The Boredom of Summer

I like the rhythm of school year and summer; it’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. But even though the summer brings a welcome change of pace, I don’t usually hope for unstructured weeks on end. During the school year, my life is segmented into 45 minute blocks and so to wake up with unscheduled hours before me can feel overwhelming.

This is the first summer in 19 years that I haven’t had some sort of paid employment. It’s an incredibly strange feeling. I’ve had to find ways of making little schedules or to-do lists for myself to keep from going absolutely mad. I’ve done yoga, gone swimming, read books, gotten massages, played games on my phone, run errands, and cleaned house, but there’s also been plenty of time where I’ve just felt bored. Boredom can be a good thing, especially for kids, and it’s certainly pushed me to check out places I hadn’t been before and do some things spontaneously that I likely wouldn’t have had the energy for in a more scheduled day. pool

(I’m aware there’s a great deal of privilege in how my summer is playing out. I have the advantage of a salary spread out over 12 months and an employed spouse. I have the advantage of not needing to work at a physically demanding job at the end of pregnancy.)

One of the great gifts and challenges of this summer is the reminder of how much I love and miss work, specifically paid employment. I suspect this feeling will continue into the early part of the fall. We’re expecting a baby any day now, and I’ll be taking a couple months off at the beginning of the school year. (No, seriously, baby, any day, given that your estimated arrival date was last Tuesday.) It’ll be the first time in 30 years that August has not included a return to school for me. I’m sure there will be challenges with going back to teaching come October, but I’m really looking forward to a classroom, students, and a schedule again.

Cinnamon fully embraces the boredom of summer

Cinnamon fully embraces the boredom of summer

A Change Would Do You Good

One of my favorite features of Facebook is the Memories tab. I keep a journal, but rather sporadically, so for reminders about what was happening in my life in the past, Facebook is a more consistent reminder of the day to day. There are certainly challenges with this, perhaps the chief being, the difficulty of accessing that information in an easy way. That said, I find it fascinating to have an easy way to look back every morning to see what I was doing/thinking on that day from one to ten years ago.

In April, the above Facebook Memory popped up. What was especially ironic (in an Alanis Morissette sort of way) was that I had agreed, just days earlier, to teach 8th grade English next year. I was initially hesitant about the change because I’ll be returning to school in October after a couple months of parental leave, and it didn’t seem the ideal time to pick up a new prep, much less a new subject. But it was a move that I think will have long-term benefits for the school because it will give us a teacher at each grade level in the middle school who will be teaching both History and English, hopefully facilitating increased communication and collaboration between the departments. I also think ultimately it will be a good move for me, if perhaps a bit of a bumpy start. I’ve taught 7th grade and 8th grade History for the past five years, and, as Sheryl Crow says, sometimes a change would do you good.

What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?

I’m six weeks into my ninth year of teaching. Part of me misses the sense of it all being fresh and new. One of the things I like about teaching, though, is that there’s always a sense of newness and possibility at the beginning of a new year, even if it’s not quite as strong as it was on day one of my teaching career. A few reflections on what has and hasn’t changed since the first day I stood in front of a classroom.

I give more timely and useful feedback

I’ve now seen thousands of pieces of student writing and other work, so it’s gotten easier to see patterns and to point out ways for students to improve. Because the prep is a little less overwhelming now, I’ve also been able to shift some of that time to feedback on student drafts. That energy is wisely invested because it almost always means the students’ final drafts are better quality.

I love being in other teachers’ classrooms

I’m convinced that one of the best ways to earn about teaching is to watch others teach. Teaching is a craft and watching skilled craftspeople offers the opportunity to observe the moves they are making, sometimes unconsciously as they work. As a beginning teacher, I would often go and sit in the classrooms of the teachers that I admired as I struggled to figure out how to make work in my classroom run more smoothly and be more engaging. One of the reasons I so enjoy being a department chair now is that part of my position involves observing others teach and offering feedback.

I have (to make) more time for things outside of school

In the last 18 months I’ve gotten married and adopted a puppy, so some of that shift in time has come just as a result of not coming home to an empty house. But I’ve also gotten better at using my planning periods more effectively, since I know that I have other responsibilities (and possibilities for enjoyment!) at home. What this means is that in addition to creating more space for others in my life, I’ve also created more space for things that I enjoy, like reading.

