Diploma Cluster

As graduation scenes play out across the country, I find myself thinking about  the commencement ceremony for my own institution, scheduled for this evening.  Faculty and students alike will don our caps and gowns, squeezing into the creaky chairs assembled into tight rows in the expanded meeting rooms in the campus building that is nestled in a greening forest preserve.   We will be excited for and proud of our students, and all of us will be hoping for a riveting commencement address as we battle the vacuum-sealed heat of the academic regalia.

The more important ceremony, though, took place last week-end.  Our department holds an annual graduation party for the students who have completed their practicum experience and associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education.  A local restaurant has been the annual locale for this quiet gathering.  We reserve a small party room, and the students decorate the space, often to reflect a chosen theme.

I’d arrived early to assist my faculty partner and the students with last-minute preparations.   Upon entering the room I nearly collided with a student who was dashing through the doorway with streamers in her arms.  I’d hardly recognized her.  First, she was as tall as I, though in my class with her semesters ago I’d recalled her as a rather petite young woman.  Stepping back, I took in the view.  This student, and the other nine there, were clothed in elegant dresses or skirts, towering in fashionable heels that I could only dream of wearing without crashing to the floor.  They were lovely.   They had chosen the theme “dress to impress” for this year’s party — and were fully embracing it.

Memories of having each of them in class or sitting with them in my office for advising sessions immediately crowded my mind.  Specific recollections of individual struggles and triumphs poured in.

“We’ll be right back,” said the student I’d bumped into a moment earlier.  “We’re going downstairs to take a picture of everyone.”  And just like that the room went quiet.

This annual gathering, while small, is as significant for our graduates as any other culminating experience.  I’d suggest that it is more meaningful than the grand ceremony they will attend this evening.  Its intimate nature lends a direct focus to their work and their choice of profession – but more importantly, it celebrates the relationships students have developed over the course of nearly nine months as they have spent time in classrooms with young children and experienced teachers.  The teachers who mentored them during their student-teaching experiences and the faculty with whom they took classes are there to celebrate with them.

Each year I am struck by students’ individual journeys through this process.  Some of them complete their degree in a little over two years, though many take several years to do so, as they struggle to balance school, work, and family life — in addition to the inevitable challenges and life events that can interrupt studies.  That is perhaps the greatest battle:  to stay in school while responding to so many demands and forces pulling at you.

This year’s graduates made it to this point despite many odds.  Collectively they speak English, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Arabic, and Tagalog.  Half of them re-settled in the United States after growing up in other countries.  Three have had previous higher education.  One is raising two small children.  Two have had family child care businesses, and one closed hers to devote this year to her practicum experience.

So the “dress to impress” theme was not so much about fancy outfits.  I don’t believe this group of students is especially different from previous graduates, but I will say that they seem to have bought into the idea that they have indeed chosen a career — not a job.  They have a respect for their growing knowledge base, which is critical to their career identity.  They will need that to sustain them as they venture forth into the world of teaching very young children, because broader American culture has not yet embraced the work as truly valuable.


Moments later the students returned, speaking in hushed voices and putting the finishing touches on the decorations as guests began filing in.  Eventually everyone settled down to the usual chatty dinner.

What follows dinner each year is really the best part.

After I welcome everyone, the faculty supervisor, who leads the practicum seminar and has spent countless hours all year observing the students and, in her nurturing way, mentoring them — introduces the supervising teachers, one by one, as we applaud and their students present them with a gift.

The highlight of the evening is when each student stands before the group, flanked by the teachers who supervised her during her fall and spring practicum experiences.  Both teachers say a few words about the student and what they admire about her.  Call me mushy, but this is simply a wonderful sight. Teachers share compliments, anecdotes, funny stories, and children’s memories (including their wonder about why the students are no longer with them).  The teachers at one of our campuses have begun an annual tradition in which they write a poem to their students to capture the supervising experience.  This friendly competition in which they quietly evaluate each others’ rhymes is another delightful manifestation of the regard they have for their students and their journey.

This is where the tears flow, too, of course.  It is at this moment, possibly, that the months and years of study and sacrifice are crystallized.  Students realize now that they’ve made it.  This is just the beginning, though, of their life-long venture in self-knowledge.  They will continue to figure out what they’re made of as they make their way into their own classrooms in the coming weeks.

