This Spin of the World

Revolving Book Rack: Yours, Mine, Ours

Earlier today, a cherished colleague posted a picture of a revolving book rack, a longtime piece of classroom furniture which she was now, having reassigned a cabinet area for her classroom library, offering up to another needy soul. I recognized the item in the picture. That rack had once been my revolving bookshelf, the one I’d left behind when I exited the classroom at the end of 2012 to become an instructional coach. When I left the classroom, I invited my students to take the paperbacks on my rack for themselves. They did. One boy brought a grocery sack.  And just like that, a world vanished.

Or at least for that year in that room it did. The rack in the picture certainly looked like the one that had been in my classroom, the one I myself had scavenged from the school library when it had undergone a remodel. Perhaps my colleague’s rack was a second one, also scavenged from the library.

In any event, the picture of that revolving book rack standing empty stirred memories of school years past. Kids would come to my classroom in the fall, nervous and excited and awkward and shy—even the seniors—and we would take up topic after topic, book after book, rolling through the curriculum and the months until at last, on a day that seemed as if it would never come, the end of the year was suddenly and abruptly there. And those same students, now excited in a different way and no longer nervous and shy, were like the books on the rack: gone.

I was always bereft, entered into a kind of mourning that lasted through the first two weeks of June. This phenomenon surprised me at the beginning of my career; eventually, I came to recognize what was the matter with me and then anticipate the grief and understand that it was natural to mourn: the end of the year brings an end to whatever magic has been created in any teacher’s room.  I knew the magic would be recreated the next year, but of course it would not be exactly the same. I took solace in knowing that in August the students would enter, nervous and excited and awkward and shy, and we would begin together to construct anther magical world, one endeavor, one lesson, one understanding, one misunderstanding, one joke, one joy, realization, sorrow, conclusion at a time.

Now we are at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The shelves will soon be empty. It has been a year memorable for the things I am sure most if not all of you wish you hadn’t experienced. And yet, overcoming the challenges, confronting the fears, dealing with the reality of all that Covid-19 has brought to this year—the mask battles, the quarantine disasters, the disappearance of the neediest students, the perseverance of many and the courage of all—especially your courage, colleagues—has created a world that you might not mourn but at least will reflect upon often this summer.

This post is more than a piece of nostalgia. It’s a shout-out to you, to all of you, you who braved the year, delivered your knowledge and skill and wisdom just as expected, embraced your students, and created a world of safety in the danger zone of the larger world. The revolving rack has nearly stilled. You’re just a few days away from celebratory outings, sleeping in, focusing on your own children and creating a wondrous summer for them, from new grad classes of your own, new opportunities, camping trips and visits to family you’ve been separated from, to explorations and pleasures of all kinds.

But as you reflect, in those quiet moments of summer relief, rest, and recreation, remember this: You are the heroes of the Covid story your students will never forget. You are the heroes in the books they take from the rack.  You spun that rack and made this 180-day revolution one to remember.

Have a well-deserved vacation, my friends. .

I will see you in the fall when, together, we take another spin around the world.

A Harvest of Lessons

This is a post I wrote only a year and a half ago, but it’s FFA Week at my high school and I want to say again how much I appreciate the FFA program and the students who learn so much from and give so much to FFA. I want to reiterate how much, in my long life in my American classroom, I have learned from them and their families about the importance of community. Recognizing the contributions and the needs of all the students and all the groups in a school matters. This week it’s the FFA kids’ place in the sun.

It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.

I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.

But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.

I learned some important lessons early on.

That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.

A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”

In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.

Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.

In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.

In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.

It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.

All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.

Going for Gold

This is a post I wrote in 2012 when I first began coaching. I’m reposting it because all of us probably need to give ourselves a little grace right now. We’ve come through a rough year only to find ourselves in the hardest quarter of the school calendar. Some might call this time the doldrums. Whether you’re a new teacher, an early career educator, or even a veteran temporarily experiencing some rockiness, this one’s for you:

• The bell rings before you reach the lesson’s close.
• A befuddled question from a student translates into a moment of clarity for you: The student doesn’t understand. You’ll have to back up and start over.
• Kids aren’t listening, so you interrupt the lesson to redirect them. But then other kids lose the thread because your intervention is far more interesting than the lesson.
• Your explanation is unclear. You’ve even confused yourself.
• Three boys are spending more time fooling around than completing the task at hand. You shouldn’t have put them in a group together. But too late now. The lesson is underway and there isn’t much you can do.
• The technology fails–the whiteboard won’t work right, perhaps, or the internet is down–and your lesson depends on the technology. You spend 10 minutes trying to get it to work. It never does. Worse than that, you lose your cool.
• Eye rolling and snickering from teenage girls: it’s unnerving and makes your knees jump. You can’t shake them off, and you can’t concentrate on your lesson, either.
• The activity you planned is too complex–the kids are not moving into and through it smoothly.
• A parent calls to register a complaint that seems to come out of left field. How could you have anticipated that?

