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

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

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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Year Six: Leaving Loose Ends Untied

Through the eyes of my students.

At the end of the school year or of the quarter, wrapping up my time with each group of students, I always feel the same pressure: not enough time. Along with the anxious countdowns to summer vacations and sleeping in and having a personal life, I always wish I had more time. Students finishing projects or presentations without the chance to present them. Graded work that goes in the recycling bin after grades are submitted. Students that have struggled all year, and who suddenly have a light bulb go off in their brain sometime in June, just as productivity dissolves into field trips, class parties, award ceremonies, and absences. Language use blossomed at the eleventh hour: students making Spanish puns, or understanding Spanish puns and begging me to stop, students having entire conversations in Spanish, interviewing each other in Spanish, and then suddenly it’s the last day of school, and… ya está.

On the last day of school, there were lots of hugs and lots of crying, especially from graduating 8th graders. This year the end of the school year was particular emotional for me, as well. My husband and I have been toying with the idea of an out of state move all year, and in the final weeks of school I was using the time difference to my advantage, scheduling phone interviews with West Coast schools after my own school day had finished.

Remote interviews are pretty exciting. Hypothetically you could outline your professional qualifications over the phone while in a bathrobe, or via Skype in pajama pants and a blazer. (I’m not admitting that I did that, of course. But who would even know, right?) Sometimes high tech online video conference rooms malfunction, and your video flips upside down while you are describing how adept you are at integrating technology into your lessons. And sometimes you set up a phone interview for the last day of school, after emotional goodbyes to students and sharing funny and touching memories with staff over beers. This already might not be ideal, but then the sky might open up, spitting lightning and thunder, and dumping down buckets of rain right when you are trying to find a quiet parking lot for the interview.

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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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Year Five: Becoming a Better Teacher vs. Becoming a Statistic

(Things remaining out of reach)

Since finishing my first year of teaching, I’ve tried to take a moment at the end of the school year to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned. I ended my first year a little shell shocked, began to pull things together for a second year, and by my third year could see some structure emerging from the chaos. The following year I was working with kids in Spain on a Fulbright grant, but something about my reduced responsibility as an assistant, the shortened work week, the long lunch breaks (with real plates and silverware), the frequent holidays or strikes, the Mediterranean two blocks away, the distinct lack of snowy Michigan commutes, and the weekend travel made it seem more like a sabbatical. At the end of the year I was busy packing up, watching things burn, and walking the Camino, with no time to reflect – at least not in a digital format.

So it’s my fifth year of teaching, and I’m back in the mitten, at another Detroit charter school, teaching K-8 Spanish once again. The school year wrapped up weeks ago, and the summer “break” is speeding by. I still haven’t gathered the words to summarize this past year.

Things are looking up. My new school has the central organization and supportive leadership that was lacking previously. I have tuition assistance, a real contract and benefits, and administration who listens to ideas and input from staff. There is a lot of parent participation, and the school feels like a community. This helps to balance the fact that I am back on a cart instead of in a classroom, and that I am teaching 7-8 classes a day, 10-13 classes per semester (with a varied and inconsistent amounts of time with each group, that’s approximately 35 lesson plans a week!)

This year, for some reason I am finding it hard to cobble together a list of things I’ve learned, or things I did right this year. Starting at a new school is like going back to your first year of teaching in many ways. You have to get to know new staff and new students, a new set of school policies and politics, new expectations and curriculum. (Unless you are a Spanish teacher and just do everything from scratch.) On the other hand, unlike a first year teacher, I had a sizable collection of lesson ideas and resources from my previous lessons, along with lots of cultural tidbits and increased fluency (albeit a bit lispy) from my year in Spain.

