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.

Posted in Teaching

A Small, Terrifying Glimpse Into the Subconscious Mind of a Teacher

I’ve had three school-related stress dreams since Christmas. Against my better judgment, I’m going to share them with you.

Dream #1:

This one was a doozy. It went from normal bad to wow-that’s-a-creative-form-of-torture bad to AAAAAAAAA! bad. Here goes.

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It was the first day of the new semester. My first period class (who is sweet, smart, and funny in real life) was being unruly and refused to listen to me or follow my directions. I ended up having to yell at them, and that still didn’t have the desired effect. We got nothing done, and the period ended with me feeling frustrated that they wouldn’t do what I asked and embarrassed that I couldn’t control them and depressed that I’d yelled at them. (This “no one will listen to me, what do I do?” dream is very common among teachers. But things are about to get interesting. And by interesting, I mean infuriating.)

I’m off second period, and I planned to use that time to figure out what went wrong in first period and make a plan for my future classes. But there was a girl in the hallway who was lost. She was new or something. I don’t remember the exact issue, but I helped her find where she needed to be. When I got back to my classroom about five minutes into second period, it should have been empty. Instead, there was a classroom full of kids there. Kids I didn’t know. I was confused.

I gave them something to do (here’s a note card– write your name and tell me who used to be your ELA teacher) while I called around trying to figure out what was going on. I was told that, yes, this was my class now, and I needed to teach them. As it turned out, over the holiday break, the administration had made some pretty massive changes to the schedule without telling any of us about them. We all went from having two conference periods to only one, and we had been given a variety of preps. My schedule (which used to include five seventh grade ELA classes and one Advisory) now had me teaching three seventh grade ELA classes (but not the same ones I was teaching before), two history classes (I don’t teach history), one sixth grade “how to read word problems” math/reading class, and Advisory. Suffice to say, I was not happy about this.

THEN (sorry, we’re not done yet) we were all outside for some reason, probably a fire drill, and were coming back in the building. The science teacher on my team was holding the door for people. He looked into the sky above me and started shouting, “Everyone inside NOW!” I turned around and saw a pink streak in the sky. At first I thought it was just a pretty cloud, then maybe a jet contrail. But I quickly realized we were under attack. We all ran inside and tucked and ducked as missiles started landing nearby. I was crouched in a hallway filled with windows that led to classrooms with more windows. It didn’t feel like the safest place, but I didn’t have time to move, so I just grabbed a composition book and held it over the back of my neck for more protection.

THAT, my friends, is an A+ stress dream.

Dream #2

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This one was, luckily, a lot shorter. I was back at work lesson planning with one of my ELA teammates. I told her some of my ideas for the upcoming semester and she didn’t like any of them. She actually wrinkled up her nose and made an “I-smell-something-gross” face when I shared them. It hurt my feelings.

Dear Real Life ELA Teammates,
          I had this dream BEFORE we met for planning this week. It was JUST a dream and has no bearing on reality. None of you did anything or said anything or wore any facial expressions to cause this craziness to appear in my brain, I promise. If you don’t believe that my subconscious could possibly make up something like that, then move on to dream #3, and you’ll see what my brain is capable of.
Love,
Carie

Dream #3

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It was the first day of the semester (again), and I was trying to teach my first period class (again). This time, the students were not the problem. The problem (and I’m sure this has happened to every educator at one time or another) was that there was a magic spell on the doorway to my classroom, and when a person entered or left the room, a giant pile of vegetables would spontaneously appear. (By giant pile, I mean several feet long and higher than my waist. I know the height because I was standing inside the pile once when it appeared.) The vegetables would then have to be cleaned up and carted away, and I’d try to teach again until someone else opened the door, and it happened all over again. It all took up a lot of time and made keeping my students’ attention quite difficult. The school knew about the problem (the poor custodians had already been to my room with the BIG trash cans about four times that morning) but they didn’t know how to fix it yet.

The vegetables were all the same kind, but the pile was different each time. Once it was a giant pile of sugar snap peas. I popped a couple in my mouth before they swept them up. The next time it was a giant pile of purple peppers, but that time there were also a couple of yellow and red bell peppers mixed in and one pineapple. I pulled those out and had a student put them behind my desk for later. At one point, I left my students alone (it’s cool– they’re good kids) while I went down the hall to ask my coworker for something I thought might help the situation, but, of course, when I left the room to go do that, another pile of vegetables spontaneously appeared, so it was somewhat counter-productive. When I got back, a student from the classroom next door, who had been working in the hallway, was complaining that the custodians had accidentally swept up his binder, which had been covered with the latest pile of vegetables.

Just before I woke up, a guy finally came to fix the problem, but he was the same guy they send to repair our computers, and I didn’t have high hopes that this particular “incident ticket” was in his wheelhouse.

The end.

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There you have it, folks. This is what my brain does while I’m sleeping. Please tell me I’m not the only teacher who has crazy dreams like this, and make me feel better by sharing some of your own.

The second semester starts tomorrow. If I had to choose one stress dream to come true, it would have to be #3. At least my students were nice in that one, and no one was bombing me. Plus, I do need to eat more veggies…