Year Eight: Growth vs. Grit

A new home.
Yesterday I lay on the floor of the lunch room at school and surveyed my eight years of teaching from that angle. On a floor or flat on my face can feel like the right perspective for this expanse of time. I remember lying on the floor of my empty apartment, my first year of teaching and my first year of living by myself. I remember sleeping on the floor of my first classroom, trying to gather myself together for a long commute home in the snow. I remember sunnier afternoons in Spain, where two other teachers and I lay out mats on the floor in the music room on during afternoon siestas, for un poquito de relax.

Eight years brings me here to San Diego, where we finished our two weeks of teacher prep with an hour of yoga together. Stretching and moving and lying still among a big group of my coworkers was good. For some reason I think it helped get me into an emotional place where I can actually reflect on my school year, which I try to do each summer. Maybe the equivalent of mental stretching.

As a not-new-anymore teacher, I keep checking my pulse: Am I growing or am I just surviving? The end of last year was hard because I didn’t know if I was doing either. It was an exhausting year, and the exhausted end of the year is not the best place to recognize growth. In the midst of growing pains is also not the best place to recognize growth, and there were a lot of growing pains (both as a school and as a teacher.)

And now… I’m here, and I’ve grown. So here I am with some wordy lists and some listy words (because that’s just me.) Read more of this post

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Gratitude

It was a quiet Thanksgiving here in our little apartment. I spent the morning drinking coffee and going through a massive amount of photos from the past six months, and the afternoon video chatting with family back in Michigan. I’ve definitely appreciated the space to breathe this week – we’ve spent so many of our breaks and even weekends out of town.

I’m not feeling particularly festive this year. It may be as small as the tragic combination of PMS and a bad haircut. (Not to be underestimated!) It may be the startled realization that it’s been over a year since we moved across the country, and that so little has changed (other than the steady trickle of bank accounts emptying into cross-country flights.) It may be that this Michigan girl still can’t reconcile the disconnect of a California Christmas, with snowflakes pinned to palm trees. More than that, it’s other contrasts: A colonizer’s holiday is celebrated in a country where having the wrong skin color can (still) be fatal. Messages of peace and goodwill decorate doors that are closed to refugees and to neighbors who worship the wrong way. People celebrate the holidays with death-defying consumerism, rushing into stores where employees can’t make a living wage but can be trampled to death.

Gratitude is important, however. It’s one small way to fight the discontent and greed and hate. I feel that I often write about gratitude, both here and elsewhere. For me, it’s the only antidote to the absolutely  human capacity for discontent.

This year I’m thankful:

  • for this still-new city, with its many beauties – both obvious and hidden
  • for my husband, who for eight years has been my adventure partner, and who more recently has become a very good cook
  • for that cat who we love despite it all
  • for friends both old and new, both near and far
  • for technology that allows us to connect with our loved ones even from far away
  • for new nephews and new sisters-in-law
  • for weddings and the chances to go to them, even from across the country
  • for my job and the chance to work hard for something I care about, with wonderful students, families, and staff
  • for the chances I’ve had to connect with others in a positive ways – my own students, exchange students, youth volunteers and children in Mexico
  • for the opportunities and the connections I’ve made via the Spanish language
  • for (oddly enough) the chance to participate in our justice system by serving on a jury
  • for health, freedom, food on the table, and a roof over my head
  • for photos to fill in the spaces when words fail me:

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Seven Years Treading Water

I just* finished my seventh year of teaching.

I’ve gotten in the habit of taking time each summer to to reflect on the school year. It’s been valuable to look back and see growth in myself. I would encourage any new teacher to journal through their first year (at the very least) just so that later on, when things feel particularly crazy, you can look back on the craziest times to see just how far you’ve come. (That’s also why Educating Esme was an important read during my first years of teaching.)

*Normally I do this before the end of August, but not this year. Still… it’s important to look back, even as I am already looking forward and planning for the coming year.

