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

Mid-Year Crisis

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Thanks, Pixabay, for illustrating my internal stress and providing all images for this post.

Teachers, listen to me. No, seriously, pick your head up off that desk or out of that bucket of wine, and LISTEN. I get it. I really, really do.

It’s the end of February, which means…

  • You have six weeks until the STAAR test and eight weeks of lessons that you need to teach before the STAAR test.
  • Your TELPAS samples, NJHS applications, progress reports, and 504 data are all due at the exact same minute, but all of your conference periods are taken up with team meetings, parent meetings, and intervention meetings, so you barely have enough time to eat twelve Girl Scout Cookies (I’m pretty that’s the recommended dosage) much less get your paperwork done.
  • A quarter of your students have been absent for four days in a row (but not the same four days in a row because that would be too convenient), and you can’t figure out which ones have the flu and which ones are on a mid-month non-spring-break family ski trip, so you’re just Cloroxing everything and giving everyone the stink eye when they return to cover all your bases.
  • You have 47 more book projects to grade, which you should have handed back last week, and two days from now you’ll have 139 journals to grade, which are a lot more difficult to carry on field trips. (Not actual field trips. You know when you take papers back and forth from school to home and back again without ever actually grading them? I call those field trips.)
  • Oh yeah, and it’s about time for someone to bring up the fact that no one’s planned the field trip yet and for someone else to point at you say, “So-and-so is good at organizing things. Remember when she planned that potluck?” and then you will have to close your eyes and take three deep breaths before pointing out that asking ten people to all bring food on a certain day is not the same thing as organizing transportation, activities, insurance, and volunteers for 450 kids, but by the time you open your eyes to say that, everyone will already be voting for you to do it.
  • You are being observed by four different people from four different colleges, universities, internships, and countries, all of whom you are supposed to mentor into being a teacher, but what you really want to do is yell, “Run, run, run! Go get your engineering degree!” Meanwhile, all you can think about is whether or not you should use a personal day to catch up on grading. (Anyone else ever done that? *raises hand*)

I. GET. IT.

To prove that I get it, here’s the truth. That note about the 47 projects left to grade with 139 journals on the way? Those are my current stats. So what did I do tonight? I… ate cheese and Girl Scout Cookies for dinner, watched some old Star Trek episodes, googled lavish vacations to faraway places and then less lavish vacations to not-so-faraway places, then took a bubble bath where I tried to use speech-to-text on my phone for the first time in order to draft this blog post. But instead of actually drafting this blog post, I ended up trying out jokes for the stand-up comedy routine that I like to pretend would make it big if I ever got drunk and wandered in front of a microphone like on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Then, when I read what I recorded, I realized there wasn’t a single period in the whole thing because I didn’t know you had to say the punctuation, which is ironic because all week I’ve been making my students read their commas out loud during warm-ups to prove they’re in the right place. So, now I’m actually typing my blog post, still quite effectively avoiding all my grading.

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“That woman is CRAZZZZZZZY!”

THAT, my friends, is classic end-of-February behavior.

But have no fear. We’ve gotten through this before, and we’ll get through it again.

Those papers will get graded, or they won’t.

That field trip will get planned, or it won’t.

Those TELPAS samples will be turned in, or… well, in the fine print, I think it says you could lose your license or something, but IT’S FINE because those TELPAS samples WILL GET TURNED IN. (Do it tomorrow. During lunch.)

The point is YOU CAN DO THIS. WE can do this. Spring break (the real one) is just around the corner, and vacation or no vacation, you’re finally going to carve out some time for yourself.

Everything will be okay.

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[Insert calming music here.]
Now, take that half-empty box of Girl Scout Cookies to bed with you, and get some sleep. You’ve got kids to teach and papers to grade tomorrow. Maybe.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

No More Ghosts by Kari Anne Holt

Teachers and librarians and book lovers, please read this excellent article by K.A. Holt about the importance of sharing diverse books with our students. Then complete the survey at the end so that Holt and other authors and publishers can better support us in our efforts to combat censorship and keep stories on our shelves for everyone.

Nerdy Book Club

It’s still dark outside when I have to get my kids up for school in the morning. We stagger through what we call our Morning Night routine, then we pile in the car and make our way out into the world. On these dark mornings we pass other houses full of other people going through their morning routines, too. The windows glow, often with the people inside unaware that those driving by can see them. We have only a brief, surreptitious glimpse into these hidden lives before traffic carries us along, and we are at school, and the day begins in earnest.

The houses are all different. Some are sleek, some are cottage-like. Some are full of bustling people, some with only one person standing in a kitchen, back turned. What we do not see are the complexities of individual routines. Instead, we see humans united in the shared routine…

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