It’s Not an Experiment*

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Throughout my teaching career, new ideas and opportunities scream out, “Try me!” and, if I believe my students will benefit, I’m ready to try, learn, reevaluate, and tweak, just as a researcher does. So when I read, This school year is an experiment, it surprised me that it was another one of those statements that was meant to alleviate my anxiety but instead caused me to be angry.

Why? 

Because failure is not an option.

I am not the stereotypical scientist wearing a white lab coat and safety goggles staring through a microscope into a petri dish. I’m a teacher preparing to teach in a physical and virtual classroom.

It is true that when I’m in my physical classroom, I’ll be wearing similar safety equipment.

It is true that even before the pandemic, my physical classroom was a petri dish of students innocently (I hope) virus and germ sharing.  

It is also true that I call my classroom the “Literacy Lab” because my students and I experiment with words, putting them in different order, substituting one over another, experimenting to find the best way to convey our messages to others. 

But I don’t think of my teaching during this global pandemic as an experiment. 

Why?

#1: I’m not trying to prove a hypothesis. 

I do conduct research while teaching.  In education, formalized research is sometimes called action-research, and I’ve done that. But, even if I don’t formalize my research, I’m still examining evidence. I’m constantly assessing how my students are doing academically, socially, and emotionally. Based on the evidence I gather, I adjust.

#2: Variables I Can’t Control: I don’t need to list them because anyone that is familiar with education debates knows that the number of variables out of a teacher’s control is innumerable.  Here’s a few typically brought into discussion: parental support, SES, race, zip code, and hormones (remember I teach middle schoolers). This year even if I could control those variables, the virus is a BIG, UNCONTROLLED variable causing known and unknown effects. 

#3: Failure is not an option.

I know there will be mistakes this school year, just like every other year I’ve taught. If not, then I’m not challenging myself or my students enough. But to me, the mistakes I expect to see in my classroom aren’t the same as a science experiment failing.  I’m not okay with one plant doing better than the others because I gave it a different kind of fertilizer. I need all of my students to learn and grow.  And maybe that’s why I don’t want to think of the school year as an experiment. I want to keep the promise I share with every student at the beginning of every year: If you give me a chance and participate in Literacy Lab hour, you might not learn to love reading and writing, but you’ll also not fail.

*There are statements about school during the global pandemic that I hear or read that nag at me.  In the hopes that I can find the root of my discomfort with each, I’m “writing to learn.” Some of what I’m learning, I’ve decided to share publicly on my blog. This is one.  

Adapt: Do This but Not This

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You’ll adapt and it will be fine.

I read statements similar to this, usually posted by healthcare workers, and feel frustrated.  To my family, friends, and all who work in healthcare, I thank you and appreciate all the suggested safety precautions you’re sharing with me! Both education and healthcare careers require big hearts and I know the intention is to try to alleviate educators’ fears, but when I read that I’ll adapt and it will be fine, it doesn’t make me feel reassured. Here’s why. 

Call it whatever you want–differentiation, monitoring and adjusting, using multiple modalities, teaching for multiple intelligences, providing options for students to show evidence of learning–it all means one thing to teachers: We must adapt our teaching to best match our individual students. And we do that.

We adapt the moment we see the happy-go-lucky student enter the building with slumped shoulders and no smile.  We adapt when the first snowflakes fall or the winter storm promising a snow day doesn’t live up to its potential.  We adapt on Halloween and when the moon is full. We adapt when the fire alarm screams and flashes requiring us to leave the building and then return to what we were doing. We adapt when a student misses school and comes back overwhelmed, unsure of where to even begin.  We adapt when we give the directions orally, written, chunked, with visuals to aid comprehension, and then we adapt again when we still see blank stares instead of students working. So, if teachers are masters at adapting, why am I irked when I hear or read, “You’ll adapt and everything will be fine?”

It took me a few days to have, what we in education call, “the lightbulb moment.”

As I wrote in my last post, last spring educators adapted along with everyone else, but I know of no one that was happy with the results. Teachers have, however, learned and will adapt–IF we are permitted. And here is where my frustration lies.

