I’ve been working on a post for two weeks or more, about something that matters deeply to me, but it’s still not right. So, I’ll have to save that for another day. Thought I’d just stop in with a few updates via what’s saved on my phone.
Last week was so busy, I couldn’t get to the grocery store until Friday. This meant eating what we had, something I know I need to improve on, anyway. Not only because it will be better for our financial health, but also because of the environmental impacts of food waste. So, this was lunch one day. The meat was left over from a recipe from my new favorite cookbook. (I know: meat production is also terrible for the environment. Progress, not perfection.)
This is from a book I wanted to think didn’t really apply to me: The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke. O’Rourke details her experiences with autoimmune disorders, which I apparently don’t have. But this book really is for anyone with chronic and poorly understood conditions that impact functioning and quality of life. For the last three weeks, I’ve had 3-day migraines, and this particular passage resonated deeply. My fibromyalgia symptoms are also acting up. I’ve been doing so many of the right things I’m supposed to do–exercising, meditating, eating regularly and hydrating. But. But. But.
It helps to feel seen, and I’m looking forward to reading more of this book.
Ending on a high note! My very part-time gig this school year is developing SEL (social-emotional learning) curriculum for the school I taught at last year, which still Cane teaches at full-time. He and I create the curriculum together and provide some supports for teachers to implement it. Our most recent lesson happened to fall on Tuesday, which was Valentine’s Day. Instead of doing a typical lesson, we planned a love poetry slam, which provided an opportunity to talk about a core SEL skill, social awareness. We got to talk about how not everyone loves VD, and how there are lots of different kinds of love and ways to love, in a way that was fun and built community. Our teachers were the contestants, and they delivered poems conveying a wide range of perspectives on both love and poetry. Some wrote original works, some used song lyrics, and two incorporated AI-written poems into their performances. It was sometimes funny, and sometimes touching, and always so, so good. And it was poetry! (I felt like a stealth English teacher.) Students were pretty much glued to the slammers, but I was glued to them. So many smiles and so much engagement. With poetry! At the end of the day, Cane said, “This was the best Valentine’s Day I can remember in a long, long time.” It really was.
Hope you have a good week, and maybe I’ll get that dang post finished. Maybe.
I also got new socks. (I forgot to pack socks on a trip to my parents’.) Apparently, these come with a lifetime guarantee. How can you do that for socks? I’m betting they think no one will really take them up on that. I will. I’ve got that kind of time now, and for what they cost, I want a pair for the rest of my life.
I might have mentioned that I’ve got a small, part-time curriculum-development gig this school year. About twice a month, Cane and I develop a social-emotional learning lesson for students at his high school and facilitate a professional learning session for staff to support them in delivering the lesson. This week our lesson was focused on wellness during the holiday season, and I thought I’d share here a resource I developed for it.
I was inspired by a similar board I saw in multiple places online; I am not sure who originally created it, but I’m linking to a school librarian’s site because I’d bet money it was her or some other librarian. I revised it to include links for all the options and to make it holiday-season specific. Two of the boxes contain links to our local public library system (Multnomah County Library, which is awesome), but everything else should be useful for anyone, anywhere. It contains items to hit all the categories of a typical wellness wheel.
Our students responded positively to this, so I wanted to share it with a wider audience, and I know that some of you are raising teens and some work with teens. This time of year is challenging for teens, y’all. If they are in school, they are fast-approaching or are at the end of a grading period, which is stressful whether they are doing well (and don’t want to blow it on their final exams/projects) or not doing well (because they may be out of time/opportunities to fix things). If the holidays that none of us can entirely escape from are not part of their religious/cultural practices, they may be feeling unseen and left out. If they are, they may be feeling anxiety about gift-giving (lack of $$$, pressure to get the right gifts), having to see family who are unpleasant or harmful, and dealing with their care-givers’ holiday stress. A break from school is not a positive for many teens. It can cut them off from IRL contact with their friends, it disrupts their usual routines, and it may mean increased responsibilities at home. For some, rather than going to school and focusing on their own lives, a school break means being at home and responsible for giving care to siblings or other family members. If they have jobs, they may be working extra shifts (and dealing with folks who are acting out their own holidays feelings). As is true for many adults, this is a time of year when grief can strike hard. Teens may be grieving people they’ve lost, the holidays of their childhoods (that felt different from how holidays feel now), or the family they wish they had (maybe once did have) but don’t.
