Stuff Management

During a normal school year,

 I spend hours in front of a copying machine

producing stacks and stacks of handouts.

I collect, grade and return

countless paper-based assignments. 

Piles of pencils

and heaps of hall passes 

see hand-to-hand tranfer.

During a normal school year,

daily objectives, 

homework assignments,

and key information 

are neatly printed on the whiteboard 

with multicolored markers.

Anchor charts hang from the walls,

exemplary work plasters the halls. 

During a normal school year,

I expend 

so much 

energy 

managing 

all of this 

stuff.

But a global pandemic

has caused a revolution

in stuff management.

School supplies are intricately stacked 

in my storage closet like Jenga pieces. 

Bulletin boards are free of

mental clutter.  

Non-essential items

plastic crates, 

rolling carts, 

pillows

are stowed away in 

underground facilities,

out of sight, out of mind.

Twelve desks are

uniformly aligned

rows of four

spaced six-feet apart.

During a global pandemic,

my room feels 

sparse but cozy, 

simple but calm. 

Tomorrow, my hybrid students 

will return to our sacred place of learning.

We will arrive with backpacks

slung over our shoulders–

backpacks containing everything

we need to make learning happen.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Passion

OMG. I forgot how much I love seeing my students in their three-dimensional forms. All high waisted jeans and oversized sweatshirts, all bright-eyed and animated, all chipped nails and two-toned hair, all scritchy scratchy with their pencils; all whisper-sharing; all super cool and super real!

But wait!  It gets even better.

There is this one student with whom I’ve spent the better part of this past school year cajoling him to engage in virtual classes and to turn in work. So much so, that my family knows this child by the sound of his voice.  He began the year disengaged, distracted and dependent. He failed most of the first semester. Our team worried he wouldn’t pass eighth grade.

But here is the thing I learned early on. This kid loves to read, and books became the intersection of our student-teacher relationship. The librarian and I fed him stacks of books. We dropped books off at his apartment, and by the following week, he finished those and was requesting more.

His high-level of reading engagement directly contrasts his long history of low and failing comprehension scores on district and state assessments. So while he struggles to pay attention in synchronous classes and attend to synchronous classwork, this boy has decided to turn up his superpower, reading.  He read all throughout September, on into December and across the month of February.  

March 16, 2021: Andre entered the classroom for the first time this afternoon. He was taller than I expected with a mop of black hair brushed to the side. His button-up plaid dress shirt suggested he was taking his “first day of school” seriously.

During class he took out his iPad and worked through a series of class assignments, like an engaged, attentive and independent student. When it was time to write in our journals about the prompt: Think about something you are passionate about and write long, Andre filled up a full notebook page with his thinking. 

Near the end of the writing block, I leaned down and asked Andre what passion he was writing about, and do you know what he said?

READING!!  He wrote a whole page about how much he loves to read. 

I wanted to hug him right then and there!  I wanted to tell him he is a bright light beaming through the dark assessment data. I wanted to tell him to just straight up ignore all of our fussing at him to be better, to do better, to fit our mold better. I wanted him to know that despite our best efforts to define him as a struggling and below basic reader, it clearly wasn’t enough to stop him from his passion!

And the best moment of the year didn’t stop there. After the principal excused the walkers and car riders from the building, and it was just Andre and me in the classroom, I asked him how his first day back at school went. 

He looked at me all cheery-eyed, all I-got-this, all trying-to-be-the-best-student-ever, and said: “It was really good!”  

And I believed in him!

My Top Ten Classroom Priorities

Our generous PTA awards numerous grants to our teachers. These financial gifts support special classroom projects, materials, speaker and field trip fees, access to the arts, community engagement, and many other projects and programs that simply wouldn’t exist without their funding. Access to funding is critically important to classroom teachers, especially given the long term budget cuts school systems have had to endure since the Great Recession.

Yet, when I made my list of possible PTA grant requests, I realized my list was less about needs and more about priorities.  March is a busy content month with state standardized tests just around the corner. The frenetic pace of content delivery coupled with the pressure to prepare students to pass the rigid five-paragraph essay, can distract and lead teachers astray from research-based best practices. 

The pull to move through content at a breakneck speed and the pressure to produce a group of kids who pass and pass advance a state test, cannot be my center. 

This I know is true:  Engagement, autonomy,  sense of purpose, and opportunities for success are the key ingredients to a successful classroom. How do I get there? Stick to my priorities!

