Right before my summer vacation, someone recommended a book to me: Tara Sophia Mohr's Playing Big.
Now, if you know me, heck, even if you don't know me, I've probably given you some book recommendations. I love to read, I love books, and I love connecting people to great books. A colleague recently told me that he doesn't think books can change someone's life.
In my experience, books do change lives, and they've certainly changed mine. What's also been true for me is that the right book appears at just the right time. I've had books on my shelves for years, and then one day, I feel nudged to pick one up and read it, only to find the exact message that I needed to move forward from a challenge.
Playing Big was the right book at the right time. I read it over the summer, often from the hammock or on the beach, took notes on it in my Moleskine notebook, and plan to write more about it over the next year, because it's PACKED with wisdom.
A big part of that wisdom is about how women can unhook from external praise and criticism. We are, of course, trained from birth to be good, to be nice, and to not rock the boat. That earns us praise. When we start playing big, guess what happens? We're breaking the rules, so we receive criticism, which for many of us, is excruciating. It's so uncomfortable that we often swing back in the other direction and start playing small again.
This idea made me think a lot about my writing. I have been actively writing, learning about writing, and submitting my work since 2012. Not as long as many, but I am doing the hard work on a daily basis. Of course, like a lot of women, I think, I've been writing in my head since as long as I can remember; I just gave myself permission to put those words into the world in 2012.
And since then, with a ton of work, and mountains of rejections, I've started to see my words make their way into the world. I don't want to say that I'm lucky that various publications regularly publish my writing, because again, this has been a long road with no luck in sight, just work, faith, intuition, rage, and more work. But the point is, my writing is getting published. Great, right? Yes! Please keep publishing my writing. Please keep reading and sharing it. One of my favorite things in life is when someone emails me, out of the blue, to tell me that something I wrote a few years ago, something I've often forgotten about, spoke to them or helped them see the world differently. It's the absolute best.
And, I realized while reading Playing Big that I didn't have a lot of space in my life for writing that was just mine. I had wanted to start a blog about education, wellness, books, writing, and life for a few years, but I was scared. I was scared to look dumb, basically.
If an editor reads my work and deems it worthy, then I feel confident(ish) putting it out into the world. If there's no editor involved, if it's just me, how can I know my writing is good enough to share?
That's why I'm blogging this fall: because I've wanted to for a really long time, but I was scared to share my writing unless an editor approved of it.
Writing this blog has been like an exercise in believing in myself. Every week, I put fingers to keyboard, and speak as honestly as I can about whatever I want. If I want to write a blog about post-it notes (not a bad idea....), I can. If I want to write about self-doubt, I can. It's mine. All mine. Which of course feels like standing in front of my high school's graduating class with no pants on, but mostly, each time that I post, I feel a little bit more clothed.
My hunch is that the more that I do this, the more that I share my writing with the world without someone else's pre-approval, the braver that I'll get, and the more willing that I'll be to play big. I've also come to realize that it's just fun; it's quality time with myself, usually on a Monday morning, to do something that I love. To generate something rather than to cut something down. To create. To take a risk.
That's why I'm committed to blogging this fall, and while it's not my primary goal, maybe another woman who's been playing small will stumble upon these words, and decide to take her own risk.
I had to take a sick day yesterday, like a real one where you stay in bed and watch an 80s movie and try not to think about all the work that you have to do. I am fully remote in my work, which makes sick days particularly challenging, because my home office is twenty feet away from my bed, beckoning to me to come do all the work.
I feel better today, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm working on never taking these good days for granted. I noticed, though, that when I sat down to look over my schedule this morning, I was in attack mode.
My rationale was that since I didn't work much yesterday, I needed to work twice as hard today. Isn't that funny that this was my first instinct? Because when you think of it, doesn't it make more sense to take it slow today, since my body is still likely trying to return to its balance point? I took a breath, and let go of attack mode. I decided to move at a steady, sustainable pace instead. So far, so good.
