preamble/why am I here?
I’ve posted so intermittently here, and often just cataloging my reading, like a running record.
(Check out my new bookshop.org lists. It’s an affiliate link, full disclosure, though I’m not even sure how that works. Mostly I appreciate a space to share books in categorized lists that supports small bookstores and is aesthetically pleasant.)
I am currently trying to maintain my quarantine bubble as much as I can, so while this summer is full of pain and tension and and confusion and limbo, it is also, perhaps. My READINGEST SUMMER EVER. Look forward to some recs at the end of this note.
Anyhow, I haven’t written here a ton or consistently because, well, the first few years of teaching are tiring, but also I’ve been sheepish in my purpose for this space. Is it a career portfolio for when I need that? Is it a truly just my notes and my learning? (I lean towards this.) A place to collect resources that might help some other human? A representation of myself as an educator? As a learner? Maybe it is just a container for my experiences, so I don't forget.
I debate about the extent to which I should remain anonymous--I don’t want to talk directly about my students in a public space, right? Though it is them I think about the most. . . . plus the complications of being an employee? Am I worried about that? This confusion also keeps me unclear on how/when/if I promote this space.
But then why do I have it? blah blah blah...these thoughts circle and repeat. It’s not that interesting. It does make me consider whether doing a tiny letter newsletter or something instead, slightly less “public,” would be better. Which makes me write “look into tiny letter” somewhere on my to do list most weeks. (And I have, I just haven’t decided yet.)
Today I want to write an end-of-year recap, at least for myself. Will it be boring for you? Maybe. Read the parts that catch your eye. I apologize in advance for the excess of parentheticals. It is a parenthetical time.
let’s begin the recap
I completed and survived my 4th year of teaching! Some things went well! I learned! I haven’t quit yet so we will see if I make it past the statistical 5 year mark that many teachers don’t last beyond.
This was also my first second-year in a school. The second year part was not necessarily because I found a perfect-match school (am I looking for that?) but because it’s how things worked out. There is a union (❤️) and I didn’t have to move all my stuff again. I moved further along in the tenure process, for whatever that’s worth (towards the inertia of staying in one place until retirement or I'll lose all the gains I sacrificed for?) Being a 2nd year in a school had some advantages--I knew more about where things are and who to ask, etc., but also, as suspected, there was nothing magically better about it.
As one instagram teacher friend told me: “You’ll have a better idea what thing are total BS and can be ignored.” Ha. There is a lot of cynicism in teacherland, mostly justified. The other advantage is coming in with some curricular schemes developed, though my district made some big structural changes to ELA in my grade level, so things were still quite different. This change did allow me to teach in a longer block, though, which I enjoy. My elective stayed the same so I had a head start with that course.
As a second year teacher in the tenure process, I had the added work but also support of collaborating with a district level coach for the year, sending lesson plans for feedback and meeting weekly for about an hour. I heard many horror stories about this process prior, but ended up being very lucky and getting an awesome coach.
The first part of the year with intensive lesson plan submissions stole my weekends and nearly pushed me to a breaking point, but once I got through that (and cried a lot and talked to my therapist a lot) I got to enjoy supportive conversations with someone smart who understood what I was trying to do. That was truly the saving grace of this year.
The coaches are non-evaluative and not part of your building (and its politics) and not tied to any agenda besides making better teachers for kids. We had some great conversations about grading, the gendered pitfalls of teacher evaluation, building standards-based grading modules, how to differentiate... I would try things, and then we would discuss. He interviewed my students at times and helped me get a clearer view of how they were understanding our work. (That was so cool and I recommend it.) Having someone to support me and push my thinking within in my own goals (instead of some giant rubric) was a gift!
A less bright spot was how we began the year. The prior spring the district estimated our building enrollment would drop, so cut our budget and staff, including half of our behavior support team (and my favorite hallway neighbor.)
Our school is one of the “good" middle schools in the district, having been a predominantly affluent site for a long stretch, (and all the benefits and baggage that come with that...one of the few remaining middle schools with tracking, for example, but I digress…) So, predictably, in the fall our numbers were higher than anticipated. Our union caps individual classes at 37 and and a teacher should not average over 35 for all of their classes. Supposedly they can’t even schedule beyond those limits, but there is no consequence if they do...so they do. I had 40+ in at least one section.
