Sunday, January 29, 2012


According to Webster's Umpteenth International Dictionary, "pilgrimage" is defined as... no, no, just kidding. But I've thought a lot about this word over the past few days, mainly because of the new Annie Leibovitz exhibit of the same name, and the fascinating story of what compelled her to make her own pilgrimage around this great country and beyond.

As I stood in the gallery and viewed the provocative images of both American landscapes and iconic authors', entertainers', and intellectuals' treasured belongings, I couldn't help but compare the photographer's journey to the ones we make as educators, as learners, and even as former students ourselves.  Why are we drawn to drive by, and sometimes to visit, our old schools: high schools, junior highs, elementary schools, often pointing out to our companions "that's my old school" or recounting our favorite or painful or humorous memories made there? Why do we often return to the places where we learned about our professional lives: where we student taught, where we studied, where we attended a great weekend conference? And why do we labor to make our classrooms the valued places that our students need (whether they know it now or not) and come back to, day after day (and sometimes even after they leave us, and the next year, and the next, and ten years later)?

Because we believe in the sacred. We believe that what molds us, makes us, are those moments of value and deep meaning that happen in the educational process. We hold tight to this belief, and infuse our work with it. We invite our students on the journey, both physical and metaphorical, to the places that we share so willingly, to the places to which we wish to return, to the places of wonder and learning and growth.

We make our pilgrimages so that our students can embark on theirs.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Potato Pave

There may be more intricate recipes than Thomas Keller's for Potato Pave in Ad Hoc at Home, but since I am a potato fan and I hang around with a masonry fan (the French "pave" = cobblestone or paving stone), this dish seemed just right for a New Year's Eve celebration. Look at the glorious symmetry, achieved by the construction of foil-covered cardboard frames and the use of several measuring implements! See the delicate layering of potato on potato on potato, separated only by butter and cream! Imagine a potato dish worth waiting for after two hours of baking, cooling to room temperature, refrigerating for a day (or two), then skillet browning oh-so-perfectly!

Sometimes the teaching life feels just like this recipe: complex, multi-stepped, and requiring much patience. Slowly, and day-by-day, we piece together our plans and programs for our students. We labor over lessons. We measure, then measure again. We consult our guides and our guidebooks, checking our accuracy and adopting suggestions. We take what we know to be the right and good approach. We wait.

And then, we've got our finished product, sort of. Kids aren't ever really finished (and to think, some people would like us to be measured by just one snapshot of our students). Neither, I suppose, is this potato recipe. It was good. It was tasty. It wasn't stunning or remarkable, like I wanted it to be. Shortly after we ate, the chefs were intellectually dissecting the process, the ingredients, and their skills, which is just what we do, too, when the outcome isn't quite what we'd hoped for. But it's that hope that drives us to improve, to alter, to adjust, so that we can bring our students that much closer to stunning and remarkable, that much sooner. It's a recipe that works.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Add Another "R"

In this compelling piece in the Portland Press Herald, North Yarmouth Academy Head of School Brad Choyt redesigns the three Rs. He suggests that relationships, respect, and resilience need to be taught, too, in order for our students to be successful. I couldn't agree more, though I will add one more R: responsibility.

Teaching responsibility has become harder and harder to do. And it may seem, at times, to be counter-intuitive to the creation and implementation of interventions, those strategies we use with our struggling students to help them achieve. We shouldn't view the two concepts - responsibility and intervention - as diametrically opposed, however; nor do we have to abandon the former for the latter.

I know, because I've seen the two work together. Last year, our team wrote several interventions (and each of us, individually, implemented our own strategies, too) for a student who just wasn't getting that doing schoolwork is a building block for later academic success, a stepping stone toward college, a job in itself that has its own reward. None of us backed down on our expectations of responsibility, but all of us cut the kid some slack as life had dealt some crappy blows and figuring it all out was clearly a daunting task. We were consistent but not rigid. We reiterated our deadlines and repeated our requirements and recapped over and over again our care and concern for the student. And, eventually, the kid got it, pretty much. We've seen a different student this year.

What that student learned, hopefully, is that being responsible, in addition to strong relationships with one's teachers, shared respect, and resilience, results in success. And we, modeling all of these important R's, are rewarded with the knowledge that what we did worked. And just might work again.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

One Word

In an email conversation with a parent this week, she asked me when I sleep. I responded "in class." I hope she appreciated my humor as much as I appreciated her respect for all the ways in which I am available to students. These days, I don't lack "sleep" as I used to. Part of that is probably because I am no longer parenting school-age children; that (or elder-care or a second job) is extraordinarily time-consuming and stress-inducing. But conversely, when I was parenting my daughters, there wasn't NCLB or RTTT or SRBI or CCSS. And we all know how time-consuming and stress-producing these AAEs (Annoying Acronyms of Expectations) can be. So why, or how, is it somehow easier now?

The uncomplicated answer is one word: perspective. In all that I do, in everything I teach, at every meeting, in all my planning, my mantra is, always, perspective. Personally and professionally, perspective has saved me from spiraling into panic. Perspective has halted any implosion from heaped-on responsibility. Perspective has urged me to seek the smooth, the calm, the sensible, and yes, the easy. In what other profession would the expectation not be to find easier ways to approach tasks? Yet in teaching, we nearly set ourselves up to take the difficult path, we often create more, or harder, work for ourselves, and sometimes we even forget that we are humans, not superheroes.