I’ve been at four different schools now, including my one year in Spain, and the longest I was at one school was three years, so my experience of teaching has been a string of fresh starts. Even within those short stints at each school, being a Specials teacher has also has been an endless cycle of fresh starts and a fair amount of flailing.

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Here’s to more than just survival.

This year brought yet another new school, yet another fresh start, and new lessons to learn: Read more of this post

Marking Time

Over the holidays we flew back to Michigan twice. It was very fast… everything moved fast. It was easy to slide smoothly back into familiar places – but not quite. It was cold. We slept in basements, went to bars, held new little people entering the world, hugged people leaving it.

We flew back and abruptly reentered life here. (Crisscross of flight paths, trains, freeways, skyline, port. Cloudy mornings and afternoon sunlight. Tracing the same brief concrete arcs of road. Long days and enough sleep.) It’s my first California winter, which is not what I am used to, but I’ve retained the ability to hibernate. Still listening more than I’m talking, reading more than I’m writing, looking more than capturing, holding onto more than sharing.

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markingtime04markingtime09 Read more of this post

Adjustments

SD12Starting a new job at a new school in a new city is familiar to me, and in many ways moving across the country feels a little like moving to a new country. After a few months, things start to shift and click. I am getting to know the concrete curves of clean light under clear skies on the way to work, and the sun turning the city gold every afternoon as it sets. Routines have begun to settle in place. I miss Michigan faces (family, friends, my old coworkers and students) but I don’t miss the hours of driving or taking naps in parking lots. I’ve replaced the hours of commuting with actual productivity. I do miss Michigan autumn, but here a different flavor of autumn has arrived slowly. Afternoons are still sunny and hot, in between cloudy mornings and cool evenings. Even on hot afternoons at school a strong breeze blows up from the ocean.

Earlier this year, in the final and more desperate stages of job searching, I was applying for anything I could find. The decision to take this job was hurried in many ways – my phone interview from my car at the side of the road in Detroit, in the middle of sirens and thunderstorms, and the decision to accept the job offer after only a few hours of weighing it against the job in the Bay Area that I had already accepted. In the end, it was almost on accident that I found almost everything I could have asked for in a teaching job. I think this is a school that will allow me to actually teach, and that will allow me to grow as a teacher. My days are not any shorter, and my much-appreciated prep time has quickly been filled with new responsibilities. But I don’t have the feeling I’ve had for the last few years, of being stretched impossibly thin without much to show for it. And a few months in, time has shifted and expanded. Some days I am surprised to find how much has fit into a handful of hours or even minutes.

I still need to learn how to leave room for myself. I am beginning to learn how to do that, now that it actually feels possible. I have a lunch break now, and I even bring lunch every day, though I’m not very good at eating it and sometimes one lunch will last several days because I keep running out of time to eat more than a few bites. Without my crazy commute, I’ve found time for some coveted moments of reading. (I started reading some books I loved as a teenager, which is wonderful except for when I found myself becoming a little too connected to my teenage self and her emotions, and began biting my nails.)

This week was probably the most exhausting, with parent teacher conferences. Between condensed teaching schedules, meeting with parents, translating conferences for Spanish-speaking families, and helping to run after school activities, I often had two or three commitments stacked up on top of each other, and planned my day in 5 minute blocks that didn’t leave much time for food or sitting down or breathing. However, after so many conversations with students and families I already feel more involved and more invested. I finished the week by chaperoning the middle school dance, and seeing some of my most reserved or least engaged students break dancing or just flailing around on the dance floor. I came home so tired that I almost fell asleep with my face on the table, as my long-suffering husband got dinner out of the oven. Next Monday, however, I think I will walk into each classroom feeling a little more ready to connect with each of my students.

My words feel a little scattered (overspent on translations and doled out in lessons) so how about some pictures?

