Didn’t Know I Needed It

This semester I’m teaching two sections of a children’s literature course at a local university. I’m still teaching third graders full time and I’ll admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed lately. Tonight was week five for my Wednesday night section and the students participated in their first literature circle, reflected on that experience in a journal, and then we explored poetry. I prepped for tonight over the weekend and had decided that I wanted to kick off our poetry exploration by listening to some poets read or perform their poetry. Hearing poetry, especially when read by the poet, is powerful. I wasn’t assuming my students have any great love of poetry or even a ton of experience with it and I wanted to pull them in.

So I started with some poems that wouldn’t fit in the category of children’s literature. I greatly enjoy Billy Collins’s poetry so I began with his Introduction to Poetry. At the end, one of my students said, “Ummm…I thought poems were supposed to rhyme.” We had a brief discussion about how many poems for children do rhyme, but that much of poetry does not. (For the record, I so appreciate students who are willing to speak up and share their confusion. I’m confident most don’t feel comfortable doing so and therefore I’m unaware of it. Especially in the virtual setting.)

Next up, I shared Langston Hughes’s I, Too.

That was awesome. Having the text there as we listened to his voice was fabulous. The chat in our virtual classroom was flying with students responding to this poem.

Finally, I offered them Maya Angelou performing Still I Rise.

I had watched it before. I wouldn’t have shared it if I hadn’t. But tonight? Tonight I listened to it from a position of just an hour earlier having listened to NPR with stories about the indictment, and more importantly, lack of indictments in Louisville and about RBG. I haven’t been listening to NPR much because it’s normally an in-my-car activity and I am not often in my car these days. I listened just before class began and, until sharing these poems with my students, hadn’t realized how much it had hurt to hear those stories. Then Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou literally shared their voices and the power and strength of them was exactly what I needed.

After those poems, the same student said, “I don’t think I know what poetry is at all.”

What a gift that was for me tonight. Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and students who were open to new learning.

Exhausted and Lifted

Wednesday’s are a long day for me. I teach my 3rd grades from 9-3 (with an hour break at lunch during which I respond to parent emails and try to do some planning and reflecting), then a team meeting for an hour, followed by teaching undergrads from 4:30-7:00. That’s a standard Wednesday right now.

Two Wednesday’s a month I then go on to join in an anti-racism study group from 7:45-9:15. For this week we’d finished reading White Rage by Carol Anderson. That book shook me. I’m married to an historian of US history. I read relatively widely. The amount I didn’t know has knocked me over. I had not realized how much the history I learned, formally and informally, was exceptionally white.

On these Wednesday’s now I question whether or not I have it in me to join the group call. The day feels like it’s been six years long already. How can I possibly muster the energy to focus on and participate in discussions about race? Then I pull myself together and log on. I have not once been disappointed. I always feel there is so much more I could and should be doing. While also feeling energized to do this work.

I am immensely grateful to the women who organized this group as well as to all the others who join in twice a month and commit to learning and growing. This work is hard and as a white woman I have to be doing it. Doing it with others helps so much.

Bags of Goodies

Year 23 starts with kids on Tuesday. Last year was super hard. This year looks to be as hard or harder for various reasons. The difference, in my mind, is that I think it’ll be hard for everyone. Teachers, students, families, and all school personal.

Last week I had listening conferences with almost all of my students’ families. It was an absolute gift. I got insight into my students’ interests, strengths, activities, and needs. Sometimes the student was there too, but not always. And families were overwhelmingly supportive. There are clearly concerns about how this year will go and whether or not their child will get what they need, but they could not have been more supportive of me.

Yesterday I created goody bags for each student. I included a bookmark (because I had some left over from sending them to last year’s kiddos in June), crayons (I’d ordered these when I still expected to be in person and they’re fun shapes so I thought kids would like to have a set to use), window markers (I’d read something about these being great for learning from home and I found them for super cheap), little containers of bubbles (just for fun), a cute pen, and some books.

