Life Outside the Classroom

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
― Mary Oliver


The beginning of the school year always hits me with a wave of exhaustion. I try to be gentle on myself, after all, it is a shock to the system after several months of being out of the classroom. As I near turning fifty, I am noticing that it takes a little longer for me to bounce back. This year, even more so, because of the Coronavirus pandemic. In our district, we closed up our buildings mid-March and returned in September. I have never been so happy to return to work!

It has been quite an adjustment for me wearing a mask all day while teaching. While we try to build in short mask breaks outside for our students, we have been presented with many extra challenges that has altered our teaching routine. However, I have reminded myself many times that going back to work is always a big adjustment in contrast to my summer routine. Yet, teaching is my calling. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

Last Monday was definitely a Monday. Even though this is my 20th year of teaching, each Sunday night I still get that anxious feeling. I didn’t get enough accomplished at home. I didn’t get enough school work accomplished. I am sure I am not alone.

At the end of the school day Monday, when my stepson Lukas came into my classroom, I let out a huge sigh. He too looked tired. So we both sat down and I told him a story.

When I was in college, I worked as a waitress at Marc’s Big Boy in the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two sweet little old ladies used to come in and order “dessert first”. They’d gossip, cackle, and enjoy their hot fudge sundaes. Then they would order dinner (usually meatloaf or liver and onions). I knew to deliver their dinner to their table in a to-go container.

“Amy,” they’d tell me, “when you are our age, you get to eat dessert first! Life’s short. If we ate our dinner we wouldn’t have room for dessert.”

I loved waiting on them and always looked forward to their sage advice.

I remember this job fondly, and all my shifts were not as positive as my weekly chats with these two sweet women. Yet, it was a formative and eye-opening experience for this small town girl. I was learning about life up close by serving the public. When I truly paid attention, people were serving me wisdom. At times, more so than my brilliant professors at Marquette University (that I didn’t nearly appreciate enough at my young age).

As a teacher I often sprinkle my lessons with stories like the one I told Lukas on Monday. I remind my students to pay attention to the world around them and the people they meet. To listen to the stories of their grandparents tell and to talk to their parents. To not just answer questions with a shrug and single word response. To be engaged, alive, and connected.

To pick their heads up out of their digital devices and to listen more.

To pay attention to the wisdom glittering all around us.

Not everything we learn comes out of the classroom.

Truth-be-told, some of the most vital life lessons happen outside of an educational institution. Yet, the key is finding ways to connect these nuggets of wisdom with our own passions and curiosity about the world. School gives us an opportunity to explore our strengths and weaknesses, it allows us to network, and build our knowledge and skill base.

Monday was a long day. Like my colleagues, I had a list of things “to do” that was a mile long. I could have stayed at school for several more hours and I still would not have been finished. But sometimes you have to take care of yourself, and your family, first.

I told Lukas him that I was cashing in my dessert first before dinner card.

So we did!

He happily obliged. 😉

A Chocolate Concrete Mixer with Cookie Dough.

Monday I made time for something sweet and time for play.

What could be better than frozen custard, a boy and his dog(s), and a gorgeous place than we can call home? We all need a sacred place where we can unwind and recharge.

When you get to be my age, you learn to appreciate it all.💚

Lukas with our House Wolf Apollo and my husband’s Work Wolf K9 Nitro.
Autumn has arrived on our farm and everything is burnished and beautiful.
Gray sky and sunflowers. Our lives are full of metaphors if we pay attention.
The ponds my husband built for me (and our ducks) are my happy place!
My hydrangea starts out with frothy white blossoms which turn rosy with tinges of auburn.
Two Good Boys. ❤
I may be tired and overwhelmed at times, but I have so much to be thankful for. I love my students and my job. What more could I ask for?

Goal Setting: Making Human Connections in the Classroom

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. – Henry David Thoreau 

As I sit at my computer to type, I am sure that I join many fellow educators across the world (and all education stakeholders) with thoughts whirling with wonderment at the challenging times we are facing, and continue to face, in 2020 due to the Covid-19 virus.

If you would have told me back in the middle of March, when we closed up our school buildings due to a rising pandemic, that our lives would still not be back to normal by October, I would not have believed you. Though, what does normal mean anymore? While I admit that I am growing tired of the phrase, “The new normal” – doing things differently than we did before may be a reality that we are facing. Also, because I try to be a glass half full sort of person, maybe adapting and changing some aspects of our lives is not necessarily a bad thing. 

When I think back to the spring, I never imagined that “Zoom Meetings” and “Google Meet-Ups” would become a new way I participate in professional development and communicate with my high school students, fellow educators, and administrators.

As a teacher, a writer, and a blogger one of my guiding philosophies is that our writing is a time capsule. As uncomfortable as it is at times, we are currently experiencing history and whatever medium we choose to record the Covid-19 pandemic will become a primary source document for future generations.

I am thankful to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where we have not been heavily impacted by Covid-19 and that we were able to go back to school face-to-face. However, we also are providing an online option for students that the teachers in our district are instructing. Our union and Board of Education were adamant about not outsourcing these services. While it does create multiple layers of extra work for our staff, it is putting our students first by making sure if they decide to change their learning platform (to either f2f or online) their transition will be relatively seamless since what our students are learning f2f is exactly what our students are learning online.