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Distances Crossed

(You might be suspicious that I am sorting through and posting photos more than once every couple of months. What are you avoiding, you might ask? Wrapping up progress reports – that’s what.)

When moving from Michigan to California, we contemplated various methods to get two adults, two cars, one cat, some furniture, and lots of boxes across the country. In the end, we decided to sell one car and tow the other behind a moving truck.

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This involved a very long drive, a very sad cat, some terrifying mountain driving, and the limited food options available when one is tied to a very big truck and a very sad cat. (The notable exception was staying with my sister in Kansas City, and eating fresh vegetables from her garden.) However, I am glad we did this rather than flying out and shipping things. One of the things I appreciated about walking the Camino was the concrete nature of spaces traveled: seeing the hills in front of you as you climb, and the towns you have passed through behind you in the distance. Moving away from our home state has been a big transition, and airplanes still feel too much like magic. (Eyelids close and open to new cities and new climates, spread out below you beneath glass.)

I needed 2000 miles to feel like 2000 miles, and to see the scenery change as we crossed the country to the West Coast: The rain and red-touched leaves of Michigan turning to Illinois fields, Missouri corn, flat empty expanses of Kansas and Oklahoma, the hulking farm equipment of Texas, the vibrant colors of New Mexico, the mountains flattening out into desert in Arizona, and the final sunset over the hills of California, waiting for the coast. We also got to visit family along the way – my sister and brother-in-law in Kansas City, and my husband’s grandparents in Phoenix.

Now those long hours and distances have shrunk back onto a map, and some images seen through a dirty windshield.

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Just over the last hill

Postcards from the Mitten State

I often lug my camera around, but I am really bad at sifting through the results in a timely manner.

I have also neglected this personal blog in favor of a new teaching blog. (Knowing my tendencies to neglect my personal life, this should not be a surprise.)

Spring and Summer were both chaotic and emotional, navigating preparations to move and goodbyes to students, coworkers, friends, and family. (And even while looking for jobs in warmer climates I was aware that other states might not have the same magic of a Michigan Spring.) Here are some snapshots.

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The Long Winter

This winter was harsh here. Like a trauma, it had to pass before I could write about it.

I took pictures. School was cancelled a lot. I spent many hours gripping my steering wheel and inching across slick roads. I lost sight of bare pavement for months.

Mostly I hid under the covers, wrapped in my red sheets, and watched the days slide by – world soft & white or wet & dark.

Discontent settled in around me, like dust on shelves. I didn’t brush it off. I wrote my name in it, on every filthy surface.

Spring came, and we got drunk on the rain and the excess warm air. Neighbors stumbled out of their doors, to shed layers, draw on the sidewalk with chalk, shout up the street, ride bikes, to sing or shoot guns, somewhere far away.

For me the dates on the calendar are pointed inward. Square boxes become curved lenses, and inside I am still disastrous. Fairy lights reflected in puddles are burning cities, for no good reason. If there’s nothing to flee, I lose direction.

This is nothing new – this is the same every year. Ice to mud to green. I relearn everything, every time.

 

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A Pause, and a Teacher Update

Back in the Fall I started a blog post, because I was going to write More Thoughts While My Students Were Taking Standardized Tests, things I contemplated in the mind-numbing boredom (and other angst) of watching them click buttons and fill in spaces… but then I didn’t finish any more than a sentence, much less an entire post, because there was still too much to do. Peripheral chatting to stare down. Passes to sign. Attendance to enter. Papers to grade.

I wrote a lot during my first years of teaching, because I had so much to say about this difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, and exhausting job. It is no less difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, or exhausting now, but  I am probably busier than I ever have been. It is all rewarding but it turns out that after being engaged all day long, and then driving home (sometimes for several hours in our crazy winter weather) my brain is a puddle of slime unable to orchestrate anything more than putting food into my mouth and watching mindless TV (at best) or dragging myself directly from my car to my bed (at worst.)