I'm realizing that after a gorgeous break this summer, where I spent an inordinate amount of time in a hammock, I came back to work in August like this guy:
I think we talk a lot about getting burned out in jobs we hate, but not nearly enough about how doing work we love, with people we love, also requires us to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. That's been true for me, at least. I love the work I'm doing, and I want to do more. Which is a good problem to have, as they say, but if I don't take time out for rest and relaxation, it won't be sustainable.
Sustainable work: slow and steady. I want to learn more about that, write more about that, and find others who are having that conversation.
As I was writing this post, I saw a professor post on Twitter about taking a sick day, and felt a little less alone. Higher education, in general, can be a tough space to share our human frailties. Writing this feels weird and vulnerable, and I came THIS CLOSE to stopping myself, and writing something confident and bold and focused and strong instead.
But I want to hear from more people in higher education about the art and science of being human, and I've learned that if you want to see more of something in the world, you have to be willing to start with yourself.
I posted about goal setting, time management, and planning on Sunday night. I have a plan to do more work in that space, as I love talking to people about those topics, sharing what I know, and learning from them. The past couple of days have been a reminder for me that always, always, within that conversation about working toward our goals, we need to remember our bodies and spirits, instead of just focusing on where our minds want to go.
One of the goals that I set this summer was to blog consistently, every Monday. So far, so good. I've planned out post topics through the end of December. This week's post was supposed to be about turning 40, but I sort of covered that last week. In short, it wasn't a big deal. It was a good day. Birthdays are weird.
That left me with a hole in my blogging plans this morning. As I was thinking about what I could write about, I remembered one of the reasons that I decided to start blogging in the first place: because while I do love to see my work published on a broader scale, the outlets that bring that broader scale often take time. If you sit down to pour your heart into an essay in March, you might not see those words in print until May, or even until the following March. It's the nature of the beast, and I've made peace with it. But the beauty of a blog is that I can comment more efficiently on things that are happening in my life, or the world, right now.
On Friday, I posed a question on Twitter:
I had been out for my daily walk with my dog, and as I do on those walks, I was thinking a bit. About the world. About men. About what I can and can't control. About higher education. About feminism. About how much work we've done and how much there still is to do.
When I posted this, I expected to grab a few names of cool women who might lift my spirits a bit. I've since lost count of the numbers of responses this tweet received. Over the weekend, I thought about this post quite a bit. I just wrote a bit about those thoughts, and deleted it all. I'm going to write about my hopes instead.
I hope you made a friend.
I hope that everyone who engaged with this tweet found a new Twitter friend. Life is hard. The world is on fire. I hope you found someone who gets pumped about the same things that you get pumped about, or angry about the same things, or who has a similar job title, or whatever. As a fully remote worker, the friendships that I've formed online sustain me. I hope you found a source of support. We need each other.
I hope you sought out diverse connections.
I scrolled through as many of the responses as I could, clicking on tons of handles, and was intentional about following women of color. Not only will I have the chance to connect with them now, and learn from them, but I'm also in a better position to amplify their work. One woman I followed, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, recently shared an essay she wrote on the rules of diversity. I read it over the weekend, and it is hard and good. I hope you'll take a minute to read it, and sit with its lessons. I hope you will think about who you choose to follow on #followfriday.
I'd be remiss if I didn't share this important tweet from Beth Godbee. I hope you'll follow Beth as well, and think about her tweet.
I hope manels and their equivalent will die out.
Women's work in the #highered space, at conferences, and in our trade publications is underrepresented. It's unacceptable. It's annoying. And in the words of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, we don't want to hear about it anymore.
I hope that women (and men) in #highered will get louder about calling about this lack of representation. I hope they'll submit their work like crazy. I hope our trade publications will do better. Parity is the goal. Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Education, do we have parity yet? Why not?
Here's a list of #highered publications accepting submissions They pay.
