Posted in Life, Teaching

The Beauty of Learning

It’s fun watching learning occur.

My parents have a new kitten. She wandered into their yard, a tiny, scrappy, smart little thing, barely big enough to be away from her mother but somehow surviving on her own. They fed her and sweet-talked her from afar until she got curious enough to come inside the house. Since then, she’s been getting to know them on her terms, venturing out from her hiding spots a little more each day. They named her Spunkie, and it fits.

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Spunkie

I visited them last weekend and spent hours playing with Spunkie. It was so fun watching her figure things out—how to climb on top of things, how to play with new toys, how to trust. You could practically see her little brain working.

That big cat is so cool! I’m going to follow him and see what he does! Ooh, he growled at me. Ok, I’ll watch from over here. 

Being picked up is scary! But ooh! It comes with pets and belly rubs. Hmm, maybe this isn’t so bad…

By the time I left, she was trying out being a lap cat and eyeing the height of the kitchen counter for a future late-night scouting expedition.

Baby Goat
Leo

My school has a green ag program, complete with chickens and goats. Last week, one of our goats had her first baby—an adorable little buck named Leo. As soon as I could, I made it my mission to go meet him. (New teachers, take note: Make friends with the green ag teachers!)

Leo was six days old when I held his wiggly furry body and watched him frolic around his pen, kicking up his hooves. While I was there, he jumped onto a big rock for the first time. I think it surprised even him! He looked rather proud of himself until he considered how to get down. The little goat walked to the edge, backed up, walked to the edge, backed up, then finally kneeled down on the rock, as if asking himself, Will this get me closer to the ground?

When I left, he was still there, but his mama was with him, and I have no doubt he found his way down eventually, learning all the way.

Baby Goat on Rock

Teachers frequently expound on the joy of watching students “get” something. The look of comprehension, the sigh of relief, and the smile of finally accomplishing a difficult task are the rewards of our profession. But I think I enjoy watching adults learn even more.

Earlier this week, my principal held a meeting with the school leadership team in which she started every other sentence with, “As of this moment in time…” (I feel sorry for our administrators. They are working so hard for us and doing the best they can, but things change daily in the district/state/country, and so much is out of their hands.)

During the meeting, she practiced using various online tools for the first time, figuring things out as she went, working through problems as they came up—modeling for us, showing us she is learning and adapting too, giving us permission to try and fail and try again. I’m thankful for her leadership during this stressful time. Learning something brand new takes courage. Most adults choose to do it in isolation. I will teach myself this skill, and when I am good at it, I will let others see. It takes bravery to learn in front of people.

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Screenshot of me learning I cannot eat while on a zoom chat if my cat is in the room

Regardless of what school or online school or homeschool or no school looks like this fall, learning will occur. Look for it, watch it, and when you see it happening, encourage it. Learning does not require a classroom or a bell schedule. All it takes is a positive attitude, curiosity, and a little courage.

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What are you learning right now?
What lessons from this time will you carry with you into the future?

Posted in Life, Teaching

May Memories

May is always a full month, but this year it seemed more full than usual. Despite the fact that COVID-19 has, in many ways, made the world feel smaller, it can’t stop time from marching on, nor can it stop people from celebrating its passage, albeit in new ways.

This May marked twenty-five years since I graduated from high school. I watched online from 200 miles away as my niece accepted her high school diploma and concluded her own strange senior year.

This May marked ten years since my husband and I got married. We celebrated at home with takeout from a favorite restaurant and lots of laughter and a few tears as we watched our wedding video and looked through a box of old letters and photos and other relationship memorabilia.

And this May also marked the twentieth anniversary of my first year of teaching.

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Me as a first year teacher

This particular milestone snuck up on me. Since I took time off in the middle of my career, I haven’t actually taught for twenty years. I just finished my seventeenth year of teaching seventh grade. But it was twenty years ago, in May of 2000, when I said goodbye to my very first group of students ever.

A lot of teachers have horror stories about their first year in the classroom, but not me. I loved it. I had great kids that year, and I bonded well with them. In retrospect, that was probably because I was a just a kid too, only ten years older than my students. Now that I’m in my forties, it seems a little odd to put a 22-year-old in charge of the education and well-being of fifty pre-teens, but I think I did an okay job.

To celebrate this life landmark, I read the notes written in my 1999-2000 yearbook. Then I reconnected with several of those first year “kids” (now in their thirties) on Facebook and posted a bunch of old pictures of them in their most awkward stage of life. It was so much fun seeing them now and watching them squeal at the photos of their former selves. I really loved those kids. I still have little gifts that some of them gave me and notes and drawings. All treasures.

As much fun as it was to reminisce with my former students, it made me more sad about what I missed out on with this year’s kids. I haven’t been as torn up about the strange ending to the school year as a lot of teachers. I’m not sure why. I think I was just so focused on the reason for the school closures and the anxiety over keeping everyone safe that not getting the last few weeks of lessons in didn’t seem like a big loss. Plus, I live in the neighborhood where I teach, so I’ll run into some of my kids at the park and the grocery store (when I start going back inside the grocery store).