However, this year’s holiday break stretched into several weeks without school (due to extreme winter weather) followed by more weeks punctuated by snow days. We haven’t worked a 5 day week since December. After many snow days spent holed up in bed recovering from frigid commutes, I am trying to take time to reflect.

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A 1st grader’s depiction of how I spend most of my day. That is me with my teacher cart, and an objective on the board in Spanish…

This year I’m doing some new stuff and expanding on things I’ve tried before.

Intentional Professional Growth

Even as I am finishing my Masters in TESOL (opening up the possibility of shifting my career in that direction) I’m trying to be a more involved and proactive in my profession. I’m a mentor teacher for the first time this year, in charge of my school’s website and online content, part of the tech team, and most recently on a PLC task force. Sometimes it feels like a lot, but what I’ve discovered (particularly during this year’s early-winter, pre-break, end-of-the-quarter slump) is that being engaged and involved in improving myself as a teacher is way better than just slogging through… because as a teacher, even just slogging through is exhausting and overwhelming. I might as well be striving for something. I’ve been trying to spend set time every week browsing teacher blogs and websites, and getting resources and inspiration from other teachers via Edmodo. I’m signed up for EdCamp Detroit this Spring, and am pretty excited about the possibilities.

Technology Integration

Technology is a fairly intuitive part of how I connect with the world, and I’ve always tried to incorporate it in my teaching. This year I’ve been trying some new things, inspired by workshops at MIWLA. I am using Edmodo with my middle schoolers, and experimenting this semester with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device.)

Culture Journals

One of my goals for this school year (as part of my school community’s push to boost those all important test scores) is to incorporate writing in my curriculum a bit more, so I’ve been doing “Culture Journals” with grades 1 and up. It has been good for me to see what kind of support and guidance each grade needs with their English writing development. (It helps that I share an office with our fabulous writing teacher.) When we learn about new cultural traditions, artifacts, or celebrations, the youngest students write about it using guided sentences and word banks, and the older students use a writing checklist and some peer editing.

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My Spanish bulletin board is right next to the lunch line, so kids can get some cultural education while waiting in line for lunch.

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“Caga Tio,” Catalunya’s Christmas log that poops out presents, is always a popular topic.

Creating Monsters

I’ve seen other teachers using “Create Your Own Monster” as Spanish lessons (to teach parts of the body and describing adjectives.) I tried it out myself with my English students in Spain, and this year I did it with my Spanish students for the first time, and it was a hit. I also have a nice collection of student-created monsters that I can use for “Guess Who?” style listening comprehension activities, because the kids love monsters and love the monsters they have created more than anything.

(We also created a guessing game on our Spanish board using three monsters to be matched to the descriptions the 3rd graders wrote in Spanish.)

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Raps (& Differentiation)

Ever since attending a great workshop with Señorita K of Escuelatón (formerly Magia Escolar) I’ve been teaching my 4th through 8th graders describing adjectives and the “ser” verb by having them write “Yo Soy” poems or raps about themselves. This year it was especially successful with one particular class of fifth graders. I had them for the first two quarters, and it was a rough start. They were the “lowest” fifth graders in the school, with many of them lacking basic reading and writing comprehension, but with an excess of interpersonal drama. Many of the structured activities that have been successful with other groups fell flat because of a lack of literacy, motivation, or both. The poems and raps allowed these kids to focus on oral language, and they ran with it. Some kids who hadn’t been willing to (or able to) write a coherent sentence in English during the two years I’ve worked with them had enough confidence and interest to write paragraphs in a new language and put it to a beat. I put aside the majority of the reading and writing that I usually introduce in upper elementary grades, and returned to oral language. I’m so proud of what these kids achieved.

(Accidental) Jokes

New language learners know that humor is tricky to understand and to use. My first graders this year – at an age where they soak up language like sponges – learned some jokes despite me. While learning parts of the body, many children were mispronouncing el pelo (hair) as el pedo (fart) and I mentioned the difference between the two. Of course, the kids decided that el pedo was just as important to learn and use… with gusto.

