Thursday, August 21, 2014

Excellent classroom posters

Teaching is more fun when everybody is enjoying themselves.  I've been searching for a motto for the next school year, and I've arrived at one: ruthless positivity.  Nobody and nothing can take my joy if I don't let them.  Broken hardware, bad software, last minute meetings, angry parents, seemingly insurmountable learning disabilities, contradictory directions from higher ups, aggressive students -- these are all depressing realities of the teaching profession.  But last year, I got lost in all the complaints, and I was miserable. Worse, I was ineffective.  Maybe the district didn't notice; maybe I was better than a long term sub, maybe I did make some progress, but not enough.  Why?

I was wrapped up in what wasn't working, so I didn't see what was, and I couldn't make it better.  This year, I am going to dig deep and find what's good.  When there isn't an upside, I'm going to make one, because my happiness belongs to me.  This job should add to it.  Instead of expecting it to do that, I am going to make it do that.  RAH RAH RAH.

Optimism is a choice.  A difficult one.  It's easy to be disappointed, even easier to be angry.  We have to fight to be excited in a world that tells us, always, that it's cool to check out.  Turns out, it's more fun to do what's hard; sometimes, it's so fun it's easy.  The fun - therefore - easy - but - actually - labor intensive way I decided to start this year is with excellent posters of hilarious animal pictures with classroom-related phrases.

Students spend lots of time gazing off into the distance, so I'm hoping they internalize some of these messages in my relentless crash towards happiness.  They're formatted to be printed on 11x17 paper, which can be ordered through Staples.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I've always wanted a long dress with a lace up back!

Hey look!  It has a pocket and everything, and I made it myself.
 This summer has been all about trying to just be exactly where I am.  No plans made more than a week or two in advance, all just doing whatever I want right before I do it.  I thought I'd write.  I didn't, much.  In the summer, late, cool, evenings, it's too hard to sleep.  In the mornings, lengthy breakfasts and long hikes are a treat.  I've knit booties, I've watched seasons of television, I've tried and tried again to container garden.

One of those things which used to fascinate me but that I'd never gotten up the nerve to make -- much less wear -- was a long dress with laces in the back.  Every time I see a dress that even begins to fit this description, it's super racy with a neckline that's too deep for me or made of a material too shiny, foofy, or cheap for my taste.  Turned out, this pattern was a bit too busy and I'm not sure I love the way it turned out; I might split it in half to make a skirt with the piece, and I might leave it as it is.  I'm not sure, but I love the freedom of sitting down to my machine and making something happen.

There's a freedom to having a job: it means that the things I do for me get to be for me.

My plans change all the time.  One week I'll be a writer.  One week I'll make fabric flowers for a living.  Etsy doesn't take off, so I'll make custom skirts, dresses, shirts; sell them online, have my own site.  Then maybe I'll make custom costumes.  The freedom of having a job is that I get to choose what I get to do with my time.  I love sewing these things and thinking about them; it's great, too, not to have to pressure it.

So, here's my strange little creation.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Conditioning a Cast Iron Pan

Since an old college roommate angrily threw away a cast iron pan one of us had ruined, I've been fascinated with how to fix them up. I spent most of that summer between my sophomore and junior years caking oil onto the bottom of that pan, wishing I had air conditioning, and procrastinating French homework I now wish I had done. I learned a lot, though, and through my own series of roomies, mishaps, and debacles with taco seasoning, I've had to learn a lot more from that very same pan.

Reconditioning a Cast Iron Pan

  • Ruined pan
  • Canola Oil (NOT OLIVE OIL. Olive oil can’t handle the heat of the oven or the sustained flame on a stove and will smoke too much. It also won’t cure. If you hate canola oil, use grapeseed oil or another high heat oil. Peanut oil leaves too much flavor in the pan.)
  • A utility scraper or spackle knife
  • A brillo pad (or steel wool and barkeeper’s friend)
  • Time, a stove, an oven, and water
  • Bacon (you will not be eating this bacon).

Step 1: Obtain a ruined pan.

This might happen because you go to thrift stores for everything, because you left the heat on for too long when you were trying to dry your pan without using a paper towel, or you might have a roommate who insists on using soap and water to clean the cast iron.

The necessary supplies are shown here.

Step 2: Boil water in the pan to loosen the grit.


Step 3: Scrub and scrape.

You may find that you want to scrape around the edges first so you have a foothold of sorts as you head for the middle. This is a really great way to take out your pent-up rage over the poorly attached gutter outside your bedroom window which clatters and rattles all night when it rains.

Step 4: No Really, Keep Scraping. 

Get all the black and rusty bits out. You really should not leave any – when you start adding oil, the little back bits will be where the new conditioning starts to peel. The iron beneath should be silver and textured. As best I can tell, this is what makes the new oil stick so well.
Use that elbow grease!

Step 5: Almost There. 
Clean the edges. Scraping out the side walls of the pan might be more than you feel up to – that’s fine. You have to get the edges, though. If you don’t, your new conditioning will just peel off from the sides. At this point, your pan probably looks like this. The wavy lines across the middle are from the boiling water. That’s normal.

Step 6: Add the oil and choose your conditioning method. 
This pan has marks from the water used earlier, but it's totally ready for conditioning. 

Method 1: Oven. This is for people with less patience but a fair amount of time (or a stay at home job).
  • Your pan is PERFECT. 
  • You have time to take the pan in & out of the oven every 2 hours over 6-8 hours.


1. Rub the pan with a VERY THIN layer of oil. The amount below would be significantly reduced after being rubbed in with a paper towel.