Plenty of things can go wrong every single period of every teaching day. A teacher is a human being interacting with thirty other human beings every period. That can mean 150 kids—sometimes even more—in the course of a day. There’s a text to be understood, a concept to be explained, or a skill to be taught—and an array of technological supports that can fail at any time. When any one of the infinite number of variables goes wrong, any teacher is troubled.

I have experienced every one of the scenarios sketched in the text above.

Imagine if all them (or even just several) happened on the same day. A novice teacher could easily be thrown: her confidence shaken; her resolve, dissolved. Even one such incident can haunt a beginner, and one hour that goes badly can color the whole week. You can feel like a failure within a very short time.

I remember spending one whole weekend, when I was a beginning teacher, obsessing over something that happened on a Friday afternoon and second-guessing my response to it. I had had a “horrible week,” I declared to my husband, but in reality, I’d had one bad incident on Friday. By Monday, whatever had happened had been completely forgotten by the students, and I felt silly for letting it ruin my weekend.

This fixation on failure happened to me more than once. I’d let one or two “disasters” during a week dominate my assessment of myself as a teacher. The optimism and confidence I’d started the year out with were soon gone, and I really was in danger of failure. What was I going to do? I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children—and not a negative difference, either. After a lot of fretting and frustration, I hit upon a strategy for dealing with disaster: I created a mental calendar to set the record straight.

It was like this: I taught six classes a day, five days a week, so (I told myself) there were thirty chances for success. Each week began with—in my mind—a blank white page gridded like a calendar: five squares across, six squares down, one for every period I taught. If a period went well–nothing spectacular, but nothing awful, either—the square remained white. If a class went badly, I colored the square black. But if the class went well, I made the square yellow, a cheerful color, one most people associate with happiness.

The object, of course, was to achieve a solid yellow page. In the beginning, I was gratified if there were no black spots on the grid. A page that was still white by the end of the week was a huge relief, and on the few intermittent yellows, I rode high. Gradually, my grids started looking like a case of measles—my yellow squares were sprinkled throughout the week. A whole day that was solid yellow was cause for rejoicing; a week of yellow–which took a long time to achieve—provoked a celebration equivalent to the Fourth of July. As time went along, the black days disappeared and the yellow ones dominated. Occasionally, one of those dreaded black marks did occur, but because of the grid, I could put that period into perspective. It was one period in a matrix of thirty opportunities. Not the whole picture, not a portrait of failure. My confidence increased, square by square, and with the confidence, guess what? More and more yellow squares began to appear.

Naturally, as the years passed by, I raised my standards, expected more of myself. Yellow became the new norm. I started going for gold. My explanations became clearer and were illustrated with examples kids could understand. I learned how to structure groups and keep students on task. Through trial and error and a lot of deliberate action, classroom management moved from nightmare to second nature. I learned about learning styles, adjusted my instruction for students at various levels, developed better questioning techniques and pacing strategies. And so on.

I got to gold. One square at a time.

I tell this story now to beginning teachers and others who are temporarily off their stride. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t let one bad day spoil the weekend. Don’t let one bad hour define you. You’ll get to yellow. One square at a time. And then you’ll go for gold.

Two-hour Delays

For as long as big yellow school buses have transported children to school, snow days have been the students’ not-so-secret joy, their guiltless revenge on a system they can’t control: Nature is more powerful than the principal; snow keeps the teacher at bay. What kids don’t realize—at least when they’re little—is that snow days delight their teachers, too—even when it means extending classes an extra day in May.

But here in Indiana, snow days have been rare in recent years, so now we experience a not-so-secret tingle when weather that warrants at least a two-hour delay is in the forecast. A two-hour delay brings

  • An extra hour of sleep
  • An extra cup of coffee
  • Another load of laundry done
  • Bonus time for grading
  • Snuggling with our children
  • Juggling daycare
  • Remaining hopeful, even after the delay is called, that it could turn into a snow day
  • Driving to school in daylight instead of piloting through the dark
  • Dithering about whether to leave for school or stay at home
  • Treacherous driving either way
  • A parking place close to the door (if you’ve made the former choice)
  • Working in the quiet of the classroom until the students start to arrive—you could find yourself humming along with the air ducts as they fill with warm air
  • And sometimes, arriving at school at the usual hour just to discover you missed the call on the  two-hour delay

And once school does start:

  • Driving stories from excited kids who were behind the wheel on snow and ice  for the very first time
  • Adjustments to everything—the bell schedule, the cancelled Homeroom period or special appointments you might have had during your prep hour
  • Disorientation—because the bells are different
  • Speed teaching—only half an hour with each class
  • A growling stomach because lunch is at a different time
  • Feeling, at the end of the day, like you’ve run a gauntlet—because the number of human contacts, decisions to be made, problems to be solved, details to attend to don’t decrease—they just come at you faster.