I am being told to adapt but not adapt. I have the ability to provide instruction safely using a variety of tools and techniques but am being told I’m not allowed to choose that option for myself.  In healthcare, there was a push to provide telemedicine as much as possible, even mental health services.  Why is education different?  Why am I being told I need to be with my students in my classroom when I can be with them, safely, through other means? Why am I being told, “We support you if you decide to take a leave of absence, retire (which I can’t), or quit?” Am I really being asked to choose between giving up a profession I love or performing my duties  in an unsafe environment, even when it doesn’t have to be that way? That’s exactly what I’m being asked to do, and that is why, even if I do adapt, I don’t believe it will be fine*. 

*Added 8/16/2020:  I’m still struggling to figure out what “fine” means to me.  Maybe it means “normal” and I know “normal” isn’t possible right now. Maybe it means everyone will be satisfied, but I know even prior to the pandemic, everyone wasn’t satisfied with my job performance (again see my previous post).  Maybe, because I don’t know how to define “fine,”  the statement, “everything will be fine” is so difficult for me to accept.

 (Please also read Stop Covid-19 Career Comparison Guilting. Nancy’s words express many of my thoughts related to my frustration.) 

Fall 2020 Is Not Spring 2020

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Dear Parents,

Please stop repeating how horrible distance learning* was in the spring. 

I never tell my students, “Your writing was horrible.”  Why? Because I know their writing is personal. It’s an extension of who they are.  When I hear about how horrible distance learning was, I can’t help but take it personally.  Even though we were at the onset of a global pandemic and I was under strict guidelines of what I could and could not provide, the distance learning opportunities I planned were an extension of me. 

Every day, from before “school” restarted on April 15, through the last day on June 10, I knew the experience I was providing for my students wasn’t my best work.  It was mediocre most times, (and maybe a bit horrible at others).   My students knew it wasn’t my best. I can’t thank them enough for being extremely forgiving! So parents, reminding me how horrible it was, only keeps me focused on the past.   What I need from you now is help preparing for the future.

Unless my district’s current proposal changes, I’ll be in my classroom teaching students who are physically present. I’ll also have some students learning online.  Even if your child is one of those sitting in my classroom, there’s a (high) probability that your child will be required to stay home and use online learning for at least a portion of the upcoming school year.

When that happens, it’ll be a challenge, but I’m asking you to refrain from saying, “My child won’t learn anything. Online learning doesn’t work.”  Instead, know that I remember last spring, and I know that my online teaching is an extension of me.  I don’t want it to be horrible, and I’ve been working on ways to improve it.   I can’t guarantee perfection, but honestly, even pre-pandemic, in my classroom, with the ability to be next to your children, it wasn’t perfect.  So please parents, remember, Fall 2020 is not Spring 2020.

*It was called distance learning and not online teaching for a reason.  I have some experience with online teaching and what I was asked to do from April 15 through June 10, was not online teaching.

To-do List Liberation: 50-4-50 Lesson

I could look back at my 50-4-50 list and be disappointed for not accomplishing more, but why? Maybe I didn’t kayak a total of 10 times, but I did kayak more than previous summers.  I also didn’t travel to all the places I listed, but I did travel. Part of setting goals is celebrating the small steps. That’s what I chose to do for the past few months however, my 50-4-50 list still nagged at me.  Not so much a nagging that I needed to rush and accomplish everything, but a nagging that I learned some kind of bigger lesson from the whole experience.

As 2019 approached, along with the end of my 50th year, I’ve spent many of my dog walking hours thinking about my list to see if I could figure out why I wasn’t closer to crossing off the entire list. I started the blame game: my family’s medical situations the past year, a job that requires me to grade and plan in the evenings and weekends, buying and selling a home, moving from our home of 24 years into a new home.  I could find all kinds of excuses but then I remembered, it was my list, not anyone else’s. It was time for me to look inward.

My brain loves to find patterns, so I started to notice almost everything on my list related to other people can be (at least partially) checked off.  Those that I let slide focused solely on me. Not a surprise really. There’s a reason I chose teaching as a profession–it’s about the people.