2. Place in a 350 degree oven for two hours. Remove. Let cool. If the surface is sticky and holds a fingerprint, you out too much oil in – put the pan back in and hope it cures.

3. When you remove the pan and the oil is a little sticky but does not hold a fingerprint, heat the pan on the stove, add oil, rub it in, and return to the oven.

4. Do this 3-4 times. The oil will be thick and will be a caramel color. Skip to Step 7.
It should be glassy looking.

This is what a pan looks like when it’s removed from the oven after the first time, perfect but for one blemish where there was a bit of junk on the pan. You have two choices if you have a blemish: start over or switch to method 2, where you can guide the oil into the blemished spot.

Method 2: Stovetop. This is good for people with a gas stove, a couple of hours, less perfectionism than your at-home-pan-conditioner, and a lot of patience.

  • Gas stove
  • 2-3 hours
  • Canola oil
  • Wooden spatula
  • Paper towels
  • Thick oven mitt


1. Rub the pan with canola oil, a very thin layer.

2. Heat on low-medium heat for 5-10 minutes, wiping out the oil if it pools. Heat until it looks like the pan above. The oil should be thin, and you’ll probably see the silver beneath the oil for a few rounds of this. If it’s smoking very gently, it’s working. If it’s smoking a lot, there is a problem.
This is what a pan looks like after you've done the first layer of oil.  The little blemish isn't a huge deal but you should try to avoid them if you want a better outcome.

3. Add a VERY SMALL amount of oil, about a teaspoon.

4. Rotate the pan around, spreading the oil all over. Heat until it looks like the pan above.

5. Repeat for 3-4 layers, until you have a smooth, glassy surface.

This is the glassiness you should expect.

Step 7: Cook some bacon.

In the oven method, chances are you will have a caramel layer which looks SUPER smooth and cracks off a bit with the bacon – that’s the cured oil. In the stove top method, you might have the same effect – I’ve found that if that happens it’s less traumatic in the stove-conditioned pan.

This is what it looks like if your oil wasn't cured and you start to add medium to high heat.  If this happens, shock the pan with oil and go back to the beginning.  If something somewhat less than this happens, continue to cook the bacon.

Cook the bacon all the way. Little flakes of oil and some burnt oil will come off of the pan. Rub the pan down when you’re done.
This is what your pan will look like when it's pretty much done and you're just adding some more oil to condition it for real cooking.

Step 8: Cook high-fat foods or foods with oil for the next couple of days. Yum. Seriously, I’m talking skin-side-down chicken under a brick, sausage, asparagus coated in olive oil.

Step 9: The Long-Term Care and Cleaning of Your Pan

1. As soon as you’re finished cooking, remove the food from the pan and run water in the pan. The water will bubble and pop a bit, but all the food will be removed. Scrape it, if necessary, with a wooden spatula or a natural fiber bristle brush. If you need more abrasion, canola oil and salt on a rag works great.

2. Dry immediately, either on the stove or with a towel. I use an old t-shirt (two sides sewn together) to do this. Some people prefer paper towels.

3. Heat a little bit of canola oil in the pan and rub it around with the wooden spatula.

4. Watch the conditioning improve with time!


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Take Care of Old People

Maybe this will explain why I haven't posted in months.

Years of caring for my grandmother turned out to be surprisingly helpful when it came time to lend a hand with my ailing Popop.  While I’d characterize these two caricatures similarly in some respects – set in their ways, unwilling to ask for help, fascinated by food that isn’t good for them – they are very different in others: tidiness, unwillingness to fight age and disease, willingness to see doctors, hopefulness, depression, anxiety, finances, conflict management, television preferences, and nicotine habits.  