I hope we will all refuse to sit in front of another manel. I hope that those of us in positions of privilege will ask what conferences are doing to ensure diverse representation before we agree to present.
I hope we'll continue this conversation.
What's next? I was left wondering about creating a shared online space for us to support each other and amplify each other's voices. I've been following @WomenEd, a group of women leaders in education based in the U.K. They've been hosting "unconferences" for women. Could we do the same in the U.S.?
And not for nothing, but we're doing some pretty effing amazing work at Women in Higher Education, so stop by our website, subscribe, and support our mission to "enlighten, encourage, empower and enrage women on campus."
I hope to continue this conversation.
I hope you have a great week.
Today is my first day of school (again). Tomorrow is my 40th birthday.
I don't think I'll ever stop being a student. I take breaks now and again, but I always return to the classroom. While I am constantly leaning on my own, there's something about formal education that works for me: probably the structure most of all.
After years of studying, using, and then teaching others about brain-based teaching strategies (aka neuroeducation), I found myself craving that structure. One day, my husband, son, and I were sitting around talking, and I asked them if they could study any topic in college (in the future, for my son, or in the case of my husband and I, if we could have a do-over), what would it be? At the time, my son was obsessed with presidential history, so his answer was "The Presidents." I think my husband chose graphic design. My answer? Brains.
I poked around for a couple of years, exploring various programs, and nothing seemed to click. I need something online to fit into my schedule, and because I thrive in online learning environments. Most of the programs I found were focused on K-12 education. Then, I stumbled upon Drexel's certificate in neuroscience, learning, and online instruction. There's a strong higher ed emphasis and I actually met the lead professor at the OLC conference years ago. She was presenting on brain-based teaching strategies, so I made a beeline for her, of course, and we had a great chat. When I realized she led the Drexel program, it seemed fortuitous.
The simple idea behind brain-based teaching is that the brain is the primary organ of learning, so understanding how it learns best helps to make us better teachers (and I would argue, better humans). I remember once that my yoga teacher training instructor said to us that if you're a curious person, yoga is a great thing to study, because you'll never reach the end; there's always more to learn. I feel that way about the brain. I'm a very curious person, and a lifelong learner, and I'm quite sure that the brain will keep me busy for years to come.
This term I'll be studying the Neuroscience of Learning. Here's the course description:
This course introduces neuroanatomy and processes associated with learning, memory, emotion, and perception. The course examines the relationship between stress, trauma, sleep, health, and aging on cognitive function as well as adaptive cognitive function. Current and emerging research in cognitive neuroscience is explored to inform educational practices to meet the needs of diverse learners. Topics include neuroplasticity, neuroimaging, learning cycle, effective differentiation, and self-efficacy.
Neuroplasticity. One of my favorites. To me, it's the science of hope. The hope that everyone can learn, grow, and change.
Birthdays always feel weird to me. Like, it's just another day, but it's also not. I try not to overcomplicate it, but...I'm an air sign, y'all. Overthinking things is written in the stars for me. So there's some stuff swirling around, but one thing that always grounds me is learning. My humungous textbook arrives tomorrow, and I plan to ring in forty with some cake, my best boys (two humans, one canine), and the joys of studying and annotating three chapters from Brain & Behavior with my favorite highlighters and colored pens.
I'm also taking a watercolor painting class at the local community college tomorrow; there's something very healing about sitting in a room for two hours and painting a flower. No one uses their phones. Since this is a day class, it's me and three older adults, all retired, so we talk about things like birds and butterflies. Speaking of brains, mine screeches for much of the class: "You have seven hundred things you could be doing right now! but I just keep painting my tulips. Maybe forty is the age when you learn how and when to ignore your brain.
I'm not going to get too weird about setting intense or specific goals for the coming year, but one thing I know is that I'm going to keep learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. I'm going to make bad art and put myself in front of timeless art.
Here are some pics from our visit to the MFA this weekend:
Life is good.
