May 29, 2020: From Fear of COVID-19 to Rage & Racism

I began this blog on March 14, writing about the early stages COVID-19 as it made its way closer to home. I wrote about the fears I held for my parents, siblings, friends….for all of us. I made a commitment to write every weekday through the end of May. Thus ends this particular exercise in discipline. I wish this final post could be a positive one, and that I could write about how we are flattening the curve and how I’m a bit more hopeful about going back to school in the fall. But, I feel the need to write about a deeper, more insidious illness that is far older than the CoronaVirus: Racism.

Many others have said it better than I: as white people, we need to recognize our privilege, understand how systemic racism perpetuates the status quo, and accept that kindness alone is not enough. We need to disrupt racism through education and action. Over and over again, we see the horrific videos of Black people dying, shake our heads in frustration, and then do nothing. 

Many will stop reading when they see the title of this post; they are tired of reading about racism, they don’t want to feel sickened or upset, and they just want to focus on kindness. Unfortunately, turning away, thinking I’m kind, I’m not like that, isn’t enough. 

There are things we can do. Start reading books about racism. A few that have moved me: White Fragility, How to be an Anti-Racist, Just Mercy, Heavy, and Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Here’s a list with many more. Next, organize conversations around race. Use the free resources at Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BARWE) to meet monthly and engage in real conversations about race. Be prepared to examine your biases and get vulnerable. 

I will never know what it feels like to be Black in America. I do know that being a white American male, I feel embarrassed by the fact that history keeps showing us that some lives matter more than others. 

May 28, 2020: A Vegan Surprise

We are days away from completing our month of Vegan meals. Most have been surprisingly good. Granted, Nathan and Maddie weren’t always as enthusiastic as their parents, but hey, unless we are eating pasta or pizza, they rarely are. Last night, however, when Michelle served double rose´ pasta with asparagus and kale, we were all in for a surprise. 

During our non-vegan days, pasta with vodka sauce is a perennial favorite in our house. When the extended Rockower family gets together, there is often a mammoth pot of creamy vodka sauce on the stove. It’s one of the things our kids have missed during this month of veganism. So, when we plated the meal last night, and Nathan said, “This looks like vodka sauce,” we all kind of held our breath— he is the pickiest eater in the family. After a bite, he snapped, “This tastes EXACTLY like vodka sauce. What’s in this?”

“I’m not telling you,” said Michelle, “You like it, so why does it matter?”

I was still skeptical, but after a couple of mouthfuls, I couldn’t argue with him. It was amazing. Maddie was not yet at the table, so Nathan said, “Let’s prank Maddie and tell her we ended the vegan thing early and that you made real vodka sauce. See if she can tell the difference.”

We did. And she couldn’t. Maddie had eaten half of what was on her plate before we told her that she’d just consumed creamed cashews. For a moment, she screwed up her face and pretended to change her mind about the meal, but then she shrugged and went back to eating. “I can’t tell a difference.”

We’ve had several winning dishes this month, but this one was outstanding. I don’t know that any of us will remain vegan beyond May, but we will certainly be making many more vegan meals. This one is going in the regular rotation. If you love pasta with vodka sauce, and you want to try a healthier version, check out the recipe below. And, maybe, don’t tell your kids what’s in it until they finish eating. 

double rose´ pasta with asparagus and kale

May 27, 2020: 8th Grade (Remote) Send-offs

One of our traditions at Delta Middle is the 8th-grade send-off. A committee of students recognizes each 8th grader with a few kind words and a certificate. After receiving their certificate, each 8th grader is given the opportunity to speak in front of students, parents, and staff about what they’ll remember most about their time in our program. It’s always an emotional experience and one that I look forward to. This year, it was a Zoom send-off. 

Some of our current 8th graders entered the program as 5th or 6th graders. I still remember many of them as quiet and timid, overwhelmed by the “big kids” and just wanting to fly under the radar. When I hear them speak— as 8th graders— about how our school community has impacted them….well, it’s why I teach. Though this year’s ceremony was remote (or maybe because it was remote), it really hit me in the gut. Several students had to turn their video off because they didn’t want everyone to see them crying. They thanked teachers for making them feel safe, friends for supporting them through the unpredictability of middle school, and mostly, for having a school they can call a “second home.” 