The following ten pieces of advice apply to both, so I am presumptuous enough to think they apply to the older person in your life, too.  They are the things nobody tells you but that are very important, albeit possibly obvious to minds better than mine. 
  1. Put a paper towel in the bottom of the phlegm bucket.  On a related note, once a hacking cough has been established for any reason (smoking, cancer, pneumonia, allergies to the ten thousand cats) keep this clean large yogurt container with the folded paper towel in the bottom near the favorite chair, bed, or couch for easy access.  Cleaning it is way easier when there is a paper towel on the bottom (and layers of tissue, if your aging relative is super awesome) because the grossest part just dumps into the trash can.
  2. Getting out of bed (or into it), eating, and YOU are the biggest events in their day.  Respect that.  If they like their sheets folded over one half of the bed and a big pile of blankets on the bottom with lots of handkerchiefs and mail all around them, then that’s ok as long as the crumbs aren’t touching raw skin and you shake out the sheet (see ninja clean below) when they are in the bathroom.  If they like hospital folds and taut  mattress pads with exactly seven inches of sheet above the comforter, then give it to them.  This is as important to them as your conversation with your boss, your awesome date night, or the blog post you are looking forward to reading later.  Don’t come in rushing a mile a minute, do the dishes, and whirl off again.  You are the biggest event in their day.  Even if you are only there for thirty minutes, let there be a ceremony, a pattern, a ritual; it matters.  Talk before you work.  Don’t treat them like work.
  3. Don’t treat them like work. They are people who know way more than you about everything and could surely grasp the concept of an iphone if it mattered, but it doesn’t.  Slow down long enough to listen and stop treating them like a chore, unless you are far better than I and therefore never lapsed into treating your grandmother’s dishes or your grandfather’s water bottle like an item on our to do list.  It’s actually an act of love, which is very different.
  4. Remember that they are more surprised than you are that they are old.  They might have always had silver hair to you, but maybe you are struggling because it feels like yesterday that they were taking you out to Boston Market or letting you play jungle gym on their shoulders.  Well, it feels like yesterday that they were 25 and going on dates with hot chicks named Mary Jo or Ruthie.  They are more surprised than you that they look like pieces of paper on fragmented popsicle sticks.
  5. Febreeze and Lysol Towelettes are your best friend.  Old person smell is really just dust, mouse poop, dander, mold, and stale bowels (with a possible side of unclean trash cans and cigarettes).  Get the microbial kind.  Read the note below on ninja cleaning.  I hate both of these products in my daily life, in my house.  However, something that kills odor and germs in the room recently vacated by your family member and which can be hidden if they forgot their dentures on the way out (it happens) is very, very  useful.  See the note on ninja cleaning.
  6. Ninja clean.  Don’t throw it in their face that they can’t dust anymore, just straighten up ONLY THE THINGS YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TOUCH while they aren’t in the room.  Sweep the hall and shake out the rugs when they are sleeping.  Use cleaning products that can be put away quickly.  Use a dustbuster – quieter, disturbs less.
  7. If they give directions, follow them.
  8. Keep their medicine routine unless their doctor tells you to change it.  If medicine means tea, then keep that routine.  If medicine is a series of pills, and all the empty bottles are in boxes upon boxes of empty pill bottles, well, don’t be so sure you can organize it better than they do.  This is not your life.  You are not responsible for them, they are.  You actually can’t fix them.  Do what they tell you.
  9. Let yourself be young.  If you’re reading this, you aren’t as old as the person you’re thinking about.  But whoever it is – your great grandmother, your aunt, your grandfather – was your age once, too.  If they’re churlish because you aren’t there, well, tell them about what you did.  If they don’t care about your discovery of gin and ginger beers, they’re scrooges.  That’s ok.  They’re entitled.  You’re entitled to your youth, too.  Your life matters.  The things that make you real matter.  You can’t take care of whever it is that needs your energy if you resent them – so stop.  It’s harder than this, but…
  10. 10.   Be where you are.  Find a way to remind yourself that you are only in the space that you are.  Be with them, and then be somewhere else.  Just be there.  Start by noticing what’s happening around you.  Then keep going.  You can do it.  Notice the sound of the floorboards, the blankets, the gin fizz.  Notice the way their hair smells or their dust resettles.  Notice that they wear the same socks every day.  Then notice that your apartment has gleaming floors.  Notice.  Then notice the next thing.  There will always be something else – but what’s here now is more important.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Chicken Soup in a French Press

My Popop needed chicken soup this week, but homemade chicken soup takes a day: four to eight hours for the stock, plus time to cook new vegetables into a soup... and in that time, his chemo doctor took him off all solid food, at least for the time being.

It's amazing what will bring one back to writing.  It wasn't the comically wonderful time one of my students started yelling in class because he was suddenly overwhelmed by the Ravens loss the night before; it wasn't when I had a desk shoved at me in class because the student was afraid of what I'd say to his parent at back to school night.  It wasn't when I finished nine fabric flowers in a week (so proud) or when I canned two pecks of peaches this summer.  It was sitting in a good friend's quiet house, feeling open and soft after a long week of playing defense way too hard.

I'm sorry I've been away.

This week, I made homemade chicken soup and put it through a french press so my Popop could eat it, and in return, he taught me all about mutual funds, stocks, and something called recapitalization (which I don't completely understand).  My boyfriend made me dinner, and I ate kale for breakfast, with no bacon.  I read a long article of excerpts from the writings of Thomas Kelly, all of which told me to use pain to open spaces of quiet softness on the inside.  Thank you, Quaker f(F)riends.

What have I learned?  Only what I knew already, and must learn always one time more than I forget it: defense is harder than an offense of kindness, anger is easy only at first, sustainable feelings are calm ones.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Another Reason to Avoid PD

Dear All,

Since I started teaching, I've managed to forget about or be sick on every district-wide professional development day.  This has been quite a boon to me; I was actually looking forward to Thursday's session.  I was right to want to go: our facilitator was dynamic, she gave us planning time, we received most of the materials we need to plan for the year, aligned to standards, etc.  Wonderful.

The room was really hot, and, not having been to a PD before, I expected air conditioning.  I mean, even if most of the high schools don't have it, it would make sense to hold PD in a school with some kind of central air, right?  I mean, there has to be at least one, doesn't there?  Well, the host school was no cooler than mine, and there I was, in a sweater and cords.  It was 90 degrees, and I was sitting by the heater, in front of the windows.  When we had our first break, I made a beeline for the hallway.  (Having no windows, the hall was much cooler.)  The heat didn't send just me running, though.  Yells from the corner where I'd come from followed me out.  I chatted with a friend in the hall, but floods of people dispersed us.  Why?

The heat chased a snake out of the heater.  It slithered right onto my bag.  Had it been there while I was sitting in my chair, hiding it from view?  Did they scream because it came out when I left, or because it stirred on its way to my chair?  It was a long, black, orange-striped snake.  The stripes were shaped like diamonds -- a rather menacing shape on a reptile, I think.  When the dude who caught it wrapped it around his arm, it went all the way to his elbow.  The creature was an inch and a half in diameter, at least, but I was shaking with shivers too much to get all that close.

I was skittish the rest of the day.  My effort to look like I wasn't trying to keep my feet off the ground while watching all four of the legs of my chair meant that I have no idea what was said about our unit plans, curriculum, or testing.  No idea.

But it's all okay.  The school was glad to find it, really.  No matter about teachers whose bags are inspected by reptiles -- they'd been looking for a replacement for the Science Department pet, lost last October.  Oh.  Wait... maybe this was the same little guy, just hanging out?  Living off mice?  In the school?  For nine months?  What else is living in our halls?

