teaching off a cliff

I’m not a rock climber. Even if I weren’t afraid of heights I have no strength in my arms and hands, partly due to old injuries and new arthritis and partly because, well, you know, I was focused on building other strengths.

But the image of rock climbing kept popping us as I thought about the start of this school year.

I was ready for a hike as I set off in a new school. There’s a lot to know about STEM education and I braced for a steep learning curve. I was ready for the challenge. But I quickly felt the curve bending in a new way and the work started to feel like this


It seemed like all of the hard work of the last few years to improve my practice fell out of my pockets as I tried to ascend the cliff. By day 12 of the school year, I knew I was a bad teacher, wondered if I had made a mistake transferring schools, considered maybe changing careers to something in retail.

Deep breath.

With the help of my teammates and the calm encouraging voice of my husband, I’m rappelling back down to a level spot to rest and regroup and pick up all my dropped supplies. I’m spending my weekend planning time looking at the big picture we worked on together as a team and mapping out each step we need to take to get there. It’s not starting over, it’s pausing to look around to see where the next foothold is and how we can reach it, using all I learned from the ascent so far to help me choose the best moves to bring me forward.

The learning curve is still steep, sort of inverted, and I suspect I’ll feel like I’m dangling dangerously by my fingertips at times. But I’ve got a strong team to belay me and some ledges on which to rest and regroup.

Here we go.


A new start, a new balance

classroom-doorThrough this door is my next challenge.

Once I can figure out my end of summer schedule, which is mostly working out how to get the girls where they need to go, I will move in to this empty classroom in my new school. It’s there, waiting for me, calling to me at all hours to leave my reading (I’ve read so many great books this summer!) and the work for my online course (I’m nearly finished!) and the yard work (it’s too hot to work in the yard anyway) and the family history project (that I didn’t actually start yet). But I’ve continued reading, and working through the lessons for that course, and fighting the humidity for 20 minute work bursts in the yard, and tidying up the home office so at least I would have space to work on that family history project. And, I have not gone to my classroom.

I am thrilled to start this new job. I spend time every week sorting through ideas and writing up lesson plans. And I have met with my new team a few times since school let out. I’m nervous, but ready for this challenge. At the same time, I recognize that I need to start out this new position with an eye to balance. I can’t give myself completely over to the job. Teenagers actually want their mother around (they won’t readily admit that, but there are clues) and I want to be around them. I adore my husband and want to say “yes” way more often when he suggests a night out or a weekend walk. I just signed up for a Zentangle class with my sisters because I want to spend time with family and friends.

I love my job and I love my life. A lot of times, the two overlap. I enjoy reading the young reader novels that I’ll suggest to my students. I eat up professional development books and gladly pack one for my cafe reading (if you don’t know the joys of sitting in a cafe for hours reading and writing, try it). When I work in my garden, I’m also thinking of ways to create an observation garden for school. When I go for a power walk to improve my health, I can distract myself from the tedium by mentally planning a writing unit or a get-to-know-you activity. My girls gladly help me dig down to the bottom of the box to find 30 orange notebooks so we all have the same color for Word Study. I can bring my laptop to my porch or patio and write up lesson plans or update my webpage, readily available to chat with the girls or pause and drive them somewhere or mind the chili as it simmers in the crockpot.

It would be a lot easier to go to school and get everything in order now. I could focus for longer stretches on planning if I got away from the house. But, starting at a new school is a great time for me to start on a new schedule. I don’t want to live at school. I miss too much and I’m not willing to miss it.

My new assignment is a wonderful challenge that will stretch my teaching skills and demand a lot of focused time. It would be easy to get wrapped up in it to the exclusion of all else. The challenge I am setting myself is not to.

distracted reading

The Boston Globe offered a brief article this Sunday on our changing reading brains. As we adapt to the skimming of online reading – reading the first few sentences, scrolling down in search of keywords and interesting phrases, clicking on to new links – many of us find that we can no longer sit and read through a novel or scholarly journal. My husband has already been monitoring this decline in his own reading habits, forcing himself to sit with a novel for half-hour stretches to try to re-train his brain.

Researchers are now looking into what this adaptation will mean for critical reading necessary to process information at school and work. “There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.” And I’m thinking, if my husband – life-long lover of good books, university trained in how to read them – can begin to lose his ability to read deeply, what does this mean for my second graders? After all, the students I teach are already on the “watch list” of those who may need extra support to develop strong academic skills. They are predominantly from low-income families, more than half of them are English language learners, hardly any of their parents have more than a high school education (and some, not even that), and several are transients who move from school to school each year. They are already disadvantaged readers.

As a school, we address these issues as best we can. We support families in finding stable housing, we connect them with services to balance out the lack of income, and we structure our curriculum to fill in the language and literacy gaps traditionally connected with these social and economic groups. But, we have done little, or nothing, to address this new threat to literacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an effort to provide students with more reading material outside of school, we help set families up with online reading material.

Certainly, keeping students off the internet is not the answer. What we need is to adjust our reading instruction to the reality of reading in 2014 and beyond.

But I don’t know how to do that yet. In fact, while writing this rather short post, I stopped once to check email, another time to refill my coffee cup, and then clicked on to a teacher bog recommended by a colleague that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Who am I to instruct students on how to read through distractions?

All I can do right now is begin to look closely at how my students tackle a reading project. During Independent Reading (20 minutes of our day) do they stick to a book or continually sift through their bag? Is their Response to Reading reflective of critical thought about the book or distracted rambling? Do they know enough about books and what they like to make a good choice in the classroom library? And, when they have some online reading time, how many clicks away from the text do they make?

Once I get a better feel for my students’ reading habits . . . well, I don’t know yet what I’ll do. But I know I’d like to be a part of this conversation. I know that the ability to read critically is key to learning, a key they’ll need to hold on to through school and their careers.


Reading a book of her own creation – a good sign


Stuffed “Reading Buddies” help keep us focused.