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.

*

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

Happy Summer, everyone.

Posted in Teaching

Flattening the Learning Curve: The Challenges of Online Learning

I am a middle school teacher. This means I’m on my feet 6+ hours a day teaching, talking, demonstrating, modeling, interacting, performing, and making grocery lists in my head as I repeat the same thing I’ve said five times already. It means I am managing the attention, behavior, understanding, and personally-accommodated academic and emotional needs of 128 students every day, and I’m doing it in 46-minute increments while guided by bells like a Pavlovian trained monkey.

At least, that’s what it used to mean. Now, I’m sitting in front of my computer for hours a day, responding to emails, creating online lessons, participating in Zoom faculty meetings, and trying to remember if I left anything perishable in my desk at school.

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There are positives and negatives to this new life. On the plus side, I take about 1,000 breaks a day to kiss my dog. On the down side, it’s a little hard to keep up with the ever-changing, ever-evolving requirements and tools that are coming our way.

Monday: “Here is an amazing new platform that will help you serve your students online! Hooray! Our company is your hero!”

Tuesday: “Due to the fact that you are actually using this amazing new platform, it is now being overloaded and doesn’t work. Therefore, please wait patiently while we try to figure it out, or upgrade to the paid version of our service which your district hasn’t given you money to purchase.”

Wednesday: “Teachers, your students miss you! They need to see your face and know you care about them! Set up online video conferences with your classes to enrich, engage, and promote social emotional learning with your students!” (Insert lots of hearts and thumbs up emojis here.)

Thursday: “Attention Teachers: Do not, we repeat DO NOT hold video conferences with your students unless you are following the 74 guidelines listed below.”

    1. Always wear pants.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

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Me waiting for students to participate in my online office hours…

Not to mention the fact that many teachers are also parents. The only dependents I have to keep track of are my husband, my dog, my two cats, and my Roomba (who, I’ll admit, has been acting out lately), but many of my coworkers have young children at home, which means they are trying to work and parent at the same time. I can only imagine how impossible that is. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it. I’ve seen toddlers interrupt video conferences like adorable little tornados.

Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. Elephant, thy name is coronavirus. We all go about our days holding our heads high, trying to pretend that everything is fine while our world gets smaller and smaller and the elephant gets larger and larger. The truth is, we’re scared of the long-term effects of this pandemic. We’re worried about the health of our friends and loved ones. And we—the teachers, the educators, the adults that kids are told to turn to in times of crisis—don’t have any more answers than anyone else.

I think that might be the hardest part of all this. The helplessness. Most of us feel like we’re falling short in so many ways right now.

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Me pretending everything is fine and that I’m not freaking out and going stir crazy…

So let’s all take a deep breath and admit that we don’t have it all figured out yet.

Let’s take another deep breath and allow that the people around us aren’t perfect either.

Let’s take a third deep breath and remember that we’re in this together.

(Oh, whoops. I hope you were exhaling after each of those breaths. Otherwise you’re probably a bit red in the face by this point. Sorry if that was unclear. I’m not a yoga teacher and should obviously leave this stuff to the professionals. Just breathe. In, out. You get it.)

The thing is, we all need a little breathing room right now. So let’s give each other some space, not just physically, but emotionally too. Let’s allow some failure and understand that everything comes with a learning curve. Even learning.

And if the homeschooling just doesn’t work because you have no time or the internet is down or your student is being a bit of a pill today (trust me, he never acts that way at school), DON’T STRESS. Even though I’m a teacher who’s currently in the process of creating online learning opportunities for my students, I still believe this message I posted on Twitter last week.

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To sum up:
* Always wear pants during video conferences.
* Allow yourself not to be perfect.
* Allow others not to be perfect.
* Make space for the elephant in the room.
* Worry less about your kids’ academics and more about their health.
* Remember that we’re all in this together.

So long for now. Stay home, stay safe, stay sane, and send me a message if you’re bored or want to say hello or have a question that I can’t answer.

Posted in Life, Teaching

You’re Going to Be Disappointed

New Year means new goals, new promises, new challenges, new you.

Some people like to choose a single word for the new year, something that embodies their focus or intention for the next twelve months. I think this is a cool thing to do, but it’s not for me. I’m a resolutions girl through and through. I like a list, even if it’s a short one. My 2020 resolutions page includes a concise seven items.

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Here are two of my resolutions. The rest are for me to know and you to wonder about.

The first is a return to an old favorite. Monitoring my “Have to’s,” “Need to’s,” and “Want to’s” is one of the best resolutions I’ve ever made and one I recommend for anyone to work on. The second is a familiar goal with a small twist. I love reading and often finish 40-60 books a year, but this year I don’t want all my reading to be for pleasure. I want to read at least a couple of books that push me in some way.  Maybe it’s a difficult text that requires constant use of a dictionary. Maybe I’ll try to learn a new skill or subject and read something that requires study and memorization. Or maybe I’ll read something that challenges my political beliefs or worldview. I don’t know how I’ll go about it yet, but I’m determined to work for at least two titles.

I like my method of goal-setting. It works for me. This year, though, it’s like the universe is trying to force the one-word trend on me.

On Saturday, all Facebook wanted to do was show me people’s 2020 words. PERSEVERANCE. PEACE. OPENHEARTED. CREATRIX (<– I love that one). These are all very cool, and there’s nothing wrong with this way of embracing the new year. It’s just not something I want to do. But, inundated with these terms—STRENGTH, PRESENCE, TRUTH– I found my mind begin to wander… “IF I were to choose a word…” until, in a spectacular bout of stubbornness, I went old school Ghostbusters on myself. “No! Don’t think! Clear your mind! Clear your mind!” I don’t know why I’m so determined NOT to have a 2020 word. I just am.

I thought I had successfully cleared my head of this parasitic inspirational intrusion. Then my metaphorical Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men started showing up.

On Sunday, I wrote a letter to my dad– a thank you note for a Christmas gift and a copy of something he asked me to send him. When I pulled a plain white envelope out of my stationery box and opened it to insert his letter, I realized the envelope was full of words cut out of magazines.

Now, this isn’t strange in itself. I like cutting words out of magazines for found poetry and art and decorating journals, and when I have words left over (you should always have words left over– never use all your words) I often keep them in an envelope. But how an unlabeled envelope of unused words got put back into my box of brand new stationery is beyond me. At the time, I pondered it for a moment, shrugged, and then sent the letter to my dad, leaving the extra words inside. (I figured he could use them for something.) It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized the implications of my discovery and, literally, gasped. The universe was trying to TRICK ME into choosing a 2020 word! Well, it didn’t work! Ha! My dad can choose one if he wants, but I deftly averted the universe’s clever ploy.

So… the universe chose a word for me.

Monday, I went back to work. [Insert sad violin music here.] The first thing I saw when I walked into my classroom on Monday morning was a small rectangle on the floor. I picked it up and turned it over. This is what I found:

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Before you start spinning myths about how that word got there, NO, I don’t possess a set of magnetic poetry in my classroom (want to buy me one?), and YES, I’m sure that magnet did not exist in my room in 2019. (I’ve been in this classroom for four years, and I am very organized.) I truly have no idea where it came from. I only know that it was sitting there, on the carpet, waiting to mock me the day I returned to work: DISAPPOINTED.

Well, the joke’s on you, Universe, because I refuse to accept your word. I am my own person! I shall not be owned by a word! I am free! FREE, I tell you!!! (But that’s not my word either. I don’t have a word.)

In conclusion, embrace the new year however you want, and don’t let anyone force any particular inspirational method on you. You be you.

Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here hiding from the universe and trying not to be disappointed. Don’t mind me.