Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Roller Coaster

(#FirstYearTeachingChronicles Part 2)

On a roller coaster, there are formidable drops, anxiety-ridden slow climbs, and many surprising twists and turns along the way. There's also a lot of screaming, holding on for dear life, and wondering why I am on this godforsaken thing in the first place. But as there is a beginning and an end, I know that I'll be able to plant my two feet on the solid ground in 2.8 minutes. As of today, I have currently been grounded for 7.5 weeks, having gotten off a roller coaster that lasted 9.5 months. You see, my first year of teaching was so much like that of a roller coaster ride.

A few months into teaching after 11 glorious childrearing years off, a friend shared this image with me after I had confessed how incredibly overwhelmed I had been.

Click to enlarge

First, I laughed. Then, I cried. This graph was so freakin' accurate. If you did a quick calculation, I saw this at a depth of despair, at about the end of November. Truthfully, the course of my ride had been a tiny bit different than this graph. I had reached rock bottom at the end of October, on Halloween. And the upturn had actually started somewhere by December. It went something like this:


I was elated to be given the opportunity to return to my pre-children profession at, of all places, my own kiddos' school, where I am familiar with teachers and school happenings. I was excited and nervous to meet the kids and their parents. I was worried about learning the curriculum and teaching it well. I was scared about not being "good enough" for these fourth graders because I was new. But I knew my heart was in the right place and that I was going to give it my all, as not to forsake this class of students who depended on me for an entire year's learning and growth.

I am responsible for all of these kids. I have to do things right.


I braved through a beginning of the year marked with many scheduled testings and initial school events. I asked a lot of questions and returned kind help and advice from my colleagues with the most, shall I say, adorable deer-in-headlights looks? In reading lessons, the kids stared at me, ready to learn, with expressions of "okay, teach me." And I sat there, gesturing and talking, really hoping that I looked like I knew what I was doing. I soon realized that classroom management was going to be far different than what I am used to at home as a mom managing her own two children. How is it only September?

This was also when DH stepped up and took over all household matters and became a single dad my superhero. He negotiated to work from home to help out with the chores and the kiddos. I became a shadow that appeared at random times, armored with my infamous deer-in-headlights look as I showed up for meals and came up for air.


Routines were starting to sink in. Kids were settling into their new year in school. I, on the other hand, began to fret about all the new things I had to do: cut, glue, read, staple, highlight, recycle, toss, erase, sort, pile, devise, organize, remember, print, copy, pass out, count, file, correct, record, plan, time, mark, study, execute, say, remind, email, type, redo, attend, write, encourage, discipline, change, grade, note, absorb, process, show, demonstrate, return, checkout, put on hold, pair, model, decide, answer, conference, and still eat and sleep and see my children and DH. By the end of the month, I was at an all-time low, physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you had just as simply as looked at me, I was at risk of shattering into a million little pieces. On Halloween, the school had class parties, and I "teachered" the best I could and barely made it through the day.

I dressed as Captain Nobody for Halloween because I had just read aloud the book to the class. Ironic, because inside I felt like a nobody. And DH was the superhero that took me aside and gave me The Talk that began my turnaround for the rest of the school year.


Deep, deep breath. I decided to be myself and trust my instincts. I had to be comfortable with my decisions, so I should not try to be someone I'm not. The kids really knew my expectations by now, and there was learning taking place. Huh. Besides, I just had to make it till the end of the month and there would be FIVE DAYS OFF IN A ROW! Just before break, the students wrote thank-you notes to their peers. And I thanked the heavens there would be a much needed break to spend with family, food, and a lot of wine.


We read The Birchbark House and the kids surprised me with their enthusiasm. A memorable highlight of the year was their spontaneous clapping when I finished reading the last sentence of the book. They were noticing character developments, making connections, asking tough questions, and drawing conclusions based on text evidence. We studied legends, tall tales, and pourquoi tales. We read about explorers and "went deep sea diving" to explore sunken ships. We had our school holiday musical, Pajama Day, a pizza party, and the month was over faster than I could say WINTER BREAK.

