An Open Letter to My Students as Hurricane Irma Looms

Dear students,

I am worried about you. Whether you know what’s going on or not, your parents and caretakers are probably just a bit on edge. They don’t mean to be, but after waiting in 500 million lines only to be told there’s no water, they are going to be a bit cranky. That was hyperbole, you’ll remember from our quiz two weeks ago.

With all the preparations underway, I begin to question what it is I’m actually teaching. Are you going to feel more secure in this storm knowing that you can now tell a proper noun from a plural noun and that a pronoun is not a noun with a job? No, not at all. Are you going to maybe write in your journals or send emails? That one you might do. Please remember your salutations, closing statements, and body paragraph structure when you do.

I know you’re probably maxing out your data plans on your cell phones. Did you get battery packs for when the power goes out and you can no longer charge your phones with an outlet? I know you’re more worried about whether Tommy or Suzy like-likes you, and I can assure you that you will still have these concerns when the storm blows over.

I hope that you’ve been enjoying your time off from school. I have decided that the single most defining moment in whether or not you’re an adult is how you view forced vacation time like hurricane days. I wish that we could go back to school whenever it is that we return, secure in having just played for a quantity of days on end without any sort of consequence. My wish is in direct contrast to what I am seeing on my weather tracker, though. File this in your memory banks that adulthood is when you realize that forced days off aren’t free. Yes, you have to know this, and yes, this will be on the quiz.

Back to the worry. Please remember that when tomorrow comes, and it’s going to, the term “be safe” will take on a whole new meaning. It is no banal platitude (you’ll remember that from the vocabulary quiz). It is a desperate plea for your well-being. Student A, your mom is not trying to get on your last nerve when she asks you to help her; she needs your help. Students B, you will be fine. In fact, your ability to be fine no matter what everyone else around you is doing is one of your greatest strengths. Student C, if you could come over and hang out with us, I would have you here in a heartbeat.

When I see you next, you will wonder if I have slept. I probably haven’t. But the joy I feel at seeing you – right before you start asking me what we’re doing in class – will take away the puffy bags under my eyes more quickly than some cosmetic could.

Be safe. Listen to your families. Come back to school so that I can see you and complain that you’re too loud. Only this time, I probably won’t. Your noise will be the best tonic in the world.

Until then,

AlwaysLiz

 

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A Scientific Quest

Questing is great fun. Whether you quest for love, dinner, adventure, sales or memorabilia – even the word is awesome. Take, for example, a conversation that recently happened in the house of AlwaysLiz:

Husband: “How was your day?”

Me: “Really great. I quested for science courses today.”

Husband: “Very good.”

While I’m aware the conversation sounds mundane, it is greater than the sum of its parts. My husband is perpetually considerate enough to ask about my day, and I usually have some snippet to share. His response is “Very good” if he can tell that the information I’ve shared is positive. In this particular case, it was “Very good,” followed by “Are you taking a class this summer?”

The quick answer is no, I am not. The longer answer is yes, yes I am. I am undertaking the most lovely of scientific quests: a review and continuation of the science I learned over 30 years ago when I was in high school and knew everything. Now that I’m on the other side of 50 and cruising along, perfectly secure in the conviction that I don’t know everything, I realize that anything worth knowing is worth relearning if I’ve forgotten a thing or a plenty along the way.

This brings me to my strange, sometimes antagonistic, relationship with science. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I have brains in my head and feet in my shoes, but I didn’t go to Science-land when I went to college. I went to hang out in Humanities town, with some business classes and French tossed in because why not? I took a math class for fun, and a physics class to get the science credit – and it was in that physics class that I realized I hadn’t paid much attention in high school. Not that I disregarded the whole notion that the universe is an amazing place made up of incrementally smaller parts, little Matryoshka dolls of atomic and subatomic particle-ness stacking within each other with ever-expanding and no-edge type limitlessness.