It’s hard for most of us to speak in front of large groups. But it’s especially difficult when you are saying goodbye, speaking from the heart, and you are 14 years old. So, thanks 8th graders, for your courage, vulnerability, and for allowing me to be part of your journey. I will miss you all; please remember, this will always be your second home, so come back and visit.

May 26, 2020: I Never Liked Parades

Our kids were born in Boalsburg, which claims to be The Birthplace of Memorial Day. Every year, during Memorial Day weekend, we pushed the stroller, toddled slowly, and eventually rode bikes to the Saturday night Memorial Day parade. Truth be told, I’ve never liked parades. But, I did learn to look forward to them, because I loved watching my kids watch parades. 

Sure, from the time they could walk, the idea of strangers throwing candy at them from big fire trucks was pretty awesome. But, there was also the wonder of….what’s coming next? I can remember four-year-old Nathan holding a Tootsie Roll with one hand while pointing to the next group of band players, athletes, or scouts with the other. His eyes were full of wonder and anticipation. I still see a tiny version of Maddie skipping along the curb, waving to important people in big machines. Both kids worried that it would end and kept asking, “It’s not over yet, right?”

I don’t remember much of the parades, but I do remember how much joy they brought my children. The celebration of spring, music, food, and the nearness of summer worked in harmony to inspire my kids to dance in the street. 

Nathan and Maddie quickly outgrew the wonder of parades, and we’ve moved out of Boalsburg, but this weekend, I remembered the wonder and joy in the faces of my children during that heartbeat of our family history.

May 22, 2020: What We Think We Know as Parents

Years ago, when my kids were still in diapers, I was eating lunch with teachers and the conversation turned to video games. A teacher was talking about how much time her son spent in front of the screen and that he had aspirations of becoming a game designer. She was unsure how to feel about it all; she was concerned about his screen time, but it was his passion, and he was doing well in school, and seemed confident about his plan. 

I made some insensitive remarks about how Michelle and I planned to limit screen time for our kids and how the research shows blah, blah, blah. For a long time, we did limit screen time. Until Nathan turned 13, and started playing Minecraft. I fought it, because I remember how my younger siblings seemed to turn into zombies while playing games in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It just seemed such a waste of time. 

In college, my roommates and I ran Madden ‘93 tournaments until our thumbs were sore. But this was a short phase; other than that, I’ve never really been into video games. 

And now, Nathan does play for many hours a day. But, he is interacting with his friends. They talk, strategize, shout, and laugh. I still don’t like the amount of time he plays; he doesn’t read as much as he used to, and we don’t get to see him as often. He stays up LATE and sleeps in. 

Recently, I was hounding him about his lifestyle, and he said, “Dad. I’m getting all of my schoolwork done, my grades are solid, I’m exercising six days a week. I’m enjoying time with my friends. So, what’s the problem?”

This was a strong argument coming from an almost 16-year-old who is trying to stay afloat during a Pandemic. “You’re right,” I said, “I guess I’d just like to see you a bit more often.” He smiled and rolled his eyes. 

“How much time did you spend with your parents when you were my age?” he asked. 

Well, he had me. So, now I steal hugs when I can, ask questions about his schoolwork, and I even got to go on a bike ride with him last weekend. He’s doing pretty well. 

I wish I hadn’t acted so sure of myself when I was a young parent. It’s good to have goals for our children, but we really don’t know much until we understand each kid, their needs, and what’s going on in the world. What may seem like a waste of time to us, could be just what energizes, connects, and helps them get through the rigors of their teenage years.

May 21, 2020: Kids, We are Sorry

We know how privileged we are to be healthy and have jobs. Michelle and I are handling this ok; we are not happy with this lifestyle, but we realize it’s necessary. What has, however,  become increasingly gut-wrenching is watching our teenagers’ social lives suffer. 

When I was fourteen, all I wanted to do was be with my friends. Sure, I appreciated my parents and siblings, but my focus was on my network of friends. Teenage years are about branching out; building and finding an identity; and this can only happen when we interact with the world and others. Our children are being largely robbed of this right now. 

