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.

An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers

Dear first-year teachers,

We see you and your youthful exuberance bopping around campus, bounding through your days on hope, ambition, and caffeine. We cringe, or worse yet, predict that your happiness won’t make it past September and the first round of report cards or parent-teacher conferences. Still, you have determined that the weight of paperwork won’t interfere with your lesson plans, even if you have to stay up until 3am creating those finely tuned celebrations of learning. You hold your head high while the paperwork falls in delicately wafting drifts over your heads, settling on your perky desks to rest for a bit before you efficiently collect the papers and arrange them in order of importance.

We watch with indulgent pride as you create your system, your backup system, your sub-sub-backup system of organization, and wonder how you became so proficient at using the tech tools that make us swear. At some point during the year, however, we realize that we’ve been watching you behave with awesomeness, energy, and efficiency instead of helping you through the obstacles new teachers must overcome. There is no class that will prepare you for the conflicts of interest that inevitably occur when student A and test A do not match: not even if you put them in a box, not if you pair them up with socks, not if you put them on a train, or on a boat, or in a plane (Thanks, Dr. Seuss). Unfortunately, there is also no class for when students A-G not only don’t know the concept but don’t have any idea that there’s a concept worth knowing. Yet, you march on, smile fixed in place and sparklies for all.

I will let you in on a secret, first year teachers: we desperately need you. We need your enthusiasm to remind us of the joys in our jobs as much as you will unfortunately need our more experienced and sagging shoulders to cry on. You will have to learn to grapple in your own way and on your own time with how undervalued our shared profession is – and yet, how rewarding and fulfilling. I have my students read the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling every year – not just for them, but for me as well. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …..” has allowed me to keep my cool. You will find your own symbol or write your own quotespirational phrase on a post-it note to remind yourself that what you do is remarkably important.

Your fan, alwaysliz

My New Library

After accepting the fact that my desire to read all the books ever written has impacted my finances, I returned to my local library today for some free words-in-print goodness. I love the shelves upon shelves of awesome at the library: Young Adult fiction over here, Books on DVD, over here, adult fiction and nonfiction over there — all ordered using the Dewey decimal system. The sliding doors even whoosh in a celebratory manner when I walk in. In my mind, the library showcases the slight musty smell of well-loved books, and the soft noise of small children trying their best to be quiet by using their whisper voices: “MOM! LOOK HOW WELL I’M WHISPERING!” I’ve heard on more than one occasion – while I’m in the adult section. With headphones on. I am always proud of my fellow parents who will answer, “You’re doing great, try talking like this now,” before they create a whisper game.

I am only digressing a little since kids and parents feature in this narrative again. I entered the library humming a jaunty tune (off key, Prince for you inquiring minds), went through the lobby, the sliding doors, heard the whoosh – and stepped into the Starship Enterprise. Gone were the juice-box spilled carpeting, the books for sale section, the rotunda of librarians on call, and the cluster of parents with their overflowing baskets of movies and books. In its place was gleaming flooring, computer stations galore, and noise level posters with accompanying directions on how to set the phones. No musty smell, no bounding children (they were in a sequestered section with soundproof glass or something because I saw them tumbling about even as I couldn’t hear them). I felt underdressed because Captain Kirk the librarian was standing at his station looking dapper in his polo shirt and Dockers. Me, I was in my library uniform of denim cutoffs and a slouchy t-shirt.

I was disoriented. With the emergence of Librarian Kirk and his triple-screened computer system, it appeared as though Dewey Decimal System had taken a semipermanent vacation. I found my way over to a computer terminal and began teaching myself how to find the books I wanted. I tried four times before I found the Young Adult section, but at last I found it. You might wonder why I didn’t ask the librarian to give me a tour. I might wonder why you’d ask such a silly question. Teaching myself means trial and error until I can kinesthetically absorb the knowledge. It is the most effective way I have to navigate new surroundings, and these surroundings were bright-sparkly new. Eventually, I figured out the system. The challenge then became a personal dilemma over whether to get audio books, of which were abundant, or e-books. Many of the classics have been rendered available and check-outable on e-reading devices. Cool, I have one of those, so I asked Librarian Kirk to show me how to check out e-books.