Once our public libraries opened again in the spring, I contacted some of the ‘Friends of’ various branches near me to see if I could buy some books. I knew they wouldn’t be hosting any book sales for a while but I hoped they could find boxes or bags of kids books and I was willing to buy them without going through them. Instead, two different volunteers responded and pulled a collection of books for me to peruse. Between the two branches I ended up with a great collection of books (168 when I made my 13 year old count them). After listening conferences and a reading survey I posted on our google classroom (a few kids filled it out) I picked five books for each kid. I wrote each one a note explaining why I picked those books for them.

I included a note for the parents with a magnet for their fridge that has a picture of me (I’ve never included that before but it seemed like a good idea given that they’ll only see me virtually) and my contact information.

We (I dragged my kids with me) dropped off bags at 17 houses (one house has twins so two bags went there). I was able to talk to someone at almost all of the houses. It is amazing how meaningful it is to see someone in person. Again, such a gift.

The Roller Coaster of School This Year

from Andrew Bowden’s flickr

In my district teachers have been back on contract for nearly three weeks. Kids will start on Tuesday. Other than laptop distribution last week, everything has been online and will continue to be for at least the next couple of months.

Kids haven’t even started and this school year has been such a roller coaster. That may have a lot to do with my own personal emotional state, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I’ll figure out how something works or have a great meeting or conference and feel like I’m on top of the world. Then I’ll contemplate my to do list and want to curl up and cry.

This is my 23rd year as an elementary school classroom teacher. While I get nervous at the start of any school year, I don’t usually feel like this. Right now I’m feeling as though I have no idea what next week will look like. I’m not fully confident in what to prioritize when it comes to helping my students become independent members of our classroom community. I’m not at a total loss, but I’m at maybe 25% of where I’ve been in recent years at this point.

The one thing those previous 22 years did give me is confidence we’ll get through this. I know that in a few weeks we’ll be in a routine and we’ll on our way to being a strong learning community. I just don’t see the path to get there as well as I would like.

The Gifts and Challenges

In chatting with my colleagues yesterday I was talking with one about the year starting. She mentioned that she’s planning to go in to the building to teach each day (an option we have available to us). She has a one year old and laughingly mentioned that her husband said, “But aren’t you enjoying this moment?”

She went on to say how much she has loved having time with her little one over the past few minutes. How it has been a gift to watch that cutie grow and change on a daily basis. At the same time, her little one needs constant attention which can become draining.

My kids are much older, but I feel similarly. I know I’ll look back at this time with such fondness for the opportunity to just be with my kids. No rushing to rehearsal or volunteering. No need to pick up supplies for a project or order a book one of them needs ASAP. We’ve been able to have conversations and laugh and cry and just be together. I am truly grateful for that.

At the same time, I said to my colleague, “You should say to your husband, ‘I am enjoying this moment but I’d like to enjoy some other moments too’.”

I adore my kids and we’ve mostly all been getting along. (We’ll see what happens when the stress of school truly kicks in for all of us…) and still, I would like other kinds of moments in my life too.

This Job is a Gift

I spent my day today at school, with all of my teammates and some other colleagues, distributing laptops to students and families. It was hot and chaotic (although our school definitely has a good setup and plan and it was impressive) and the best day I’ve had in a while. As a team we tried to check each third grade laptop request to try and have that child’s classroom teacher take the laptop to the family outside. It didn’t always work for a variety of reasons but the majority of the time it meant we got to meet our families and kiddos, if they were there.

The chance to meet any of my kiddos in person was wonderful. Being able to introduce myself to families and make this initial connection was also a gift. This year, connecting with kids and families feels challenging because we can’t sit down together and talk. It’s not impossible, but it’s not what I know so today was awesome.

And then, this afternoon, I got the most wonderful email from a mom I met today and I am just sitting here, in the corner of my bedroom that serves as my office, trying not to cry and feeling blessed beyond words. This mom took the time to share about her child, their family, and their history. She included pictures and she wrote in such a clever way, connecting to something she already knows I love. And she asks, as she did in person this morning, what the family can do to help me this year. I am overwhelmed. In the best possible way.