Prior to the pandemic, Nathan and Maddie had plans to take friends to the beach for the first time. This was something they’ve talked about and planned for months. The excitement was building, and until recently, we still thought it might be a possibility. We’d been holding out hope that things would improve and summer could be half-normal. Wishful thinking, I know. 

Last night Michelle and I sat down to make some tough decisions about summer plans. No matter how we looked at it, asking our children’s friends (and their families) to quarantine for two weeks prior to our beach trip seemed a bit much. And even if that happened, being at the beach with large groups just doesn’t feel safe. 

So we made the decision to forgo a beach trip with friends. The four of us may still venture to a cabin on a lake, but that won’t be the same for two teens who are craving time with peers. Last night, when we told Maddie, she said she understood but couldn’t hold back the tears. And she said, “I just hope I don’t have to start my freshman year in high school at home. High school is supposed to be exciting, and I love you both but, I don’t want to be in this house. I just feel like I’m not getting to be a normal person at this age.” Nathan was quiet; he typically doesn’t show as much emotion, but he was clearly down. He said, “So, that’s it?” And he disappeared back to his room. 

Michelle and I sat in silence. It was one of those parenting moments. When you have to say no even though you don’t want to. When you do the right thing even when you know it’s going to hurt the people you love the most. 

One minute I feel guilty for making such a big deal about giving up a vacation — poor us…we cannot go on our vacation this year. But, it’s really not that; it’s the fact that our teenagers are homebound. They are tired, bored, frustrated, and sad. They want and need to be with friends. And just the possibility of online schooling in the fall brings tears to Maddie’s eyes. We should never again question the need for connection, relationships, hugs, and face-to-face laughter. This is a new kind of parenting pain — one I never imagined. 

May 20, 2020: Writing to Discover

Rarely does a writing idea jump out and grab me. When it does, I’m full of energy and excited to explore the experience or idea. Most days, I don’t know what to write. I sit down at the computer and stare at the blank screen and wonder what might happen. 

A few years ago, I read an amazing book titled The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer. It flipped the idea of the essay upside down. Prior to reading this book, I thought that essays required a formula: introduction, thesis, three main points with evidence, a concession, and a conclusion. Truth be told, I taught it this way for several years. Yes, it gives the writer a framework from which to work, and there are those who believe that starting with this framework is crucial, that only after mastering this technique can writers begin to experiment and explore their own voice and style. But, Bomer argues that the greatest essayists, including the philosopher and “father of the essay,” Michael De Montaigne, used the form to explore an idea without a plan. In fact, the word essay stems from the  French word essai, which means “to try.” It’s really more about exploring an idea on the page and seeing where it takes the writer. 

Schools have turned this artistic experience into formulaic writing. I’ve read hundreds of five-paragraph essays, and most are stifled, lacking voice and originality. This is not the fault of the writer; rather we’ve taught this structure for orderliness, for clarity, for ease of assessment. The best essays I’ve read break traditional structure, mixing the types of writing that schools traditionally separate into units: argumentative, informational, and narrative. But read an essay in the New York Times or the Washington Post, or even better, in The Sun. They do not fit neatly in our school-created genres of writing. One writer might set out to inform while carrying us along on a narrative thread that feels like fiction. Another writer might begin with a personal story and move into hard-hitting arguments. 

Great essays explore topics in unique ways with a strong voice and powerful imagery. They sometimes surprise the reader by keeping us guessing— what is this really about? — until the thesis is revealed near the end (Wait! I thought the thesis is always the final sentence in the first paragraph!?). All of this is to say that writing is more exciting for me when I’m surprised by what happens on the paper. 

As Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

May 19, 2020: Goodbye, Fellowship

Next month was to be the culmination of a two-year Fellowship with Heinemann Publishing. I, along with ten other educators from across the country, developed and executed an action research project. We were encouraged to select an area of our teaching that we wanted to grow. Being a fan of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, I wondered how leaning into vulnerability in the classroom would affect my students’ learning. My research question was, “In what ways does teacher vulnerability impact student learning experiences?” 

