Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Dedication to My Brother and the Father He Has Become

Normally, I use this blog space to write about my experiences and lessons learned in the classroom. However, I'm allowing myself to use this as a forum to say some really important things about someone in my life who means the world to me. These are words I can't bring to my lips for they hold so much weight and emotion, so I will put them to screen in the hopes that not only my brother sees them, but all those who are in his same position.

 Anyone who knows me, knows that my family -- especially my siblings -- are everything to me. They are both the roots that keep me grounded and the limbs that lift me up and push me to achieve. My brother, Gabriel, is no exception. He is one of the most important people in my life.  There isn't a day that goes by that Gabe and I don't communicate. No moment in my life that he didn't know about first, or has helped me through. Besides my husband, Gabe is the only other person who I tell everything to.  I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

One of the most satisfying things about being the oldest has been watching Gabe and my other siblings grow, mature, and accomplish their goals. It's truly beautiful to see how each of my siblings have their own personalities, talents,  and dreams. I am proud to say I have been able to watch Gabe celebrate some of life's greatest moments: graduations, awards, marriage, and most recently parenting.

Yes, my stinky little brother grew up to be a man and a Dad. Gabe and his husband became foster parents and for the past year have been Dads to two beautiful children. This has been the biggest transformation I have ever seen Gabe go through. I know everyone who has children go through a lot of changes- but my brother and his husband literally became parents of an infant and toddler overnight! Now, the tables have turned and the kid who used to call me for advice will be able to hand out his own once my baby is finally born! Life is crazy beautiful in that way.

So, you ask me, why write this? Why dedicate these words to my brother for becoming a Dad when people do it everyday? It's simple. Foster parents don't get the recognition they deserve, and I want the world to know how PROUD and INSPIRED I am by brother and his husband!

Also, there is more to the story.  Unlike myself, my brother's house will not be the permanent residence of his children. He will not be able to watch these little ones grow up and become adults, because they will soon be reunited with their birth parents. As one can imagine, this has been incredibly hard for Gabe and his husband. I am not here to argue the decision the courts have made or to bad mouth the birth parents of these children. I just want to shed light on the selflessness that is fostering.

Now, as I said before, my brother has been a Dad for about a year now. And, although I was always proud of him it wasn't until recently that I was truly able to understand, even just for a moment, the true joy and pain my brother must be experiencing as a foster parent. It opened my eyes to something I thought I already knew -- but in reality was totally ignorant to.

It happened right after my baby shower. I was elbow deep in a laundry basket of newly washed baby clothes, happily folding. The smell of the baby laundry detergent was all around me and I was talking to my husband about how surreal this all still was to me. It was so hard for me to imagine the small human that was soon going to be wearing these clothes and wrapped in the blankets. I  was trying to imagine my daughter's locks of curly hair and how it would feel to touch them with my finger tips, and what her skin would feel like under my kiss -- the final weeks of my pregnancy at that moment felt like an eternity!  Just then, she moved in my stomach, almost in response to my thoughts as if to say, "I'm here mama, don't worry I will see you soon!" Needless to say I was overcome with emotion. I felt this immense sense of gratitude and happiness like I've never known. Not only was I having a baby, but I just had a party where my family and friends showered my unborn child with gifts -- nothing could make the moment better.

I started to think about Gabe and his husband and what they were currently going though. I felt guilty. What did I do to deserve all of this? NOTHING. The process to being a parent was relatively simple for me. I was born a girl. I married a boy. I got pregnant. I didn't have to go through a long process of paper work involving social workers, interviews, and home inspections for this baby, and in the end she will be ours -- no questions asked.

I tried to feel better by telling myself that Gabe and his husband will be able to get another pair of kids, and maybe this time they will be able to adopt them. I was sick with myself. His children are not a leased car that they can turn in for a better model! It all began to hit me. Up until this point, I had felt sad for my brother and his husband. Gabe talked a lot about how hard this process was and what it was doing to his kids. And I sympathized with him, because it was a sad situation, and I love my brother- so his pain was my pain. But it wasn't until this moment as all these thoughts were rushing through my head, holding my daughter's outfit, feeling her move inside of me, was I truly able to empathize with my brother.

This is what I realized, and I couldn't believe I hadn't before this moment. Gabe isn't a foster parent. He is more than that. He is a Father, Dad, Daddy first and foremost and a foster parent second. The children are his son and daughter, not his "foster kids", they call him and his husband Daddy because that's who they are to them. Gabe is an awesome Dad, and so is his husband- but they wouldn't be if they saw themselves as "Foster Parents" and their children as their "Foster Kids." Yes, I know, this is what they signed up for when becoming foster parents. They knew that this day could come -- but that doesn't change the fact that for the past year they have loved and cared for these two adorable beings no differently then they would have if they were their own flesh and blood.

So, I ask you reader, put yourself for a moment in his shoes. Think of your children, or niece or nephew- a child who you love and care for. Now for a moment imagine someone taking away that child... Is it hard to breathe? Do you ache? Or did you not even try to imagine it because it was too hard?