I'm glad my bag was an attractive enough lure to get it out of the heater, at least, even if I may never again set foot in a professional development session.

It didn't help that on my way out my department head told me about another one in the Social Studies room.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Second Year Begins

Alas, it was not in the cards to document my first year as a teacher.  Perhaps, in the relative calm of the second time around, I will be more attentive to my web presence.  Here's to that, I say, and clink my cup of tea to the edge of my computer.

My to do list stretches on and on, well into impossibility, but today I learned that the pushpins will hold posterboard to the cloth wall of one side of my room.  At least, the posters weren't falling down when I left, an hour after putting them up.  I also learned that the age of the screws holding the blinds make pulling some of them down to cover the wall of windows difficult, at best, but at least when the rod of the shade hit me in the face it didn't leave a bruise (yet).  The sink in my room isn't working, so the risk of water fights is nil (huzzah!) and the unfortunate juxtaposition of said sink with the only working outlets and internet jacks is rendered a bit less problematic.  My boards aren't covered in The Sticky, that unnamed substance which so often mars good slate blackboards, and I have confidence that I will have a computer in my room by the time students arrive, even if it is my laptop from home.

I must confess that fear has been building in me for weeks now.  What if they fight?  What if they refuse to work, even more than last year, and what if (God forbid), I'm not ready?  What if I haven't written my syllabus before the first day?  I had that nightmare the other night.  I woke up in tears and cold sweats.  Then, yesterday afternoon, as I settled in to work after a long morning of polishing silver, cleaning faucets, watching Frasier, cooking a three course breakfast, and staring at my bills, my flash drive announced that it needed formatting.  All the work I'd done since July -- admittedly, not as much as I'd have liked to have finished -- was gone.  You can imagine the panic.

So yesterday evening, after making dinner for my Grandma and seeing all my old teacher friends at a barbeque, I collapsed into a Negative Nancy I don't ever want to be.  The panic and the fear chased off all the rational solutions to the problems I face with data tracking and objective mastery.  I sat on the couch with my wonderful boyfriend offering me all these great answers to my questions, but I refused to see the light.  I couldn't breathe for all the problems I felt.

But hope comes from strange places.  A good night's sleep and decent breakfast helped, as did seeing friendly faces before I even left for work (what joy it is to live with a good friend), but hope comes from stranger places than that: the smell in the hallway when I walked into school banished my panic.  The smell of old, chipping tile walls and slightly rotten laminate floors, freshly waxed; the smell of dust and grime sloshed away for the new beginning of a new year.  It was the smell that came off of the cafeteria and gym, unused for a summer but seasoned well by years of service.  It was a familiar.  This place was familiar.  The hallways made sense, they looked the same; the morning light felt like it usually does in the stairwell, unnecessarily filtered, not quite able to bleach out the scent of old soda in the corners.  The lights in the hallway upstairs weren't working, but the form of a favorite colleague was familiar enough to recognize.  I knew we were smiling before I could see her.  And my new room, my room next to the stairwell with the most fights, my room next to the only plug in the hallway and therefore a favorite site for skipping and for water coolers; my room, full of things that haven't happened yet -- I was happy to see it.  It's a new room, but it feels right.

I will buckle down and rewrite my lost syllabus.  I will write my late slips and refusal to work forms, I will organize a new flash drive and back it up to the cloud, even if Dropbox won't load at school.  I can't believe it's over, this summer; I spent such energy looking forward to it.  Here I am, now, and I guess I get to spend my energy looking forward to tomorrow, instead.  Maybe I'll get better at being this happy exactly where I am.

After all, there are too many windows in my room to avoid the light for long.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Upon Writing A Final Exam...

I didn't update this blog often this year, and that is a fair reflection of my consistency in much of my teacherish life so far: intentions fell flat upon implementation because the urgency of the task overwhelmed my ability to manage in the time allowed.

So I sit in a coffeeshop on Memorial Day, trying to write finals for my English I and II classes, realizing I left my flash drive at home.  Classic.  Perhaps I can come up with a final from memory: what did we study this year?  Conflict?  Vocabulary?  Metaphor?  Romeo and Juliet?  Symbols?  Jesu Maria, if this is the list that I am coming up with, how stranded must my students feel, faced with a final exam?  What terrible disservice have I done?!

This may seem melodramatic, but there has been a deep, strangling struggle in me for the last few weeks.  I think I failed my students.  They took the HSA this past week (a high stakes test that should be easy as pie but actually takes them many, many tries).  The look of sadness on their faces as they Christmas Treed the last section, the knowledge of their failure writ in the resignation on their faces, I knew.  I promised them I'd help them pass.  I didn't.  It broke my heart more than I could have predicted.  I did not teach them as well as they deserved; I did not come up with kinesthetic, sorting-based activities; I did not make my activities rigorous enough; and now, I should be writing a final, but here I am, without my flash drive, only my memory of a year -- could have been ten years -- to guide me.

So what shall I do instead?  Help my boyfriend look for apartments and intermittently write a list of the things I failed in and a list of the things I passed in.  Maybe by the end of this I will have found a bigger chunk of my optimism than I've had the last few weeks.

Forgive me if I borrow weighty words and then labor to make them light.