Over an almost two-year period, I gathered data through case study groups, interviews, surveys, stimulated recall, and teacher observation notes. I examined three different dimensions of vulnerability in the classroom: personal, relational, and dialogic. Along the way, I wrote and presented about the ongoing results of my study. In short, I found that teacher vulnerability leads to more authentic learning experiences. It strengthens teacher-student relationships, builds trust, inspires real-world writing, and opens the door for deeper, more genuine classroom dialogue. 

Our capstone projects were to be presented in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in June. That will no longer happen. I will either record a screencast of my presentation or engage in a conversation of some sort around my findings. Though I’m disappointed that we won’t have a ceremonial end to our Fellowship, I’m even more upset that I won’t be able to interact (in-person) one more time with the other Fellows.

I developed close bonds with many of them. And yes, my action research taught me how to be a more authentic teacher, but the Fellowship itself reinforced and confirmed what I already knew to be true: that in learning and in life, relationships are everything. I gained more from those ten strangers than I did from my action research project. I learned to examine my privilege, to understand how much words matter, that being kind is not enough, that true education and personal growth require deep self-examination, and that uncomfortable conversations are critical.

Everything I’ve learned about being a vulnerable teacher in the classroom applies to being a vulnerable educator alongside colleagues, friends, and family. Whether it’s sharing my writing with students in the classroom or learning to listen deeply to other perspectives, I need to lean into vulnerability and discomfort; in the end, it’s really the only way to get better at being human.

May 18, 2020: On Vacuum Cleaners

We have this little stick vacuum cleaner we use in our kitchen. It frequently gets clogged with all of the unimaginables that live on the floor: bread crumbs, dog hair, fruit skins, dog food, tiny paper clips, human hair, and hairballs created from a conglomeration of things unknown.  We clean out the catch tray, but that only does so much. The real issue is in the roller mechanism — that’s where the hair sticks, stretches, and holds on like super glue. We pick it out, rip it out, and then wash our hands thoroughly. A week later, the vacuum struggles again. Until recently, we could always get it back to working order. 

But now the things unknown are beginning to mutate into a network of superpower strength. It no longer struggles; it freezes and belts out a hideous sound like the final cry of a dying animal. When this happens, I run out of the room, Michelle covers her ears, and Maddie shouts, “Oh. My. God. I can’t handle that thing.” Nathan just shakes his head. 

We’ve been saying that we need to replace it. “Let’s just get a new one,” one of us will say. But we don’t. Who wants to spend money on a stick vacuum cleaner? Wouldn’t it be easier just to grab a broom and dustpan? I’m sure it would cause a lot less stress.

May 15, 2020: Short Attention Spans

I’ve read quite a few posts from friends about their inability to stay focused on a task during the pandemic. They’ve found that reading for long stretches of time is almost impossible, sitting still is tough, and household tasks are often left half-completed. Some of this is true for me as well, and at first I thought it was due to my increased time in front of the computer. 

When I write, I would love to turn off email and text notifications. I’d like to resist the sudden urge to search for new recipes or see which students have completed my weekly assignments. But I continue to do all of these things at once. I write a paragraph or half of a sentence and then check my inbox, read through a new tab I’ve bookmarked, and grade another assignment. Too many distractions and not enough self-discipline. 

I think this scattershot mentality carries over to other tasks as well. When I’m reading, I find an increasing number of new interrupters: 

  1. I think about the yard that needs to be mowed, the dog poop that needs to be picked up, and the dishes that need to be washed. 
  2. I worry about what will be on the news today.
  3. I fall asleep

If it sounds like I need to introduce some mindfulness and meditation into my life, you’re right. When I decide to do this for a few minutes, my focus improves. But I just haven’t been committed enough to make it part of my routine. And now, with the house always bustling, it’s tough to find a quiet space. 

I’m quick to blame technology and its deluge of information, alerts, notifications, and texts, but I think this is compounded by the fact that we are homebound and afraid and uncertain. Not knowing about what next month, this summer, next school year will look like is overwhelming, and the uncertainty haunts me.