No, I found the universe to be compelling and quite harmonious but freaky as crap. I do not apologize for this. I am at heart a dreamer, and there’s nothing quite like the notion of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth at a skamillion miles per hour (that really needs to be a word) to give me the heeby-jeebies. Further, in a less universal (ahem) notion, there’s diseases on Earth to obsess about. Ebola, dengue fever, malaria, and so forth are absolutely fascinating, and under a microscope quite lovely, but again there’s that whole nightmare-inducing component. It’s kind of like when a student gets lice, we all get itchy. Just saying.

Enter my daughter, who has impressed me time and again how awesome science and math are when one approaches it with a sense of humor and a certain method. Those of you who are science-y call this scientific inquiry, but I am still not invited to the science-people party even though I window shop occasionally, listening to my daughter tell me stories of experiments gone awry and other experiments gone well and ruminations on nature and global warming and things that People Should Really Care About. Because I do care, I am now embarking on my science quest. I started today, with Biology Crash Course. I have been a fan of John and Hank Green via Vlogbrothers and the Crash Courses of History and Literature but I have stayed away from the science courses because, again, I have felt uninvited to the party, an intelligent layperson who is content to listen rather than participate.

As Hank Green was talking about covalent bonds and the octet rule, I started laughing. Leave it to the brothers Green to write and present information in a way that would resonate with me: gossip, happiness, and the fundamentals of life. The whole episode started off with a presentation of how carbon is a tramp. Brilliance. I am no closer to being able to participate in a science-y conversation of science than I was 15 minutes ago, but I am on a quest and my adventure is a productive one.

When my husband comes home from work tonight, he will ask me about my day and I will be able to tell him that I started my science quest. He will respond, “Very good,” — and it will have been.

Replenishing My Bucket

Tom Rath presented a wonderful analogy of interactions and their effect on people in his book How Full Is Your Bucket? The premise is simple: either you have a positive interaction which adds to your bucket, or a less rewarding interaction that empties it a bit. You also do this to yourself through positive and negative self-talk. Big interactions reap big effects, sometimes filling that bucket up to overfull and sometimes emptying it till all that’s left are pieces of lint and rust — kind of like burning the candle at both ends and getting singed in the process. In the spirit of overextending metaphors as I do and using the bucket analogy of life, some people are bucket heads, some people put out fires with their buckets and some people share the water in their buckets until there’s nothing left for them.

This brings me to May. April is the cruelest month for T.S. Eliot and tax preparers; May is the cruelest month for teachers. We walk around like extras on The Walking Dead, shuffling with arms outstretched in an effort to catch that last little morsel of learning (braiinnnnnnnss) and prove to the students that they really can master the concept we’re teaching. Teachers are committed, desperately so, to the notion that our students are important. Their futures matter, their psyches matter, and their goals matter. I don’t have time for the argument about the bored teacher who gave up on the students; I only have time to be inspired, so I look for those teachers. They are abundant and cross all grade and subject areas.

As a buffer to the news, to the end-of-course exams, and to the students’ burn-out, I have devised a few strategies to keep my bucket full:

  • Thank you notes. I write positive notes to parents, to the students, to my teacher friends, to anyone who could use a smile. They include emoji stickers or scratch and sniffs because stickers are a universal smile inducer. If you don’t like stickers, I will stay away from you, I promise.
  • Candy. Yes, it is not healthy, and no, I don’t care. I share my candy. My friends at work know where I keep the goody stash, and unbeknownst to them, they are the ones I buy it for. Very rarely do the students get the chocolate; that’s an adult reward.
  • No surprise here, I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down three things I am grateful for and three things I hope for. I don’t write a to-do list; those things get freakishly long and I do best focusing on one thing at a time.
  • Inappropriate lyrics to songs. I rework lyrics to songs when I need to regroup. Fortunately for the world, I keep it in my head. The cadence of Frozen is a good one to use: “F—it all, F – it all, stop passing notes in class,” will usually yield a smile wide enough to make the students wonder what I’m up to. That’s all anyone hopes for: curiosity on the part of their students.
  • Award certificates – I derive fiendish glee in making award certificates for ridiculous categories and giving them to people. It’s like a sticker, only more official looking.
  • Exercise. I hate it that I typed that, but it’s true. Exercise helps keep me from burning out.