Things I did wrong:
- angered easily at small grievances, among them students' insults and refusals to work
- gave vocabulary work that was too difficult
- stopped providing weekly written progress reports
- failed to insist upon homework completion
- forgave missing work too easily
- forgot to have fun and succumbed to urgency
- got caught in the necessity of the instruction instead of the application of skills
- didn't track IEP goals in grading
- gave them materials they often passed without thinking hard enough
- didn't given them enough rigor
- didn't learn to break up fights
- didn't deescalate conflicts often enough

Things I did well:
- came up with organizational systems in excel
- called parents and kept track of it in excel
- wrote seriously quality IEPs
- organized grades so I could use the data to track progress... but rarely used it that way
- kept on top of emails
- developed a good relationship with my department head
- created different levels of lots of texts... but only sometimes created different ways to interact with said texts
- created individual plans with different kids
- consistent focus questions
- found some decent websites for materials
- realized the importance of teaching explicit skills
- realized the importance of writing a unit test BEFORE teaching the unit

This is getting depressing.

One of my students hasn't come in weeks.  She could have passed.  She could have been a writer; god knows she needs the outlet for her, ah, 'creative' versions of her life (she lies, often).  Did she stop coming because I stopped insisting on it?  Was I too nice, and not kind by pressuring her to get her work done?  Was I too soft, in my hope that a good relationship would inspire work?  Yet... the worst days were the days I got angry or yelled, the days I tried to force LEARNING into their heads.  The worst days were the days they saw my frustration at the enormous gap between where they deserved to be and where they are.  I hear, over and over, that this is not my fault, but I feel so strongly that it IS my fault, that their deelopment this year was my responsibility, that I owed it to all of them to be more patient and have more fun so that they could, too.

Their final is in a week.  Some of them still write sentences without subjects, some of them hate me, some of them haven't written a complete sentence on their own all year -- I teach special ed, I know, but still, I should have students who can write sentences.  It's not fair to them to send them out into the world with a passing grade when they can't write to save their lives -- literally.  Yet I can't fail them, no matter if that is a more accurate representation of how well they can get along by writing, if I am at fault for their inability.  Given the Fail List, I know it's mostly me.

They say that in your first year this feeling of epic failure is common, but that you were still better than the alternative.  Those words feels bitter in my mouth; not the bitter taste of adrenaline, the bitter taste of something poisonous.  How can this be better than what they would have had?  Even my writing has gotten worse this year.  I haven't taught them how to practice writing or how to use it to express themselves, really.

I feel empty.

I don't have time, now, to write the list of things I'll change and add and do; that will come sometime this summer.  There's no perfect wrap up here; I need to write a final and a study guide, so I don't have time to find peace with this.  I don't have time to find peace with my endless to do list, or the rather lonely feeling that came on Friday when one of my kids commented, "Ms. Warfield never laughs."

All I can resolve to change this week is to be joyful, for these days; to use mad libs more often, and maybe Quiddler; to search for something fun this evening that they can do all week, to research fun readings for their final.  I could give them a scavenger hunt through their archive of work from the year.

I suppose there is some hope in this after all: I still have ideas.  I have hope that I can be the teacher I want to be because I know where all the holes are -- the journey to find ways to fill them will be long.  I have to find the right dirt, I guess.  I must not fill the gaps in my pedagogy with sand.  I must fill them with real work and real skills... but I must not let this urgency scare us away from the task.

I'm not looking for sympathy, but I would love an answer to this question: how do I keep it fun and light in the face of obstinate refusal, absenteeism, and administrative pressure for numbers?  How do I change my threshold for stress, to keep the frustration from surfacing in class?  How do I remember thatmy kids are wonderful people whn the adults around me scoff at such?  I know that if I enter the world in the spirit of joy, I will feel better, and so will they -- but where is the time for the meditation, and what do I say, and how do I keep that consistent?  Quaker Meeting helps, but what is my mantra every day?  What can I say that does not harangue and push, but reminds and lifts?

How can I lighten my spirit in the face of all this failure and all this need?

Such is my quest for light.

Forgive me for not writing sooner.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's?

On New Year's Eve, we moved from Italy to Spain in the champagne department, so I guess the next step would have been port.  Yeah, I stole that phrase.  From K, at my dinner party.

Some of my favorite people from across these fine states were in my apartment that evening.  It's too small for us all to sit in the same room, so a sampling of my people got cross-pollinated from the necessary seating separation ... awesome.

I haven't written in some time.  The new year always makes me feel like I'm in a little bit of a funk, and this year hasn't been any different.  I resolved to finish what I start rather than put a task down midway: no more picking up a dish from the dishwasher and letting it hit the counter before the cabinet.  No more starting a progress report and then letting it hit the 'to finish' pile.  It's working!  My room is cleaner, my laundry is put away, I managed to lesson plan for a fair bit of the evening.

Still, there is  bit of dread in me for tomorrow.  I want that to go away.  It isn't that I don't love my students, I do.  And I did much of my paperwork before the break, so while I have massive amounts of mailings to do in the next week, I shouldn't have this knot in my chest.  "We Bought A Zoo" released all the tension of the holidays for an evening or two; a few days with a cousin in Manassas put a smile on my face; a New Year's Eve party gave me lots to laugh about.  It's just... now, I feel a little like glass, and I want to feel more like sunshine.

I am going to write to get my positivity back.  These are the things I love about my life right now:

One of my favorite people from college lives around the corner.  We spent the evening banagramming, monopolying, and writing plans.

I live three hours from the greatest town on earth (Charlottesville) and dinner parties with rabbit, brothers, and dreams of a farm.

One of my students told me she wanted to go to Harvard.

K smiled and wrote a complete paragraph before the break.  She usually shouts at me a lot.

The paperwork has a purpose.  Even if it's redundant, I have to remember that there was a reason we were asked to do that, so I have to try.

If they haven't noticed that I haven't been perfect so far, then they may give me a little leeway.

Keep moving forward.

I have friends I trust in times of crisis AND times of joy.