Recharge. Replenish. Rejuvenate. And two weeks turned into three because SNOW/COLD DAYS! During this break, I ate and slept and read. Over 1,000 pages of gripping, haunting words, unspeakable circumstances, and tear-jerking moments. The best way to teach a love for reading is to love reading myself, no?


Refreshed, we returned to school as the world was literally frozen outside. We dove into reading nonfiction texts and writing essays (personal, persuasive, and literary). We learned about fractions and electricity/magnetism. I felt prepared. I timed lessons better and I gauged student needs with more accuracy. I anticipated. I plan-B-ed. I pulled things out of the magic hat with more ease. Three weeks passed and the month was done.


We began talking about PARCC, the dreaded new state testing that aligns with Common Core Standards. Teachers met, discussed, and planned to help students perform as well as they could on this mandated assessment. I actually witnessed students use their newly learned knowledge to attack the practice tests. I realized that my deer-in-headlights look hadn't shown up in a while. I became aware that I even though I was still spending all my waking moments working, my body was used to the hours and I just did it. There was always Friday/Saturday if I work hard and long enough, right? And I actually finished my lunch for once. I took this pic as proof to show DH. And it only took how many months?


This month began with the craziness of rearranging our schedules to accommodate 5 days of PARCC testing, and ended with parent-teacher conferences right before spring break. I took a HUGE breath <inhale>, dove deep, and came up for air when it was time for a 10 day break. <GASP!>


We came back to school after spring break and all the teachers told me how fast these last two months would fly by. Really? In class, my kids were writing an inquiry paper, you guys! Each child wrote a four-chapter information book on The American Revolution. There were essays and narrative stories. There was research and revision. There was peer editing and illustrations. There was so much work and learning going on that our room was filled with vigor and drive. We were working to finish off the year with an inquiry project. It was going to be amazing--for the first time, I felt it.


This month began with 3 more days of end-of-the-year PARCC testing, yet again. It also wrapped up the year with other assessments, where when I finally looked at the scores and graphs, I saw the progress my students had made. The gains and growth were remarkable, and were undoubtedly positive results of their hard work and perseverance. This same group of kids that I didn't know what-the-heck-to-do with back in August are now my kids--no no, not just anyone's--but mine. <Snap, snap, snap.> Mine.

I was feeling all kinds of goodness on Success Night when we presented our inquiry projects on different perspectives (children, women, African Americans, and soldiers) during the American Revolution. The kids proudly showed their parents their writing and poster boards. It was a night--no, a year--to be celebrated.


Because of the 5 cold days we had in the winter, we had to go another week of school into June. Just as well. It was a week of fun. Pizza party, field day, and A-Minute-to-Win-It class competitions. Saying goodbye to this special class was bittersweet on the one hand. On the other, I was looking forward to sleeping and eating again.


I signed on to this blog and started writing again. (The only writing I had done all year was modeling for writing lessons and book reviews on Goodreads.) Because the best way to grow writers is to keep writing myself, amiright?


The roller coaster has come to a complete stop. It is time to disembark. No doubt the next ride will be just as momentous, though hopefully not as much a shock to my system. At least I'll know that initial death plunge isn't bottomless. The amount of learning that took place in this old body of mine this year was tremendous. Now I just have to remember everything I've learned to make next year easier.

*Gets in another roller coaster line.*

You know how they say that the more you use your brain, the slower it ages? Well, at this rate, I'm getting younger by the days.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Full Circle

(#FirstYearTeachingChronicles Part 1)

At birth, we enter the world bare and naked;

July 2014

Unadorned, imperfect;

Empty walls

Unsettled, out of place.

Random furniture

Some say we exit the world taking nothing with us,

June 2015

Except for our skin...

After 8 hours of cleaning and packing the classroom for summer

And bones.

With every speck of a year's learning sent away

Others say we take with us an abundance of Experiences and Lessons, 

Notice and Note anchor charts

From the beginning of the Journey,

Genre study of legends, pourquoi tales, tall tales, and folktales

 To the end.