But still, a two-hour delay is a break in routine, a small triumph over time. And BONUS: no having to make it up! 

“Who’s on First?” Meets 2020

A personal narrative about surviving the world of eLearning from a teacher-parent perspective. My guest blogger, Jeremy Bloyd, is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana. His elementary school counterpart, Joni Bratcher, teaches 5th grade at Battle Ground Elementary School. Read what Jeremy and Joni experienced when he volunteered to be the parent reader–and what he took away from the experience that applies to all of us teaching virtual classes.

Our school corporation, comprised of 19 buildings, covers a large and diverse area of the county I live in, and there is undoubtedly demographic uniqueness to each building that creates its own sense of community.  Having taught in 5 of these different buildings over the course of my 21 years of teaching, it has been interesting to experience the individuality of these communities and the relationships with colleagues and families that have been created.  Currently, a colleague, as well as a friend, is my son’s 5th-grade teacher this year and she and her grade-level colleagues meet with the students through various Google Meets to cover all subject matter and their curricula over the course of the week.  I had the opportunity to volunteer for one of those sessions today.

Soon after I finished this morning’s Google Meet for 5th grade literature, my son’s teacher texted:

“Omg!! Welcome back to the elementary world.” 

As anyone knows, the best-laid plans can just as easily go awry as those that are completed “off the cuff,” and that is certainly what happened today.  The link to this morning’s Meet was not working for me.  After a few emails, some texting, and a live conference call with my son – who had me on speaker so the teacher could hear me through her Google Meet – success was achieved!  We were now 5 minutes off the schedule, but as any elementary teacher knows, the show must and will go on.  

My volunteer task today was to read aloud as the narrator in the novel selected for literature.  This meant the students were not only working on reading and comprehending the text and storyline but also scanning ahead enough to know which character was speaking, and when.  Students had been pre-selected to read the dialogue of specific characters, and less than a page into it, our character, David, was MIA!  Step back into that scene with me:

The teacher asks, “Where is Xavier?”  This is the student who was assigned as David.  She laughs with some exasperation and nervousness – because what else do you do?  We soon realize that Xavier has gone offline for one reason or another, but is soon back again… without a book!  “What page are we on?” he asks.  I giggle to myself.  Soon the dog walks by and Xavier is now petting the dog because you know, why not?  Once again, the teacher reminds the student to get his book and that we are reading chapter 10.  In an effort to move on, she tries to assign another student to read as the character David and several hands (in the tiny “Hollywood Square” screens on my monitor) are raised.  A student is selected and told to begin, and we wait.  Several seconds pass and the teacher shares for the student to continue where I left off.  But that was the issue.  Where did “he” leave off?  Another set-back is taken in stride by this veteran teacher.

We soon begin to delve deeper into the chapter and I am surprised at how well the students know when it is “their” speaking part.  Just then, a hiccup.  A new speaking part, and a different student who is also having some issues with her dog as she lies on the floor trying to … wait, what are we doing?  Oh yes, trying to read!  Is that why we are here today?  At the request of this young girl, the role has now been reassigned by the teacher to another student, but at this point, I’m trying to not bust out laughing.  We continue.

Having not read anything other than chapter 10, I’m still attempting to make sense of what is occurring, but the students are transitioning smoothly.  Even amid a parent working from home in the background, likely on a conference call, we work through the text and to the completion of the chapter.  The students will take a break from the virtual session and complete some literacy activities and then reconvene a little later this morning.  It’s clear the teachers in the group may need more of a break than the students!  I am thanked by the class and we end the Meet.

Moments later I get that text from the teacher I mentioned earlier.  The rest of her message said, “Aren’t you happy you are at the high school level (insert laughing emoji)?”  I chuckled and quickly responded with, “Seniors aren’t much better!  I sat for a good 1.5 minutes in silence this morning waiting for a student to answer my question.  I was like… ‘I’m here all day folks!’, until I received an answer.”  Her response was another laughing emoji.  

And now it occurs to me.  I’m not sure today’s lesson was really about literature.  As educators, our world has been turned upside down.  In our struggle to turn our curriculum into meaningful content that is disseminated virtually to our students via Google Classroom, Canvas, or some other learning management platform, the reality is that all of these same distractions occurred during face-to-face instruction.  But we, the teachers, had more physical control of the situation–like shutting the door to silence some of the chaos or “slyly” moving about the classroom to help those who need to refocus their attention.  While we could more easily see those students who may be struggling to understand based on visual cues, we now wait for tangible evidence that our students did grasp the concept of today’s lesson, albeit virtual cues rather than physical ones. 

