Life is still weird, and some days are hard, so it’s especially nice when you find a few reasons to celebrate. September has gifted me with some good ones.
Reason to Celebrate #1: FALL
The official start of fall is still a few days away, but last week the Texas summer took its leave. The temperatures dropped, the oppressive humidity blew away, and we even had a few days of hard rain and thunderstorms. There’s nothing quite like that first burst of cool weather after the long, hot months. I was so happy, I went out and bought my first pumpkin. It won’t be lonely for long.
Reason to Celebrate #2: A SMOOTH-ISH START TO THE SCHOOL YEAR
The drop in temperature coincided with the first day of school for my district. On Tuesday, September 8th, we began online teaching. Despite thunderstorms and power failures and zoom fatigue and even a mass internet outage that affected most of our school’s neighborhoods one day, it was still a successful start to the year. The students arrived ready to learn, and the teachers welcomed them with smiles and reassurances and well-planned virtual lessons.
It’s hard though. The amount of work that goes in behind the scenes to make that smoothness possible is too large for most people who don’t work in education to truly understand, and it means that sometimes dinner looks like this:
But we did it, and we’re still doing it, and we’ll keep doing it to the best of our ability. I’m very proud of my campus and my coworkers and my community. This morning, while walking the trail in my neighborhood, I saw this painted rock, and it felt like such a gift. I’m sending it out to all my fellow teachers.
Reason to Celebrate #3: GHOST STORIES
October is just a few short weeks away, which means ghost storyseason is almost upon us, so I’m excited that my new book, The Ghostly Tales of New England, is now available! This slim, but spooky volume includes twenty-two true stories of historical haunts in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, and it’s the perfect companion to a cup of hot chocolate and a campfire.
A friend of mine read some the stories to her six-year-old daughter, and now she’s writing a scary story of her own! It’s called “The Bodiless Foot,” and it comes with some wicked illustrations.
I think we have a new horror author in the making.
Speaking of writing inspiration, I’m doubly excited because Austin Bat Cave has asked me to teach an online Ghost Stories Workshop on October 17th. If you know a 5th-8th grader with a love of writing and a flair for the macabre, consider signing them up. Space is limited, so reserve your spot soon.
I’m grateful for these reasons to celebrate, and I’m always on the lookout for more. Let me know if you find any.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are you learning right now? What lessons from this time will you carry with you into the future?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Decorating a classroom is more difficult than it looks.
Over-planning is much, much better than under-planning.
Be very flexible and calm and let things roll off your back.
Don’t always proclaim a winner in games.
Juggling is a great attention-getter.
It’s important to write legibly on the board.
Students mirror their teacher, so enthusiasm and smiling are essential.
Teachers should be required to take at least one theater class in college.
Gaining respect has little to do with age or experience.
Be able to laugh at yourself in front of large groups.
Done and done, especially #10. Now to go brush up on my juggling skills.