The ball of stress isn't gone yet.  I'm really nervous about tomorrow.  I'm nowhere near the organizational whiz kid I need to be.  I'm dreading someone finding out I'm a phony.  Oh.

I guess that's the meat of it: I came into this year thinking I could change the world in a few months, believing that I was good enough -- because I think through things and try hard -- that I, unprepared, was better than other teachers.  That's just not true.  I'm so young as a teacher.  I do things like not realize that there's a ten year old faking being a high school student in my class, I enter entire IEPs without realizing which radio buttons I have to hit before I can save and therefore have late paperwork, and then there's the progress reports I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be copying and sending home... I answer my own questions, I repeat myself, I lose my patience.

This is going to be a long slog.  It's about more than enthusiasm.  I think I'm dreading tomorrow because I know I'm not good enough and being confronted with that... well, it'll get better.  I can work on the paperwork, I can fix my tendency to answer my own questions.  I can remind myself to take deep breaths.  I have the reflective capacity to look at problems as they come and fix them; maybe I'm just overwhelmed because it's been so long since I was in class that I can't break the manifold things wrong with me as a teacher into fixable pieces.  Maybe tomorrow I'll find the fixable stuff again.

If not, I'll walk the AT in silence for a few days over spring break and it'll come to me then.

Here's to writing some time before then, and here's to your year being a peaceful, friendly one.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chicago Called

I'm a grown up with weekends. 

There's this world, post-college, where you work all week with Colleagues, where emails are Political, where Casual Conversation isn't Casual so much as it's Business, where everybody needs Something from you, you all know the Deadlines, and so Passive Aggression is about your Job Security instead of the dishes in the sink.

I have to say, I was oblivious.

But Chicago called, and I came running; leaving work on a Friday evening, stopping in at my Grandma's, dropping my car off at the airport, gliding in to the familiar rooftops and light patterns of the south side, the Weekend Feeling crept over me.  Not unlike fog, on it's little cat feet.  So it comes, I thought, the time after college wherein adult relationships with old friends are cultivated over weekend visits and making plans for drinks, brunches, dinner.  Weekends with people who get that morning is a time for coffee, not sleeping in, because good luck working all week if you sleep all weekend!

It feels indescribably good to sit on a familiar couch listening to the brown line go by, here for no good reason besides desire to see my friends.  Chicago, too, is like an old friend.  Walking up Wabash from the Orange line, I was greeted by the architecture that framed a lot of my growth into adulthood.  The familiar wind is like putting on a warm jacket.

I want to tell you a story about my week.  I am teaching Characterization.  We define this, in English-teacher land, as 'what a character is like' and 'how we know what we know about them.'  We teach evidence and inferencing, which is far more difficult as it sounds. I have a tendency to overwhelm my guys with work because I feel the urgency of the job so deeply; there are days that they don't handle that well, which is absolutely all my fault.

Tuesday was one of those days.

This is what I wanted my class of freshmen to do:
1. Take notes on Characterization (10 minutes)
2. Read a two page greek myth and summarize each paragraph (20 minutes)
3. Fill out a STEAL chart as a class (Speech, Thought, Effects on others, Actions, Looks) (20 minutes)
4. Fill out a STEAL chart on their own (20 minutes)
5. Take a vocabulary quiz (15 minutes)

Don't laugh too hard, please.

They were quite angry with me.  One of them, who I had doing an alternate assignment, sat in the back yelling pretty terribly profane things about me; one shrieked about the injustice of my food policy; one fell asleep; one kept stealing Red Storm Dollars (a school wide incentive system) from her neighbor; another was taunting my intellectually disabled student about her zits, and another was poking the boy in front of her with her newly sharpened nails.  There was one in the back who said, "No!" and made a weird, defiant sound in his throat every time I told the class to do something, even as he did the thing I was asking him to do.

It turned into a pretty majorly stressed out day.  I managed to get the notes and the first STEAL chart into them, but independent work went to hell in a handbasket; they didn't know what I was asking them to do because I hadn't taught it long enough and they were too busy rebelling against the workload to listen when I was teaching.  When I finally sent the foulmouthed one to the office for trying to hit a girl, another one just sauntered right out of class.  I went to get him back.  Somebody wrote 'dick' on my projected word document.  I put them all in their seats and told them to put their heads down for the remaining two minutes until the bell rang.  I wanted to cry, and I knew, I just KNEW, it was all my fault. 

It isn't that they couldn't get the concepts or that they're bad kids.  They are genuinely good kids.  It was that I overwhelmed them with transparency about the workload for the day.  I am, actively, overwhelming them with the amount of work it will be to get them to move two reading levels in a year; what I SHOULD be doing is flooding them with recognition of their progress, not how far we have to go...

Anyway, they retaliated.  When someone was writing on my projector, that person or a friend took the monogrammed silver ring I wear everywhere from where it was sitting on my desk.  When I realized that it was gone, halfway through my second class, my stomach fell into my feet and my heart started flopping around in the empty space in my abdomen.

And the thing is, that second class loves that I work them to death.  They say this is the hardest class they have, but they say it with a light in their eyes.  I'm not treating them like they're stupid, because they're not, and they can see the value in that -- kids who in every one of their other classes throw desks and never do their work are workaholic angels for me.  I have discovered a girl with a 7th or 8th grade reading level who everybody else thought functioned like a third grader; I think I'm seeing this because I respect them with work and transparency.  But that first period freshman class doesn't read the workload as respect, they read it as antagonism, and I should know better.  Of course they retaliated.  Working them to the point of frustration probably feels like an act of war.