Face it, teachers, the distractions that occur virtually are just like the distractions that occur in a school building.  There’s no doubt we have a student who doesn’t have their literature book out when we are seconds away from being ready to read.  And just because “Jessica” isn’t playing with her dog physically, doesn’t mean she isn’t rolling around on the floor with her pup in her memories.  Just because our glare doesn’t regain the attention of a wandering mind in the virtual setting doesn’t mean our lessons and time are not worthwhile.  They’re just different.  We will persevere just like my son’s teacher did today.  Just like we (the teachers) did last week during face-to-face instruction.  And, just like we will do next week in a virtual classroom the day before a holiday weekend!

As I take my teacher hat off and put on my parent hat, I can tell you that my son hates remote eLearning.  Is it because his homebound teachers are not able to be as nurturing and sympathetic?  The irony!  I know a lot of it has to do with the social interactions he misses too – and rightly so.  Regardless of which hat I wear – the parent, the former elementary teacher, or the current high school teacher of seniors in a work-based learning program – I was reminded today that the show always goes on.  It’s what we are called to do.  It was a reminder to laugh it off or to grin and bear it.  Teachers have grit, we persevere, and I believe that students interacting with us virtually versus in-person likely affects our students far less than we think it does.  Why?  Human nature.  We resist change, especially in education, and likely because there are so many things that constantly change and are completely out of our control (Yes, that’s for you, legislators).

For me, I’m actually seeing a more personal side to some of my students.  With seniors, you don’t get much more than what you ask for and seldom do we ask our high school students what is going on in their personal lives.  It’s not because we don’t care; rather, we lack time.  In addition to preparing lessons, posting objectives, setting up for classes or labs, we are now disinfecting seats between classes, monitoring the halls, attempting to find time to run copies, or trying to spare just a moment to use the restroom.  Currently, in my virtual classrooms, I can witness more, even if only for a moment as students switch from live video feed to their profile picture.  

Again, today was much more than a literacy lesson for me.  The take-away for me is that today, right here and now, might be the perfect opportunity to examine what I can do as a teacher, a father, a husband, a family member, and a friend.  Teaching amidst a pandemic has brought some of us closer together merely by happenstance.  But what if we look at it as an opportunity?  What if we view it as a challenge?  What if we apply it to the concept of “the ripple effect”?  In a world divided by politics, hate, misunderstanding, beliefs, culture, creed, just take the less and be ok, but make more of it.  

I’d like to think my ramblings and that “one more example” I share before the bell rings will actually cause a life-changing epiphany.  It shouldn’t have taken two degrees to figure out it does not!  So instead, perhaps we could engage more, which in return will allow for greater interaction of our audience.  Teachers, we are the stone cast into the waters.  How will the ripples we create affect those around us, and more specifically, our students?

Gatlin helps his dad and reads along with his class.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

 

Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition for me.  The holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world. Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

This year, this strange year of Covid-19, has brought  remote learning, quarantines, stay-at-home interludes, and hybrid set-ups, but teachers everywhere haven’t let the challenges stop them from connecting with their students. Like me, they are grateful for both the students they see on their screens and the ones who still can come to school in-person. You bring us joy, shape our perspective, and make our lives meaningful. 

So here’s the annual Thanksgiving post–with a few new additions as I have heard from more of you this past year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies–and last fall with more of you at the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis. I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office and again at school, so you could give me a flu shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. I’ve seen you on my nature walks and had lunch with two of you at Arni’s.

One of you approached me years ago at the Indy airport and described your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours. I’ve met two of you just this year in the same airport–students from my early years in TSC. One of you owns a grocery store that is helping to revive a part of our community; another of you is the piano man who has entertained the whole community for years and sustained our collective spirit with weekly Zoom concerts last spring.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other trouble spots around the globe. A few years ago, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization. Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter. Some of you have read the book I wrote this year and have written to tell me you liked it. Some of you look at my nature photographs and tell me they bring you peace.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors, one is soon to be a physician’s assistant. Several of you sell real estate, three at least are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you writers, restaurant owners, veterinarians, and musicians.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. The CEO of a community foundation. A journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers. Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and veterinary assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you have had different struggles–you’ve faced challenges no one should have to. But you had determination and the will to succeed.