This week, I repeated my mantra frequently. Perspective. While revising midterm exams to fit the new schedule (shortened, these will be easier to grade), while writing modified exams (how much is enough to show mastery?), while correcting said exams (average scores are higher than my 4-year average). While creating interventions (this is about student needs, not mine). While tutoring (progress). While setting up parent video conferences (I don't like the telephone). While speaking to the faculty about our upcoming accreditation (be quick, precise, and thorough). While attending a Board of Education meeting (proactive collaboration is always better than reactive contention), while attending a regional union meeting (it's not about the politics for me), while registering for an on-going book club on ELLs at my RESC (an interesting way to acquire more knowledge and strategies).

Perspective allows me the freedom to adapt. In our rapidly changing educational world, adaptation is key. If  we cannot, or will not, address changes in curricula, standards, responsibilities, requirements, or roles, we cannot expect to be recognized as the professionals we are. Don't misunderstand me; I mean not to imply that we should be pushovers or doormats. I mean that, given our rights and within the bounds of what is right and good in education, we mustn't remain stagnant, we mustn't be inflexible. We must adapt. And we should, for our own sakes, adapt with grace and good humor and perspective, knowing that what we do in the classroom, ultimately and always, is the most important work. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Avoiding the Flu

I'm 20 years into my teaching career, and after the last batch of essays I corrected before winter break, I realized I might have finally figured out how to get them all done and not feel like I'd been run over by a Mack truck in the process. You may be thinking, "Don't we reserve that Mack truck metaphor for the flu?!" Or you may be thinking, "Hey, that's how I feel after correcting, too!!" Well, assessing papers, tests, quizzes, homework, projects, and labs is flu-like, or at least, it can be. Here's how I avoid catching the bug:

I remember that I am susceptible, and I prepare. Every fall, I line up with my colleagues at our local firehouse, roll up my sleeve, and receive my yearly flu shot. Likewise, I prepare for correcting, too; I schedule long-term assignments not only in line with the curriculum, but also in line with my life outside of school (this can be a bit tricky, and may require some creative manipulation - of what, I will let you determine). And then I reserve those weekends, or those evenings, for correcting. This is a part of teaching that the rest of the world doesn't see (unless you've got a teacher in your family), and a part that some of us seem to resent, but weekend and nightly work is how I validate my summers off. And this way, I can reserve long weekends for myself if I wish (or use that extra day for correcting, sometimes), or specific nights to be work-free, or times around holidays left open for celebration. I try not to be caught unawares, but rather girded for the long haul.

I have seen the enemy, and it is I. During flu season, I wash my hands frequently and use the hand sanitizer I keep on my desk. I stay rested, take my vitamins (I swear they help), and steer clear of sneezers and coughers as much as possible. When I know I have correcting to do, I try to do the same - I recognize what will bring me down, and I avoid the pitfalls. To avoid procrastination (a paradox of sorts), I do some math (uh oh) and create a written schedule: by noon, then by 3:00 pm, then by dinner, I will have corrected x number of papers. I look at it frequently (often, admittedly, to double- or triple-check that I divided correctly). To avoid the achy frustration that comes after the fifth essay in a row isn't formatted properly, I find the essays that are, and I correct one or two of those. And to avoid the spiky fever of overwork, I set up a reward system: after x number of essays, I will take a walk, or eat my lunch, or read this or listen to this.

And when I'm done, I feel this incredible surge of energy, sort of like how I feel when I get through another week or month without getting what's going around. I might even praise myself out loud, or high-five myself in the mirror, or dance around a bit. It's a combination of oh-thank-goodness and damn-I'm-good. There's a heavy emphasis on relief, with some wood-knocking for future endeavors; I wouldn't want to be over-confident, ever. That's exactly when I'll get run over by that Mack truck, which I'm trying to avoid... like the plague.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Inspiration for TeacherBites

How long do teachers have, actually, to ingest their lunches? In my school, it's 30 minutes, door-to-door, which means more like 20 minutes, tops. First there's the student who needs to ask me a question about the essay rubric. Then there's the kid who dashes back to the room to pick up his forgotten hat or planner - just as I'm locking the door. Next, the colleague who has a union question, or needs to consult on a student, or just wants to know how my weekend was, stops me for a moment. Perhaps the principal will see me in the hallway and we'll quickly review how my professional goal for the year is going (it's going well, actually), and finally I'll head to the cafeteria to pick up my salad, where I'll run into the custodians, one of whom lays on his daily joke: "You're here today!" When I finally get into the teacher lunchroom, I'll eat and chat and think and laugh and take in all I can from my colleagues without whom my days at school wouldn't be as rich or as meaningful as they are. Then I'll repeat similar steps on the way back to my room to get there before my next class does.

We don't have much time together. The intent of this blog, then, is to offer up small plates of inspiration for teachers: weekly musings about the work we do and ways to infuse our daily  (and nightly... and weekend...)  work with enthusiasm and gratitude. And if you need a daily snack to nosh on, catch me on Twitter (@TeacherBites).