My top 10 Classroom Priorities for the Spring:

  1. Make independent reading time sacred.
  2. Write daily and widely.
  3. Share our wonders, connections, and questions.
  4. Celebrate and laugh often.
  5. Maintain a robust and diverse classroom library.
  6. Value student-created learning goals over uniform unit skills
  7. Keep equity front and center: access, support, expectations
  8. Develop a community of learners built on trust
  9. Encourage risk-taking and mistake-making
  10. Advocate for student and teacher autonomy

Survival Mode

My track coach taught me to keep my gaze fixed on my lane, no more than six feet in front of me. He said, “Don’t expend energy assessing your competitors’ positions. Stick to what you need to do to run your best race.”

During this year-long pandemic, Coach’s advice has helped center my focus on the daily routines and rituals rather than the circumstances I cannot control. The overwhelming sense of loss has been devastating, and while I allowed myself to grieve the early losses: the milestones that would not come to fruition, the lives who were no longer with us, and the day-to-day human connections — were now too unbearable to process. I heeded Coach’s words, found my lane, fixed eyes six feet ahead, and remained in that stance for twelve months. My psychological survival mode.

But this week, something changed. I caught myself peeking into the other lane. The sun was a little warmer; voices were a little brighter;  a new found energy pulsed through my body.  

Hope was clearly making a move on me. I dared myself to observe her optimistic stride, all confident and nimble, before returning my attention back to my lane, blinders on, eyes straight ahead. 

I know Coach would want me to run my own race: mask up, socially distance, wash hands. “Don’t fall for false Hopes,” he would warn. But I can’t help but dream that the finish line to this nightmare race is just around the curve.

Live Coverage: Day 12

“Welcome back to Day 12 of the SOL challenge.

If you are just joining us,

The Way I See It continues to struggle with execution

She appears out-matched,

underqualified,

and fatigued.”

“I agree, Betsy. 

I’m not sure she has what it takes to post in the big leagues.

She will need a miracle to pull this one out!”

——–

I box-out the play-by-play commentary

and pivot to the screen before me.

My rhythm is all off.

I grasp for the perfect phrasing,

but the lines sail through my hands like a ghost ball.

I fumble on my words.

And trip on cliches.

My extended metaphors

are blocked.

I defend in the zone.

All passive voice. 

No sizzle.

My sentences are a double dribble.

Coach screams: Re-dun-dan-cy!

Autocorrect flashes red warnings.

Technical fouls amass.

Mental fatigue causes indecision,

and I throw the draft out of bounds.

Half time feels like days away.

There are no timeouts remaining

or substitutions allowed.

Traveling is called:

I’m three paragraphs in 

with no meaning to show for it.

I post up on the keys,

positioning to publish.

Rehearsing past literary moves. 

Readying to take my fadeaway shot.

With two seconds to spare,

I release a buzzer beater,

a perfect story arc.

It is all spin,

no substance,

and short of the goal.

I lower my laptop screen

just as the crowd

begins their chant,

A  I R   B A L L …

If You Find a Mug

Warm it in the microwave

for 30 seconds

then fill it with bold coffee.

Flip it upside down

and press the rim into dough

for perfectly shaped biscuits. 

Turn it over

and read the stamp of origin:

England, Japan, Sweden, China

USA.

Balance it on the roof of your car

while driving to work.

Display it like a trophy,

“Best Mom in the World”

“Teaching is my Superpower”

“New York Marathon”

Juggle it.

Sell it in a yard sale.

Crush it to make art.

Write your first name 

and last initial

on the bottom with a Sharpie.

Hang it from a hook.

Stack it on a shelf.

Load it in the dishwasher.

Pass it down to your 

college-age daughter.

Place it on your desk,

like a vase

and fill it with newly 

sharpened pencils.

Store just-in-case-you-need-it

or I-don’t-know-what-this-is

items for safekeeping.

Let it be the first thing 

you hold in the morning.

And the last item

to touch your lips 

at night.

Based on a Kwame Alexander poetry exercise, The Write Thing, p. 152.

Prison Break

Painting a chain link fence - HomeOwnersHub

I stare out the sunroom window at the ugly chain link fence overgrown with ivy and unruly weeds.  The aged wire webbing runs along the entire outer perimeter of my neighbor’s yard. It serves one purpose: Every dog who walks by the fence sniffs and pees on the rusting metal, a calling card to the canine world.

The austere yards of the post WWII era, when working class families thought it practical and affordable to erect chain link fences, are mostly gone, replaced by landscaped lawns, inviting stone walkways, manicured beds and ornamental trees. All except this one aging chain link fence located across the street from our house.