Years ago, I read something that said that before we add things to our lives, we should think about what we're going to subtract. If not, we'll just keep adding more and more until we reach the point of complete overwhelm.
That concept has stuck with me for a long time, and I try to share it with my students, many of whom are starting their first terms in college. "You just added a 10-20 hour per week commitment to your life. What did you subtract?"
Too often the answer is sleep, which won't work. Our brains, hearts, and spirits need sleep to be healthy and strong. I have learned to protect my sleep at all costs, and I encourage others to do the same.
If not sleep, then what? Time with our kids? A social life? Our fitness routine? There are no easy answers here.
The question of subtraction applies to anyone who wants to add something new to their lives, whether it's a college course, new job responsibilities, a relationship, or a gym membership. Adding things is great, but what will you subtract?
I saw this quote from Chani Nicholas over the summer, and I think it speaks to this tension of doing the math in our lives. We are an addition culture. Do more. Be more. Experience more. If all we do is add, we're going to bury ourselves in new experiences. I'm all for adding things to our lives, but I wonder if we need to become better at exploring the power of subtraction.
I've been thinking about blogging for at least a year. I hemmed. I hawed. Life is so busy; did I really want to add another task to my plate? And yet, I was feeling the urge to write on a regular basis. Not for paid publication, but just for the joy of creating.
It's been a guiding theme of my life that when I'm ready to read it, the book appears. This summer, I read Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist.
I bought it because I've realized that I need to relearn how to be creative. I've buried that part of myself for a long time, or ignored it, or just let other things become priorities. I know that to feel whole and balanced, I need to spend ample time each week creating, just for the hell of it.
I expected that I'd learn some ideas about how to be more creative. I didn't realize I'd get some much-needed advice on how to approach blogging.
Here's what I learned:
WAIT WAIT WAIT. You mean I can just do good work and then share it? It's that simple? I don't have to completely overanalyze the blogging experience, trying to map it out twenty years into the future, anticipating every possible outcome? I don't have to take a class on SEO, or even know what SEO is?
Yeah, I do the analysis paralysis thing quite a bit.
I love step-by-step instructions.
I also love to wonder. I wonder about everything. I love to learn. So many things fascinate me. Could this be the way forward with my blog? Could I simply wonder about things and share that wonder with others?
I can put things on the internet. I can do that.
Ah, here we are at a piece of advice that feels a little bit more challenging. How to find my people?
I think we can all agree that we are being bombarded with information and personalities online. How do I find my little school of fish in this big ocean of the internet?
I'm working on it. I'm trying to be a bit more intentional about investing my energy in people who love what I love: books, brains, introversion, teaching, learning, trauma-informed practices, self-exploration, big ideas, and purpose. If you're one of those people, know that I'm also one of those people. Maybe we can be those people together?
I've had a lot of questions about why I bought a vintage typewriter. I've also done a lot of self-reflection about why I wanted to buy her (yes, it's a her, and her name is Rita), why I resisted it for so long, and how freaking glad I am to have overcome that resistance.
To get there, I have to back up a bit.
This past spring, my husband, son, and I went to our local craft story after lunch one day. As I wandered the aisles, I wanted things. I wanted big cardboard letters (maybe I can spell LOVE and decorate them, I thought). I wanted to make something with my hands. I wanted to play.
But then, a voice came into my head: "What are you going to DO with those letters?"
We'd just done the whole Marie Kondo thing in our house, and it felt really good to release clutter. I wasn't too keen on adding more stuff to our lives. Then I thought, "And no one's going to want to buy those, if you were to try to sell them."
Those were the options that I presented myself with: hang my art on the walls or sell it.
I left the store empty-handed. My husband and son, not so much. Over the next few weeks, I watched them create. They started making artist trading cards, and they had so much fun with them. They were spending hours creating while I watched from the sidelines. I wanted in, but those same arguments played on repeat: if you aren't going to hang it up or sell it, what's the point?