I would argue that our students may never have an experience similar to this one for the duration of their professional lives.   I am often challenged by colleagues regarding the requirement that our students complete two semesters of student-teaching.  This aspect of the degree is indeed its most challenging, but it is its greatest strength as well.  A year of working under the tutelage of an experienced teacher is  incomparable to the typical student-teaching experiences  pre-service teachers undergo.  Most are rushed through ten-week stints and then thrown into classrooms ill-prepared to deal to carry out group management or deal with the diverse educational, let alone social and emotional, needs of their children.

Following the student tributes, the faculty and supervising teachers sing a piggy-back song to the students to commemorate their time in practicum.  It is always a hoot, and they roar as we warble to them  about lesson-plans, case studies, take-over projects, and developmental theory.

This year, the students followed that song with a line dance.   Picture  25+ people filling every square inch of free space in a small meeting room,  bobbing and weaving and laughing as they do their best to master the steps without knocking over drinks or each other.

And at the end of the evening, when most of the guests had departed, the students crowded together at one end of the room, calling to their faculty supervisor.  As she approached, they parted to display a giant framed photograph of themselves — taken right before the party when they had quickly run downstairs.  The magic of technology was in action as the evening unfolded.  What a great trick they’d pulled off.  Their supervisor was completely choked up, of course.

I thought about that photograph,  and how it froze this moment in time for these students:  the happiness of  accomplishment, the pride of a job well done, the connections of friendships, and the sense of hope that a new career brings.  I wonder what they might think when they look at that photograph five years from now … or ten … or twenty.  What might it symbolize?   What will they tell themselves when they look back at this moment?

It’s my hope that they will still be in the profession, that they will be stimulated by their work, still contributing to the field, and still motivated by the impact their work has on very young lives.

Open Door Image

But for now:  commence.

You go, girls.


Birds Overheard (Imagined Avian Conversations, Arguments and Monologues)

Cardinal Bird

I’ve shared many bird behavior observations over the last several months.  Given my tendency toward anthropomorphizing pets, birds, and other animals, and the increased bird activity with the rising temperatures, it seems fitting to let my dear readers know what they are saying to each other.  And let me tell you, they have a lot to say.

I’m able to take in a good deal of avian activity from the window of my study or the deck behind my house.  There is one Bustling Bird World out there, folks.   Allow me to suggest what I think our feathered friends are communicating about food sources, securing food, the role of power in securing resources,  bird relationships, and Those Humans.

Mourning Doves Rear View

Probable dialogue for the above pair:  “Are you sure, honey?  ‘Cuz I feel like my butt got bigger during the Polar Vortex.”

“How many times can I keep saying this, dear?  I love you just the way you are, and besides, you’ve always known I like a little junk in the trunk.”

“Awww … you are so sweet!  I love you!”

Chicadee and Warbler Fighting on Bird Feeder

Likely exchange for the opponents in this photograph:   “Take a hike, dude.  That’s my corner.  I called it yesterday.”

“You can’t call a side!  This is an open feeder!  It’s for everyone!  The Humans who set it up wanted it that way!  They’re liberal Democrats!”

“Get over yourself, Mr. Free-to-be-You-and-Me.  That’s my corner and I’m takin’ in back.  Scram.”

“I’m tellin’ on you!  I’m gonna go call the Humans right now!”

I often observe birds navigate the branches of the bushes that line our tiny back yard, and this is quite likely what they are saying/thinking:

“OK, this branch looks good.  Let’s go there.  OK.  Now that other  branch looks good.  Let’s go there.  Hmmm.  Not what I thought it would be.  Let’s hop up a couple inches to that other branch.  Yeah … well, no, not really feelin’ this one.  OK.   Let’s go for that low one down there.  OK.  No.   Not OK.  Ummm …   I just can’t decide … ”

Male and Female Cardinal Perched in Opposite Directions

Here’s the dialogue for the above pair:  Female:  ” I’ve been calling to you for twenty minutes.  My throat is sore.   Where have you been?”

“Sorry.  I got delayed when Manny wanted to show me his new crib.  I couldn’t say no.  He’s my best friend.”

“That’s no excuse for being late.  Our evolutionary heritage requires you to fly directly to my side when I call you!”