Getting up in the morning hasn’t gotten easier

I am not a morning person. It doesn’t matter how early I get to sleep; I always struggle before about 9am. Unfortunately, that’s a full three hours after I have to be up for school. I wish schools were more willing to fight the cultural forces (athletic schedules and parent work schedules seem to be the biggest ones for us) that result in early morning starts. I believe it would be better for kids, and certainly better for me, if we started later. In the meantime, I’ll drink tea in the morning and nap in the afternoon.

I’m on the lookout for the next thing

At a recent leadership retreat, we were asked to explore an accomplishment in our career that had been a moment of pride for us and to consider what had led us to that point. For me, the creation of our school’s first blended learning course was that accomplishment. I taught the course for four years, but haven’t taught it for the last two and miss the challenge that it brought. That’s not to say that I’m without challenge or things that I find exciting, but I do feel that I’m on the lookout for new opportunities, either at my present school or beyond. I like being involved in big ideas and, perhaps even more so, working to make them realities. One of the things for which I’m very grateful at my present school is that we are so supportive of risk-taking. There are certainly some interesting opportunities coming down the pike as we begin the implementation of our most recent Strategic Plan.

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.

Tighten Up

A couple days ago Meeno asked a really interesting question on Twitter.

meenootweetI didn’t have an immediate answer, but after thinking on it some I think the book I need is Tighten Up: Improving Your Habits and Classroom Practice to Create Richer Learning Experiences.

I’d write a book that would be more than how to use technology to be more productive or how to stay organized or how to connect with students or how to plan well-scaffolded lessons or how to develop beneficial habits in one’s personal life. I would write a book that discusses those things with the end of student learning and joy in mind.  My hope is that this year will be that book, or at least a first draft of it.

I’m sure I’ve got a lot to learn, but as I enter my 7th year of teaching, I feel like I know much of what I need to do. I just need to tighten up. It’s tempting to imagine that tightening up would look like creating the perfect lesson or project before students arrive, but they are the most important part of lessons and projects. To think that I could craft the perfect year before they walk into the classroom is fanciful, but what I can do is design experiences, choose materials, and ask questions that hopefully create the space for that learning and joy to occur.

Of course, every school year needs a theme song. This one seems to fit…

Classroom Updates

I haven’t blogged as much recently as I would like to, but I did just post updates from my seventh and eighth grade classes on the classroom blog.

The Upper School class has wrapped up the student-taught lessons. The final lesson focused on the history of cancer treatment in the US. It was a great introduction to how treatment has changed. The student who was teaching the class choose three volunteers to illustrate this point at the end of the lesson. The three students put on sunglasses that were obscured to various degrees and tried to retrieve a bone from the Operation game. The class then had to guess what period of cancer treatment each set of glasses represented. It was a great way to wrap up one of my favorite parts of the course.

One of the students wrote on her reflection after teaching, “I also learned that once you are able to teach someone material, you truly do have a full understanding of it. I now realize what it is to truly understand something, and I think now I may even have a new study method! (sorry mom… you’re about to learn a lot about photosynthesis…)



New School Year’s Eve

Students return to school tomorrow. It’s my 27th year of school (21 as a student, 6 as a teacher). Before I head to bed, a couple of adages/goals that I’m hoping to embody for the year.

Know and care for the kids. 
I love kids, but I’ve found in past years that I’ve fallen into a pattern of connecting with those kids who were easiest for me to connect to. That is, I didn’t make it a priority to try to connect with all kids and learn about their lives/interests outside the classroom. Reading The Energy to Teach this summer reminded me of the importance of working to connect with each student and thinking systematically about doing that.

Don’t make it harder than it has to be. 
Teaching is an incredibly complex endeavor. That’s one of the reasons I love it- there’s always something to think about and ways to improve. But sometimes harder or more complicated is just that and not better or at least not better enough that it warrants the effort required. A post to the class blog doesn’t have to be an essay; it can be a picture and two lines of explanation.

Be on your feet. 
At the suggestion of someone on Twitter (apologies that I’ve forgotten who), I turned my desk to face the wall this year. I’m not going to be able to be in my classroom other than the periods I’m teaching (more on that later), so I don’t anticipate having much time at it without students there anyway. It’s easier to have a built-in physical reminder of the importance of consistently being up and interacting with students, rather than depending on my brain to remind me of that, especially on days that I’m tired.