Our weekly school schedule includes a Flipped Friday where our f2f learners stay home on Fridays to also learn online. This prepares our f2f learners for online instruction, in case we get shut-down again. This preparation should help us transition a lot easier to distance learning. While we did not feel prepared last March when our buildings were suddenly closed for the rest of the school year, we feel confident that we have a solid plan in place for the 2020-2021 school year.

In addition, our learning plan includes the wearing of masks at all times, hand sanitizers at the entrance of all classrooms and multiple areas in our buildings, all desks facing the same way, smaller class sizes, and each student is given a Chromebook to take home and use for the school year.

Unfortunately, our area has recently seen a spike in cases of Covid-19 and many school districts are closing up their f2f learning for two weeks (some more). So we are being extra diligent to make sure our students and staff are safe.

In September I began my 20th year in the classroom. While I have many tried-and-true lessons, I always like to introduce a fresh lesson to my teaching tool box. So this year I took inspiration from a friend of mine who is a teacher in a neighboring district, Paula Diedrich.

Not only is Paula a dear friend of mine and teaching mentor, she is also a fellow blogger at https://hatofmanycolors.wordpress.com/

Paula blogged about a 50-4-50 challenge that she undertook to celebrate turning 50. She came up with a list of fifty things she wanted to accomplish. Check out Paula’s List. 

Since I am going to be 50 this coming June, I have been thinking about Paula’s list and wanted to design my own. So I invited my students to join me in coming up with their own goals.

In a nutshell, this is what I told them:

2020 has been a challenging year, and depending on how you look at it, Covid-19 may have taken many things from us: The end of the school year, time with family/friends with health problems/compromised immune systems, opportunities to travel, income/jobs, spectators at sporting events (our students are only allowed 2 fans at sports contests) etc.

However, maybe Covid-19 presented you with opportunities: More time with immediate family members, an organized house and living space, time to exercise, time to read books for pleasure, home cooked meals etc. Regardless of how you view the pandemic we are experiencing, 2020 taught us to appreciate the moment we are in because things can change suddenly.

Since I teach sections of both 9th and 11th grade English I gave my students a couple of different options:

1. If you have just had a birthday, or have one coming up you can choose that number (since you have the whole year to accomplish your goal). For example: 14-4-14 or 16-4-16.

2. If you don’t have a birthday until several months and want to start right away, you can create a list of 9-4-9 (9 for 9th grade) or 11-4-11 (11 for 11th grade). This gives you the entire school year to accomplish your goal.

3. If you don’t celebrate birthdays, or are feeling extra ambitious, you can choose 21-4-21 for for 21 Things You Want to Accomplish for 2021. 

Have fun with your list and make sure your goals are realistic, but also creative! They should be measurable goals (we discussed what a “measurable goal”looks like…)

My students were encouraged to create a presentation with a variety of multi-media approaches (video, photo rich slideshow, audio/podcast, music/rap or lyric based, or a visual piece of art (example: vision board).

My students and I discussed that we are never too old to learn new things about ourselves, others, or the world around us.

Many of the 9th grade students are brand new to me, so it helped me learn something about them and helped make a human connection. (In fact, I learned about a lot of things during their presentations. My 9th grade boys taught me all about weight lifting! 🙂 ) Throughout the year we will revisit our goals and it may include adjustments and plenty of reflection.

I loved that Paula’s blog gave me something to show them and it provided them with evidence that humans are in a constant state of learning.

I thought the discussions that I had with my students about Paula’s reflection were especially beneficial. Paula did not beat herself up because she didn’t accomplish everything on her list, nor did she make excuses. She ruminated over her successes and challenges and found patterns which revealed important aspects of her life, and even her relationships. We discussed how these revelations could help Paula set future goals.

As writers we know that reflecting on our writing is essential, and I believe that by teaching our students to do this, we are helping them to be reflective about other aspects of our life.

I want to thank Paula for helping me make a vital human connection with my students this year – and in the days ahead.

As we journey through our role of teachers during these challenging times, I think it is important to show our students and ourselves some grace. As I approach my 50th birthday, it gives me wings to think of all that I have yet to discover in life. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with my students both face-to-face and online this year and I hope they feel they same way about the physical and digital classroom that we share. We have so many lessons to learn together.

In case that other teachers want to use this idea in your class, I’m sharing a few student examples. These three students dazzled me with the Vision Boards that they created.  I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.

I loved the adaptability of MP’s vision board with her goals for her Junior year. I love that Morgan made a “moveable” board with push pins that she can add to and rearrange as the year goes on. I encouraged my students to make personal and academic goals.   We discussed how self-care (managing stress, getting adequate sleep, and proper hydration and nutrition) can impact grades and success in school. I loved that Morgan created health related goals for herself as well.

In class we discussed how many families had to cancel spring break plans and summer vacations because of the pandemic. Yet, the bright side was that many students said their families ventured out to enjoy all the beautiful, scenic places around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Cameron LaChance created a Vision Board for the 11 local places she would like to visit in the UP for her Junior Year. After all, the UP is the perfect place for a Staycation. Local friends, how many of these places have you been to?  

I loved Hayden Eberle’s 3 dimensional Vision Board.
Her project really struck me as a creative way to kick off her freshman year. I cannot wait to see what other neat projects she produces and I really want to see photos of her cat in a costume. 🙂 

I wish all of my fellow educators a safe school year. The most important thing to remember in a time of uncertainty is that we are in this together. Wash your hands, check in on each other, and do not forget to do something each day that brings you joy. ❤