I hate chain link fences for more than just their unsightly design. When I was a young girl growing up in the Midwest, chain link fences were everywhere. They were used as cages to keep kids in and barriers to keep kids out. Chain link fences limited the access to my friends’ yards, parking lots, our school’s playground, parks, cut-throughs, and fields. Out of necessity and juvenile rebellion, one of the first milestones to master as a kid was to learn how to scale a chain link fence without the assistance of an older sibling or friend. 

Learning to climb a chain link fence was an art form.  Our toes had to find the right honeycomb notches to anchor our feet as we climbed up the chain link netting. Cautiously we wove our hands underneath the spiked wires (purposely cut at an angle to inflict injury) to grab the round metal rail. If you were a master-level fence climber, you hoisted both legs over the top in one full side-swing followed by a 180-degree twist at the waist, landing a perfectly executed dismount, much like a gymnast’s move over the pommel horse.

I was too afraid that I’d catch my pant leg or shoelace on the top prongs and feared cutting my hand on the sharp wires. So I kept to the straddle method, extending my arms straight so as to generate a comfortable clearance for crossover. Then used the diamond shaped toe holds to lower myself down the otherside until it was safe to jump. 

My children didn’t have to master the art of hopping chain link fences. They grew up in a neighborhood free of metal barriers. They cut through yards, visited their school playground, and explored nearby parks freely. My wish is for more children to experience fewer barriers and more freedom to explore. Chain link fence removal is a good place to start.

 (Sorry, Fido.)

A New Coat of Paint

Every Saturday during the summer, you will find me perusing yard sales, hunting for treasures. Special finds from this past summer include, a wooden bowl, a decorative ceramic tea kettle and a mid-century lamp.  The rules of yard sale-ing are simple: arrive early, bring cash, and scan the entire sale before zooming in on specific items.  

I consistently fail the last rule when I catch sight of a decorative woodland animal. There it sits, perched on a folding table, surrounded by old garden tools and terra-cotta flowerpots. I take in the shape and structure of the four-legged creature and determine I simply must add it to the menagerie of yard sale animals I’ve collected over the years.  My justification for purchase goes something like this: There is nothing a little spray paint can’t do to repurpose, modernize, and reimagine this little guy.

Woodland creatures adorn my bookshelves, window ledges and side tables. Two of my favorite repurposed, modernized and reimagined yard sale purchases are the doe and fawn, who live on my front porch.  There they add a bit of whimsy and create an inviting aesthetic, welcoming guests throughout the summer.

Once fall arrives, I transition from bargain-hunter back into eighth grade English teacher, the curriculum planner: repurposing, modernizing and reimagining engaging, student-centered lessons. I find that lessons that worked well in the past, can feel stale, out-dated and fail to address current student needs.  While effective content lessons remain valid and valued, their composition, presentation, and materials may need a glossy new coat of paint.  

Repurposing, modernizing and reimagining lessons is a creative process I find challenging and fulfilling. I enjoy upgrading and enhancing my favorite content lessons–giving them a shiny new finish–layering in diverse mentor texts, digital mediums, interactive components, collaborative features, goal setting and reflection opportunities, one-point rubrics, and improved scaffolding.

When done well, reworked lessons, like refurbished woodland creatures, invite students into the curriculum, generate an aesthetic appeal, and create active learner engagement.

so fly

I am a full-on sprint.

Fast

Aggressive

Fluid

Pumping arms

Controlled stride

Accelerating off the curve

Meditative

Rhythmic breaths

Oxygen fuels

the fire 

burning

up my thighs 

The straight-away

The final stretch

The true test of 

endurance

I will my body to defy

the limitations of gravity

Set aside

self-doubts

Concentrate on 

turn-over

Dig into rubber

Lock my gaze

on the finish line

The Great Awakening

do you see me 

standing stick straight 

between the coarse tree trunks

camouflaged in the grays

will you find me

peeking out from the

dormant meadow grasses

for over a year now

my world

muted

barren

and whisper thin

concealed me from deadly predators

I willed my heart and breathing to slow

to conserve energy 

for the great hibernation

at first the elders spoke of a

a two-month cold spell

but the great freeze dragged on for over a year

I began to question the permanency of

my isolation

when hope landed on a nearby branch

in the form of a blackbird

the messenger sang of the sun

rising higher in the sky

and the days growing longer

he pointed to teardrop buds sprouting from my digits

and promised warm suns would bring spring rains

restoring my complexion 

to apple green

it feels like forever

since I’ve seen a true blue sky

since the world was in full bloom 

since it was safe to emerge from the thicket

but the quickening pulse of my warming blood

is the truest sign yet

that the long winter solstice

is nearing

the end

(Photo taken on recent hike near Jug Bay (Patuxent River) Upper Marlboro, MD)