dr. John Grieco, we had more teachers than students and those teachers spent every day, till late into the night, figuring out how to provide each child with a way to create real and important educational products. The school was built around the infusion of technology, project-based learning and a true belief in youth empowerment.

When I had started there in 1992, computers weren't the omnipresent school tool they are today, but on my first day of work, I walked into a classroom filled with apple computers. I barely knew how to turn one on! The world wide web existed at this time, but to navigate, you'd have to peruse giant yellow books that looked like phone books to find the address. When you'd get to the site you were looking for, it wasn't pretty. A webpage was just words on a what looked like an electronically typed page. But, wow - how fun it was to get there! Nevertheless, I had no experience with this sort of new technology. The students entering the school were all tech savvy and ready to rock and roll and The Academies, in those early days, had a very strong sense of youth empowerment. On any given day, students floated in and out of learning experiences at some sort of regular time, but if they were particularly engaged in learning, a teacher could keep them back to dig deeper into an essay or finish an experiment.

One day, I asked freshman, Mark Lois, to stay after class for a few minutes. Mark was super proficient at the computer and I admired the irreverence he had for cables and plugs. He would always mess around with the hardware without any sense that these expensive pieces of equipment were fragile at all. He was the guy that I needed to teach me right away! "Mark, help me out. I have no clue how to work this thing and I'm supposed to teach using it," I said. "Mark stood a bit taller and started teaching me immediately, "Well, this is a mouse and this thing here, we call a desktop." And so it went. From that day forward, I would forever see students as both my students and my teachers as I respected their interests, passions and abilities.

At Bergen Academies what we were doing was teaching, but it was also talent development. Students kept portfolios and were led by the same faculty advisers for all four years of school. Teachers could plan for special meals with the kids, to bond and become a community. We did extensive projects that had us working into the night. My own children, Joe and Melynda, were small and of course I needed to attend to their needs in the evenings. Half the time, I would pick them up and turn that clunker of a car I drove right around to go back to school to help the students create their projects. I felt like I was being a bad mother, but when presented with the plan, my kids would scream: "Yay!" while jumping up and down and shouting, "are we having pizza?" Once we'd get to the school, The Bergen Academy kids would invite my children into their project work and in this way, we all became a kind of family. Now, Melynda and Joe are grown and I'll ask if they thought that going back to school had been a bad idea, "No," says my daughter, who remembers the most since she was older at the time, "We loved it!" Phew.

Now, the students I taught at Bergen are all grown and I watch many of their marvelous lives unfold on facebook. I've met them for coffee and have gone to a few special events in their lives. I get weepy when I see them holding babies and healing sick children on the other side of the world. I haven't nor will I let them go and I won't forget what we shared.

The same thing is true for my Northern Highlands Students. I will never forget them and over the coming years, I will be filled with pride at their accomplishments. Once I am somebody's teacher, it doesn't end. Once we have that bond, it's always there to tap into.

So now, I begin a new chapter in a new school district. Last week, at the New Teachers'Orientation, I took a few walks down the street and I liked what I saw: inviting shops, a nice park to take a walk in and many community organizations that I would love to partner with in the future. I walked into the middle school on the first day and those floors were shining. I LOVE the beginning of a school year! It's a chance to begin again and to create hope for children. Everyone I have met so far, from the administration to the secretaries to the parents and community volunteers, seems to share a strong belief in the future of the children in this community. For me, jobs are opportunities to be useful and I hope to serve this new district well.

Saturday, December 31, 2011


I am Shanghai and my buildings are budding, reaching beyond steel to their organic counterparts.

I am a building that flowers at the top. I am shooting glass, reaching upwards 1,555 feet, giving visitors who climb my 101 stories astounding views of the city far below

I am Shanghai and business happens here. Men in white shirts, tucked in with no jackets or ties, look busy. Women travel through my streets in designer dresses sporting angular haircuts that dip and point to accentuate delicate features.

Visit The Bund, a riverside neighborhood that combines the pulse of the city and a wider expanse of river and sky.

