Phantom Limb

In August every year, teachers—just like kids—get  excited about the opening of school. They go into their classrooms in the sweltering heat to arrange the furniture, decorate the walls, organize seating charts and other materials, and most of all, to plan their units of instruction. It’s not unlike preparing for the arrival of a newborn. You get the classroom ready and then start imagining all the wonderful  adventures in learning that you’re going to experience with your students, most of whom are still, at this point, abstract.

I am not immune to the exhilaration of August either.  Last year, when I accepted my new position as a full-time instructional coach for my district, I joked with colleagues that this was “voluntary amputation.”  I said that because I knew that I would miss being in the classroom, even though I was—and am—excited about this new opportunity.  I thought I was being funny, talking about dismemberment, but my quip was more on target than I realized.

I have a phantom limb.

During the Civil War–and probably before that–amputees began reporting that they could feel sensations in their missing arms or legs. Today the phenomenon is well known.  No one knows for sure what causes the phantom limb sensation—some neuroscientists think the feelings are evidence of the brain reorganizing itself—but the illusion of feeling in a severed body part is real and widely experienced.

A few days ago, a colleague recommended a link to a great site for art, history, and science visuals to me and all my colleagues in the English Department on our Facebook group site. My mind started spinning, and soon I had a long list in my head of ways to use these images.

Then, while we were driving home from vacation last week, I read an apt and amusing editorial in the New York Times out loud to my husband: Auto Crrect Ths. The article was about the author’s  frustration with “auto correct” and his ruminations on the trend toward loss of spelling skills. I thought it would make a good starting place for a discussion in my College Composition class about the importance—or unimportance—of competence in spelling.  I couldn’t resist the urge: I emailed the article to my colleagues.

Then I received a notification from an online educational products company hawking ready-to-purchase units organized around primary documents, the use of which is a huge component of the new Common Core State Standards that everyone is scrambling to understand and implement. The units looked pretty good—perusing them gave me ideas for organizing my own instructional units.

These and other starting places for new units of instruction (or enhancements for existing ones) get me pretty excited.  But each time I feel my heart racing and my cheeks turning pink from the thrill of anticipated academic adventure, the phantom limb phenomenon brings me up short. I remember that I won’t be in the classroom this year.

Still, just as the severed limbs seem more real to amputees than their intact ones, teaching my 9th graders, my American Lit classes, and my seniors in College Comp seems more real to me than what I’ll be doing next.  To be honest, I don’t know what to expect.  That’s why, as I begin in my new position, I’m going to resume this blog by describing some of my past experiences as a teacher and sharing some instructional strategies that have worked for me.  And, since my new job is all about passing along  experiences and strategies, this is fitting.

I know I will be adding to an already huge store of creative teaching strategies for To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m going to start with some lessons from this modern classic, a book taught almost everywhere in the country. However, while the lessons are in the context of TKM (as English teachers often abbreviate it), the strategies are widely applicable. I hope they are helpful to someone.

You see? The excitement about learning, and the urge to construct units and share resources, ideas, and lesson plans doesn’t go away even when someone leaves the classroom.

You don’t believe me?  The colleague who sent the link to the visuals?  She retired last year, too. Guess we both have a phantom limb.

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