There are so many things that have me feeling anxious and depressed right now. My teaching situation feels like something of a perfect storm of less-than-positive factors. This mom just lifted me above it all. I was already feeling lighter, after a day with kids, families, and colleagues. But in this moment, right now and right here, I feel hopeful and excited. It is truly a gift.

I am looking around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

I’ve missed that feeling.

Recent Book Loves

One of the gifts of this stay-at-home time, which has been full of awfulness, has been lots of reading. One of my goals is to not read white men. I have found it’s easy to read white male author after white male author without realizing simply because they make up such a significant percentage of published books. I’m also working to read books with characters of color.

I’ve noticed, when reading books with characters of color, that adversity is often a theme. I can learn a lot through reading those books. I also want to read books with characters of color being kids and doing kid things. Just like I can find lots of books about white kids.

These four books are ones I’ve read recently that fit the bill. They are ordered here from the youngest readers, mid to late-elementary, to young adult.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Zoe has never met her dad as he’s been in prison since before she was born. At 12 she gets a letter from him. She wants to get to know him but fears her mom and dad (stepdad and the only dad she’s known) won’t approve. She’s also a serious baker and is spending the summer interning at a bakery once a week. And she’s having a problem with her (ex) best friend.

What We Found in the Corn Maze and How It Saved a Dragon by Henry Clark

This has the common problem, in my opinion, of being two boys and a girl. Other than that, I loved it. The 12 year olds have discovered magic, but it’s pretty darn mundane. And then they end up transported to a world in which magic is a critical and important force. The book is funny, thoughtful, and surprising.

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

I recommended this one to my 13 year old as I was reading it. They read it super fast, finishing before me (we had it on kindle and it physical form), and demanded the sequel ASAP due to the ending. The story follows Lacey Chu, a girl with serious coding skills. Her world includes bakus, which are essentially smartphones in animal robot form. She finds a damaged one, fixes it up, and lands herself in quite the mystery. Friend issues and a crush are also involved. It’s highly engaging.

Malice by Pintip Dunn

I wasn’t sure about reading this one in this time as it’s about a girl who learns that someone in her class will one day create a pandemic that will kill of two-thirds of the world’s population. I was amazed at the skill of the writing and storytelling, the way it wove through time to tell the story. I got to a point where I was even more worried about how it was going to end as I had been about reading about a global pandemic during a global pandemic. I had gotten seriously attached to the characters and was certain it couldn’t end well for all of them.

Starting Off Right

It must be time for school to start as I just placed my order for magnets and postcards. Every year I get magnets to give to my families at the start of the year. Usually that magnet has my name, our classroom number, the school phone number, my email address, and the URL for our class website. This year I made a few changes:

I added a picture of me because my kids and families will only see me virtually. They won’t have the daily in-person interactions with me to cement me in their minds. Especially for families with multiple kids, I thought this might help them connect with me. I also added my cell number. I gave it to families last spring and when it was necessary it was definitely helpful. The school phone number isn’t terribly useful right now so I didn’t include it.

For a number of years now I’ve been sending postcards to my students. The goal has been to send every kid one postcard each quarter. My original thought, when I started doing this with first graders at least eight years ago, was that kids would love to get mail and their parents would inevitably see it too. So I try to remember something great they’ve done and send a postcard about it. I ordered quite a few for this year as I might want to send them more often since we’re doing school virtually. I redesigned it and I really like how it looks.

I’ve had a lot of trouble getting psyched for this school year. Ordering these was a positive step. It helped me focus on these new kids and families that I don’t know yet, but will soon. And it helped me focus on how I’ll get to know them and build community. As a friend recently said to me, we know what we’re doing, we just have to figure out the tools to do it a little differently. The basic skill set is already there.

Not Being Alone in Being Alone

I am deeply unhappy.

I know I’m not alone as this is such a difficult time for many. I know I won’t be deeply unhappy forever. I know the countless reasons I and my family are lucky. I know that I will get through this.

Those things help. But they don’t change that, right now, I’m deeply unhappy.

Some of it, I’m sure, is a result of this past year. Some of it, equally reasonably, is related to this upcoming year with all the uncertainties and fears involved. Some of it, I know, is because I am feeling at sea right now, lacking purpose and direction. Some of it is family related. It’s the perfect storm of awfulness weighing me down.