You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

Proud to be a Teacher

A few teachers have told me stories this week about parents who’ve voiced some criticism about the way learning has gone during this time of COVID-19.  It’s part of what tells me we are nearing the end—even if I didn’t already feel it on my own. The end-of-the school year always brings stress and strain from worried parents and disgruntled kids. A single case of dissatisfaction is amplified this year because our circumstances have been so unexpectedly different than ever before and all of us have worked so hard.

The reality is, the general public has suddenly begun to appreciate teachers in a way they never have before. Posts on Facebook, letters to individual teachers, thank you’s from kids. They’re the rule and they tell me the public is seeing—in a way they didn’t before—just how important teachers are, how difficult the job is, and how much dedication we bring to our work. They’ve seen the stuff we’re made of because they’ve brought us right into their homes in this very trying time.

So instead of focusing on how tired we are or on the once-in-a-while criticisms from the public or on the stresses we’ve experienced in this eLearning experiment, let’s stop for a minute and think about the positive side of what we have accomplished.

Let’s celebrate this:

1. In a way, most of us have been 1st-year teachers again. Oh, some of us were already flipping our classrooms and some of us were more tech-savvy than others going into this period of confinement, but most of us were panicked, distraught, distressed, or at least uneasy in the beginning. We had had so little experience with remote learning. Some of us had never participated in a Google Meet (or a Zoom meeting or a Webex or whatever), and now we schedule such gatherings with aplomb. Some of us had never used Flipgrid, Padlet, or Screencastify before—but we quickly learned. Wherever our comfort level with technology was then, look where it is now!

That means that our repertoire of instructional tools has expanded incredibly and when we get back to the face-to-face classroom we all yearn for, our new skills won’t leave us. Instead, our options will have expanded exponentially.

2. We’ve learned a lot about our students from informal conversations on screen. Some teachers even say they feel more connected now than they ever did. Because we care about our students’ well-being, we’ve begun our online lessons with wellness check-ins, casual conversation, direct inquiries, and kids have responded by really talking to us about what’s on their minds, how they’re doing, and by sharing their hobbies, their pets, even their siblings. (We’ve all got funny stories about little brothers and sisters popping up on the screen—as our own children sometimes do—about barking dogs, alarm clocks going off, water spilling, etc.) We’ve gotten to know our students in some cases better than when our conversations were confined (largely) to academics and school activities.  It’s hard not to become better acquainted when you’re a visitor in a student’s private space. Talking with kids online has been the modern-day equivalent of a home visit.

Instruction itself has become more individualized. Some teachers have found that kids who in class didn’t participate are now the ones they get the most interaction from. Some kids are getting more individualized attention now than they did in class because they’re the ones that show up to class meetings. And some kids respond more openly to teachers now because we ask how they are first. They think, rightly, “She cares about me.”

We do. We always have, but suddenly, they feel it.

3. We’ve been forced to focus on what’s really important in our content. When you don’t meet every day and don’t have the luxury of time to ramble or reiterate, you’re forced to reassess and find the simplest, easiest way to communicate what’s really important. Streamlining has become a habit now and it is one that will inform our instruction going forward.

4. And we’ve been forced to seek and find new resources to convey old ideas. At the beginning of this eLearning experience, we were deluged with resources. Every book publisher, non-profit organization, magazine, and museum in the country showered us with resources galore—and that may have added to some of the anxiety we initially felt. We didn’t have time to peruse the offerings, let alone view and evaluate the links. Though we were grateful for the help, there was underlying dread that the Best Resource Ever was right out there, and we didn’t have the time to look. But as time went along, we did. And some of us have discovered some wonderful sites and specific lessons that we’ll be utilizing from now on.

5. Teachers are problem solvers. And this spring, the problems have been huge—and here we are, problem-solvers par excellence. Story after story from teachers, parents, even the kids themselves inform this truth: When teachers are presented with a problem, they work hard to find a solution.

  • Special Ed teachers have made videos for the parents of their students, coaching them in how to help their children
  • Teachers of every subject and grade have reached out over and over again to connect with kids. When Canvas didn’t work, we tried individual emails—that was better. Then texts, phone calls, even delivering packets in person
  • When interactive learning proved to be awkward in a Google Meet, we’ve tried Flipgrid videos, Padlet posts, small group Meets and Canvas Discussions to complement whole class instruction
  • We’ve held Office Hours, but worked with students individually at all hours and on all days
  • We’ve created all-school videos to boost spirits and offer support
  • We’ve found ways to celebrate graduating seniors: yard signs, caravans, Twitter profiles, Facebook postings, special cards and letters, Instagram tributes
  • For incoming freshmen, 5th graders going on to middle school, whole schoolrooms of kids: caravans, videos from future teachers, letters from school counselors
  • Tech directors and Connected Learning Teams have fielded questions day and night and produced tutorial after tutorial to expand our digital toolkits

Creative problem-solving, flexible and innovative ideas for teaching and learning. You’ve adapted and come out on top.