That’s not to say I put everyone else first, it just means I love being with others and helping others. But even this realization didn’t completely satisfy me for some reason. I felt there was more to it, so I kept walking the dog and thinking. That’s when I remembered Oprah turning 50.  On her show she talked about a feeling of liberation at the, and that’s how I feel now as I begin year 51. My 50-4-50 list didn’t dictate my last year, people did, but in a good way. I’ve found that when someone reaches out to me, I don’t look guiltily at my to-do list for school, home, NWP, union, shopping, etc.  I stop and focus on the person. Call me to join you for dinner or a night of cards? Sure! Ask me to be the fourth pickleball player Thursday night? Sure! Drive to Milwaukee just to spend a day with Pam, Matt and Mariette? Sure!

Time has become less important to me in many ways. When I find myself worried and stressed about not having enough time, I remind myself that there will be plenty of time if I just focus on the current moment.  When I do this, my to-do list is just that, a to-do list, not a mandate for how I must live my life. It’s that liberation I feel as I enter year 51 today and the reason I will celebrate today by having no specific schedule, not even a specific time for birthday cake. Today will be another day to  enjoy the people around me, and who knows, maybe cross something off the to-do list.

PS:  Here’s a link to my original 50-4-50 list if you’re interested in just what I accomplished or want to try something similar.

Crossed off 50-4-50 List

Here’s my list.  Crossed off means I accomplished it but doesn’t mean I’ll stop doing it.

I will continue:

  • writing a daily list of 10 items in my gratitude journal (don’t always write, but do reflect each night)
  • 50 Random Acts of Kindness (I’m sure this happened, I just didn’t mark them all down)
  • Volunteer 50+ hours (Special Olympics-Jan; WFTR, Food Fest, Noque, etc.)
  • Vote in every election (Of Course!)
  • Trying new recipes (50 maybe?  Did try cooking w/bean sprouts two days ago–see 5 vegetables a day below)
  • Read books (40ish)

Be healthy:

  • 5 vegetables a day (better but not always)
  • 650 intentional miles of walking/running for my Run 2018 Team (officially over 600 but then realized my 2 mile loop is actually 3 so I’m sure I walked 650)
  • 5K race (nope)
  • 50 push-ups daily (Started this but stopped for some reason)
  • Kayak at least 10x this summer (a few times(
  • Choose my bike or walking over the car (not as much as I should’ve)
  • 50+ minutes outside at least 5x a week (walking the dog helped but still needs work)

Revisit

  • playing tennis (no but tried Pickleball and loved it!)
  • How to change oil on a car (Yes)
  • Sewing (Nope still need to unpack the machine I bought over a (2) year ago)
  • Planning the neighborhood block party (Soup w/new neighbors after Christmas)
  • Posting to my blog (50x this year) which will also keep me accountable (Ah no…)
  • Write letters/notes to friends (yes I did a few of these and included old pics even)
  • Invite friends over every 4-6 weeks for dinner/games (new house is great for cards!)

Learn

  • the violin (with Ali’s help) Does trying it once count?
  • to crochet (no)
  • some foreign language (no)
  • a dance (Salsa anyone?)

Explore

  • the trails in South Marquette (once)
  • Hogsback (weather issues but it’s on the list again)
  • The Iron Heritage Trail from Ish. to Mqt.
  • Brockway Mountain Drive
  • Triple A to see the fall colors

Travel

  • 250+ miles to spend time with Lisa (Vegas baby!)
  • Mackinac Island (Yes with the girls!)
  • Duluth (a few times)
  • Niagara Falls and hopefully NYC
  • The backroads of my childhood/teen years (planned for 2019 summer w/friend)

1st

  • Colonoscopy (Yup and good for another 10 years)
  • Pedicure (Mother’s Day this year?)
  • Facial: my bday present last year

With Todd:

  • watch a horror movie with him (Pet Semetary is his choice)
  • Jump off Blackrocks  (Yes, thanks Todd, Cathy and Jackie for joining me)
  • Schedule weekly date nights (again)
  • Drive the Razor instead of always being a passenger
  • Shoot Archery