This board is geared to teens, but it was helpful for me to create it and remind myself of the variety of kinds of self-care available to us. The table includes a link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium live webcams*, and I’m just gonna tell you: When I watched the jellyfish, I could feel my breath slowing and my body softening.
I so wish we had known in the 80s (when I was a teen) what we know now about the physical impacts of chronic stress and complex trauma (or that there is such a thing as complex trauma), and how to mitigate them. I finished up my pain management course this week, and I attended an introductory session with a doctor who focuses on re-wiring (not the clinical term) our unconscious brain so that we can respond differently to perceived threats. This is a slide I screenshotted from the session:
It was so helpful to gain a greater understanding of why simply understanding the stress/trauma that is causing physical issues isn’t enough to cure them: The action is happening in the parts of our brain that we don’t consciously control, so we can’t entirely think our way to different responses. (I have an extreme startle response, for example, and even when I know a noise is coming and that it’s not a threat, my whole body often still jumps when I hear it.) Because of neuroplasticity, though, we can create changes in our parasympathetic nervous system, which will change how we respond. Or that’s the theory, anyway.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about the sources of my chronic stress and complex trauma, especially those that relate to working for 3+ decades in public education. The thoughts are barely formed and if I tried to share anything right now, it would just be a big word vomit. But I can say this:
Things are not the same as they were when you went to school. Our teachers and students are under constant stress, and it’s different than it was 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s not sustainable. We have got to find better ways, because a society full of traumatized and under-supported people is going to look…well, a lot like the one we’re living in.
Despite that dire last paragraph, I am feeling hopeful in ways that I haven’t in decades, and the hope is a tremendous gift. Now that I have it, I can see how long I didn’t, and what impact a lack of hope has had on me. For many weeks now, I have not been attending to much other than my health. I go to various appointments, I go skating, I make nourishing food, I tend my primary relationships, I run our household, and I rest. All of that adds up to a full-time job. I haven’t had much time for writing or any other creative work (other than the small curriculum job) or other kinds of things that have typically filled my tank (for example, dates with friends). But I’m OK with that. This isn’t the season for me to fill my tank; it’s the season for me to repair the holes in it. I’m playing a long game here.
Hoping that you are finding ways to fill and/or repair yours. Would love to hear about them–or your thoughts about anything connected to this post. Sending wishes for health and peace to all who read here.
*The live cam link can be a bit finicky. For some reason, it works best for me when I access it through the link on the chart. Have no idea why that should make a difference.
Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).
The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.
We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?
It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on?Are there children here who will need help?
I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.
Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”
I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.
Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.
I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.
So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.
(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)
My students and I read “American Cheese,” Jim Daniels’s poem about, well, cheese–as you’d expect from the title. But, we’ve been working all semester on forming interpretations of literary text, and–of course–the poem isn’t just about cheese. “This is about/this is really about” has become our short-hand for moving beyond literal comprehension of the text’s subject (what it is about) to interpretive comprehension of the text’s themes (what it is really about), and my class of nearly all boys is initially stumped by the question of what the poem is really about, have a hard time getting past the seeming triviality of a man’s preferences regarding cheese.
I back them up. “What is the poem saying literally?” I ask, and we establish facts: The speaker attends department parties with fancy cheeses that he’s come to like. As a kid, he ate American cheese, the stuff that comes in individual, plastic-wrapped squares. (“You know, they can’t even call it cheese,” one student offers. “They’re called Kraft Singles because it’s not technically cheese,” he says.) His dad worked in a factory; there were five kids in the family. They ate cheese sandwiches. When he visits home now, he craves American cheese, and his mother is surprised by how he eats it without anything else.
They skip over what I think are the most crucial lines:
...We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs....
I send them into small groups to identify what the poem is really about, and when we gather back together to share ideas they circle round and round above the poem, talking about food, nostalgia, family–never landing on the lines about birds. When they offer their ideas, I ask them to clarify their thoughts, perhaps to extend them, but I don’t direct them to those lines. My goal is to grow independent readers and critical thinkers, not for them to understand the particulars of this poem, which, in the scheme of literary things, is not a particularly important piece of work.