You’ve been available. The kids have needed you and you were there.

You’ve modeled resiliency and offered optimism. Your positive mindset has done more than can be measured to keep students from checking out, slipping away. You’ve kept them engaged and on track.

When I was in the classroom, I always felt like Boxer, the workhorse in Animal Farm, at the end of the year: exhausted, but plodding on, one foot in front of the other, thinking “if I just worked a little harder…”

I know you always feel that way, too. I know because in the past we’ve commiserated in the hallways about papers to grade, exams to create and score, loose ends to tie up, recognitions to be given, rooms to dismantle, goodbyes to be said and the sheer number of extra hours all that means.

This year, it’s all that and more.

Thank you, Teachers. Thank you for being there, for not giving up, for sharing and caring and being what you have always been.

I have never been prouder to be one of you.

 

#Teacher Appreciation Week

#Red4Ed

The Students: What Keeps Them Going?

This post is written by my colleague Laura Whitcombe. Laura has been a member of the English Department at McCutcheon High School since 1994. Her specialty is speech, and in addition to sponsoring the award-winning Speech Team, she teaches the required sophomore speech class, the Ivy Tech Dual Credit course for juniors and seniors, and the Vincennes Early College Advanced Speech for sophomores. Her students’ answers to a question she asked them this week should give us hope, reassurance, and confidence that they’re going to come out all right at the other end of this remote learning experience. 

What is going on inside their heads? The minds of teenagers remain a mystery, but even more so when we cannot be with them in person daily. 

I read the posts written by education journalists and those who want to hand out advice. Just give feedback. Drop grades completely. The kids are traumatized. They are not the same kids as before we sheltered in place. But I don’t know… We aren’t in the Upside Down world of Stranger Things. We are just at home on our laptops.

On Mondays, my speech classes have virtual class meetings. None of us has ever done this before, so it is an evolution. At first, there were faces. Now there are avatars. I have asked a few what they are. But some I just leave alone. There are die-hard kids who always attend. There are hit-and-miss kids who sometimes show up. And there are kids whom I said goodbye to in my classroom and who never showed up online.

Most of my students are with me. More than half. Is that good? My academic classes have about 90% participation in meetings and assignments. My regular mixed-ability classes have between 60 and 70% participation. Some come for the meetings but don’t do the work. Some do the work but randomly attend the virtual sessions. I think that means that they feel good about the resources I shared. My videos, slideshows, document templates, examples, and calendars are providing students with what they need to do the projects. 

But I don’t know for sure. 

I have been wondering what inspired my students to keep working, so Monday I started the class by asking a question. 

“What is keeping you going?  What is motivating you to keep going to school?” 

It was nice to call on each student individually by name. It was just like an attendance question in the classroom. It was nice to give attention to each student. In my classroom this is my habit and consistency is comforting.

I was surprised by the normality of their answers. Grades. Grades still matter. From academic seniors to special education sophomores, most agreed.

  • They still want to try to do what they can do.
  • They want to do their best.
  • They are still thinking of the future. 
  • Some mentioned college.
  • They see a need to learn and have these skills for college.
  • They still need to earn their scholarships.
  • They have goals and are worried about the same consequences as before the shelter-in-place.
  • They said that they have self-discipline, and this is what they do: they get organized, build a schedule, and get things done.
  • Some said that they finally developed or had to develop this discipline. 
  • They were proud that they have been able to make this remote learning work even if they did not like it.

I admire these students who stay motivated. I admire that they are still with us. Thinking back on my own teenage years, I feel like I would have flaked out and dropped out. My mom was a nurse and I would have been unsupervised and left to my own devices. Maybe. Maybe if my peers were like the students in my classes and kept focused, then I would not have wanted to be left out or left behind.

Other students added these comments:

  • “What else am I going to do?”
  • “This is easy on my own schedule.”
  • “I am more relaxed because I can go at my own pace.”
  • “There is lots of time for me to do my hobbies.” They listed painting, embroidery, hoops in the barn, raising animals, working out, and of course, video games and sleep.
  • They showed me new turkeys, chickens, cats, dogs, and a couple of little brothers. They said that having the comforts of home was comfortable and comforting. 
  • Those with parents also working from home described an easy routine where everyone in the house goes to their own spots in the house to work online, then come together in the evening. 

I am impressed by their natural ability to adapt. They have been in school for 10-11-12 years. They know what to do. Teachers have led them through their coursework before and are leading them from afar now. They are not suddenly alien-beings because they are not in seats in our rooms. We, students and teachers, have the same values we did before. We value sticking with challenges and overcoming obstacles. We always have and students are with us.