So, against the advice of my administrator and the teachers I talked to, I personally apologized to each of my students the next day.  I explained that I knew the class had gone terribly, I knew it was my fault, I knew I was being retaliated against, but also that there are better ways to send the message.  I wanted my ring back, I said, and I'll set up a way for you to anonymously let me know how class is going.

This, I suppose, they could see as respect. The next morning, I found my ring in my work mailbox.

I love these kids so much.  I feel awful that I'm putting them through being my guinea pigs, that I have to learn this on them, that they feel like they have to do things like take stuff from me because I'm pushing them too hard.  I am so overwhelmingly proud of them for managing to learn anything from me at all most days. 

I look forward to teaching my freshmen next year, when I've taught them that work is a sign of respect.  In the meantime, I really have to learn to teach more with fewer assignments, right?

I love my work, all fourteen to sixteen hours a day of it, and it's time to get back to it now.  If you have any ideas, do leave them.  I'll try to write more often, I promise! 

What a perfect morning for reflection. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Garret for Reflections

Dear Friends,

Baltimore City Teaching Residency didn't lie when they said Institute would take up every inch of my time.  I have never worked so hard only to find out that I have oceans left to learn.  I turned in the final paper a week ago, right now.  I have since moved into my apartment, cleaned more dust traps than I've ever seen (and I lived above a frat), I've found a solid teak folding chair, had a dinner party, and organized my wardrobe.

I would like to give you a long, involved description of my time at Institute, but I think vignettes are better than overarching statements, and since I didn't track many of them as the summer passed (I was too busy writing lesson plans), I will start backwards and see what moments come.

In my little attic bedroom, I have the bed tucked into a nook.  It's a U-shaped room.  I, like Thomas Jefferson, can get to either side of my room from the comfort of my bed.  I don't think this room would meet his specs for natural light, but it does have gables.  Cars are crashing through puddles out one window; the air conditioner is chugging away, happy to be clean, in the other.

My right thumb hurts.  It's a dull ache, but when I type with it, it's sharp.  At 9:57 this evening, my dryer nearly killed me.  I've spent the last six weeks working 16 hour days, driving for sometimes three hours a day on no sleep, and hanging out with my grandmother in her smoke-filled house three afternoons a week... and it's my dryer that nearly kills me.  I couldn't find the lint trap, but I'd only done one load -- one more couldn't hurt, right?  So I popped in my clothes.  There was a faint burning smell.  After a while, I stopped the dryer.  I still couldn't find the lint trap.  I started it up again.  Sparks began shooting from the panel with all the dials.

So, I did the logical thing: I pulled the panel off.  Flames started coming off the back of the dial -- it looked like a tiny motor.  What was feeding this fire, you ask?  The entire chamber beneath the dryer -- the dryer is the top half of a stackable set -- was full of lint.  The lint was packed in so tightly it was difficult to see the chamber where the clothes went.

So, I did the logical thing: I started pulling the lint away from the flames.  But what, besides lint, do we leave in our pockets?  We leave change.  Quarters, to be precise.  There were, as it turned out, enough quarters in this mystery box to pay for my laundry for a month.  As I grabbed at the lint around the dial (and I did not have the presence of mind to get gloves), I touched one of these quarters.  This one happened to be fused, completely melted, to the flaming dial.  It was weird and flaky in texture, but that's about all a remember of it.  My whole arm began to tingle and I lost my vision.  Heat leapt up my fingers and into my chest.  I wanted to pull the quarter away, but all I could think about was getting away from the intense heat.  (Usually, I reserve descriptions like this for my romance novel.)  I stumbled.  I hit the tub.  I hit my head on the tub.  I was awake, dully awake, moving slowly, maybe not; the flames were bigger now, getting to more of the lint.  Into the kitchen I fumbled, filled the antique pitcher my mom gave me as a housewarming gift in Texas, pulled the trash can into the bathroom, brushed the lint inferno into the trash can -- it doesn't burn you if you don't touch it long enough, right? -- and tossed the water onto the flames.

Then, my hand began to hurt.  Delayed reactions are strange beasts.

But there was so much more lint -- and I had to unplug the dryer, right, or the blown wiring would do something crazy?  So, I did the logical thing.  In a fog, I reached into the chamber and swept out as much of the lint as I could.  Good thing lint clings to itself.  When I had enough of it to see the edge of the cylinder where the clothes tumble, it occurred to me that the whole thing might start moving ... and I was unprepared to deal with that so long as my hands were scrabbling around inside for lint.

Oddly enough, it was a week ago at 10:15 -- which is about when all of this ended -- that I turned in my final work product for Institute.  (Can anybody feel the metaphor coming?)

I can't do justice, here, to the pleasure I got from explaining proper use of evidence by the transitive property.  I don't have time to give you the details of the essay John wrote, or the mini-lesson Nigel gave, or to scan in the final work Divan gave me, in a neatly stapled packet, two days before the end of class.  I wish I had written down entries here every time Ephyera wrote a note in her notebook and then didn't use said notes in the question I asked her afterwards, if only because it would help you understand my joy when she used her word lists to paraphrase Sonnet 18 on the final day.  I wish I had cataloged the lesson my grandfather gave me, over breakfast one day, on "Using the Right Tool."  (It was the red knife for brick cheese.)  I wish I had written after my first (good) evaluation and again after my second (bad) evaluation, or tracked the development of the incredible friends I've found here.  Two months ago, I told a person quite dear to me that "It's strange to think: in two months, I will have met people that will be an inextricable part of my life... for the rest of it."  He said, "How do you know?" And I said, "How can they not?  Look what we're about to do together."  We did it together.  Some of them showed up for Kings, BS, steak, and warmed my house.