The reason I write about the book and my strategies is that I needed every single one this past week. It was a whopper in teacher-land: students who didn’t want to take finals (like, who does?), colleagues who are overwhelmed, way too many social events and way to little sleep. Added to that, I will miss the students. There are plenty of memes and video clips out there about people counting down the last days of school, but I don’t. It makes me feel a little bittersweet. When we do our job well, our students leave us. With all the tribulations of testing and grading, the graduations and the celebrations (I don’t know why I needed three –tions, but there it is), my bucket’s wobbling a bit. I have to remind myself that the best part of this time of year is the hope. The graduates, the transitioning students, the parents: we’re all looking forward to a notion, an idea that the next great adventure is on the horizon and that the people who are important to us are ready for it. For me, that next great adventure involves sleep and a trip to the bucket store.

 

A long Week

At the end of my post from January 11, I mentioned that in the following week I’d post my version of an annotated bibliography of my favorite Neil Gaiman books. It has therefor been a long week, because right after that posting, I stepped into a space/time vortex and have only just emerged. I am alive, well, and relatively unscathed, sheepish for ignoring my blogging time, and happy to return to posting.

What have I been doing while not posting, you might wonder. The quick answer is that I haven’t been doing anything in particular – or at least, not anything different. At work, I experimented with fresh perspectives on educational relevance and switched up my lesson plans to allow for more kinesthetic learning opportunities. I tried and failed fantastically at letting my students use bottle flipping, one of their favorite pastimes, in a classwork activity. For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided this, I will describe: Take an un-full water bottle and flip it. If it lands upright, or even on its bottle top, then you win – nothing. Just joy, I guess. You will want to try at least five billion times to achieve this balancing act of purposeless awesomeness. Think back to a drinking game you may have played in college of cup flipping, but with no relay race and no adult beverages involved. Lots of noise, big screechy fun – it makes teachers miss the days of pen clicking.

I allowed my students to flip bottles for sentence work. If the bottle landed on its side, they were to write a declarative statement. If it landed upright, they could choose a complex or compound sentence, and if it landed on the bottle top, they wrote a compound-complex sentence. My purpose for this little activity of pain and suffering (for me) was to increase sentence fluency. At the end of each period, students volunteered (and by volunteered, I mean assigned) to clean up the spills, toss out the bottles, and reminded to never speak of this activity again. The kids said it was their favorite lesson from that week – and their quizzes reflected this. For me, two acetaminophen tablets and a 15 minute lie-down took care of the pain. Suffering for one’s art is not always a metaphor, I reminded myself. Plus, we now have those fun fidget spinners to contend with. Do I think they’re useful? Yes, if used appropriately. Do I think they bother the living snot out of fellow students and the occasional auditorially impacted teacher? Most definitely.

In the land of Alwaysliz, I paid taxes as further evidence that I am a breathing adult-like person. I read a whole truck-ton of books as I continue on my quest to read All The Things. I measured out my life in coffee spoons (thanks T.S. Eliot), though not sadly; contentedly grateful for the smaller rituals that make my life all mine.

Back to present day: I am relaxing at home while on my school’s May break. One of the many advantages of a year-round educational calendar is the interspersed week off while still maintaining instructional momentum. Less regression, more concept consolidation. Count me in. Additionally, I can get caught up on projects. Not cleaning-the-garage projects, a week isn’t long enough for that; nope, contentment-building projects like this, reading All The Things, and fresh air.

However, the original “next week’s” posting was supposed to be about Neil Gaiman, and I keep my commitments to myself, however long it takes to do so. I won’t annotate a bibliography of books by Gaiman; there are plenty already written by and about his work. I will simply relay why his work matters to me: he believes in words. Using words matters, and reading them matters, and working with them matters. What matters is that we remember that we can change infinities with words, create and devastate worlds with words, change political systems with words. I’m paraphrasing him poorly, but everything he has written, whether I’ve liked it personally or not, resonates with an appreciation of words. His word choice is no different than the words you and I use; he is just uniquely talented at presenting them. I am grateful for this every time I read something he’s written.  While I don’t know him personally, he appears to be unsnobbish, humble even, in his approach to language, reading, and writing. He writes with the same affection about ghost stories and romance novels as he does about fairy tales and journalism. I respect that. In fact, I celebrate the living daylights out of that.

