Sunday, April 29, 2012

Black & White

I did it. 

Putting on my do bahk (that's 'uniform' in Korean), stiffly starched and retina-searingly white, I officially began on my path to "black belt excellence" last week.  In a previous post, I shared my turning point, when I realized that my fear was the only thing holding me back.  I have moved off of the bleachers and out of my comfort zone.  I am now a beginner.  A white belt.  10th Gup.
Tang Soo Do is one of the Korean martial arts that has military roots.  When you begin, your rank, or gup, begins at 10, and as you continue to progress, you move upward through the ranks in reverse number order.  My 11-year-old son, who has been doing this for more than four years, outranks me as a 1st Gup, soon to be "Cho dan bo" (black belt eligible).  No matter how hard I try, and how often I go to class, he will always be my superior, and I will call him, "Sir."
I stand at the end of the last row all the way in the back during class, making my best attempt to match my blocks and kicks to the precise artistry that I observe in the front row where he stands.  As effortless as he makes it look, I know my stumbling attempts are nowhere near par.  Coordinating my mind with my hands and feet commands my full concentration, and repeatedly I fall short of the mark.   With each Ki Hap I try again to step with the right foot while simultaneously engaging my "chamber" while moving both my arms in opposite directions AND maintaining my balance so I don't splatter face first onto the gym floor.  It's not easy.  It requires every ounce of my concentration, and it can be embarrassing and even frustrating at times.

In other areas of my life, I have gifts and skills.  Cooking is art to me, and it is something enjoyable that comes easily.  Professionally as a reading specialist, I am able to adeptly assess a student's area of need in reading and provide instruction for that student to scaffold and support his reading development.

So why?  Why begin Tang Soo Do?  What is my motivation?
I see the end goal.  From the very end of the last row at the back of the class, I see what is to come.  Through the expert coaching of my karate instructors, I know that if I work diligently and practice, I will progress through the ranks and earn many colorful belts.  I know that if I am patient, persistent, and committed, I will be a black belt someday.

At school, my students have many talents and gifts.  They are tournament wrestlers, football players, competitive gymnasts, artists, and yes, even black belts in Tae kwon do.   However, they enter into my classroom because they need to be there, not out of choice.  They have been recommended, screened, and qualified.  Although I wish it was not true, many have been embarrassed and frustrated by their struggles with reading.
Reading is a complex interactive process, requiring the coordination between interpreting the black and white code (the text) with the reader's background knowledge and strategies for making meaning.  The fluent reader makes this process look easy.  How must it feel to observe others performing the seemingly effortless art of reading, when you know that it requires every ounce of your concentration and effort when you engage in the task?  What is your motivation to continue through your embarrassment and frustration?  How do you visualize the end goal?

In reality, my students know the end goal.  I do not take it personally when they tell me that they don't want to be in reading support.  Some are surprised when I tell them that I share their sentiments.  Rather than seeing reading support as an end in itself, I see it as a path to self-reliance.  My role as a teacher is a balance between art and science as I coach my students toward independence.  It will require practice and concentration, but if we are patient, persistent, and committed, we will get there.  Along the way, we will check our progress and celebrate our growth until our goal is achieved.

Our goal is reading independence.

My goal is black belt excellence.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012


April by K. Bispels

Feathers of color peek out of branches
Chartreuse, harlequin beginnings 
Plumes of magenta and cerise burst
From dormant gray quills

April is National Poetry Month, and so I thought I'd begin with a free-write poem.  Where I live, spring has arrived in full force.  I love to visit my garden at this time of year as my plants and trees begin to wake up and pop out of their winter shells.  My daffodils give me the first sign of hope for warmer weather, and their appearance each year prompts a "happy dance," which I do to the great chagrin of my children.  (Mom, must you do that OUTSIDE?)
This is our second spring in our new house, and I distinctly recall last year's discoveries.  Now I know when to expect the sprouting bulbs, the blooms from our peach and apple trees, and the emergence of leaves from our Crepe Myrtle.  I had never had a Crepe Myrtle before, and being a Northeastern girl, I didn't even know what the gorgeous tree with fuscia blooms was called until I took a picture of it and asked my facebook friends to identify it for me.  When all of its bark began peeling off last year, I panicked, thinking that the centerpiece of our garden was dying.  Again, I did my research (via Google this time) and discovered that this occurrence was typical.  Only then was I able to appreciate the beauty of the pale bare wood below.   Still, I did another "happy dance" this weekend when its leaf buds began to emerge.  Despite my research online, I needed tangible confirmation that growth was occurring.  My prize needed to show itself to me for real.

March typically brings with it a certain depression, as winter ends and spring has yet to begin.  I think that it is also interesting that it is also the month when we do our standardized state testing (PSSAs - see my previous post here), both of which leave me with a cold sense of dread.  For my students, who are not reading on benchmark level, it is a time to witness struggle, frustration, and failure.  Notwithstanding our mutual efforts, and the gains that they have made in their reading progress, it is a period that punctuates the fact that they are not there yet.
April brings hope.  My students and I resume our good work, and we continue to check in on our reading development, with its tiny feather leaves and occasional bursts of color.  And it brings the promise of May, when we look back to where we began and clearly see how we have bloomed.  This is when my students show me their reading growth for real.  We do our "happy dance" together.  And it is spectacular.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

I Can't

For those who aren't familiar with Tang Soo Do, it is one of the forms of Korean martial arts.  My youngest son discovered it through one of his friends when he was 7 years old.  He was determined to take classes, and began his training under the caring guidance of his first instructor, Master P.
I'm not sure where, deep inside his 7 year old soul, this little one's perseverance sprouted, but now, four years later, he is well on his way to becoming a black belt. 

From the start, I have watched his practices, taken him to tournaments, and chronicled his growth via pictures.  Early on, he asked me to join him on his "path to black belt excellence," but I wanted him to have his "thing" and be the Proud Mom on the sidelines.   His instructors extended the invitation as well, but I always politely declined.
Two weeks ago, one of his Masters pointedly asked me, "Why aren't you out here with us?"  My reply surprised me as it flew out of my mouth.  "I can't.  I'm afraid that I won't be physically able to do it.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to do everything that is necessary to become a black belt.  I don't want to fail.  I am scared."  He looked at me and said, "I know.  I've been where you are."
Mumbling about running errands, I exited the studio, and when I returned at pick-up, I hid behind the other parents to avoid eye contact with the other instructors.  The following Tuesday I watched my son as he trained during his regular class, sitting the sidelines, thinking. 
I can't.
I'm afraid.
What if I fail?

Every day, in my career as a reading specialist, I hear these words from my students.  Sometimes they are direct and explicit,  and sometimes they are veiled in a comment like, "I hate this book," or "I hate reading."  Here's the translation:
I can't
I'm afraid.
What if I fail?

With all of my nurturing guidance, my explicit strategy instruction, and my cheering from the sidelines, the fear remains.  I need to let my students know that I can see it.  We need to face it head-on, and acknowledge it, so that we can move past it and begin a new mantra.

I can.

Reading is tricky.  There will be places where we get stuck.  Sometimes we will fail, we will make mistakes, and it might be hard.  But, I have been where you are.  We will work through it together, and I will support you.
My reading partner and I (in Room 136) have decided to adopt this new mantra with our students.  I've decided to start another blog to chronicle our journey called Room 136.  (It will begin with "I CAN!")

Personally, I have gotten off the bleachers and successfully completed my first two Tang Soo Do classes this week.  It's not easy, and every single fiber of my being is sore, but I am no longer afraid.  I can do it.