I am sorry to say, it wasn't until I myself started to feel like a mother, did I really see Gabe as a father. It's as if the experiences of my pregnancy lifted a veil from my eyes I didn't even know was there. I haven't met my daughter, and the thought of her not being mine is something I can't even begin to handle. I'm not proud of the fact that it took me this long to see something that was directly in front of me -- but now that I have, it has permanently changed how I see my brother's experiences. My only hope is that people who read this also change their perspective and realize the magnitude of what foster parents may be going through. I know it's hard to always know what to say when faced with a topic such as this, but if there is a level of empathy and understanding- no words are needed.

I know Gabe and his husband are going to have kids who will be theirs forever. They will not give up on their journey, but I understand now, even if it's just by a fraction, how hard this journey may be. So, in this moment of realization I dedicate these words and emotions to my brother and the amazing father he is and will continue to be -- even once his kids leave his home. He will always be a father even once those bedrooms are empty because they will hold the memory of diapers and play dates, runny noses and tear-stained cheeks, baby laughter and first steps. Being a parent is not conditional based on how many children are in the home. These experiences have created parents out of Gabe and his husband, and no amount of syntax and rhetoric can ever take that honor away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Bicycle Theory- 5 Ways I hope to Foster Motivation in my Classroom

The new school year is right around the corner, and as I embark on my 6th year as a educator I have been reflecting on ways to improve my craft. 

As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to increase student motivation and buy-in. In an ideal world, students would be excited to learn the sake of learning. They would want good grades because that will lead to graduation and scholarships and a university of their choice which will then lead them to a prosperous life. All of these things sound wonderful, don't they? News flash- we do not live in an ideal world. As a high school teacher, I have to deal with academic apathy on an everyday basis. Critics may say, "If you are preparing and executing student-centered and engaging lessons, there will always be buy-in and high student motivation." They raise a good point. However, this is unrealistic. Not every single lesson in every single class of every single day can  be engaging to every single student.

I have come to ponder the idea of motivation based on cultural experience and expectations. As a Mexican-American woman, is my own self-efficacy and motivation tangled in the culture and customs I was raised with? Was it simply my parents and family? How does society play into it? All of these questions have left me reeling as I attempt to crack the code needed to keep my students highly motivated. The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that the key to motivation lies less in a single cultural experience but more in that of the overall human experience.

Where does motivation start?  One of my very first memories of motivation is learning to ride a bike. I am sure many people can relate to the experience. This was something I wanted, and no matter how many times I fell off-- I got right back on. Why did I want to ride the bike in the first place? I guess it was to keep up with my friends, to get around the neighborhood, and to enjoy the freedom of movement. I feel like this is motivation in its purest form.

All of these things were natural rewards for mastering the skill. Most importantly they were intrinsic and sustaining. I would never run out of places to go or things to see. Once I excelled, a new level of bike riding would unlock. It was a never ending reward system. First I started off with riding corner to corner. Once I mastered that I was able to go around the block. Next, was to the busy street and back, and before I knew it, I was going all the way to the park.

This experience of mine, I feel, is universal. Go into any neighborhood of any race, culture, and class, and there will be people who have had the same experience of learning to ride a bike. Sure, the type and quality of the bike will change, maybe the amount of freedom one has to ride the bike would differ, but most people would be able to tell the story of how they felt when they first rode steady and strong on their own, and more importantly, they will be able to share the positive emotional attachment to that moment.
Think about it this way: Once we learned to ride our bikes, did we just stop?

So, why don't we teach like we are showing students how to ride a bike? So much of education is focused on an end result-- higher education and a career. What if we stopped focusing so much on where students were going, and more on the vehicle through which they would use to get there, the vehicle being their education? Isn't an ideal education just like riding a bike? First we learn easier skills that we then can build upon and challenge to be able to go faster and further. Yes, the destination is still important, but if we took more time and energy to help students see the joy in the journey, maybe more students would stay in school...or on their bikes as the metaphor goes.

I know I sound like just another idealistic educator who talks a lot but doesn't actually say anything, but I really feel like I have something here. How do we build this idea that the process of learning is just as important as the end result in our classrooms, schools, and communities? What can I do to ignite the intrinsic motivation of my students?

While thinking of this issue, I came up with a small list of things I can do in my classroom to help students stay motivated more naturally:

1. Allow students to compete with themselves. Give students some form of an assessment at the beginning of the year, semester, unit, and show them their own personal growth as they master more skills and content.
2. Help students to make personal and academic goals, and provide a time when they can develop ideas and plans for how they can accomplish their goals.
3. As the year progresses and students learn more, allow them more privileges, so they see the connection between learning and gaining.

4. Use visuals in the classroom to show how much students have learned and accomplished throughout the year to inspire pride and a positive self-image.
5. Be transparent with students about how I am continuing my own education, and  what are the steps I take to better myself as a life long learner. 

I am hoping to use the above list in my classroom this year, and to help my students make a paradigm shift about education and the part they play in their own journey. At the very least, I want students to learn that education is more than just a rocket, meant to blast off and drop them off in their future, rather it is a vehicle they will be using for the rest of their lives. We all have that dusty, rusty bike in our garage that we use from time to time. We must teach students that education is like that bike, Every now and then, when we need to, we must get that bike out- dust it off and jump on it, ready for a new adventure. 

I hope all the educators out there have a great school year and remember the joy of teaching is in the journey of becoming the best, not the moment when you believe you have finally arrived.