Of course, I worry about the students who disappeared, but right now I am here for those who want to learn. I will be there for the others when they come back when we are together again, however that happens.

I am so happy for my students. They seem fine. Fine. That is good. And being good might be good enough. For now.

Laura is a graduate of IU-Bloomington and received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University.  She and I led an educational exchange program between McCutcheon students and students in Pskov, Russia, in 2004. 

#Red4Ed

Third Quarter Doldrums

Around the Equator, there’s a 10-degree band where sailors take warning: the winds don’t blow and ships can’t sail, sometimes for weeks. Time passes slowly, cabin fever sets in, and at the same time, weather patterns can shift unpredictably.

The region called the Doldrums sounds remarkably like the third quarter, the hardest part of the year. Teachers often feel like they’re slogging their way to Spring Break.

  • There’s so much curriculum left to cover
  • We’re worried about kids who aren’t working hard enough
  • We worry about kids who have other challenges or scary life situations
  • We’re so tired, we need some sun, and stress reigns
  • There doesn’t seem to be light at the end of the tunnel

This year is so different. But in conversations I have had and meetings I have attended this past week, the mood felt like the 3rd Quarter Doldrums.

  • Concerns about curriculum. We’ve got a grip now on the technology, but we’re still juggling content: How much is too much? How deep should we go?  When is the advice to simplify, too simple?
  • Kids are behind. Will they be ready for the next level up? How do we determine “effort?” How can we document participation? How in the world can we figure out grades and be fair?
  • We still haven’t connected with some of our kids. Do they have connectivity? Are they still in town? Are they alone? Are they safe?
  • The pace is different, but it’s exhausting, still. Prepping online lessons takes twice as long as we’re used to. Many of us have small children and we’re suddenly teachers for them, too.
  • When we will reach the end? Have we done it right? What have we learned? What if this is a new reality?

The doldrums. A lot of us are there. Not everybody, but enough of us that I’ve noticed.

In my district, this was Week 5 (I’m counting Faux Spring Break and Spring Break as at least one week because most of us started working on eLearning then).  So we have three weeks to go. Hey! That means we’re in the 3rd quarter! That makes sense, then, why we’re in the psychological doldrums.

So how are we going to get through to the end? Not to be a Pollyanna about this, but here are some ideas for making it through to the end.

  1. Just as our students thrive on talking to us and to each other, we need community, too. I didn’t realize it as acutely as I do now until I saw a colleague on a walk at Celery Bog one afternoon. I nearly burst into tears. The best I could do was outstretched arms from a six-foot distance. So if you haven’t already, set up a Google Meet with your best buddy colleagues. I know that meeting with individual teachers, the Principals’ Meets, and the Literacy Team at my high school has helped me tremendously to feel connected
  2. It’s not too late to set goals for the few weeks ahead.
    • Books to read
    • Films to watch
    • Projects to complete
    • An exercise regime to follow
    • More closets and drawers to clean
  3. Try out a new technology. Your students—and you—know you’ve mastered what you’re doing already. Now try one new thing. No one will be impatient. They’ll be supportive and the kids will enjoy the variety.
  4. Go outside every day. Even if it’s raining. Just stand under a tree and breathe.
  5. And look for the humor in all this:
  • So many memes now about dogs exhausted from walking
  • Sanitation workers not being able to pick up all the discards from people cleaning up their homes and cleaning out their garages
  • The funny things your kids say
  • Your strange outfits for Google Meets (i.e., the pajamas on the bottom)
  • The fact that everyone in America needs a haircut

Three weeks to go! You’ve got this!  The wind will blow and you’ll be out of the doldrums before you know it!

#Red4Ed

Halfway There!

We’re halfway from the day we left for Faux Spring Break to the last school day of the year: May 15. The first thing I want to do in this post is to express my admiration for all the teachers I know.  This post is a shout-out to you in the form of a quick tour of some of the things I’ve seen during the past two weeks as I’ve visited your living rooms and kitchen tables or communicated by email, Facebook, phone, and Google Meet. And I know this isn’t the half of it. 

You’ve become technologically creative, utilizing aspects of Canvas many of us have never considered before—Discussions, for example.  Many of you have put up choice boards on Padlet, used Flipgrid for student presentations, even created Google Slideshows that capture your instruction all the way to the end—all the links are embedded; everything is in one place.

Kristin Lin, a Band teacher at MHS, for example, assigned YouTube videos to her students to teach them the language of orchestral conducting. I “sat in” on the lesson and learned that being a symphony director is a whole lot harder than it looks! Try this and see if you can do it! 

