Sunday, September 28, 2014

Disturbances in the Force

I've been feeling uncharacteristically negative lately, and the reason for my foul attitude finally dawned on me. During the summer, I can easily fit in a variety of regular exercise. Now that my time is no longer my own, it's much more difficult to work in time for fitness.  After school meetings, grading papers, lesson plans, after school meetings, in addition to keeping up a household and more after school meetings makes it very easy to skip the afternoon workout I might have every intention of completing.  The later I get home, the later I'll be up finishing work for the next day. It's a terrible habit, and I've been paying for it. It's time to make a change. 

It would come as no surprise to those who know me that I was never an athlete. Growing up, I read books and practiced music. Running for any respectable distance was simply beyond me, and I have always joked that if you threw something at me, I was most likely to duck.  Regular physical activity came to me later in life, and after experiencing first hand the benefits of increased strength, lower stress levels, and a new sense of confidence, I knew I could never return to a sedentary life. 

As working out became easier, I began to set new challenges for myself. I started distance cycling because I didn't know I could do it. It turns out I can. Two years ago, I challenged myself to try running. I've never understood runners. When I pass them on my bike and observe their tormented facial expressions, I struggle to reconcile what I see with the passion they express when they talk about running. Runners are addicts. Miserable-looking addicts.  Some of my colleagues were trying out the Couch to 5K running approach with considerable success, so I started too.  As an incentive to keep going, I signed up for the Warrior Dash, a 5K race with obstacles.  This would cost me money, so I couldn't back out, and I was determined not to die. It took me well over an hour to get through it, and unlike other people who ran in packs, I did it on my own.  The end of the race required me to leap over fire, and I eventually lost a toenail because of my unfortunate landing, but the confidence I gained from attempting to do something I didn't know I could do was well worth the loss. Besides, a very attractive new toenail grew in within a few months, so that's all good now. 

After developing plantar fasciitis and now arthritis in one of my knees, I've been advised by three different doctors to give up on running. But knowing I need exercise so that I can be nice to people, I have settled on a compromise (which I haven't shared with any of them): I only run downhill.  Perhaps my running days are almost officially over, but I know I'll find some other exercise to take its place. (I must admit here, I never really learned to enjoy running; it mostly feels great when you stop). Whether I'm attending yoga classes, working out at a facility with weights and elliptical machines, or riding my bicycle, working out helps me face the challenges of work and life more effectively.  Working out in the afternoon on my way home allows me to process a difficult day and prepare to go back in the next day with a better attitude. 

No more excuses. I'm packing up my gym bag tonight and scheduling my workouts for the week. Taking time to take care of me will make me more positive and effective at my job, and I'll be nicer to people. The classroom is no place for a pessimist. If you haven't started the habit yet, go out and exercise. Do what you can do. It'll change your life. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Impossible Things

"Why make a fuss about this particular impossible thing?"  - from Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I got discouraged this week by all of the impossibilties of the job. Every year it seems I have more to do and less time to do it. I spend most of my waking hours, and some of my dreaming hours, thinking about the classroom, composing a neverending narrative in my head of what comes next, and how that will connect to what follows. Of course, as budgets have been slashed by the state, there are fewer of us in the building, and we have larger classes to teach and more subjects, so there are multiple narratives I must compose.

Additionally, last year, I took on the task of helping to drive the school improvement process.  Logically, teachers are the ones who should do this work since we are the ones who have to make the changes necessary for improvement, but it's a tall order when you're already overbooked, and it's yet another narrative to contribute to.  With all of these responsibilities and then some, there is no down time in my day, and the exhaustion that results often leaves me questioning my own abilities. Surrounded by constant need, sometimes I just don't have anything left to give. Meanwhile, a growing pile of papers that need to be graded is taking over my desk.

Maybe the last straw this week came when I was filling out the annual Highly Qualified paperwork for the state. This is my twenty-third year to teach, and yet, every year I have to complete this ridiculous form for the state demonstrating exactly HOW I'm highly qualified to teach what I teach. I find it demoralizing every time.

But then the kids come in and get excited about a book we're reading. Mrs. Boswell, I've been reading ahead. Is that okay?  Mrs. Boswell, is there a sequel to this book?  THERE IS??? What's it called???Will you read it to us??? Please??? Mrs. Boswell, look at the picture I found (a student shows me an artist's rendition of a chupacabra in a book he found on mythical creatures and wants to pass it around the room becuse it's mentioned in a book we're reading together). Mrs. Boswell, can I join the cyber book club?  When do we get to start posting there?  A student comes in before school to find a quiet place to read in my room - she was up late reading last night, and her addiction carries over into the morning. She quietly giggles at her desk as she reads.

I wrote a letter to a student who is in basic training for the marines a few weeks ago, and I received a letter back this week. I wanted to encourage him, but when I wrote, I really expected that my letter would mean more to his mother than it would to him. On Facebook yesterday, his mother described how happy her son was when he received my letter, and she wanted to remind teachers of their importance in the lives of their students.  She pointed out that long after they leave your classroom, you are still remembered and valued. She expressed appreciation to our school district for having the kind of teachers who have cared for and influenced her children.

The eagerness of my students to learn and their enthusiasm for the books they are reading recharges my own dying batteries. A letter from a former student and the gratefulness of his mother help me out of my slump.It's about relationships. Always about relationships.

I begin to dream about possibilities again.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Quantify THIS!

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."  - Albert Einstein

How do you know that what you're doing in your classroom is really effective?

I'm going to be asked this question. School board members are going to want this information presented to them in numbers. 

It's the third day of school, and I have a history class engaged in a discussion in anticipation of a book we are about to read together. Students who have me for both history and language arts often scratch their heads and wonder which class is which.  We do so much reading and writing in history, it's difficult to distinguish between the two disciplines. Novels in the history classroom help humanize the subject, so we read.

I've asked them to think and write about the quote, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Students are leading the discussion, calling upon one another instead of waiting for me to choose the next speaker, looking at each other as they speak, responding to each others' comments, and thinking deeply about the questions I've posed. It has become a conversation about human nature, how human it is to make a mistake, and how human it is to judge others.

Students are referencing other books they've read and considering how they themselves might be affected by the attainment of power.

No one is interrupting or blurting out answers.

No one is looking at a cell phone.

They are referencing each other by saying, "I like what _______ said because..."

I'm watching and listening in awe.  It's a great compliment to use someone's name when you are speaking.  You're saying, "Not only have I heard you, but I found your ideas important enough to consider and repeat and add to."  These kids are 13 years old.  I've had most of them in class in the previous year or two, and I've worked with them on respectful listening skills, but I haven't yet discussed the power "piggy-backing" on the words of others and showing respect by mentioning their names.  They've somehow made the leap on their own.

The kids are trying to decide whether or not everyone is susceptible to abusing power. A girl raises her hand, and someone calls on her to speak. I can tell she's still processing what she's going to say, trying to figure out how to put what she's thinking into words.  Her brows are furrowed, and her eyes narrow as if this will help bring her thoughts into clearer focus.

She says that while some people get sick all the time, there are others who never seem to catch the viruses that are going around.  But if the virus is strong enough, even a person who never gets sick could still catch it. Maybe power is like that.  The rest of the class applauds.

I want a whole world full of people who listen and communicate this well.

How do I know when instruction is effective?  I know when I'm awestruck. I can't translate that feeling into numbers.