Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Meterstick of Self-Worth

Six years ago today, I was told that I should think about preparing my family for the worst case scenario.  Although I was still in a post-surgical haze, I remember being wheeled off for a series of body scans… "checking for lesions," the doctors had said.  I grabbed a picture of my family and held it close to my heart.  I prayed to God that I still had more time.  I bargained, as I suppose we all do, and I beat the odds.

I have experienced many losses since that day that feels like a lifetime ago, and yet like last week.  Most of them were unexpected, and several were young adults.  My former students, my IS alum.  I think of them daily, sometimes with questions, sometimes with immense sadness, and oftentimes, I just really miss them.  We (the seasoned teachers at IS) all miss them.  This thievery has changed each of us in different ways, triggering our thoughts to morph into action, forcing us to be less complacent, and catalyzing us to pursue our passions.

Translating these critical values into our lessons as high school teachers is tricky business.  Focusing upon the emotional well being of our teens while simultaneously presenting a well balanced curriculum leads to the age old question: What is our most important role as educators?  In addition, does anyone ever ask the students what they want/need from their educational experience, either during high school and/or beyond?  I often wonder who we are serving in this institution we call high school.  Obviously I have bought into the system if I have chosen to teach for twenty six years, but I do it because I am passionate about teaching kids, not about the infrastructure with which we have to work around.

Not a day passes by that I don't wonder, what about the students?  How do they feel about this decision or that?  Has anyone asked them to design a course sequence or a college application?  How many people are truly aware of the schedules that they keep?  How do we change the perception that not getting into a competitive college equates with "feeling like I'm not good enough?"  The unfortunate reality is that these guidelines are what our adolescents use as indicators of who they are as human beings.  GPAs, SATs, college acceptances, they are their metersticks of self-worth.  And the students work so hard to match a certain point of this nebulous guideline which, in reality, has no top end in sight. In other words, they have set the bar so high for themselves, that the goal becomes close to infinity, an unobtainable standard.  The reality is, even for the student who successfully makes it across the threshold into an elite college, he/she will eventually have to face the job market and face rejections.  He/she will suddenly equate inadequate cover letters and resumes with not being good enough.  And the story continues.

I wish I could explain to my students how I felt six years ago today.  Although I didn't have a near death experience as we have all read about, I did see my life flash before my eyes.  Then I forced my mindset to shift as I visualized my future before my eyes.  I needed to force myself to believe only positive things were ahead for me, and I flushed out all the negativity.  I have continued this philosophical approach to this day as it is my mode of survival.  I cannot waste my energy thinking about the things that I cannot do due my health limitations; I can only think about the snippets of life that are amazing and I meditate upon the experiences that I will create in the future.  I don't have a meterstick by which I measure myself anymore, or mode of comparing myself to my peers.  I wake up every day knowing that I will do the best job that I can do.  That is the most that I can ask of myself.

I live my life assuming the best case scenario until I am told otherwise.  In that arena, nothing has changed.  Six years ago today, I ignored the doctor's advice and never told my family what he had said.  I stuck out the forty eight hours until my test results came back and found out it was a misdiagnosis.  I wish I could wrap up this blogpost with a happy ending for my three former students who are no longer with us.  It is in their honor, however, that many of their former teachers have grown stronger and will work even harder to broaden the scope of defining student success. Because, in the end, the human spirit cannot be measured in centimeters and we are insulting the human condition to think otherwise.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ode to Luis

Written by Ms. Berman

Fixating on pictures and texts, disbelieving
For hours each of us processing, grieving.
Riddled with guilt for flaking that day
Dwelling on words, all lost chances to say.
A piece of us broken, such angst and despair
Yet we know from reflecting now's the time we must share.
And continue to speak with you, continue to love
As we strive to connect with your spirit above.
We must be kind to ourselves, unleash horrid wrath
And cherish the memories you brought onto our path.
All the lessons we've learned in a matter of days
Will grow to make sense as we see through the haze.
We will accept questions unanswered, from dark hours we thrust
And work to find peace, spur a world with more trust.
We will all bond together, in your honor we take pride
No fear of emotions, no tears we shall hide.
Our love and our energy, we must all take collection
To regain solid footing through our human connection.
Luis, now at one with the sea, stars and sky
We all bid you safe travels, but it's never good bye.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Talent and Beyond...