As a first year teacher, however, I made up for my lack of experience with determination and an optimism in the face of the reality which (sometimes literally) punched me right in the idealistic face. For some reason that idealism and optimism is what was missing this year. For years, a voice in my head kept reassuring me that this would get easier, that I would get better at it, that I would learn, that they would learn. Something about looking back on five years has muffled that voice. It might be the expanding black pit of student loan debt, the long commute with eyelids fluttering on the highway, the student casualties that rack up whenever you work with large numbers of young people, especially in the environment I work in – students defiant or failing or suspended or expelled or more concretely lost to suicide, cancer, violence, tragedy. More than anything, what was drowning everything else out was purely selfish: exhaustion. I’ve seen other teachers bite the dust – lack of budget, lack of all-powerful standardized test scores, too many opinions, too much work for not enough pay. I’ve heard the statistics of teacher attrition for years, and somehow assumed I wouldn’t burn out.

I thought that five years in I would have figured things out a little more, that I wouldn’t constantly be overdrafting my bank account, that I would have time for family and friends and grocery shopping and sleep. More importantly, I thought I would be a better teacher. As it turns out, to be a good teacher you have to have drive and enthusiasm and the willingness to give up a lot of things for your job, but you also need to have a reservoir of mental stability. I didn’t have that this year.

I still care about my job and about my profession. (I even care about this soul sucking M.A. that is inching closer each day.) Even more than that, I care about my students. They are worth the exhausting hours and emotional roller coasters. So I’m going to remind myself of that, and I’m going to pick my mantra back up and trust that it is going to get better.

(And it probably will. A few more weeks and wedding planning will be done. A few more semesters and grad school will be, too.)

Maybe that’s the hurdle I crossed this year as a teacher: I kept my head above water. I taught the things I knew how to teach. I put together delusional outlines of the things I planned to teach each grade, and then usually scrapped them as schedules changed without warning, or my own time limitations caught up with me. Kids learned Spanish, sometimes despite me. (The blessings of working with the younger grades.) We sang, and had mini-dialogs, and greeted each other in Spanish in the hallways, and rapped about ourselves using describing adjectives. Onward and upward.

By the end of the year the kids wrote down the things they could do in Spanish after spending the quarter with me, in the form of “I Can” statements.

Of course, the first and second graders illustrated theirs in adorable ways.

(I like the one kid’s honesty about his achievement. “I can name one color in Spanish and that is rojo.”)

Okay, okay. I’ve learned things.

I can name one thing I did this year: I kept going.

I can recall and describe my reasons for doing what I do.

I can make progress, inch by inch.

I can become a better teacher.

I can try again this coming year.

In Waiting

The final weeks of the school year were a frenzy of busy-ness that almost broke me. The “coming up soon” preparations for a looming wedding and an even more immediately looming photo show were competing with a thousand other “right here, right now, or else” things involved in ending a school year.

Now the end of the school year has left me with a sudden stillness that is somehow full of motion. My life is full of preparations.

I feel that I always write the most when I am periods of transition. This is a time of transition, and there is a lot to say. I’m waiting for that space for a breath, where perhaps the words will come out. Right now I am not teaching, and there are spaces, but the spaces are full of many, many other things. I stop to breathe and become paralyzed.

Soon. Soon. Soon.

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(More) Gratitude Lessons

Other than my photo project, I’ve been silent here recently… partially from a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, but mostly due to a lack of perspective. This school year has been rough. I am teaching at a fantastic school and doing a job I enjoy, and with enough experience under my belt that I occasionally even feel like I am doing a good job. On an intellectual level I don’t have any reason to complain, but I have felt awfully whiny about elements of my life that I thought I had accepted already. Never enough time, never enough money, never enough energy for anything but work.

Now it is Christmas break and with some time to breathe comes some time and space for an adjustment of perspective.

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A couple of Fridays ago, I was in my 1st grade class – my kiddos who are tiny and sweet and who don’t even need me to use English with them anymore – when the classroom teacher came in and showed me the headlines on her phone. A young man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut, and killed an entire classroom of first graders, and shot several teachers and other school staff who were trying to protect them.