Bucketlist:

  • Skydive with Ali to celebrate her transition to adulthood (it’s still on our lists)
  • Zipline

Because I can and just want to:

  • plant 50 gladiola bulbs (yes at the old house so need to do this at new house)
  • Watch 50 sunsets/sunrises
  • Purge 50 items at once (We moved!  Who doesn’t purge then?!)
  • Smile more
  • Binge watch an entire series of a show, undecided on which one still (Series 1 of Handmaid’s Tale)

Celebrate my Lucky 50 with some family and friends on Friday the 13th. It was awesome!

 

Purge Is Not the Word

Downsizing is also not the word. What I experienced starting last April was so much more. My 50-4-50 list included “Purge 50 items at once,” but The Purge actually encompassed weekly, and sometimes daily, sorting and discarding over five months. It began in my home office area on a Saturday in April. That first purge lasted five hours, included a car trip to a recycling dumpster and half-filled our home’s recycling bin. I shocked myself as I discovered many of the papers I’d stored for so long. After living in our house for 23 years, raising two daughters, obtaining 3 college degrees, and teaching 23 years, the types of papers I’d collected ranged from manuals for kitchen appliances no longer in our home to students’ writing for my research papers to our daughters’ school work to tax returns from more than 10 years ago.

I’m not sure what prompted the first purge, but once I started, I didn’t stop. The Purge also led me to decide I was ready to sell our home and move into a new one. A call to a realtor and a quick purge by Todd and I of some basement items, resulted in us signing a Buyer’s Agent contract and one ticked off daughter. How could we sell her childhood home just as she was leaving for college?

With the prospect of finding a new home, selling our current home, and a move, the urge to purge increased. For the next one-two months, I surveyed every item in our home. “Do I need this? Do I want to move this?” By July, my hope of finding a new home dwindled, but The Purge mindset continued. I enjoyed surprising people with that little something. I gave a former student her 7th grade magazine project from at least 12 years ago. (The Purge spread to include my classroom.) A former colleague discovered an “I Love Cincinnati” magnet on her back porch railing I had planned to give her for at least the last three years. Along with the wooden student desk their mom planned to refinish, bottles of bubbles delighted two young cousins. I wanted to purge and kept purging.

In July when we signed a purchase agreement on a new home and the paperwork to actually sell our home, the purging continued.   Needless to say, by the time we moved at the end of August, I’d purged 50 items more than once. A drawback of The Purge though is that it, and the selling/buying of homes, took precedent over the rest of my 50-4-50 list. I’m still writing in my gratitude journal but my other writing, including blogging, is woefully behind. Now that The Purge is done, I can refocus my energy on attacking that 50-4-50 list. I’ll keep you posted…

The Blank Refrigerator

Once upon a time there was a blank refrigerator.  It dutifully kept its contents cold for its owners.  Over time the refrigerator held more than just perishable food; it kept memories.  These memories were not found on the inside, but on the exterior of the refrigerator.  There were candid snapshots of family, magnetic momentos of trips and special surprises, a handmade poster, report cards, certificates of achievement, grocery lists, menu ideas, and more.  These physical objects meant less to outside observers but still provided a glimpse into the owners’ lives.

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A few of the items found on our fridge.

Over time the refrigerator tired and was replaced, but each new replacement refrigerator’s door became a display–until last week.  

You see, last week one of the owners started packing for the family’s move to a new house and the refrigerator isn’t coming along. Even though that particular owner isn’t sentimental, once she took all the items off, she found it odd to look at the blank refrigerator door. The move became more real to her, and a tinge of nostalgia hit her heart.

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Waiting for another family to fill the blank slate.

In the next house with a new refrigerator, the owner will post many of the same items but life is changing.  There are more transitions happening other than the move across town. College Dean’s Lists will replace the K-12 report cards. New UMD magnetic momentos will be added. Some photos will include new friends.