We started the year sweating, packed in rooms without enough chairs (but told to make it not look that way so the media or parents wouldn’t notice) and it took about about a quarter to sort this out. Some positions still had long-term subs beyond that. (Including Health..and fast forward to this summer I am reading so many sexual assault stories coming out of past years at our high schools..but again...I digress…) It was a rough start to the year and many kids had their schedules shuffled multiple times. A tough way to set the tone for the year.
Though it is mentioned often that we are a Restorative Practices school...our support staff in this area was cut and little was done to change how we did things in response to that reduction. Classes were huge. Lots of hallway drama and nonsense and kids knowing exactly what they could get away with and maybe even enjoying pushing those limits, or just not finding the support to make other choices. Miscommunication, lack of follow-through, inconsistent follow-through...I don’t want to say more because I circled this conversation so many times with peers over the year and it is depressing. But know it was an added stress and staff often felt unheard, unsupported, or gaslighted.
Around the end of Quarter 3 we went on strike! The reasons were sound but being on strike is really stressful! It’s like being a pawn in a game of chess that someone else is playing. We walked so many miles on that chess board! I’d watched the Chicago strike in the fall and knew it could go on longer than expected. So many anxieties about loss of pay, coordinating family care with the extend hours...the cold and the rain. Gathered in groups of thousands, shouting, while, as it turned out, a pandemic was settling into our country.
A bright spot of the strike was having lots of time to talk with coworkers I didn’t usually get to see for more than a few minutes. It made me think that most staff meetings should just be long walks where you pair up with a couple different people and check in about what’s going on in their part of the school, what's going well and what's challenging. It affirms your experience and also allows you to tap into each other’s expertise.
Another bright spot was positive support from the community, even as it placed extra burden on families.
The strike was cut short by the pandemic. We settled up quickly because the governor was about to shift us all towards distance learning. Within 5 hours we were back at school and “planning” for something we didn’t know the shape of yet. Some coworkers sat in stunned disbelief, some staring at a huge technology learning curve, some jumping into hyperdrive planning mode to try to grasp a sense of control.
Weren’t we just on the picket line?... And though we are an RP district, there was no conversation like: “We’ve just intensely been adversaries and you were yelling at us from the street...let’s have a chat about that before we shift gears.” Nope. Just right into top-down messaging. It felt very weird.
Having my online community of equity/ABAR educators that I respect to guide me, as well as having had my coach’s support all year helped me remember to stay grounded in my purpose and in my students who were going through something very intense at a very intense stage of life.
Hm, well. I think we've all probably read a million-and-one takes on this by now, so I won’t give a ton of background. I tried my best to build on the relationships with my students and to transition our class routines to a digital format so it would feel familiar. This worked decently well. Getting the digital layout and formatting clear took a few weeks. It helped when our building got on the same page with formatting, but I also think many students had given up by then, as this wasn’t coordinated until about week 7. After the behavior chaos of the year and the strike...I will admit I did appreciate some quiet and physical space for a change...in some ways I could give my students more direct attention.
Many students showed increased focus without their crush or their frenemy 10 feet away, and without having much else to do in their lives in general. How they juggled 9 different classes, I do not know--that seems like a lot for a 12 year old. I tried out Kidblog by the end and it would be great to use all year long. I set up our work to be asynchronous and noticed more kids caught up who’d gotten behind than usually would in person (especially at the end of the year when it is so hot and there are so many end of year activities.)
My co-teacher was able to pull more effective small groups without the distractions of the building environment. The kids who didn’t do much at all in those final weeks were almost exclusively kids who also weren’t doing much in person, so I think that speaks to other issues within our systems. Many kids learned how to write a better email to get their q’s answered. I got to know so many pets. It wasn’t all bad, but even kids who kind of liked it were very much over it by June. Many were lonely if they didn’t have a cell phone to connect with friends online. (Our school iPads didn’t allow them to contact each other without a teacher present.)
murder, uprising, and interlopers
And then the murder of Gorge Floyd by police over Memorial Day Weekend. The community pain and outcry and also the interlopers who joined in to burn down a lot of my neighborhood and other neighborhoods in the area. The city didn’t seem to step in for awhile, so Ali Velshi on MSNBC became my narrator as we watched our city burn and wondered what was next.