At night, my trees drip with lights and my people come out to stroll or dine.

I am modern China in motion. I reach into the past to remember harmony and the earth. I reflect the light and water. I watch and learn everything the world will teach me. I am a fast learner and my history runs deep.

By remembering who I am and by embracing everything science and nature offers, I reinvent myself on the world’s stage. I cannot be ignored.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Great Wall of China

We are in Mutianyu and we are climbing above the treetops. I see the curving stones in the distance and Simon, our guide, tells us we will soon arrive at the Great Wall of China.

Being here in China makes me feel like a flake, blowing against history, small and fragile, yet lucky enough to be aware of the journey. The part of the wall we are visiting was built in the 3rd Century B.C., for the purpose of fortification. Thousands died in the process and their stories form a part of the wall; the tears of their children and parents cradled by the dome of heaven above.

We get to the wall and some of our group immediately takes the athletic route, bounding over the stones to a place where a slide will allow them to soar down the side of the mountain.

Mary from Delaware and Debbie from New York and I decide to take it slower. We take our time climbing up through an area that leads to a small turret and enclosure. We pose for pictures and voice our amazement about being here. A few clusters of teachers are also near and doing a similarly slow and meditative exploration. We feel the heat on our shoulders and marvel at the Chinese women who are teetering on heels while carrying fancy silk parasols.

The sky is almost crystal clear with a few puffs of clouds and you can see in every direction for miles. The sun is hot and our digital picture captures the intense light that bleaches my skin.

I’m not in the kind of shape I wish I were. I’d like to be scooting over these walls like some of my more fit colleagues, but since this thing goes for 3,000 miles, I will only get to examine a piece of it no matter how much I take on. I’m happy to have Mary and Debbie’s good company and humor and that of the other roving bands of educators who run their fingertips along these stones.

It’s one thing to read about this and yet another to touch it.

The wall winds through the countryside, cutting a path through the trees, dividing identical land on one side and another.

Makes me think about borders and how much effort we put into them. This is “you” and that is “me.” You are “my people” on this side and those people on the other side are not.

Imagine spending so much time, energy and lives to create a division!

We protect what is “ours” when we divide something that we imagine will be violated by some kind of “otherness” that we don’t want.

We want “us” and not “them.”

What’s funny in history is that those we consider family and those we do not consider family varies by the chances and fortunes of history, the political decisions, the greed or generosity of leaders and the power of natural disasters or bounty.

Do you speak my language?
Does your face look like mine?
Would I marry your son?

Walls. Here stands a great one that makes me think about the power and majesty of human enterprise, the futility of dreams that live in silos and our need to figure out ways to leap across colossal barriers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reflections on China

Some things are out of our reach because they happened long ago and we just don’t know the story. What is this stone? What child, hundreds of years ago, kicked it down the path or tossed it in a stream?

Other things are forbidden to us. The access may be blocked because we live in a racist society, which keeps people sorted by skin color or because there are walls, keypads, and barriers. We have the code or we don’t. We gain access or we don’t.

The barriers we get used to are invisible to us. We don’t see them yet we breathe them in like air. We walk between lines painted on pavement because we “are supposed to” and years ago, in an wretched moment in our history, many believed that we were “supposed” to keep races apart in separate schools, bathrooms and lives.

For me, China was an exotic, forbidden place with palaces guarded by fire breathing dragons and inscrutable people.

Years ago, people would actually say that out loud, when referring to Asian people- “inscrutable” - and then, others would nod, “yes, yes and so they are.” How do we move from a cartoonesque image of a people to finding out who they are? We have to strip ourselves of imposed images and inherited words. It takes work. What is my work here in China? What will this place and its people teach me?

Tiananmen Square

Our tour bus pulled up at Tiananmen Square. It was a vast space flanked by massive sculptures on one side – I saw the sculpted images of glorious workers building a country – a strong woman, solid men.