One night, my husband and I were talking, and I told him about that internal battle I'd been having, of wanting to create but not feeling like it was worth it. I told him about my vision of decorating those letters.
"I don't know what I'll do with them once they're done."
He nodded. "I know exactly what you mean. I have those thoughts too. But I think that's sort of the point of making art. You don't need a reason."
"Yeah," I said. "I think I'm starting to grasp that idea."
Talking it through with him and getting that inner voice out into the light exposed my mindset. I was thinking only in terms of productivity. I was ignoring the innate value of play, joy, and creating.
We went back to the store. I bought paper, paint, glue, and an artist's notebook. I started to make art, on my own terms. Collage, watercolor, doodles. Not to be productive. Just because. Because colors make me happy. Because I feel grounded when I create. Because every once in a while, I make something that I'm just a little bit proud of, and surprising myself like that feels really good.
Of course, everything takes practice, including the art of because.
After a few months of integrating creativity into my life, I found myself stalking vintage typewriters on Instagram. Blue ones, like Rita, were calling my name. As I started searching for one on eBay, I could envision it becoming part of my morning practice, something that I've built over the past few years that sustains and inspires me. I could see myself typing up meaningful words and quotes and sharing those words and pictures with people who might also dig blue, vintage typewriters.
"But do I really need this?" I wondered. "Aren't there a million other things, more important things, that I could be spending my money on?"
I would find the perfect typewriter, only to get cold feet at the last minute. Over and over for weeks.
Until one day, I must've gotten tired of myself, because I saw a typewriter that looked pretty good, and clicked "Buy Now." Rita arrived a week later. As soon as I put eyes on her, I fell in love. I had no regrets. Not one. Not even a little.
Now, after about a month of living with Rita, I'm happy to report that she's a regular part of my morning practice. Most mornings, I type up words or phrases that feel important in that moment, I snap a few pictures, and I share them with the world.
Some people have asked me why I bought a typewriter, or looked at me funny when I say that I did. My ten-year-old son said, "Why did you buy a typewriter when we have computers?" Of course, a few seconds later, after watching me type and hearing that satisfying key-clacking, he said, "Can I try?"
Why did I buy Rita? Because. Because she's blue. Because of that perfectly imperfect font. Because she has told secret stories that she'll never reveal to me. Because you really have to push on those keys, and that extra effort feels like it's solidifying the words that I type into my brain. Because she brings me joy. Because no matter what kind of mood I'm in, when I look at her, I feel a little bit happier.
Last week, Rita got sick. I had changed her ribbon, and I must've pushed the wrong button somewhere, because when I typed, no letters would appear. The eBay seller was willing to take her back, but instead, I wrote to a typewriter repair shop about an hour from me. In the meantime, I managed to diagnose her online. Luckily, I was able to nurse her back to health, but when it was touch and go, I knew that no matter what happened, I was in it with her for the long haul, cost and time be damned. She's mine, and I'm hers. It's not practical, productive, or logical. It's just...because.
I took a vacation this summer. A real one. My first real one in many years. It was amazing. I spent a lot of time with family, and I read great books, mostly fiction. I decided that pretty much my favorite thing to do is to sit outside in the summer, or somewhere cozy in the winter, and read a novel. That's living.
One of the things that I hope to share regularly on this blog is my love of books. I'm thinking that will show up as a "The Last 5 Books I Read" type of post. For now, I'm going to start off by sharing my summer reading.
I'm going to highlight a few of my favorites, but I should mention that I don't finish a book if I'm not enjoying it. I used to, but then I had a kid. Time is too precious, and there are too many books in the world waiting to be read. If it's on this list, that means I liked it enough to finish it.
A Few Favorites
Thanks for reading about reading.
I know I'm not the only pedagogy geek who went bananas over seeing the art and science of teaching reach the masses via this article in The Cut last week.
If you haven't read it, it's well worth your time. For those of you who want to zone in directly on Warren's teaching tips and insights, I took the liberty of compiling them here.