Gaiman stated, “Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes” (Why Our Future Depends on Libraries Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013). Yep, twenty six letters and some odd punctuation marks and you too can change the world, or at least how you think about it. Woahhh.

Give yourself the gift of some Gaiman time if you haven’t already. Any of his works are wonderful. American Gods has premiered on the Starz network; read the dang book so you can compare and contrast in your noggin rather than let someone else’s vision inform you. Read Smoke and Mirrors or Trigger Warning if you prefer short stories and poetry interspersed with your regularly scheduled novel reading. Read Good Omens if you want a fresh perspective on the struggle between good and evil and why the line between both is a little vague. Read the Sandman series if you prefer graphic novels or comic books. Gaiman lives his literary life in the shadows between myth and reality, of ghost stories and real-life horror. Just read his work. Your brain and heart will thank you.

There you have it: from bottle flipping to taxes to a celebration of all that is Neil Gaiman. it’s been a long week (ahem), but a good one. Hope yours has been a celebration of the things that bring you joy as well.

Just Checking In

In my previous post I mentioned that the death of a friend sent me into a bit of a mental fog so I needed to follow my routine in order to get myself through the grieving process. It has helped, and going to the funeral allowed me to celebrate her and thank the universe that she was in my life. The church was full – as in, standing room only. This was a quiet person who habitually checked in to see how people were doing. She wasn’t obtrusive, didn’t need to be the center of attention; she just cared about other people – and she let them know.

She called me once a year, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to find out about the kids and tell me she loved me. She didn’t believe in social media, preferring a phone call or sitting around a coffee shop talking face to face to a post on a website. She made a difference by working hard and being kind.

In fact, she so fervently believed in working hard that, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she had me washing walls one day in the classroom we both served in. She told me there was nothing that a good bleaching couldn’t get rid of (this was in the days before we knew bleach was a problem) and that the classroom needed a good cleaning. She was also the boss of me in personality if not officially, so I swallowed my snark and got busy. While we washed walls, we chatted about the students, our own kids, the teacher we worked for and adored. When I left that classroom to teach in my own, she reminded me to keep the classrooms clean and bright. I know she meant that both metaphorically and literally. I have not washed walls since then, but I do believe in the joy of shared effort.

I looked forward to those annual calls, whether we’d seen each other the previous week or not for a few months. Sometimes I even called her first, but not often enough. “I love you, keep working hard,” she’d say before she hung up.

I love you too, my friend. I will.

The Power of Routine

Teachers are procedural superninjas. We spend the first days of school teaching the students how to enter the room, how to complete their bell work, how to get ready for class, where to put the homework, and so much more. It is astounding to sit and break down what we consider mundane routines, or the things we do because that’s how we do it. Not important? I present to you the age-old debate of which direction the toilet paper roll should face. It’s okay … I’ll wait while you argue about this either internally or with someone else.

Routine is everything. Still don’t agree? Change the order in which you get dressed, or do laundry, or make your sandwich differently. You will feel that there’s a disturbance in the force, young Skywalker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is something else entirely if your routines interrupt the flow of your day or interfere with you going to work or living your life, but routines are also something of a life enhancer.

I submit to you the need for a routine of productivity. Have you ever noticed that when you have a lot to do, you either get a lot done, or you don’t do anything at all? I am on my A+ productivity game when I have conflicting priorities. I am also well aware that I get distracted by sparklies – lately in the form of a tech game on my tablet. I also know that these conflicting desires between relaxation and fun, work and chores creates a type of creative tension. In the act of having much to do, I notice that I putter. I do this activity for a bit, then that activity for a bit, then back to this, and so on, and nothing gets completed in a timely fashion.