Expository nonfiction reading unit

I might add to that, some Smiles,

Pajama Day

Lots of DANCING!

Classroom brain breaks, aka Just Dance videos

And some Lifetime Achievement Milestones, forever ours to keep.

End-of-school-year American Revolution Unit featured at Success Night

We come full circle, but not to an End. 

End-of-year flowers from a lovely family

For it is another New Beginning.

At least I keep the same room and same grade level!

And the possibilities are endless.

Once the gears start churning again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


With each week and month (and now, year) that passed without a new post here, I felt the unease of drifting farther away from the one thing I truly love to do. The one thing that is shelter for my soul, canvas for my paint, and overflow from my cup. How could I have abandoned this love for so long? The answer has to do with my inability to multitask and my compulsive dive into an all-or-nothing commitment.

Instead of becoming the long-term substitute for DS' first grade teacher last fall, over the summer I was offered a bona-fide full-time fourth grade teaching position at my kids' school--something that I had hoped for but didn't know if I would ever have the opportunity to acquire. Acquire I did. And deep, deep down I dove.

I knew that it was going to be an incredibly difficult feat. I had to learn a brand new curriculum to teach it. I had to learn students, colleagues, and administration. I had to learn how to balance work and family. I had to learn about learning. So I decided to give it my all.

Which meant here, even the cricket chirps quieted. Because they were dying from starvation. I went for months without ever a visit, while all sorts of spam comments piled up. At one point, when I tired of all the spam notification and came to delete them, I was so out of shape that I inadvertently deleted a hundred "real" comments. I was able to rescue the reader comments, but not my own. So long, comments.

If there's one thing I really learned about teaching, it is the absolute fact that a teacher's work is never done. There is always more work to do. Always.


I wanted to write a post explaining why I'd been away for so long. But that felt redundant since I wasn't going to be able keep up any writing during the school year. Any time I had a free moment, I just defaulted to my next-most-relished activity: reading (all intake and no output required). Since reading is one of the most important ingredients to writing, no?

Back when I happily announced my new job, I was overwhelmed with congratulatory love. One Dear Friend said, "How lucky for your students to have you to teach them writing!" It was a very flattering comment, but one that unsettled me quite a bit. Just because I like to write doesn't mean I know a thing about teaching others how to write. I write what comes to mind, in an order that makes sense to me, with words that communicate my feelings, to an audience that hopefully understands. How does one teach another how to achieve that? I had no idea.

Studying Lucy Calkins to teach her curriculum of reading and writing was probably one of the hardest things (among many) I had to do last school year. There was a method, a recipe, if you will, to teaching the different units of writing. So I did my job the best that I could--I studied her ways and I taught them. There is still a lot more to learn, to improve, and to reflect on in order to better teach writing. But I came away feeling that many of my students enjoyed the writing process and owned their successes.

Like the students who began fourth grade writing a huge block of words and ended by writing five paragraph essays. Or the students who began writing at home on their own time. Or the students who named each part of an essay as I highlighted and color-coded them on the Smartboard: hook, thesis, reason, evidence, transition words, and counterclaim. And the student who, at the end of the year, stated with absolute certainty aloud to the class, "For once in my life, I wish there was more writing time."

And for the umpteenth time in my life, I wish there was more writing time. Friends would say, You've got to get back to writing this summer. And I'd say, Yeah, I should. Once I spend a week getting a mental break and unwinding from this hardest-year-of-my-life. Once I get a real mental break unwinding from that week. Once I bake and cook all the things the kiddos have ordered. Once I get back from vacation. Once I finish reading all the books on my to-read list. Once.

This morning I read a list of quotes from writers about "writer's block." Margaret Atwood said, "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." Maybe I have completed all the Onces. Maybe I have succumbed to imperfection. Maybe I just wanted to write. Today.

Today, I fed the crickets. I may even shoo them away once in a while.

But one thing I do know for sure is:

This blog will live on.

If I haven't forgotten how to publish this thing.