In the words of Austin Kleon, "Step 1: Wonder at something. Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you." Here goes the wondering.
Warren's Teaching Tips
1. Don't do all the talking. Ask questions. Create space for your students to speak and think.
A couple of caveats I want to attach to this tip:
2. Simplify and clarify.
Patient and plainspoken. I love this. Ditch the academic speak. We know you're smart. But can you convey complex ideas in a simple manner? That's the mark of an expert teacher.
3. Respect your students (a.k.a. your fellow human beings).
They are human beings first, students second. Treat them with respect. We can be experts without denying our students' own expertise. My students know a lot of things that I don't know. I always identify myself as both a teacher and a student in our classroom. I am always learning too.
4. Meet students where they are, and then nudge them outside of those comfort zones.
Find that magical balance between challenge and support. Get to know your students. Believe in them.
P.S. Someone has read her Vygotsky and I'm #hereforit.
5. Learning takes place in the brain, but it involves a hell of a lot of heart.
The brain is the primary organ of learning. We, as teachers, should have a basic understanding of how the brain works. This brain-based awareness should not strip our work of its heart, however. The best teachers capitalize on the power of emotions to support teaching and learning.
6. Partner well.
If you're planning on doing this thing called life with a partner who's a teacher, a teaching observation should precede any long-term commitments. Obviously.
7. Declare your teaching mission statement.
How do you define great teaching? I think it's important that we speak that aloud, write it down, and share it with others.
8. Teach all students how to participate.
We have to get creative about getting all students to participate. If we rely on those who raise their hand when we ask questions, we're going to hear from the most confident voices. This only serves to reinforce existing inequalities. Use small groups or one-on-one partner exercises to build students' confidence, and then, over time, challenge the quieter voices to speak in larger groups.
9. It's not rocket science.
The best teaching tips that I've ever heard have been simple and not terribly time-consuming. I love this strategy of Warren's. Compile frequently asked questions, whether from office hours or student emails, and distribute to the class.
10. Great teaching is a journey, not a destination.
A cliche? Absolutely. Also true.
Lecturing at students can often feel safer at first — easier. To me, the willingness to try new strategies is the mark of a great teacher. And then to try again. And again. And again.
Last night on Twitter, I saw this post:
I have been meaning to write more about trauma-informed teaching and the impact of trauma on how the brain learns. That post inspired me to do so.
As I sat down to write this morning, I saw this:
A timely reminder for me and for those of us who choose to write, teach, and talk about trauma.
Before I get to some thoughts on how educators can utilize trauma-informed practices, I also want to mention that there are people working tirelessly to end gun violence in all of our communities. Many of them are calling for widespread protests and school walkouts. I can anticipate a critique of this post that argues that we should use our energy, not on becoming trauma-informed, but on protesting the people and policies that allow trauma to happen in the first place.
I think we need to do both.
Finally, before I get to some recommended strategies, I want to acknowledge that trauma isn't new. What is new is that we know now, more than ever, about how trauma impacts the brain and about how we can best support individuals who've lived through traumatic experiences.
As a new academic year begins, these are my thoughts on how educators in the field of higher ed can integrate more trauma-informed teaching practices into their classrooms.
There is so much outside of our control, but I know that how I choose to teach and treat my students is well within my control. I can choose to become trauma-informed and to use that information in my teaching and my daily life.
One of my hopes for the coming year is that as a community, higher education steps up and begins to take trauma more seriously. Having spoken to several trauma-informed education leaders over the past few months, it is my sense that this work is happening in pockets in our industry, often coming out of schools of social work or counseling at individual institutions. This is good, grassroots work being built from the bottom up. We now need to build on that on a national level. That conversation is taking place right now, so if you're interested, send me an email or tweet and I can add you to that loop.
Thanks for reading.
I'm committed to blogging once a week for this academic year. Thanks for joining me on that journey. Check back Monday-ish for new posts.