But now I’m lamenting the losses. The lost conversations and end-of-year countdowns and talent shows and final reflections. And the yearbook. I bought one this year, and I’ll get it eventually, but it will be too late for signatures, too late to see who writes the funniest comment and who surprises me with a heartfelt note about something I didn’t realize made an impact.

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Packing up my classroom on May 8th. The board was still set up for March 13th, the day classes were cancelled.

There are other losses too. This is the first time in seventeen years of teaching that I didn’t get to share S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with my students, didn’t get to gasp at their profound observations and cringe at the skits and videos they made of the novel’s violent scenes. (Every year, I’m convinced I’m going to get fired because of students acting out knife fights in the hallway with paper switchblades that I told them not to make or sharpened pencils that I have to confiscate. They learn a lot though, I promise, and have a lot of fun, and no one has ever been seriously injured.)

It took looking back twenty years to really see the past few months.

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Ready to congratulate the graduating 8th graders from a safe distance

Although the end of the year fizzled out in a less-than-exciting way, the rest of the school year went well. It was filled with hard work and reading and writing and stories and struggles and, as usual when you work with middle schoolers, some really interesting moments.

Here are a few that stood out in the 2019-2020 school year:

How My School Year Started

* Journal entry from August 20, 2019 *

This morning before work, I was getting ready to leave and microwaving a sausage & biscuit for breakfast when Hubby came into the kitchen to take my first day picture. He peered into the microwave (which was on) and said, “There’s nothing in there.”

“Ha,” I said. “If that were true, that would be really weird.”

Hubby looked at me funny. Then he opened the microwave and showed me that nothing was inside. There, on the counter, sat my cold sausage & biscuit.

*

Before school, I was on duty in the commons with E, politely telling students to put their cell phones away and keeping an eye on a group of 8th grade boys who seemed moments away from becoming a mosh pit. Exactly two seconds before the principal released 1,300 kids to stampede to class, a girl dropped her glass water bottle on the tile floor. It shattered, sending water and glass shards into a huge, dangerous puddle. E and I blocked the spill with our bodies, yelling, “Go around us! Broken glass! Watch your step!” to 1,300 stampeding kids. Then we FOLLOWED THE EXACT PROTOCOL AS OUTLINED IN THE SAFETY TRAINING VIDEO FOR CLEANING UP BROKEN GLASS. THE END.

Possibly the Weirdest Moment of My Entire Teaching Career

* Journal entry from September 24, 2019 *

Today, three days after seeing It: Chapter 2 with my family, I was teaching my 5th period class of 33 students, plus me, plus my co-teacher, plus my college intern. I was standing on the side of the room, and every student’s eyes were focused on me when a boy on the far side of the room pulled a red lipstick out of his pocket and proceeded to draw lines from the corners of his mouth, up his cheeks, over his eyes to create the Pennywise clown makeup. (!!!!!) I raised my eyebrows at him and shook my head in a subtle but assertive, “No, uh-uh,” sort of way. The boy blushed, pulled the collar of his shirt up over his head and pulled it down over his face, wiping off all the makeup in a single motion. I glanced around. No one was reacting in any way. A student had transitioned into a clown in the middle of my lesson and transitioned back into a boy again in a classroom of 36 people and NO ONE SAW IT BUT ME.

You cannot make this stuff up.

A Proud Moment

There was a student I didn’t know who had a locker right outside my classroom. At the start of the year, he had locker trouble. He lost his lock. Then he lost his combination. I helped him once and I saw another teacher help him on a different day. Eventually, he just stopped locking his locker. It drove me crazy. Sometimes he didn’t even close it. So on October 16th, I wrote this note and put it in his locker when no one was looking. Later, I saw him find it, look around suspiciously, and read it.

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From that day forward, his locker was closed and locked every single day. I don’t think he ever knew who put the note there.

An Unfortunate But Portentous Moment

* Journal entry from January 10, 2020 *

During my grammar lesson today, I accidentally demonstrated how communicable diseases spread.

Students were labeling parts of speech in practice sentences. I went around with a marker and put a check on students’ papers that had every label correct. Those students in turn were deputized as teachers, got a marker, and walked around checking other students’ answers. The students they checked did the same. It was a wonderful, engaging, cooperative lesson that my coworker came up with, and it had worked beautifully all day.

Until 7th period.

In 7th period, I made a mistake on the first student’s paper I checked. He had an error I didn’t notice. Unknowingly, he passed his diseased answers on to others, and they did the same. By the time the problem came to my attention, it was too late. Half the class was already infected. We all just stared at each other, not knowing what to do, until student zero said, “It’s like the coronavirus.”

It turned out to be a great cross-curricular science-related discussion and a really terrible grammar lesson. Oops.

[Note: When student zero mentioned the coronavius, everyone laughed, including me. This was mid-January. The term was just a buzz word. I barely even knew what it was at the time.]

A Funny Moment

* Journal entry from January 16, 2020 *

The worksheet said: Write a sentence about a tiger using a semicolon.

The student wrote: The tiger used a semicolon as a weapon.