In the Square, the people strolled freely. Debbie snapped a picture of Mary, Tom, and I. The sky was grey and it hung a quiet feeling over the place.

But I felt like something was supposed to happen. A siren? An unfriendly look? Nothing. Just our guide, Simon, pointing out the features of the place over the audio device we hung from our necks. Mao’s giant picture over there, red Communist flags flapping on the top of the wall. It’s was the 50th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist party. People were happy to be enjoying some free time with their kids and friends.

The Summer Palace

We climbed on the bus and drove to the Summer Palace. Tour buses of Chinese tourists were already congregating outside of the entrance and they were staring at us, as we exited the bus, but not in a mean way. They looked at us to learn us – to study our faces, to take in our height or unusual hair, our gait – the way we stood and spoke.

Alex, our Tour director explained, “This is probably the first time these people have seen Westerners.” I stared back at the Chinese tourists and didn’t look away, my eyes wide open.

There was a lily pond just below, where we’ve pulled up, foliage floating in clustered packs, buds rising up.

Turns out that the Palace was only a fraction of the place it once was. Intricate painted ceilings, water everywhere, a dragon boat that moved through lily pond water. The Chinese walked around eating ears of corn as if they were ice cream cones. Vendors squatted down near enormous buckets and Chinese dads scooped up an armful of ears of corn for everyone. It was a special day. Small children wore jumpsuits with a slit from front to back so that they could be held over earth to relieve themselves when their parents or grandparents felt that their body was preparing to evacuate. Tender.

Forbidden City

I always wanted to go here. There’s a lot in a name. Forbidden! Who says? You can’t say that to me, I thought.

This place was once a massive city, more than just a single palace, built according to the principals of Feng Shue for the Emperor and his servants, his many wives, his palace officials. Incense was burnt here, with offerings lifting to heaven. Gongs were rung. Young and beautiful women were offered to the Emperor as young concubines, who lived in tiny apartments, hung with silk.

We walked through large spaces leading to palaces and then that palace would lead to another space or square. I was trying to imagine it all filled up with people, soldiers, and children. I saw some women with elegant parasols who managed to walk on the stone slabs with heels on. Years before, Chinese women had bound feet. Would they have been carried with their delicate feet over the enormous space till they were safely installed in their rooms?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Welcome to Beijing! Day One

Here's Simon, our Tour Director

On June 23rd, 2011, we arrive in Beijing, surprisingly hardy after a 15 hour flight. We are the NEA Foundation, Awards of Teaching Excellence winners and we come from all over the United States to meet here in China. Simon, our Chinese Tour Director, is waiting for us at the airport.

We gather in a big circle, once we get our bags. Simon's easy and open way of relating is immediately clear to all of us.

I half listen to Simon while also thinking, "Ah, I need money - now what is the currency here? Oh, yeah, it's Yuan....hmmm...I remember that 6 and a half Yuan are a dollar."

I scoot over to an ATM just behind the group. My legs have a way of running while my arms hang stiff at my side. I get to the ATM and see Chinese symbols written all over the machine, but something is wrong. Oh, no! This isn't an ATM, it's fresh drinking water. English is written on the machine too and there is a clear line drawing of a cup.

But nearby I see an ATM and I successfully manage to get some Yuan. Yahoo! Bill after bill pops out with Mao's picture.

Simon follows up by explaining the currency to us, on the bus.

"Here we have a five Yuan note and you can see Mao's picture. Here is a 20 Yuan note and guess what? Mao's picture. Actually, every Yuan note has Mao's picture. He's an important guy."

That's Simon. He lays out the facts with passion and humor. His English is really good and it's clear that his tourism gig has the focus of a great teacher.

We get into our hotel and shower off the dust of the day. Some folks get money and others venture right out, for coffee, tea, whatever.

Debbie Calvino, the Awards of Teaching Excellence winner from New York (also the New York State Teacher of the Year for 2010) is my roommate for this trip. I appreciate having a smart New York roomie with a sense of humor for this trip.