“But … but there are exceptions to all evolutionary argu-”

“Stop it!  Stop it right now!  I am so angry with you!”

Given the interesting set-up of my house and community location, I have the distinct advantage of observing bird behavior on telephone wires.  This is the presumptive inner monologue of a bird on the wire:

“OK, woah!  This is a bouncy wire!  Woah!  I need a sec’ here to get my balance.  OK.  I’m good.  I’m good.  Take a deep breath.  OK. Hey, let’s try that other wire right up there.  Woah!  Even bouncier!  These wires are like the most swingy wires I’ve ever landed on.  What’s the deal?  I’m no Flying Wallenda, dude!  What gives, here?  Let’s try that other wire.  Looks a little more stable from here, at least.  Whew!  OK.  Well, it’s alright.  Still strong on the swing-factor.  I’m getting nauseous.  Time to go for the ground and some tranquility.”

hawk chased by crows

West Niles Virus decimated   the crow population in our neighborhood several years ago, resulting in hushed summer months.  But they came back strong last year, and have been alive and well this spring.  They fearlessly cackle, fighting for territory and food resources.  They actually go straight after hawks or falcons who unwittingly invade their territory, swooping at them and dive-bombing them high in the branches of the cottonwood trees above  our roof.  This is their message, I am totally sure:  “Hey, you, get outta our tree!  This is our joint!  Now hawks allowed!  You think you’re tough?  Yeah!  We’re talkin’ to you!  That’s right!  Fly, hawk fly!  You’re outta here, Mr. Hawk Man!  Scram!  Yeah!  Who’s the predator, now, baby, huh? ! That’s right!  You are so gone!”

Crows on Sidewalk

The above scene depicts what happens to the kind crow who has made the inadvisable suggestion that the hawk has a right to make a home in the same vicinity as the crows.  “What!!!?  What are you talking about??  Whose side are you on, anyway? ?  We don’t understand you.  Perhaps we never really knew you.  You’ve never really been with us, have you?  Maybe you should go hang out with that Hawk Guy, huh?  HUH?”

Wrens Fighting Mid-Flight

Conflict is an inevitable part of human life, and certainly a given in the animal world.  This chickadee and warbler are in a mid-air altercation.  Here’s the reliable exchange:  “Get off me!  I’ll break you in half!”

“Oh yeah?!?  You couldn’t chomp your way through my barf!”

“Oh yeah?  You couldn’t fly your way through a hula hoop!”

“Shut up!”

“No, you shut up!”

“No, you shut up!”

Male Cardinal Feeding Femail Cardinal

Things aren’t totally disharmonious, though.  This couple has obviously found a way to resolve their conflicts.   He apologized and she forgave him.  And his bottom will be on time tomorrow, that’s for sure.

Mourning Does on Railing Facing Each Other

And here we have again, the soft and gentle mourning doves, waddling their way through life, just trying to matter, and keep things connected and harmonious.  Check out their dialogue:  “You know, I just want everything to be OK, and for all of us to get along.  I mean, I hate fighting for the seeds, and I can’t stand conflict, so I just step back and wait for the wrens and the cardinals and the black birds to do their thing, and when they’re gone, that’s when I go for what’s left. ”

“I know what you mean.   I’m not in any rush.    So … you wanna order a pizza?”


Wren With Mouth Open Wide


So that ‘s what happening in my back yard.  What’s going on in your neck of the woods?







The Shadow of Your Smile – Part II

Cheshire Cat

Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend/Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within.*

Let’s face it, dear readers.  The smile is not always Duchenne.  It’s actually a rather complex human communication tool we use to send an array of messages.  It’s a core component of facial expression and body language — surprisingly difficult for us to understand in each other.

Psychologists tell us that our smiles are tied to emotions — intricate in an of themselves.  Ironically, emotions were not even considered a topic worth of scientific research for many years, as they were deemed an illogical, even unhealthy aspect of human behavior.  In the 1970s, though, there came an explosion of human emotions study, paralleling the advent of brain research.

So the smile is not a consistent conveyer of joy, contentment, and amusement.  It carries some rather negative stuff, including anger, disgust, fear, pain, and sadness.  And therein lies its complexity.