Touché, kid.

*

Good memories, all of them. But none of these memories could have happened if I hadn’t started somewhere. I’m so grateful I had such a good first year of teaching. The last thing in my journal from that inaugural year is a list I made. Everything on it still holds true.

10 THINGS I LEARNED MY FIRST YEAR OF TEACHING

  1. Decorating a classroom is more difficult than it looks.
  2. Over-planning is much, much better than under-planning.
  3. Be very flexible and calm and let things roll off your back.
  4. Don’t always proclaim a winner in games.
  5. Juggling is a great attention-getter.
  6. It’s important to write legibly on the board.
  7. Students mirror their teacher, so enthusiasm and smiling are essential.
  8. Teachers should be required to take at least one theater class in college.
  9. Gaining respect has little to do with age or experience.
  10. Be able to laugh at yourself in front of large groups.

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Done and done, especially #10. Now to go brush up on my juggling skills.

Happy Summer, everyone.

Posted in Life

The Gift of Spring

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My first iris of 2020

The older I get, the more I hate summer.

That probably surprises you, since I’m a teacher. I do love the freedom and relaxation of summer, and I definitely look forward to the break from work. But the temperature? I am completely over Texas summer heat.

In Austin, the high temps start averaging in the 90s in June. The rain tapers off and the highs steadily climb until, by mid-July, we’re regularly hitting 100 degrees. We average about 20-30 triple digit days a year, unless we have a bad year like 2011 when we hit 100 a total of 90 times. That is not a typo. We had 90 days of sweltering heat, and many of those were well over 100. That was the year we got our puppy, Uno. We had him three months before he saw rain. That was also the year we got a new fence installed in the backyard. It took twice as long as expected because the workers kept having to leave around 3pm for their own safety. The thermometer was reaching 110, 111, 112 degrees every afternoon. It was brutal.

Of course, Texas doesn’t have a monopoly on hot weather. Even in places like New York and Montana, they’ll see temperatures in the nineties during the summer. Also, when I complain about the Texas heat, people like to point out that at least people here have air conditioning everywhere. That’s true, and I’m eternally grateful for it.

Here’s the first problem: I like to be outside. Sitting inside in the AC is not the same thing as sitting outside in a fresh breeze. During the most stifling weeks of the year, even sitting in the shade is too much for me. My body just doesn’t handle the heat like it used to, and I sometimes feel physically ill from being out on Austin afternoons, regardless of shade and hydration. If I could escape it at all, ever, things would be different. But the other (and much larger) problem is this: THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

I’m a natural night owl. Before I was married, I’d often revert to vampire hours for a couple of weeks at the start of summer, but even that isn’t enough of a relief because in Austin, from about mid-July to mid-September, it NEVER COOLS DOWN. In the summer, Hubby and I walk the dog around 10pm because the pup doesn’t like the heat either, and that’s when the temperature will have finally dropped below 95. I could deal with the 110-degree heat during the day if I knew it would be in the 70’s by dawn. But it won’t. It’s the LOWS that kill my soul in the summer. 82, 84, 86… these are temperatures that will greet you if you go outside at 3am in August. That’s just ridiculous.

[Right now, you’re probably thinking, Did I read the title wrong? I thought this post was supposed to be about spring? It is. Sorry. Bear with me. I’m getting there. I didn’t plan on harping on hellish Texas summers for quite this long, but I obviously have a lot of feelings about them. Moving on.]

As much as I love having a couple of months off from teaching every year, I’ve wished for a long time that those months didn’t occur during the summer. If all I’m going to do is stay in the air conditioning anyway, I might as well do it in my classroom. Instead, why not let us out when it’s nice outside?

As bad as Austin summers are, our springs are amazing. We’ve got blue skies and butterflies and birds singing and sun shining, but the weather is never boring. There are plenty of good spring thunderstorms and cool fronts to mix things up. Plus, spring in Texas is bluebonnet season. I never tire of seeing that sea of blue along trails and highways. Every April, I stare out the windows of my classroom, wishing I could spend the day outside. Weekends of walks and hammocks and campfires just aren’t enough.

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Texas bluebonnets

Well, this year, in a very weird way, I finally got my wish. I’ve been given the gift of spring.

Ever since March 13th, when schools were closed due to COVID-19, I’ve been spending so much time outside. I walk myself in the mornings, walk my dog in the afternoons, read in a lawn chair on my driveway in the evenings, and have campfires whenever I want. I’ve even been sleeping on my screened in porch a lot and sometimes participate in my online meetings while sitting on the grass in the front yard. Even when I’m stuck inside, I keep one eye on the squirrels at the window and take brain breaks by watching the birds.

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I would never wish this pandemic on the world. If I could get the coronavirus to go away with a snap of my fingers, I’d do it in an instant. But, among the stresses and sadness and uncertainty of this situation, it’s nice to find something positive. This is my happy thing right now. I’ve been given the gift of springtime, and I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it.

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My coworker taking a much-needed break

What about you? What is your happy thing right now? What unexpected gifts have you been given by this experience?