I wish I had told you all of those things and more as they happened.  It would make this moment better.

My hand hurts.  My head hurts where I hit it.  But there was a fire in my dryer and I was prepared.  I didn't have a panic attack; I hit my head and I got back up; there was an endless amount of fodder for more fire -- so I pulled it out.  I found the source of the flames.  Nothing went up in smoke.  It was hard, and I hurt, and there are risks to what happened in my apartment tonight.  There are some pretty glaring things wrong with what I did -- any boy scout will tell you that.  But I did it, the apartment is fine, my clothes didn't burn, and the dryer is actually cleaner than it was.  We know what the problem is.

So, too, do I enter the year: things will be glaringly wrong with what I do, but I can reach into the fire, pull out the lint, fill the pitcher with water, and through all the crises, burns, and head wounds, the dryer will be cleaner.  My students will be more prepared for the world when they leave me, and I will learn how to do that better -- as long as I keep pulling at the lint.  There will be risks.  I will lose a lot.  I will get burned.  But I can put the fires out.

That was cheesy, but it felt real, so I'm going to embrace the cheese.  I feel good; I can do this.  I will never work harder than I did during Institute... until I start teaching.  (What am I talking about?  I'm always teaching!  It's my life!  How great is that?)

There are more metaphors here: clean the lint steadily, there won't be a crisis, etc; but the one that matters is this:

inaction is not the answer.

Thanks, BCTR.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Symmetry isn’t just aesthetic

This afternoon, I had a class on the Alexander Technique.  It’s all about doing less work, settling into our bodies – being easy.  One of the things the instructor said was, “We can balance an egg on a spoon.  Isn’t it safe to assume, then, that we can trust the pieces of our spine to balance on top of each other?  So why do we work so hard to keep them that way?”

That’s a paraphrase, but the point is, we can be easy in our bodies.  After lying on our back and sinking into the floor for a long time, feeling the length and width of the back, she asked us to release our shoulder blades into the floor.  Then, she told us to drop our lumbar region to the floor, stop controlling our neck, let the weight of our feet hold our legs.  Then we stood.  We walked. We moved, thinking about moving.  She showed us a skeleton, and asked us to think about how marvelous our hips are.

“The waist is a place to hang your pants.  It’s not the middle of anything; it doesn’t break anything up, it's not a physical feature of our bodies.  It’s just a place to hang your pants.”

With soft knees and a whole back, we moved.  We bent by bending at the knees, letting our backs remain engaged and straight.  I relaxed into my bones.  It was almost as if my muscles moved around them.  I am finding the place where my body floats, it seems.  A body can cascade off the midline, and as long as it is floating there, easy, it’s symmetrical.

I had a bit of a revelation at the end of class, as one does when one empties one’s mind of everything except for their physical existence.  In the regular world, I tend to put my weight on one leg or the other, jutting out one hip, accentuating my ass, letting one shoulder rise higher than the other.  This is how I am at rest.  Why? Two reasons:
1. it feels like I'm giving my 'regular muscles' a break, even though I'm not
2. leaning to one side makes me feel like the difference in the height of my shoulders is less obvious

I have scoliosis.  I am pretty sensitive about it, especially as it becomes more visible.  And it’s true, when I’m truly at rest, letting my back be a solid piece, floating away from my spine, I can see the difference in my shoulders much more clearly.  But my self-consciousness was founded on a fallacy – that is, that everybody sees with my same critical eye.  Indeed, what did the rest of the class see?  Apparently, they saw my midline.  They saw grace, if you can believe that.  One of them said she saw beauty when I bent into ‘monkey position.’

(Side note: ‘monkey position’ is when, keeping your knees mostly above your ankles, you bend your knees, letting your butt jut out.  But rather than arch the back to keep your chin parallel to the floor, you let your back lie flat, as if it were against the floor.  Thus, you are leaned over, naturally, like a gorilla.  When you straighten your legs, you will come to standing, straight up.  Try it.)

This led me to a few conclusions.  First, if I am the only one who sees my shoulder-osis, great.  Second, whether it’s visible to others or not, what is also visible to others is comfort in my own skin and centeredness.  Third, I am more comfortable when I stand well; fourth, I’m preventing further curvature.  Thus, by remembering to let my spine stack itself, by letting my joints do the work they were designed for, I can both mask and fix my scoliosis.  

 Except… my back is a part of me.  I don’t feel so compelled, somehow, now that I remember how good and comfortable it is to walk this way, to disguise it.  I was looking in the mirror, after class, standing there; there was beauty in what I saw.  Not because there was perfect aesthetic symmetry, but because I was symmetrically comfortable.  There was no part of me I was trying to hide.

This both raised and answered an interesting question for me: what is comfort?  When you ask someone, “Where should my neck be right now?” And they say, “Where is comfortable?” And you’re confused, that’s not good.  That said, bringing awareness of the question to the process of moving is enough to answer it – over time.  I wasn’t comfortable, using my posture to hide my curviness.  But I couldn’t have told you that until I brought enough attention to the question of comfort to experiment with answering it.

How much can we answer in our lives by bringing calm, quiet, tolerant attention to it?  In a word, by bringing empathy to it?  If intentionally kind intention can release the shoulder blades to run freely across the back, what other miracles can we make?  What can that attention help us feel?

Further, I think that though different halves of my body will require different types of attention – different exercise, different training, possibly – ultimately, the goal is to bring both sides to equity, to give them both freedom.  I think there’s a symmetry in that.

We can savor our movement, as we savor good food.  There is more beauty in the world than we condition ourselves to see.  Let's bring some attention to that, hey?