Debbie and I are both pretty tired, but we settle into our room and quickly change clothes to get ready for dinner with the group. I'm not too hungry, but we are breaking out into real China by going to an actual Chinese restaurant. What will that be like? Will my favorite local Chinese restaurant - Bo Bo kitchen in Teaneck - have compared to real Chinese food?

A while later, we leave the hotel and walk to the restaurant, feeling better for the change of clothes and a quick splash of water. Once inside, we notice that every table has a gigantic Lazy Susan - a kind of rotating glass center portion of the table which spins, giving each person at the table a chance at the food offerings.

Soon, I see why this is necessary.

Dish after dish arrives along with a couple of liter bottles of beer and pitchers of soda. There are noodles, swimming in sauce, a tureen of vegetable soup, fish with their heads in thick soy, tiny chunks of chicken and veggies, strips of beef, fried rice, white rice, something that looks like translucent noodles, sprinkled with greens, a large bowl of thick chopped cabbage and carrots, cut on a diagonal.

We spin and grab - some of us struggling with getting slippery food from the bowls with chop sticks. Some teachers dive in and try over and over again to do it with the chop sticks and others just reach for the big spoon.

Once we're sitting down, we feel the energy starting to drain from our bodies, but the hot food in this local restaurant still feels good and welcoming to eat.

I look around and I see that almost all the tables are filled with Chinese people. They are indeed looking at us, but in a very friendly, open way - the way a mother looks at a child who has just tasted a favorite desert, which took her hours sweating in the kitchen to prepare. The Chinese diners are smiling in an encouraging way, and I think they seem relieved to see us dig into the food.

Not every teacher is happy with the food, but most are at least good sports. Traveling to a new country is challenging to one's cultural norms, especially if one's culinary experience is locally limited and unchallenged.

So this food thing is hard for a couple of us from day one.

"Oh, I'll have some white rice," says one tall and friendly looking teacher, with crystal blue eyes. "And some noodles."

I withhold judgment. I have a lot of advice about how you have to just throw yourself into a new culture, starting with food, but food limitations are tricky for people. It's hard to push out of one's comfort zone and personal experience to break through certain, previously invisible barriers.

Still, everyone's challenge is different. I am food open, for example, and like to taste my way through culture, but that doesn't mean that everything is easy for me on my cultural road.

I feel, for example, sad that I cannot speak Chinese right now. I would like to chat to the waitress about the food or ask questions about the ingredients, tell her that it's good to be here, in CHINA, on our first day - all about my flight and about how I did some toe touches in the back of the plane and mini leaps in a space between the last seat and the bathroom, so that I could keep the blood flowing.

Not that this polite waitress would care about my prattle, but I like to chat with people who cross my path about matters, both profound and mundane. I've learned too that the homeliest of topics can produce great insight for those conversing. But it's not happening today.

Instead, I say, "Sheah, sheah" which means "thank you" and waitress nods, looking at me with a tiny smile.

OK, that's something.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catching up

Where do I begin?

It's been five months since I've on this blog! Over the past months, I have been reorganizing my life and moving to D.C.

In the meantime, I went to China and Spain. It's a pretty long story, but I'm going to tell it in the order that it all happened, skipping parts of my life whenever I feel like it.

I couldn't write much about China before now. China was working on me and I needed to process that before writing any kind of story about it.


As a Horace Mann Teaching Excellence Winner for the NEA Foundation, I was invited to visit China with a group of 31 of my peers. We visited China in June, traveling from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong.

China is very far away - not just because it's literally around the world and you have to hop over the planet to get there, but because my life had developed no cozy feeling about this nation or its people. Going to China changed my life because it broke down barriers that I didn't know were there - my own internal Great Wall.

Note to self: there are more in there, waiting to be uncovered. Do I dare find them? Can I keep up the bravery required of searching out inner rigidities?

Today, it helped me to share my experience of the trip with five fellow travelers at the NEA Executive Board meeting. We passionately told our stories the best way we could and I am sure that the group was moved and felt like they had also traveled some of the distance with us.