I took on 12-2 or 2-4 a.m. neighborhood watch shifts. I saw the 3rd precinct burn down with hundreds of others, standing mostly calmly in the streets. Some drunkenness from looted liquor stores, but otherwise it felt like a strange street fair while multiple buildings just burned around us. I didn’t know multiple buildings could just burn and not cause mass death and major injuries. So surreal. Occasionally someone would run through the crowd saying, “The National Guard is 2 blocks away!” to disperse? to create chaos? just rumors? Not sure. But they weren’t coming yet, not for another day or two.
From school leaders we heard: “You know, support your students, but don’t bring it up.” Hm. Our neighborhoods are burning. A man was murdered by the supposed protectors of our community. We feel scared and unsafe. A few days later--”Oh here is some official language…”
I was reminded, yet again, again, again...maybe we can’t wait for leaders to lead….I am embarrassed how slow I am on this lesson.
My neighbors and I discussed how it felt to live in such uncertainty during the night and then to show up at work in the morning as usual, and how disorienting this is and also how some people (and some kids) feel this way all the time...
I mailed my students the end of the year letter that I would typically hand out in person. Our neighborhood post office and mailbox got caught up in the chaos--like literally the mailbox disappeared a few hours after I put the letters in it--but fingers-crossed the letters made their way to the almost 7th graders.
Black lives matter. 🖤💛
And then, the school year ended. All the kids got a Pass as their grade--though I am not sure that was ever communicated to them clearly or directly.
We wait in limbo to hear about fall, and try to keep track of what is happening, and watch the national non-leadership stir up chaos around us.
And look for ways to help?
(and share reading lists and share skepticism about people sharing reading lists…)
THE READINGEST SUMMER READING LIST
not everything but a lot of things
In Search of Deeper Learning by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine - I listened to the audio. Not my favorite narrator but got me through the book a lot faster. They compare 3 major models and lots of observational data about what creates a “deep” learning experience for teens
Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss - a survey of 60s--90s teen lit. Even better was watching the new Netflix Babysitter’s Club series, but this book was a nice companion
Mythologies by Roland Barthes - this was mentioned in a couple other things I’ve read. Heady but interesting. Not exactly about “mythology” but connected. I have a loose understanding of how he connects to modern thinking so...helpful. In-progress. Please don't quiz me on it. ;-)
Bodega by Minnesota poet Su Hwang - when is the last time you read a book of poetry? She is a friend of a friend and I am just starting this and am excited.
Electric Arches by Eve Ewing - speaking of poetry! It's just so good and has a beautiful cover. Get it. Read it. Eve is such an amazing polymath
this panel discussion: Repurposing Our Pedagogies by the education liberation network--just so amazing! watch it!
Stamped, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi - the YA version of Stamped from the Beginning by Kendi. I listened to the YA version first (the audio is so good!) and that helped me dive into the heftier adult version. I think you could read the adult version like a chapter a day over a month and a half and it would be manageable. Since I have time right now I read it all in a week and a half or so--but it was a commitment.
How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This is the one I read first, before the previous two. It was not at all what I expected. He does an amazing job of blending his own memoir story of his racial identity with history and sociology. Highly recommend! I did this one on audio as well. He is very humble about his own racism and how that impacted his adolescence--I found this insightful and also inspiring that we all can be so humble in acknowledging the phases we've (hopefully) passed through.
the Eve Ewing Fresh Air interview - again, amazing!
Hagsville, vol. 1 - an autobiographical zine. I love it. I follow the artist on instagram and can't wait to read the rest of her story! (and I love that her etsy shop is called Weird Girls Only)
And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School - an interesting look on how we stumbled on the idea of adolescence (and how weird that dude was) and how that has shaped how we see middle schoolers today. It's geared towards parents, but also includes some history of how middle schools and schooling in general came to be post child labor laws. Lots of good food for thought. She is affirming of young people and their wonderfulness and reminds us that sometimes adults are the ones causing problems...