Ms. Berman,

I just wanted to tell you that the showcase last Friday was amazing. What the staff and students gave to us was a joyful celebration of what our IS school and kids are all about. I left smiling.

I missed the showcase last year, so this was the first time I've had a chance to see, in person, how supportive of one another and lively the IS kids are as a community, on stage and off. Natalie and Bruno were great emcees—relaxed, confident, and clearly enjoying their classmates and teachers.  All of the kids who performed really showed what IS has given them and what they bring to IS, including their willingness to work hard on their own to bring their acts to the stage, the ability and confidence to put themselves out there (not an easy thing to do), and their clear desire to give something back to their school. And the kids in the audience were equally impressive, turning out on a Friday night en masse and cheering their classmates on. They completely won my heart when Mr. Robinson's began to sing "Lean on Me," then asked to start over, explaining that he wasn’t used to standing up alone in front of an audience and singing without a group. Suddenly he wasn’t alone: As the music started again, the audience was there to give him the backup he needed, clapping to the music, singing along with the chorus, and letting him know in every way possible that they were there with him. Not to mention having a lot of fun doing it.  He couldn’t have chosen a better song for the occasion.

None of this would have happened without the IS staff and administration that bring out the best in the students by encouraging them to take the lead and trusting them to bring their best to the school and one another. That freedom and confidence promotes the confidence, independence, and creativity that our kids share, as well as the strong community that we all value at IS.

At the showcase, it was clear that the support and respect you, Dr. Ankenny, and all of the teachers and staff of IS give to your students is reciprocated and shines through in who they are and who they are becoming. Thanks to all of you for a wonderful evening!

Rachel Myers
Sophie Mueller’s mom

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Nothing can take away the Magic!

Written by Ms. Berman

There are some things in life that I know to be true with the upmost of certainly.  One of them is that the students at I.S. value the sense of community (frequently referred to as the I.S. family) to the highest degree.  When there is a perception that their safe haven is going to be reckoned with, many students cannot tolerate the thought of this potential disruption.  The School of International Studies feels like home for many adolescents, and has become the single aspect of their lives that they know they can count upon.

We are going through a period of adjustment at SDHS, no doubt.  It is no surprise that the financial turbulence that has affected our nation has ultimately impacted San Diego High School.   As an educator and club advisor, I have difficult decisions to make as to whether to shelter my students from the turbulence or involve them in the problem solving process.  The reality, however, is that our students are incredibly savvy, and have a keen sense of the climate at I.S. even when we aren’t aware that they are watching and listening.

In the end, this is what I hope students will take from the experience.  Adults sometimes get frustrated when they can’t do what they want to support their students, but, at I.S., there is an underlying code of conduct that is ultimately followed.  We stay united, we do our research, we use proper protocol, we garner community support, and we navigate through challenging times with dignity.  The important lesson learned, as an I.S. parent stated, is “not that doing the right thing always leads to the ‘right’ result, although that is what we hope for, but more importantly, that we continue to do what is essential to maintain integrity and justice regardless of the circumstance.”

As always, good arises from every difficult situation, and in this case, the upheaval has forced me to take a step back and evaluate what is creating so much angst for our teens.  This is essential if I am to properly support my students.  This turmoil is not solely about money, policy making, or regulations.  It is about the feelings that are associated with dedication, protectiveness, and camaraderie and the fear that stems from feeling threatened.  These are, in fact, all positive qualities about our students that we need to recognize and cherish at this time.  This is the essence of I.S.  

The I.S. Benefit Showcase is more than a fundraiser; it is a commemoration of our community.  It is an evening to forgo our concerns over policy making and procedural doctrines, and enjoy watching the culmination of this collaborative effort of our magnificent students.  It is a night to ignore calorie counting and indulge in the homemade delicacies that our students will manage to produce in the midst of all of their school work.  It is a time to enjoy the many talents of the students on the stage.

After all, the I.S. family is created by, and for, the students.  As long as they remain, so will the magic.

