Being Present and Getting It Done

As a teacher, I consistently feel a tension between being present and getting things done. Articles with titles such as The Multitasker’s Guide to Being More Present suggests that I am not alone in feeling this tension.

By nature, I’m inclined to make lists and check things off of them. In fact, one of the things that I find reassuring about teaching is that it’s typically pretty easy to divide my work into discreet tasks to be done (lessons to plan, student work to give feedback on, parent contacts to make, schedules to adjust).

The difficulty of this “get it done” mentality is that if I’m not careful, it can suck the life out of the reasons I enjoy working in a school (and the reasons I turned down a big lawyer job to do so)- connecting with students and thinking about the big picture questions that present themselves every day. If I’m too deep into my to-do list, these things can feel more like distractions rather than being the work/motivation that informs the checklist(y) work.

The two mentalities don’t have to be completely discreet, however. Spending time giving informal feedback to students can cut the time I need to spend giving formal feedback at the completion of an assignment, when the feedback to students is less useful, in any case. Time spent working to insure that a new initiative is designed in the best and clearest way it can be saves implementation hassles later. Focusing my attention and being present while I’m observing a colleague can help me gain insights into my own teaching that may make me more effective or efficient.

What is Advisory?

We have a new counselor in the middle school this year. At a meeting of the middle school advisors a few days ago, she asked, “In ten words or less, what is Advisory to you?” Most of us took a few more than ten words, but we did offer a variety of perspectives, while keeping things fairly concise.

(A bit of background- Our advisories are groups of 10-13 students divided by grade level. Sometimes teachers will have students who are in their content area classes in advisory, but this isn’t always the case, A group of 8-9 advisors exists for each grade level, and these advisors meet bi-monthly to discuss concerns related to students. Advisories meet M, T, TH, and F during the last 45 minutes of the school day for bonding, study hall, and exploration of social and emotional health issues.)

Several people suggested to them an advisory was like a family within the larger community of the middle school. One teacher suggested that advisories were like the tidal pools that form along bodies of water. Others pointed out that advisory can be challenging if you have a student with whom you struggle to make connections. Several teachers noted that the emotional work of advisory can be draining, especially given all the demands placed on a teacher throughout the course of a school day. That emotional investment has the potential to payoff in big ways, though, since relationships with advisees can be stronger than with other students. I also pointed out that I think advisory provides a “value-add” for our school because parents can feel confident that there is a teacher at the school who has an special responsibility for his son or daughter. That might not be the case at other schools.

Reflecting on what Advisory is before we jumped into the joyous chaos of the first few days of school was really fruitful. I’ll admit that Advisory is one of the most challenging parts of teaching for me. It’s the part of teaching that I don’t feel like I bargained for going in. The work of navigating human relationships takes much more energy than navigating the content of US or World History. But as I’ve been reminded by conversations with folks like Zac and Chris at EduCon and elsewhere, care for students (both their minds and their hearts) is the most important work that we do.

I Want to Be Famous

Teachers head back for the 2014-2015 school year tomorrow. Students won’t come for another week and a half, but even so, it definitely feels like there’s a change in the air. It’s been a big summer- getting married, transforming my house into our house, a couple short road trips, a week of camp, and a lot of reading and cooking. The 50 Books and 50 Hikes are coming along, although I’m taking more long walks, rather than hikes.

At the beginning of each school year, I select a poem and tape it to a space near my table in the classroom. As I enter my eighth year of teaching, I sometimes fight the feeling that I should have done more by now, worked harder, been more focused. The alumni newsletter brings word of classmates tenured, installed, promoted, and honored. While I feel a deep sense of gratitude and joy for what I’ve been able to accomplish, it can be tempting to measure myself against those tidbits of their lives. So this poem from Naomi Shihab Nye feels right for this year.

Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

It’s Complicated #isedchat

“By and large, the kids are all right. But they want to be understood.” -Dr. danah boyd (lowercase letters intentional)

Tonight (Thursday) at 9pm EST, I’m moderating an #isedchat discussion of boyd’s book, It’s Complicated, on Twitter. If folks are interested in participating, but haven’t gotten a chance to read the book, I’d encourage you to listen to an NPR story about the book and/or read the introductory chapter (link at the bottom of the NPR story).

For purposes of the chat, I’ve written a question for each of the primary chapters of boyd’s book. We may not get through all of them or the discussion might shift to a different direction, but for the structure lovers among us, I thought they might be useful. If you have additional thoughts that we don’t have time to address or if you won’t be able to make the chat, please feel free to post in the comment section below.


Q1- Identity- boyd explains the concept of context collapse as occurring “when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses” (31). When have you (or students you know) experienced context collapse?

Q2- Privacy- boyd notes that, for teens, privacy often consists of controlling access to meaning, rather than access to content. Does boyd’s description of privacy resonate with your experience? How could different conceptions of privacy create misunderstanding between teens and adults?

Q3- Addiction- boyd writes that an important part of teen life is socializing and that when teens don’t have the ability to do that in-person, they will use social media to connect. She thinks claims of teen “addiction” to social media are overblown, but encourages adults to help students seek balance. In what ways could adults help find balance in their use of social media? 

Q4- Danger- boyd suggests that “teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic encounters online” (113) and encourages adults to find ways to “open their eyes on the digital street” (127). What are the challenges and potential benefits of being aware of what’s going on on the “digital streets”? 

Q5- Bullying- boyd argues that social media hasn’t substantially changed the dynamics of bullying, but that it has made it more visible. How might teachers/admin use the increased visibility of negative behavior to productively address difficult situations? 