Dr.  Paul Ekman, psychologist and researcher at the University of California, who has studied human emotion, facial expression, and body language, has written extensively on the difference between the Duchenne smile (the happiness/genuine smile) and what he terms “other smiles,” or smiles that are used to communicate happiness when in fact this emotion is not felt.

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes they don’t tell the truth.

Grinch Smiling

These “other smiles” were briefly referenced in my previous post on smiling.  They help us cope with embarrassment or emotional upset, among other things.  These “outer” smiles conceal the “inner” feelings.  They may also  send messages to our fellow humans that all isn’t exactly well and we could use a break .

Ekman describes three types of  “other smiles.”

The “false smile” is used to communicate happy feelings when the individual is not actually experiencing a positive emotion.

Rachel Ray with Fake Smile

This smile has also been referred to as the Pan Am smile, a not-so-friendly reference to flight attendants on this now-defunct airline who apparently cast careless grins at all passengers at the beginning and end of each trip.  (Remember the Saturday Night Live skit in which David Spade and others  offered the perfunctory “Buh-bye” to all passengers as they exited the airplane?)

The “masking smile” is a purposeful effort to hide a negative emotion.

The “miserable smile”  communicates an individual’s effort to cope with an uncomfortable situation.

Britney Spears and Unsure Smile

Ekman’s research and similar studies describe the main outward difference between genuine smiles and other smiles centering on  the eyes:  a genuine smile shows the muscles around the mouth turned up and laterally wide, along with the ocular muscles around the eyes pushed upward;  an “other” smile shows muscle movement around the mouth only , with no muscle movement around the eyes.

The truth is in the eyes ’cause the eyes don’t lie, amen.

The Duchenne smile is effortless and natural.  The “other smiles” require conscious effort.

We’ve all got both.

We know  that smiles are reflections of emotion — or attempts to camouflage negative emotion.  And we’ve actually been practicing these “other smiles” for some time.  The roots of emotion can be found in infancy.  Children actually begin learning to hide their emotions around the tender age of three years.   Many researchers believe emotions actually come first in development; they are powerful tools for communication and survival.  A scene in the 1986 NOVA episode, Life’s First Feelings, shows an experiment requiring mothers to maintain a neutral facial expression while interacting with their infants.  In one instance, we see a male infant smiling at his mother as she stares at him, her mouth in a tight line across her face, her eyes gazing straight at him but devoid of joy.  In an attempt to engage her, he flashes a big, full grin — a Duchenne smile — to which she does not respond.  To calm himself in this unsettling circumstance, he looks away, and plays with his hands.  He makes a second attempt to bring her back in with a smile — to no avail.  At this point we see him begin to “de-regulate,” as a developmentalist might say:  this unfamiliar experience is so upsetting he begins drooling, tonguing, and even hiccupping.  After a third unsuccessful attempt to bring his mother back in,  he resorts to crying to get her attention.

This is a difficult scene to watch.  I have shown it many times over the years in a Child Development class, and students find it uncomfortable but quite educative.  It shows our intense need to bond and how critical our emotions are to our survival.  For a baby, if that smile doesn’t work — you sure as heck better cry.

But I have often thought that smiles may also convey much darker emotions and more deeply negative messages.  I think they are the other reality of the smile.

These are the smiles that convey mal-intent: contempt … intimidation … abuse … evil.

Joker Smiling

These smiles include the bully who rattles his mark.  The rival who gets inside the head of her opponent.  The abuser who has broken his victim.  The psychopath who feels no remorse in an act of evil.  The enraged individual who seeks revenge.    Those are the smiles that creep us out.   They are the smiles that convey something isn’t quite right.

Remember a smile is just a frown turned upside down.


These smiles  represent the dark side of our humanity, and they are no less present than that Duchenne smile.  We are a bundle of complicated feelings and motivations .  Perhaps that’s where emotional intelligence comes in:  recognizing the opposing forces we experience, accepting that they exist, and working to manage them as we bump through life, in all our daily interactions and experiences, and in all our relationships.

It ain’t easy.

We smile for joy and we smile for survival.  I hope you experience, at the very least, one Duchenne smile today, and that it crinkles your face up so tightly that your eyes close in delight.

I’m off to hug my Teddy bear.


*Lyrics from Strong and Whitfield’s, “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” hit record by the group The Undisputed Truth, 1971, and recorded later that year by The Temptations.