This I also know to be true: Nothing can take away the magic!  Why else would I.S. Alumni be flying into San Diego to attend the I.S. Benefit Showcase?  On March 23, 2012, at 6 pm, they will be a poignant reminder to all of us what it truly means to come home.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Keyholders

Written by Alexander Jay Ludington
Class of 2010

I was in the Philippines for three weeks this January. I had heard of this well-known international school in my family's home town of Baguio City called Brent School. What I didn't know was that my family has a history teaching there: My great-grandfather taught there to support his eight children, and now two of my cousins teach there. I was also excited to learn, during my recent trip, that it is an International Baccalaureate school!

Beyond all the incredible things I learned in I.S. and lifelong perspectives it granted me, I think what validated the program's success was the conversation I had with one of those cousins who teaches IB English at Brent School. I had probably met her (Celeste Reyes) once before in my life, and our relationship that night reflected the polite awkwardness that distant relatives often share at such dinners. But once it was established that she taught IB English and I had graduated with a certificate in that class, the rest of the family disappeared from our periphery and all our attention was centered around this connection. We talked about the books that she assigns that I had read, the other classes I took that her school offers, and the overall effect of the IB program.

She was very interested in how my English teacher guided us through the curriculum, and strategies she used to engage her students. Since Mrs. Enochs was one of my favorite teachers, and I often think about the effect her class has had on me, I obviously had a lot to say. Verbalizing my experience in IB helped to shed more light on the incredible program it is. I explained to Celeste the four-part nature of the English department wherein each year would rely on concepts and terms that were expected to have been mastered the year before, and how there was amazing communication (or at least it seemed that way to me) between the instructors of each year. By senior year, I told her, we were able to dissect a page of narrative, rendering it nothing more than blocks of figurative language, themes, imagery, and a touch of authorial intent.

At many points of our conversation about the nature of IB, the Theory of Knowledge class was brought up. This was because we both are aware that this is really the cornerstone of the curriculum. It was then that I realized that what sets IB apart from all other types of secondary education, is its focus on meta-cognition. Instead of feeding the students information to the point where they could recite it to meet standards, IB really instills the value of knowing HOW to learn, and HOW we know what we know! These thought processes are what I will always have with me. This motivation to dig deeper and question everything is what I see as the mark of a true IB student.
The true success of International Baccalaureate is just that: it is international. There are other students being introduced to the joys of learning, and are being granted with the invaluable to synthesize information. As I said, this realization came to me during that awesome conversation with my distant cousin high up in the mountains of the Philippines. Thank you IB!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Unexpected Metamorphosis

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the c/o 2014
It is widely known that if there is a loss or change in the personal life of a teenager, a resilient young adult will undergo a paradigm shift and alter his/her behavior in order to compensate for this alternation.  But what happens when that change occurs in a school setting, and it impacts an entire group of students, rather than a specific individual?  This question can be analyzed upon my return to SDHS after a six week hiatus, and the results are quite remarkable.
My sophomores in Honors Chemistry, commonly called “the little kids,” began the first week or two of my absence expressing varied emotions, most of which mimicked panic.  Finals were rapidly approaching, semester grades were on the line, and there was a series of substitute teachers coming in to temporarily fill my position.  Every measure possible was taken to offer the students reassurance that things would work out, but with the competitive college application process on the horizon, self-assuredness is not easily maintained.  In addition, Chemistry is a difficult course to grasp conceptually and can rarely be self-taught. 
My peer tutors, known as Science Scholars, offered their support during this tumultuous time, as did their Honors English teacher who gave up instructional minutes during her class to allow for Chemistry tutorials.  This is one of the beauties of having dedicated colleagues working together in a small learning community.   The more important message gleamed, however, is that my sophomores gradually learned to become more self-directed, more assertive, and more willing to have faith that their choices would lead them to the desired results.  I don’t believe, for most of them, that any of this occurred on a conscious level.   I do know, however, that this transformation did occur because upon my return, they were not the same students.
My sophomores have collectively, in terms of sophistication, matured into juniors.  They no longer have the same attitude typical of a group of underclassmen.  There is an unspoken level of maturity that transcends throughout the classroom.   They can form lab groups in a matter of seconds, gather supplies, and get themselves on task.  They know how to ask probing questions, and even if they are too shy to ask in front of the class, they know how to contact me to get the assistance that they need.  They have developed a newfound level of patience and trust with respect to me, as they now understand that I always have their best interest at heart.  They are no longer “the little kids,” and I now look forward to more effective classroom discussions, laboratory collaboration, and test preparation with my students as a result of this unexpected metamorphosis.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A New Beginning