As a result, I’m struggling to do anything. Little things are super irritating. I just want to sleep. I find myself playing Solitaire on my phone for absurd amounts of time because it is just distracting enough for my brain but doesn’t require serious thinking. I’m beating myself up for not getting things done that need to be done. I tell myself I have more time than I’ve had in years and yet nothing is getting accomplished. (And, actually, things are getting accomplished and I know that, but not enough and maybe not the stuff that matters so I’m still beating myself up.)

Lots of people have reached out and checked on me in the past few months and I am grateful to them all, more than they’ll ever know. Again, I know I’ll be okay. Not immediately, maybe not tomorrow or next week or even next month, but I know I’ll be okay. I’m writing this not because I feel I need others to know this about me, specifically, but because I am sure others are feeling similarly. Feeling this way isn’t something we like to talk about, maybe not even something we like to face and admit to ourselves. I know I’ve been fighting facing it for a bit now. So I’m writing in case someone else needs to know they aren’t alone, in case someone else needs to see their emotions in black and white here.

My 13 year old and I took a 4 1/2 mile walk recently. We weren’t sure how long the walk would be, around a nearby lake, and it was definitely longer than my kid felt prepared for that day. We saw this rock about a mile from the end and it was encouraging. I’m not sure I’m really doing good work to keep up at the moment, but moving forward is better than staying still.

 

I am deeply unhappy. I’ll be okay.

Books and Learning

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about professional books and a default to male authors (or, often, white authors, but that wasn’t the issue in this instance). I believe I mentioned my goal of not reading books by white men. A friend reached out and asked me about that, mentioning that they don’t really notice the authors of the books they read. I am always glad when people ask me why I do (or don’t do) something as it pushes me to think about it and evaluate whether or not I really have a good reason. It’s one of the things I love most about working with pre-service teachers; it forces me to think through the things I do as a teacher and I often end up rethinking some.

One quick caveat, I don’t wholesale write off white male authors. My goal is to not read books by white males, but my goals are regularly not fully achievable. I figure if I set an ambitious goal then even if I fall short I’ll be doing fairly well. So my goal is no white male authors but I do end up reading some. Making this my goal means that I don’t fall into a rut of reading white male authors.

So, my reasons for this goal:

  • One of the reasons I read is to learn and expand my understanding of the world. This works better if I read authors who don’t look like me, have the same experiences I have, etc.
  • I believe far more white men are published than other groups. Reading women and IBPOC authors is one way I can encourage the publishing industry to publish more diversely.
  • Setting this goal forces me to pay attention to my reading more closely. I can’t read nearly as much as I would like to do so I want to be sure I don’t just slip into habits without being thoughtful.

I’ll admit that I often put books on hold at the library as soon as I read/hear about them and I don’t always pay attention to the race or gender of the author. I do typically pay attention before I actually begin reading, meaning that if I opt to read a book by a white man, I am doing so purposefully. I am also more lenient with this when it comes to professional books in education, although I do try to be thoughtful about it there as well.

The books I’ve read in the past month:

Gary Larson is a white man. That book was one my youngest and I picked up at a little free library on a walk and I read it needing something very light. It was a deliberate choice made out of need and convenience.

Edgar Cantero is a white man but he is a Spaniard so I decided to consider this an exception. A friend recommended the book during a mystery book club meeting with some of my students back in June. It’s a strange book. Not the kind of thing I’d normally read, even though it is a mystery.

No white men on this list.

Early on in the stay-at-home time I found myself reading a lot of white women. A LOT. In the past two months I’ve been working to do better about that. Looking back at this list, it’s very heavy on fiction. I try to be aware of that too, as I read.

The first few of the books list as “currently reading” for me:

In a recent meeting with some other educators to discuss anti-racism efforts and how we, as white women, can do better, someone asked about the music we listen to. It was jarring. I try to be so thoughtful about my reading and yet it hadn’t occurred to me to be as thoughtful about music or movies or television or some many other things in my life. Again, I am grateful for the push. I’ve got some serious thinking and learning to do.