By telling the story, in the way we did, the story came back to me. I could see those colors, smell the scent in the streets, feel the people near me as they walked down busy streets. The world un-flattened itself and China, its schools, street vendors, skyscrapers and rickshaws came back to me with all of the force of a dream, remembered.

Yes, I went to China and now, I'll try to tell you the story of where I traveled and why this matters to me.

I've been in a classroom for 33 years and now, I've come to Washington D.C. to work as a Fellow in the Department of Education for one year. Every day, in the Department of Education, we do serious work in our cubicles and conference rooms as we discuss outcomes and project success. We talk to many people, both inside and outside of the solid buildings with their W, C and E conference rooms on every floor. It's good and important work.

But for now, I want to remember what it was like to be somewhere I never had dreamed of going before - a place that tested my limits and stretched my comfort zones - China, a land I fell in love with and a people who had me at Ni How.

The way this will go is that I'll share some of my pictures and I'll intersperse them with words. I'll do my best to help you see what I saw and feel what I felt. There are people who know more facts about China then I ever will and others who will take photographs so vibrant that you could step into a landscape.

But what I know how to do is to be honest about what it is I think I saw and what it meant to me, a lifelong teacher. I hope that doing this will matter to someone who might have been hesitant to venture forth on any kind of adventure to a new land. It's not easy crossing the Great Wall we build within.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Philosophy in Spanish

The following is taken directly from the Dwight Englewood School website (

Students Chosen as US Delegation to Int'l. Philosophy Olympiad

Dwight-Englewood School (D-E) proudly announces that two Upper School seniors will represent the U.S. at the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO), scheduled to take place in Vienna, Austria, May 26-29, 2011.

Joseph Murphy, Chair of the D-E Ethics Department, confirmed recently that Kelly Greiss ’11 and Andrew Loeshelle ’11 have been accepted to participate in the 2011 IPO, through the Olympiad’s sponsoring organizations, the American Philosophical Association (APA), and the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP).

The IPO was founded in 1993 and is associated with the international organization UNESCO, receiving funding in part by corporate sponsors such as Coca Cola and Generali. Open to all high school students globally who study philosophy, the IPO entails a competition in which students must compose an essay on one of 4 topics given to them at the competition. The main theme of the 2011 Olympiad is “The Power and Powerlessness of Philosophy.” The topics are submitted by philosophy teachers and professors worldwide. Students are required to write their essays in a language that is not the primary language of their country or their own mother tongue; English, French, German and Spanish are the languages allowed for the essay writing.

Students Greiss and Loeshelle were chosen to participate in the contest due to their dedicated study of philosophy at Dwight-Englewood, their approaching fluency in Spanish and for having participated in the School’s “D-E in Spain” summer language immersion program at the Universidad de Salamanca.

In addition to the essay writing competition, the IPO entails multiple collaborative discussions and ‘philosophical walks’ between students, teachers, and professors. All participants will also attend a Mayor’s reception hosted in their honor at the Vienna Town Hall, and a closing ceremony at the University of Vienna.

Murphy noted, “Hundreds of students compete in the IPO; and dozens of countries participate. Many countries have philosophy as a required aspect of their curriculum, so this is a very prestigious and highly competitive event. Our students are the very first team from the US to participate in the IPO using Spanish, which is an incredible honor for our School. Right now we are in training to prepare for the competition. We are finishing a reading of Brian David Mogck’s Writing to Reason and Historia de la Filosofia by Fernando Savater. In April and May we will be writing practice essays every week."

Murphy continues: “In a time when critical thinking is profoundly needed in our society, beyond our school, and where communications and collaboration are essential, where reflection and deep thinking are imperative, I hope that our School’s standing as the US Delegation to the IPO will inspire more students to think more deeply, philosophically, creatively, and reflectively. This can inform everything else they do, in ways that they cannot imagine yet. Suffice to say, we are quite thrilled to have this opportunity to participate in this unique international academic event.”