The owner finds it a little ironic that the new refrigerator will be slightly skinnier to fit in the new space.  It’s as if there’ll be less to post. Her heart is saddened a bit, but she’s certain there will be plenty of memories to share with the outside observer who takes a moment to glimpse at the new refrigerator’s door.

Hidden Benefits

When we bought our home 24 years ago, I pictured how it would look after our 10-year updating plan:  no suspended ceilings, fluorescent lighting, paneling, printed wallboard, or orange and black shag carpeting. The plan also called for a deck off the patio door, a new custom kitchen for me, and a big garage for Todd. Surprisingly, the 10-year plan only became an 11-year plan by the time all the major renovations/additions were complete. I enjoyed helping with all the projects, and living in the finished home, but that level of love and enjoyment has slowly diminished.

For the past  few years, I’ve mentioned possibly selling our home sometime in the future and that possibility could become reality soon. People ask me why I want to sell and my answer is  simply, “I don’t enjoy it anymore.” It’s the same reason I’m selling my piano. I don’t play it, and it’s time for someone else to love it the way I once did.

Twenty-four years ago I imagined raising children in our house but knew it would be a bit before a child would keep me awake all night crying in the panda-decorate nursery or learn to walk across the living room from the couch to the recliner.  What I didn’t know was just how wonderful our location would be for raising our two daughters. I thought about our yard’s hill and the sledding fun my kids would have, but I never thought about how they’d grow into the “big” hill at Harlow Park.  I didn’t realize how the alley and the American Legion’s parking lot next door would be where they’d learn to ride their bikes, drive the Power Wheels jeep, Todd’s truck, and for Ali, the 5-speed Ford Focus.

I also didn’t realize Park Cemetery would become our after dinner excursion spring through fall so the girls could learn to ride their bikes around corners, up and down hills, and end the adventure feeding the ducks.  

Then there’s Harlow Park.  It’s so close I would sometimes dish up our dinner and we’d walk down to have a picnic supper followed by playtime in the park.  The Fit Strip provided nature walks and snowshoeing excursions. So why sell? Because we don’t do any of these things anymore. It seems just a few years ago exploring our home’s interior and the yard proved enough to satisfy Amy and Ali’s curiosity, but soon came the requests to sled at Harlow Park without my supervision, then walk home from elementary school and a few more years later, bike to a friend’s home or Subway for lunch.   

Our girls’ worlds are ever-expanding and our home and it’s location isn’t big enough for them.   Yes, I’ll miss my neighbors (especially Sue Ann who has watched all of our home renovations and our babies grow into adults) and the quick access to the bike path, downtown and all my banking and shopping, but with each passing day, I know it’s time to leave our home and find the hidden benefits of another location.

How an Oil Change Reminded Me How To Be an Effective Teacher

Nervous. Stupid. Weak. Incompetent.   I didn’t expect to have any of these thoughts when I decided I wanted to revisit how to change oil on a car as a part of my 50-4-50 list. I spent many hours in garages with my high school boyfriend and his friends, so these feelings caught me off guard. Why was I so nervous? I’ve done this before.  I even thought of backing out at the last minute.  Was I really that concerned about looking incompetent in front of my husband of 25 years? I guess so.  Luckily, my confidence built quickly as I found the hood release, propped the hood up, and pulled the oil stick. A moment of doubt followed when I pushed the floor jack under the car and Todd asked, “See the frame?”  “Sure???” He pointed out a few different parts, and then we jacked up the car.

After successfully retrieving the proper tool by name only, my increasing confidence showed. Todd offered to help me unscrew the skid plate. “No. I got it.”  I struggled a bit (bifocals are a bitch when lying on a creeper under a car and trying to put the screwdriver into the screw), but I was able to chuckle at myself by this point. My confidence continued to build as I independently found the oil filter.  Then, when I tried to loosen the filter using the filter wrench, it happened again, that feeling of incompetence. Luckily, Todd struggled releasing the oil filter too, so I didn’t feel as bad.