Kyle Harris, the 7th grade World History teacher at BGM, created a Padlet for his students to post art from Hudson School of Landscape Painting of the 19th Century. How beautiful is this spread?  Other teachers are using Padlet as a vehicle for organizing the students’ lessons throughout the week. Here’s MHS biology teacher Abi Bymaster’s Biology Padlet.

A teacher in the FACS national Facebook group created a choice board using  a different vehicle: Goggle Docs. MHS teachers Laura Cole and Laila Wilson added to it. Check out this impressive and comprehensive Google Doc choice board that blends practical ideas with creative opportunities. My personal favorite: Clean the Refrigerator!  

Most teachers are using Google Meet frequently and effectively, but sometimes an asynchronous meeting is better. As an alternative to Google Meet, Julie Riley uses Flipgrid with her 7th Grade English classes at WRM. Here’s a link to Honors English 7. If you have never used Flipgrid, this is a good chance to see it in action.

Some of you have created timely lessons out of this health crisis and period of confinement, engaging your students completely:

  • Dawn Grinnage, an English teacher at WMS, had her students, who are reading Anne Frank’s diary, keep journals of their own confinement. Read Sue Scott’s article about this thought-provoking project. 
  • Tasha Ploss’s Health Sciences classes at MHS are learning about pandemics and relating to an earlier read—Hot Zone
  • Jake McIntyre and Scott Royer, who teach social studies at MHS, are directing students to “current events” activities centered around Covid-19 because the subject is and will be a big part of American History. “They’ll be telling their grandchildren about this!”

There have been inspired ways of reaching out and keeping our kids connected

  • Suzi Ryan, A special ed teacher at MHS,  created a Google Meet for the kids that hang out in her room during her prep. She called it a “Virtual Coffee Break.”
  • Sarah Gustin’s entertaining Tik-Toks will be the stuff of legend when this is all over. Who knew principals knew about Tik-Tok?
  • This past weekend, the WMS team produced a YouTube video: Remote Learning, Too, that entertains and certainly lets students know their teachers are in this together with them
  • Encouraging emails from our principals have kept us motivated and made us feel appreciated.
  • Extra-curricular groups are still Meeting: Speech Team gatherings, World Food Prize, Academic Academic Super Bowl for starters.
  • At ETM, Band and Choir recruited current 5th graders using the school’s Facebook page. Here’s Andrea Bube’s YouTube for Choir. 
  • Camden Ritchie, music teacher at SMS, has been staging Ultimate Gimkit Smashdown competitions—open to the whole of SMS.
  • Sarah Gessel’s Mavericks Changing Minds (MCM) group is putting together a motivational video on 4 topics: creativity, self-care, learning, and connection. Interested in creating a 3-5 second video for the project? Contact Sarah at MHS.
  • And Mav TV is still broadcasting—if you haven’t seen last week’s episode, here it is. Watch all the way to the end and hear the inspirational message from Noah.

I’ve gleaned some tips from you that may help other teachers: 

  • If kids aren’t responding to Canvas, email them separately. Some (believe it or not) still don’t “get” Canvas; others will delete emails that come from Canvas—but not one that comes directly from you.
  • Instead of answering their questions over and over again, Jeremy Bloyd, ICE teacher at MHS, prepared a FAQ sheet to send out when the questions for the umpteenth time. It’s been working!
  • If no one shows up for your “Office Hours,” it could be that they don’t want to bother you. After all, they’re new to this themselves and may think Office Hours are sort of like doctor’s appointments. Email the students you need to see directly. Chances are, they’ll show up by direct invitation. 
  • Short on whiteboard space? Use your shower wall! Just be sure your markers will clean off afterward! (Thanks, MHS chemistry teacher Tasha Ploss!)
  • Kids having trouble with their computers: Remind them that they can make an appointment at their school with one of the unsung heroes of all this e-Learning: the tech team! A friend of mine’s daughter made an appointment with MHS’s Christina Bennett the other day. The whole transaction took place through the front desk. The students waited in the lobby for 10 minutes while Christina swapped out the battery (and carefully wiped everything down, before and after the repair).

And if our students didn’t really know it before, they know it now: We are human!  We have bad hair days. Our children “Google bomb” our Meets, wave at the screen, show off their birthday presents, and ask Mom to come see the new kittens—RIGHT NOW!  Our pets nudge the screen, scratch at the door, bark at the onscreen conversation, even knock over great-grandma’s lamp. 

I kind of like it, this informality. It gives us all something to laugh about, something not to take too seriously in this time when everything is so very serious. 

So great work, TSC Teachers!  From what I hear from administrators and families, I’m not the only one who is wowed by the efficiency with which you have learned how to navigate these waters, the grace with which you have adapted to the circumstances, and the ingenuity with which you have problem-solved. 

Have a great week! 

#Red4Ed