I don’t believe in 100% structured time, but I do believe in the power of routine. In an effort to up the ante on my productivity so that I have more time for my sewing projects, I have been teaching myself to mind my time a bit better. I have a set time to come home because I pick up my son on the way. I began spending the first half hour after he’s home doing my housekeeping/ bookkeeping, managing the house type chores, and then working on homework and projects in a 25 minute work/5 minute break schedule called the Pomodoro method. At first, I rejected the notion that a break should “only” be five minutes. My five-minute break became 10, then 15, then I would realize I spent more time breaking than working. Oopsie. Because I only use timers for cooking, I put my phone on vibrate and set that timer. For me, that works a lot better and I can whoop out some major productivity before dinner (or before bedtime, if I have appointments after work). It keeps me from ‘needing’ a snack that is, in reality just another task avoidance technique, but also allows me to get the snack during my five-minute break if that’s on my personal free/happy time agenda.

After feeling all satisfied about the increase in productivity, I began to wonder about those times when I don’t have conflicting priorities or when working on anything at all is not on my horizon because of life. That’s the test of routine, isn’t it? I’ve been known to counsel others to keep following their routines when they were working through difficult times, but I hadn’t applied that notion to myself until recently when a friend passed away. I needed to grieve, and my brain got muddled along with my heart, but I still had my job and I still had homework to do. I decided to follow my routines. I did the coming home routine, then the productivity routine, and then when I was finished with my to-do list, I had the time to mourn her loss and send my shouts out to the universe in thanks that I got to know her.

We need our routines. They help us get projects done on time, certainly, but they also help us when our thinking is otherwise distracted, either through stress, confusion, grief, or some combination of any of life’s events. I now wonder whether that’s why my stereotype of a British person includes time for tea. We’re doing the day, we’re breaking for tea, we’re back to doing the day. There’s comfort in routine, and I am absolutely in favor of that.

Reading: Not Just for Homework

One of my students came to see me early this morning to say hello, as she does, with her folder full to bursting and protein shake in a Tervis tumbler. She’s been a little quieter than usual lately and I was glad to see her linger by the door.

She told me I was busy and she’d see me later (thoughtful little passive aggressive person); my response was to pull out a chair and invite her to sit. Once she organized her thoughts, her description of her troubles was fairly typical for a person her age. By saying ‘typical’ I don’t diminish what she was telling me. As a gross understatement of the obvious, middle school is not for the weak of heart, and she was experiencing the conflict between trying to accept herself while still fitting in with the expectations of her family and friends. Added to this was her deep-seated (still secret) knowledge that the thing she most loves to do is read.

I forget that the stereotypes of those who love books runs counter to the propaganda in the media. Here is a wonderful person bursting with energy and joy over reading and she feels she must contain herself because she is too bookish for her family, not girly enough. I haven’t personally experienced that type of pressure to fit in, but I saw in her brown eyes her passion and the fear that she was somehow behaving “incorrectly” (her words).

This ball of person-ness is at a crossroads between who she is and who she wants to be, and I couldn’t tell her the truth: that she’ll deal with this for the rest of her existence, that sometimes it will be wonderful, and sometimes it will be awful, but that she is a fabulous person now who will be an amazing adult. I just want to see her make it with her authenticity intact. I know, high standards.

She shared her ideas about how to be a better daughter, a better friend, and was absolutely confused when I reminded her to be better to herself. “You like to read, so read,” I told her. “Find books that bring you joy, that make you feel all the feels, that lift you up.” She shook her head. “Books cost too much money and I will get in trouble.”

I asked her, “Will you get grounded? Punished?” She wiped a stray tear. “No, but they don’t want me to buy books.”

The solution to this is obvious, but she is a proud person and books that are gifted feel an awful lot like charity to her. Library? Too far away. School media center? Due dates loom too quickly. My bookshelves? No, that would be imposing. Then inspiration: homework. We agreed that she is now going to be reading books of her choice for my class, with homework assignments and tests, the whole works. This is only a temporary solution. At some point, I hope she develops the self-confidence to read with joy, not just because it’s homework.

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