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.

 

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.

My Quest to Cure Procrastination

As an expert task avoider, I find procrastination to be particularly appealing. Why do today what I can put off until tomorrow, or until the night before a project is due? As someone who meets her deadlines, I can rationalize the crap out of finishing projects right on time and not a moment too soon. They’re turned in after all, aren’t they? All I suffer is lack of sleep and last-minute anxiety, while the reward is that I get to spend countless hours whiling my time away. Recently, however, I began to realize that I like sleep. It helps me feel energized, reduces under eye puffiness, improves my mood – and it’s free. I figure that my pursuit of wisdom should reasonably include regular rest, so I have targeted my task avoidant ways as something I could easily fix to enjoy much more of this sleep stuff. I begin by targeting the ways I procrastinate:

Procrastination by pretense of productivity: This is the area of procrastination at which I excel. I have been attempting to avoid the last minute freak out that accompanies the start of a school year by planning my lessons now and putting them in a spiffy, organized fashion complete with multimedia supports and collaboration with other classes. After a highly productive morning of working out at the gym followed by a nutritious breakfast, I sat my smug little self down at the computer today to Plan the Lessons. I envisioned them as award-winning educational plans of awesomeness that allow for differentiation, accommodation, and invigoration. This lasted about five minutes before I found new ways to decorate the classroom, which led me to new ways to decorate the house, which resulted in new ways to organize my closets, which led to capsule wardrobe ideas. Oopsie.

Procrastination by collaboration: This is where I spend a truck ton of time brainstorming with my friends. We become energized, we feel inspired, we’re ready to take on our jobs with vigor – and then when I get home, I haven’t written anything down. One of my favorite collaborative experiences was when I worked as a resource teacher. I met with my colleague/friend and after three hours of solving all the challenges and virtues of being kick-ass teachers, we had a fantastic mind map. Did I use it? I would love to tell you I did, but nope. Did we have a great time together, which made working together a more cohesive and rewarding experience? Absolutely.

Procrastination by hiding: This is where I either feel overwhelmed by the task at hand or behave as though the task will go away if I ignore it. Planned ignoring sometimes works as a behavior management strategy, but it does not work at all for projects. One of the stages of any project I undertake is always the “I will never do this very well” self-defeatist stage – until the project has to be complete and I finish it anyway. I am deadline driven, so I usually need an absolute deadline to get the creative, forward-thinking juices flowing. Little deadlines along the way with rewards for me don’t work. I will give myself those rewards whether or not I’ve met the benchmarks. I am not externally motivated, so this method may be delicious (my rewards are usually edible), but not productive.

What’s a procrastinator to do? After identifying my three biggest procrastination problems, I am tackling them step by step. I am going to set timers so that for every 20 minutes of focused planning, I will give myself 10 minutes of mindless YouTube viewing or Facebook checking – still with the timer, because otherwise that reward time is going to seep into dinner time. It’s happened before, so I’m ready. When collaborating, I will again limit the time I spend on visiting. I already know this is only going to work if a project is due. If one isn’t due, as is the case at the moment, I will make sure to jot down ideas for later and enjoy the extended chat time with friends. Finally, I will just have to remind myself that peek-a-boo stopped working years ago. The projects don’t go away simply because I don’t want to look at them. In this area, I acknowledge the reality of projects and push up my shirt sleeves to get busy. The reward for all this adult-y behavior? I get to go to bed on time. Well, that will be the reward when the school year starts again. For now, the reward is an organized closet, time spent with friends, and educationally majestic pins on Pinterest. Lesson plans? Ummm, not yet.

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

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.

Then There Was Coffee

Work, even when it’s work you love passionately and that you might conceivably do for free, is still occasionally work. Motivation or not, love or not, dedication or not, sometimes work is work no matter how smoothly the flow is a-flowing. You get the idea. Today was a day when work took effort; I did not summon my typical hi-ho-hi-ho off to work I go spirit this morning, and I didn’t even bother looking for it.

Having typed that, I can’t say it was a bad day. The students were lively, engaged, quirky, cranky, and all that makes being in a room teeming with middle school hope and ennui wonderfully, educationally rewarding. It wasn’t their doing that my usual perk was percolating somewhere else today. When performing a job that requires a certain level of behavioral consistency, it can be self-fulfilling to engage in the day because sometimes you catch up to yourself. Fortunately, this was the case today. It just took a while.

I followed my normal routine this morning, which includes a stop at my favorite coffee emporium. This is ritualized behavior and I realize as I type that I spend more money on this than I would if I simply brewed the bean-based goodness at home – but that’s beside the point. This ritual is almost necessary, I tell myself, because I am incapable of making good coffee. I therefor rely on my local emporium for both the good cheer of its workers and the fact that their coffee is better. There is a part of me that realizes I could be using this bit of money for multitudes of other purposes. The other part doesn’t care (I’m pretty sure that’s the spoiled toddler part of me).

The day began to feel like work at about the time my computer stopped loading a program I needed. Since I was without students for the moment, I walked to the teacher’s lounge to stretch my legs, practice my deep breathing, and regroup. The lounge features a couple coffee carafes which are usually empty by mid-morning. Today, however, one of the carafes still had coffee in it. Not only that, but it was it fresh, and it was good. I don’t know who made the coffee, but at that moment, I loved them with a fervor bordering on hero worship. I posted a thank-you note on the bulletin board, and returned to my project with a renewed sense of purpose. Trite and quirky it may be, but the sentiment is still very real: I was slightly off-focus, and then there was coffee.

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