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 Poetry, Teaching, Writing

Why I Love Writing Club

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Two years ago, I began assisting with my middle school’s Writing Club, and last year I took over as sponsor. It makes for a long Friday afternoon, and sometimes I need to just sit in the silence of my car for a few minutes before I drive home so I can get the ringing in my ears to stop*, but overall it’s been a very pleasurable experience.

* Ringing in your ears? It’s a Writing Club. Doesn’t that mean you spend the hour listening to the peaceful scratching of pen on paper? Um, no.

At my school’s Writing Club, the focus is on the word Club more than on the word Writing. The hour after school is as much about students gushing over their latest literary crush, arguing over which fandom is better: Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and complaining about the perils of writer’s block, as it is about writing the great teen novel. We do eventually put gel pen to journal most days, but first there are beach ball ice breaker games and a general LOUD decompressing after a long day/week. Some students come to the club with works in progress—comics, sci-fi novels, poetry—that they add to or work on. Others sit down with a blank page and see what happens. Some just come for the company. Because, most importantly, Writing Club is a place where these young writers can be among their own kind and let their inner selves out to play without judgment.

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Random gift from a Writing Club kid. It hangs on my fridge.

My favorite part is when we end with sharing time because these kids, silly or not, are killing it with their poems and stories, and they’re not afraid to put themselves on paper or take their fiction to dark, shadowy places. Last week at our first meeting of the year (yes, we started Writing Club on a full moon Friday the 13th) one girl shared a heart-wrenchingly honest poem written to her math class crush, another read a haunting piece full of dramatic imagery, and another shared a witty, rhyming poem about the latest trends that had both me and our principal in stitches, even though we didn’t get all the references. These kids always inspire me. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about Writing Club… It often gets me writing.

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Poem I wrote during Writing Club

I’ve drafted unexpected blog posts in Writing Club and written poems based on prompts, and even wrote the first page of a story about a zombie crocodile that I later turned into something I really like. The ideas that come to me in this setting are things that probably would never cross my mind elsewhere, as if I, too, can channel my inner “young writer” around all this creative youth.

I’m grateful for Writing Club, and I’m looking forward to more meetings with this year’s bunch of unique little oddballs. They are my people.