While still slightly bemused, I turned to leave the library, and heard the dulcet tones of a child who was practicing his whispering: “MOM! LOOK HOW WELL I’M BEING QUIET!” Thank you, small human person for reminding me that the more things change, the more constant they are. Leaving the library with nothing but a couple of download code options, I was content.

If you haven’t gone recently, please join me in reading all the books ever written (or audiotaped, or electronically published) for free. I will be wearing my Lieutenant Uhura ensemble the next time I go so I feel dressed appropriately for the occasion.

Endurance

If you are a breathing, sentient adult-type person, life will occasionally whoop your ass. I don’t swear in print often, but when I do, please know it’s not for extravagant effect; it’s because no other word will suffice. We all get our asses kicked, by situations within or outside of our control, by events, by illness, by the death of loved ones, by financial stress, by whatever Life with a capital L decides to throw at us. I don’t care if the Good Luck Charm o’ Life has been hanging around you like a happy monkey of joy feels, there will come a time when that charm gets ripped off your neck. Not my usual lighthearted introduction, I know, but take heart: there’s a reason for this.

One of the most harmful phrases in the human language is “I should.” I should be doing this thing, feeling that thing, living that life, having these types of people around me, and so on. The only “I should” that we should be should-ing is “I should be giving myself permission to be a human person.” My heart breaks and then heals again on a pretty regular basis, but never moreso than when someone I love is hanging around in the land of “I Should” or the flipside, “I should not.” It’s not that I don’t think we need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, it’s that we deserve to treat ourselves with at least the same attempt to understand that we treat others. For example, after a fantastic conversation with one of my favorite people today, I was struck with how my perception of him is so vastly different from his perception of himself. I see him as powerful, awe-inspiring, brilliant, loving, passionate – he sees none of these qualities in himself.

I hate it that I’m reminded of an internet quotespiration at this moment, but here it is anyway: I wish we could see ourselves the way others see us. Self-concept gets distorted over time, particularly in times of stress, when we’re most likely to isolate ourselves at a time when we would least benefit from doing so. Stress, my good friends, is no stranger to any of us. In fact, with each passing year of my life, I am increasingly convinced that the Bogeyman living under the bed and hiding in the closet, lurking around the finish line of every goal we achieve, every obstacle we overcome, is Stress. My stress looks different from your stress, but it’s still an ugly beast. Do we tame it? Do we fight it? Do we ignore it? I don’t know about the last one; ignoring stress is rather like pretending that everything’s okay when it isn’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. Just saying.

Back to my lovely conversation and “I should.” My favorite person felt like he should be climbing his mountain of stressors more victoriously, a Rocky Balboa of life endurance. With all due respect, no. Absolutely not. When life has broken out a can of whoop ass so severe that there are no lemons to make lemonade with because the lemons have rotted, what do you do then? Some people pray, some meditate, some gather their loved ones around, and that’s all great, but in the quest to climb that particular mountain, sometimes the mountain itself is too high. What then?

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Having faith that everything will all work out with cookies and back slaps for all is too high an aspiration for the types of life-altering stress that I’m referring to. Instead, step, breathe, step, breathe. There’s a rhythm in that, a cadence. In a quote usually attributed to Martin Luther King, the phrasing goes, “If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But keep going.” My friend was ruminating on how to overcome all these stressors, and was looking for faith in the fact that the answer would be found. It would be vapid for me to suggest that of course he’ll find the answer, even when the question itself is elusive.

I suggest most humbly, most excruciatingly, lovingly humbly, that this wasn’t the question he was trying to answer. The question, as I see it, is “Is all this trouble worth it? Am I worth it?” I happen to have the answer to that. You are emphatically worth it. You are essential, necessary. I have faith that there is a time where you will see yourself the way I see you. Until then, breathe and step; breathe and step.

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