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The rest of the semester was punctuated by fart jokes in Spanish. Oops.

  • Me: ¿Puedes describir a tu monstruo? ¿Tiene ojos? ¿Tiene pelo?
    (Can you describe your monster? Does it have eyes? Does it have hair?)
  • First grader: Tiene… pedo. (giggle giggle giggle)
    (It has… a fart.)

Spanish Club

I finally ran a Spanish club this year, and it was so much fun. With about 16 members, we made sugar skulls, papel picado, Mexican tin art, Ojos de Dios, sock puppets for conversation practice, and other crafty cultural things that are harder with larger groups and limited time during normal Spanish classes. Unfortunately, this semester I have graduate classes on Wednesday nights, so finishing my last class of my M.A. (!) has trumped a second round of Spanish Club.

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Grading things

With 9 different classes across all grade levels (Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade) and only limited time for planning and grading, I have to choose which classes to plan meticulously for, and which assignments to grade. Until this year, I have spent most of my grading and planning time for the upper grades, and taught the K-2 classes from what I know works, with a focus on oral language and group activities. This year is really the first time I’ve graded individual assignments and tracked individual master in the lower grades. I tried to focus in on one or two projects in each class (for example, the monsters we made) to assess several different objectives at once. As it turns out, that is a LOT of grading, and that is with only a few separate assignments to enter for each class. In an ideal world I would assess every one of my hundreds of students every week… but as of now I haven’t entirely figured out how to go without sleep or food, so I am still figuring out where to fit it all in.

I’ve also found that when choosing what assignments I should focus on grading, I get better results when I choose the things that are fun (for me and for the students.) Students put in more genuine effort if they are engaged, and I am more likely to power through the weekend pile of grades if it includes something fun to grade (like comics and monsters.)

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Staying Organized

I am still planning and teaching over 30 individual lessons per week, but I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it is less overwhelming. (Remind me of that, because in a few weeks I’m going to be faced by end of the quarter grades again.) I would like to think that I have my life a little more organized. I have realized that to keep track of everything I need really meticulous organization of both my teacher cart and my teacher bag. I have three separate folders for each class – one for assignments turned in, one for assignments graded to return, and one for materials to pass out. I stack up the outgoing folders every morning in the order that I will teach them, and shuffle them to the bottom of the stack as I go.

I also have a lot of little minions to help me out. Without my classroom jobs, I would never get anything done. The kids put attendance in, keep track of behavior reminders, remind me what objective we worked on yesterday, make sure I bring my clipboards and coffee cup with me when I leave each room, and even check to make sure I’m not taking the homeroom teacher’s markers on accident.

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Having a life outside of school

There are still some things that I haven’t figured out. During our most recent snow day I took some time to reflect on how I spend my time, and being the visual person I am I mapped out my (ideal) work day with different colored pens: time for work, homework, driving, sleeping, cooking and eating, exercise, even writing… and then I realized that I had no more colors (and no more minutes) left for people other than myself and my students: my husband, family or friends

I am working on it.

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Season Spaces

September through December. A new apartment and communal dinners in Ypsilanti, cold sleet on Canadian beaches, bookdust and hazy skylines in Detroit, graduate work in sociolinguistics that I wish I could spend more time on. All that and more is drowned by – more than anything – the color and noise of my students.

For the first time in a long time, I have had the chance to go through the photos I’ve taken over the past few months. It’s good to see the small spaces in between the all-consuming parts of my life. The hardest parts of these months are not captured in photos. No photos of the expanses of pavement, no crumpled cars, no parking lot naps, no steering wheel tears, no grades, no spreadsheets, no adolescent angst. Maybe all those things can fade away, leaving only the residue that is beautiful – captured textures leftover from transient things like meals, dusk, autumn leaves, snowflakes.

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