Written by Ms. Berman

Sitting at Islands Restaurant, on Friday the 13th, I was trying to absorb the upcoming teaching plan that Dr. Ankeney had laid out before me. "So Kelli Connaughton can take your IB Bio class and Carla Valdez will take over Marine Science. This will allow you to focus on your Honors Chemistry students upon your return."  Being that we were discussing other aspects of the Science Department, the students, and general school issues as well, I didn't have time to fully process this information until I got home.

I went into my office and sat staring at my computer screen. I wanted to bring up my IB Biology class roster, but couldn't bear to do so.  Although I would still be posting grades for the remainder of the semester, these students were no longer mine.

Instead of the icon for school attendance, I randomly clicked on The Common Application Online icon.  My list of seniors, for whom I had written college letters of recommendation, appeared, all with the word submitted next to their names.  Checklist completed!  There is this section on the teacher letter of recommendation form in which the instructor rates the student on 15 categories, with options such as average, above average, top ten percent, top five percent and "one of the top few I've encountered."  The highest assessment, "top few I've encountered," most of us educators rarely mark, or we will lose our credibility with the Admission's reps.

Just as a particular student may be "one of the top few I've encountered," on rare occasions a class will also warrant such a rating.  This is not to denounce the individuals whom I have taught in previous years, but rather to acknowledge that sometimes there is a magical combination of students who are all focused, thoughtful, collaborative, intelligent, and simply a pleasure to teach.  I was blessed with such a group of 41 students this past fall in IB Biology.

I am acutely aware that my medical leave has inconvenienced many people.  Decisions must be made that are in the best interest of the students.  And Dr. Ankeney is rightfully trying to create a schedule that will lighten my work load so that I can focus on the students who have been most impacted by my absence.  In addition, Mrs. C. is a stellar teacher who will take on the class with the energy and enthusiasm in which the students deserve.  Every justification validates this transition.

But what I am grappling with is that students are not merely a list of ID numbers.  Each one has their own story.  Some were new to me this year and I hadn't even had the chance to get to know them.  But for the ones whom I had, it was never about the Biology for them, but about my role in validating their self-worth.  I am thinking about the ones who had been told that they were not college material, or whose parents were unemployed and they knew I would find a way to discretely spot them cash for a school event, or the students who feared they couldn't handle the demands of the full IB Diploma program and trusted me to break that news to their parents.  This is what I am leaving behind.  This is what makes it so painful.  And yet I am the adult here.  I am the one expected to model adaptive behavior.  It is my duty to make my exodus with gratitude for the time we did spend together, as well as provide a genuine welcome to their new teacher and mentor.  After all, I am the one who recruited Mrs. C. to SDHS.  I should be proud to afford her the opportunity to work with these once in a lifetime students, and they with her.

I glanced back at my Common Application roster.  I reflected upon how once that letter is submitted, my professional relationship with the student begins to shift.  In many ways, it is liberating, as the element of academics is removed from the equation.  I typically sigh with relief as I close their file of transcripts, essays, and resumes, and transition to mentoring them as needed.  Perhaps this is the philosophy that I need to adopt with my Biology students at this time... It is not really good-bye after all... It is more like a leave-taking.  Although I won't be the IB Biology teacher on record, I will still be teaching.  For Mrs. C. and I don't work in a vacuum, but as a team, and will continue to do so.  Our collective brainstorming and energy always has, and always will, center upon the needs of the students.  I will support the students by hosting tutorials in order to prepare them for the quizzes and exams.  I will assist them with their upcoming college applications.  I will continue to talk to them about "life skills."

Just as I have been a mentor to over thousands of students throughout the years, I have been fortunate to have received professional support and guidance from my superiors as well, in this case, Dr. Ankeney.  Once I allowed myself to reflect upon this teaching plan from a renewed perspective, I realized that it was in best interest of everyone involved.  This is not the end of my teaching career.  It is a new beginning.