Just the day before, we had practiced our school’s lockdown procedures – locking doors, herding kids into corners or sometimes even closets to huddle silently out of the line of vision of anyone outside the school or in the hallway. Since I travel around to different classrooms, I was part of several drills – learning where kids need to hide in each classroom, and hearing several teachers’ attempts to make children realize the seriousness of these drills, without scaring them.

I’ve seen snapshots from my students’ lives. Many of my kids know far too well about humans hurting other humans, and what guns can do. I already think a lot about kids and guns. On that Friday I was already thinking about guns and schools, as Michigan legislature stayed up late working on a variety of worrisome bills, including a push to allow concealed weapons in gun-free zones like schools. Friday afternoon, the news about Sandy Hook trickled into our school building, in whispered conversations between teachers trying to keep their composure in front of small faces. Those two news feeds ran parallel in my head, and my grief was immediately mixed with anger and fear.

As stories about the events at Sandy Hook began to emerge, it was clear that the school did everything they could. Teachers stepped in front of bullets and gave their own life trying to protect their students. Imagining myself in a similar situation (an unavoidable nightmare) I have no doubt in my mind that I would do the same thing.

A tragedy like this necessitates discussions of guns, discussions of mental health, and beyond. For me, a more personal question is: If my students are worth taking bullets for (which they are, without question) then why aren’t they worth just teaching? Particularly in this country, teachers are in general expected to work long hours at a job that requires a lot of continuing education, but without salaries to afford grad school, loan payments, or even more basic things. (What if you want to get married? Have a kid? Save for a house?) It is an important job, and it’s worth those things, which is why I chose this profession in the first place.

If my life was literature than tire shops would be a device to symbolize a change in perspective. For me the scent of tire rubber is connected to catharsis. Why is that? Anyway, last week I got a flat tire, and while waiting for it to be fixed a woman next to me struck up a conversation, starting with asking where I got my tights. I said that I got them somewhere in Spain (which already makes me feel like an asshole. Ohhhh, these old things? Some little place in Spaaaaaaaiiiin…) and she asked about what I was doing there, which led me to a conversation about teaching, and her to describe her life as a single mother and an aspiring travel agent or interior designer, once her daughter is old enough that she can go back to school. She was surprised to learn that they spoke a different language in Spain, and wasn’t sure where it was – in Mexico, right? Wait… next to China, then?

I was incredulous and tried my best to be tactful, but my vague amusement quickly turned to shame. She said something along the lines of: “It really sounds like you have your life together” and I felt ashamed of my own anxieties. I struggle with debt from getting my degree, with the stresses of the job I wanted so badly and worked towards for years, and with how to make my expensive photography hobby more self-sufficient and perhaps income-generating. I still feel the socioeconomic divide very strongly when talking to people who grew up with new clothes, waterproof shoes, paid tuition.

I don’t think it’s entirely useful to discount anyone’s anxieties, even my own. (I do enjoy reading White Whines, however… while there will always be people more unfortunate than me to feel empathy for, there will always be people more privileged for me to judge?) I always cycle through anxiety, punctuated by injections of perspective, followed by guilt for being anxious, then guilt-fueled attempts at gratitude, which often disintegrate into anxieties again.

2012 has been a year of teaching myself how to be content in the here and now, which was harder than I would have expected in some very incredible heres-and-nows. I lived in a beautiful Spanish city on the coast, and felt guilty when I hid under the covers and longed for the faces I left behind in Michigan. Now I am back and dreaming of the sea. (For me and for humanity, the capacity for discontent is endless.) I am still trying to learn the gift of gratitude and the art of living in the moment, but 2012 has held a lot of lessons.

In the coming year I want to continue those lessons, and be grateful without being guilty.

365/365

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Halfway through break, and I’m tackling a big stack of grading… including this paper, which wasn’t eaten by the dog, but was obviously stepped on.

This is the 365th post, but since this year is a leap  year, there will be one last bonus picture tomorrow!

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