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Todd continued being patient as I looked for the drain plug and struggled to loosen that too.  He taught me how to add leverage by hooking two end wrenches together and then lovingly offered to hold the wrenches and provide a little extra umph when my weak upper arm strength still showed. Once the oil drained and it was time to put everything back together, my confidence allowed me to work (almost) independently.  Of course, Todd checked in and didn’t wander away. He continued to answer my questions and even chuckled with me as I continued to complain about my bifocals, my weak upper arms, and my understanding of why my uncle’s garage was built with a floor pit.

One of Todd’s many sayings includes, “I’m only a dumb plumber but…” Without his guidance, I’m almost positive I would’ve never attempted the oil change or would’ve cried Uncle early on. He nudged me by asking a simple question, “Do you see the skid plate screws?” then when I wasn’t sure, he’d point one out and let me find the the rest. He provided the physical assistance I needed when I just wasn’t strong enough to budge the filter or drain plug, yet once loosened, he let me take over.  His patience and persistence, allowed me to eventually chuckle at my struggles. His genuine heart, belief in my ability, and careful balance between helping and pushing me guided me to my end goal and feeling of accomplishment. But more importantly, my “dumb plumber” husband reminded me just what I need to do, say, and believe to be a good teacher. Love you dear!

I Shouldn’t Be One of Those People You Envy

“You’re so lucky. I wish I didn’t have to worry about what I ate.  How do you stay so thin?”

I’ve heard these statements many times in my 50 years of living, and during my teens, it was especially tough.  I knew of girls struggling with eating disorders, and I felt guilty that I didn’t need to worry. Regardless of what I ate, I never gained weight.  But I also got tired of being told, “You’re too skinny; you should gain some weight.” Trust me–I tried. My doctor checked me for hyperthyroidism. I met with a dietician whose suggestion included eating more food. Maybe a nightly bowl of ice cream?  Considering my mom rationed my ice cream to one five-gallon bucket a week, I figured I met my ice cream quota already.

By my mid-twenties, I heard comments such as, “What until you have babies,” or “What until you turn 30.”  Those milestones occurred together. I gained close to 40 pounds with my first pregnancy and planned to keep about ten of those pounds after the baby was born. Nope.  Six weeks after the birth, I was back in my size 4 jeans to the chagrin of many of my fellow new moms. Pregnancy #2 didn’t help. Neither did the ages of 35, 40, or 45.  I don’t expect 50 to be much different.

So why am I the lucky one?  I’m not. During my teen years, it seemed as though I was told I should gain weight at least once a day.  Even my caring high school teachers would express their concern during parent-teacher conferences. I became self-conscious about my body.  I tended to wear baggy clothes more often because I hated how my hip bones protruded and my rib bones showed. Sure, even today, I still never have to worry about my clothes becoming too small, but I’m not the lucky one. You see, I also don’t have the visual reminder to eat healthy.

Being thin isn’t the perfect sign of a healthy eater.  I love chocolate and anything sweet. Remember my mom’s rationing of ice cream?  In high school I’d eat a pound of M&Ms during a Friday night movie. My mom would find chocolate bar wrappers hidden in my pillowcase and realize why her baking supply cabinet was missing some.  Luckily I grew up in a home where fresh fruit was always available and our family dinner always included vegetables that had to be eaten before I left the supper table.   Yet, I didn’t have to worry about my weight, and as a teenager, my heart health wasn’t even in the back of my mind.  

As I’ve grown older and raised my daughters, healthy eating habits are prominent goals. Do I eat as healthy as I should?  No. I’m still not a big fan of vegetables and that’s why part of my 50-4-50 list includes eating more of them. When I realized I eat fruit more often because they are sweeter and they require less prep, I used that idea to help increase my vegetable intake. 

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Honey Mustard Chicken & Vegetable Pasta Salad

This past year I started taking a daily Bugs Bunny moment and chomp down a full carrot.  I try to remember to cut up vegetables so they are readily available in the refrigerator, and I try to find recipes which incorporate vegetables. Will I ever be a big fan of vegetables? Probably not. Will I ever get to a point when my clothes are too small? Probably not. But I certainly won’t let that be an excuse for not taking steps to improve my diet because even skinny people need to eat healthy.