Q6- Inequality- boyd says that inequality (of a host of types) is present online because it is present offline. How might a school’s tech polices diminish or exacerbate inequalities that are already present in the school community?

Q7- Literacy- boyd has a high regard for educators and writes that they “have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports. Familiarity with the latest gadgets or services is often less important than possessing the critical knowledge to engage productively with networked situations, including the ability to control how personal information flows and how to look for and interpret accessible information (180). How does your teachers/admin help students navigate networked publics or how do you wish your school would?

Oh, the Places You(r Writing)’ll Go

Several years ago I wrote an article for English Journal on disability and being a classroom teacher, “Doubly Vulnerable: The Paradox of Disability and Teaching.” (I’m not aware of a full text of the article freely accessible online, but I’m happy to share it, if you contact me.) Writing the article was itself an act of vulnerability, and I feel like I grew immensely from it. One of the really neat things about the article is that I continue to hear from others after having read it. Last week I heard from a teacher in Japan who had read and connected with the article. With his permission, I’m sharing his response below…

I’m emailing you after reading your article on English Journal titled “Doubly Vulnerable”. I’m very glad to know that a teacher who has a similar type of disability to mine is doing a great job in the US.

Thank you for sharing your experience and your honest feeling. I’m a graduate student of Naruto University of Education, Japan, researching teachers with disabilities in the master course. I’m going to teach English in a Senior high school from next April. I was engaged in another job for fourteen years and I’m not so young, but I’ll be a novice-teacher. Even though I have little teaching experience, but during the teaching practice, I found some students especially students who were perceived “difficult” were interested in my right hand. At that time, I felt like my right hand is a passport to get into their heart through the mental barrier which teenagers likely to have.

I am happy if we could share our experience as teachers with disability. You can find some of my video clips on youtube in which you may find how my right hand is. What I’m playing in the video is a Chinese musical instrument called erhu, which I learned in Beijing 18 years ago. 

I’m so grateful to be making these sorts of connections as a result of writing, both here on the blog and in print!

Hearing No and Saying Yes

The school year is coming to a close and along with it the feelings of exhaustion, elation, relief, and bittersweet sadness that usually accompany these sorts of transitions for me.

This year the whirlwind of the last days of school has been even stronger for me. I’m getting married the day after school ends. Crazy timing, many would suggest, but the benefit has been that my anxiety hasn’t had time to pool around any one detail or concern for very long.

The joy of this season has been accompanied by the sadness of hearing that I won’t be teaching my high school blended learning class again next year. It’s been one of the great joys and challenges of my teaching experience for the past four years. I love the way that the class has given students an opportunity to explore their passions and “rehabilitated” some previously self-described history haters. Because of an increase in the number of blended learning classes offered next year, only enough students for one section enrolled in the history course. The upper school history department didn’t have enough classes for a full load for all upper school teachers, so, because I am primarily a middle school teacher already with a full load, the blended learning class will be taught by an upper school teacher who taught the second section of the course this year.

It’s a decision that makes total sense financially for the school and the other teacher brings a wealth of ideas and knowledge to the course. I look forward to doing whatever I can to support him. I am sad, however, that I won’t make the trek across campus twice a week to meet with a group of thoughtful, inquisitive, sometimes challenging high school students.

Hearing no to one thing always means the opportunity and ability to say yes to something else. While I don’t know for certain, where those yeses will come, I look forward to seeing what the new (school) year holds. My 7th grade colleague and I are going to be adding a mini-unit on Ancient Rome to our World History course, and I’m planning to do some re-shaping of the Supreme Court simulation for my 8th grade US History class. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to eating awesome Mexican food and gluten-free cheesecake at my wedding and reading, hiking, and watching movies with my (soon-to-be) husband this summer.


I’m missing out on the epic snow storm (epic, for North Carolina, anyway), and I’m out on the West Coast at a Learning & the Brain Conference on using brain science to boost social and emotional skills. We had to rush to catch a plane out to avoid the snow, but I’m not complaining about an extra day in San Francisco.

One of the things I was most looking forward to at this conference was a talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal on willpower. Grit, resilience, will-power, self-control have exploded as buzzwords recently, especially in education, so I was interested to hear how she would approach the topic. I’d also enjoyed her TED talk on how to make stress your friend.

Dr. McGonigal defines willpower as directing your energy and attention to those things that are important to you. Willpower is not a fixed trait or either/or, but a habit of mind that can be strengthened.

She highlighted the importance of feeling like you belong in developing willpower. Loneliness/stigma are very stressful to self and the prefrontal cortex gets affected by shame in the same way that it is affected by sleep deprivation. While feeling bad makes you want to change, it doesn’t make you more likely to change. Forgiving yourself made people more likely to get back on track. Dr. McGonigal suggested the best way to offer a message of self-compassion (to yourself or someone else)

  • Acknowledge the feeling (of frustration, disappointment, failure)
  • Remember common humanity
  • Encourage self-kindness, forgiveness, and positive action (What’s the next step that’s consistent with my goals?)

I found that a really helpful frame in considering how to talk with students who are struggling with willpower this year. It’s so tempting to just use positive reinforcement (or in my darker moments to want to make them feel bad) for not doing that work. Dr. McGonigal’s talk was a great reminder of the fact that both of those strategies aren’t particularly effective.

She closed by noting that it’s important for teachers and parents to be good role models for kidw when it comes to willpower because how you treat/speak to yourself leaks out when you’re talking to kids or loved ones.