Someone offers an idea about the poem, and I ask: “Does everything in the poem make sense with that idea?”
Finally, someone gets there, asks what those lines about the birds are about, how they fit in. “Think about how we use our background knowledge and own experiences to build understanding of a text,” I suggest. “What do you know about these kinds of birds, and how can that knowledge give you ideas about how these lines contribute to the poem’s meaning?” I ask.
I drill down just a bit. “How about sparrows and starlings?” I ask. “What about just those birds? What do you know?”
One student, a boy who regularly wears clothing adorned with American iconography, says, “They’re scrub birds.”
I ask him to explain, as I’m not sure what he means.
“They’re, like, nothing birds,” he says. “No one cares about them.”
I let that idea stand. “And what about blue jays?” I ask. “What do you know about them?”
“They’re cool,” he says.
“They’re big, and blue. They’re beautiful birds.”
“They are,” I say, and I turn back to face the rest of the room. “Here’s a great example of how we can form different interpretations of the same text,” I offer. “One person can see blue jays as better birds than sparrows and starlings, who are small and not very noticeable. Jays are bigger and stronger and much more distinctive–and these facts might influence your interpretation of the poem. But I have different associations and ideas about the birds because of an experience I had,” I say, and I tell them the story of the time I watched a blue jay attack a nest of small birds built in branches outside my bedroom window. I tell them about the sounds of the parent birds as their eggs were destroyed, how they never returned to the nest once they finally left it. “Blue jays are birds that attack other birds,” I say, “and because of my experience, those are more important facts about them to me.”
Now that we have turned the keys of these lines, the poem unlocks. Yes, it is about food, and family, and nostalgia. It’s also about social class, and a declining culture, and pride, and love of country, and community, and hard choices, and survival. What it’s saying about those things is open to interpretation, to different ideas.
We don’t reach strong conclusions about the poem’s meaning as a class. We are a diverse group. I like leaving them with some ambiguity. I want them to figure it out for themselves, to be able to sit with complex and contradictory truths. I know that me telling them what to think or insisting on a particular interpretation won’t meet my goals. They might say what they think I want to hear, but they’re going to think what they think, do what they want to do with their ideas.
As they are gathering their things and heading for the door at the end of class, the boy who shared his ideas about the birds says to me, “I liked class today.” He’s a student I have struggled to engage. We are very different people, he and I. He hasn’t done very well with me, and I know that most days he hasn’t liked my class.
“I’m glad,” I say. “I really appreciated your contributions to our discussion.”
“Thanks,” he says, with feeling, and he smiles at me. I smile back, also with feeling. We have such different views of the world he sometimes astounds me, but I will miss him when this school year ends in just a few short weeks. I am glad to have known him, and I think he might say the same about me. There are things in each of us that the other likes and respects. I want to believe that, anyway.
We have no way of knowing, right then, what the afternoon will bring. I don’t know that after I spend it grading my students’ reading logs–which will prompt me to think hard about purposes and how I might determine if they’ve been met–I will learn, while waiting for the copy machine after school, about the latest shooting in Texas. I don’t know that I will numbly run off copies of another poem for our next class, then go to my empty classroom and sit at my desk and wonder what I should feel and do. I don’t know that I will spend long minutes wondering about the nest I’ve built for us, with its twinkle lights stretched across the ceiling, and posters with art from around the world, and a cart full of window/mirror books, and chart paper with our lists of class norms. I don’t know that I will sit in that space, remembering the day in September we began building those norms as we discussed memes about gun control, or that I will leave memory as I tune into the sounds of students playing ping-pong in the foyer while they wait to be picked up, and that it will be the pock-pock-pock of those balls hitting the paddles that will be the thing that brings me to tears.
This post is about teaching high school students how to read poetry/This post is really about gun violence in the United States
The Skater The skater is only eleven, her narrow body just beginning to grow out of control. She is moving backwards, tiny skirt lifted flat against the arch of her back, mittened hands held out, the pose of her index finger hidden in the wool. With force she leaps, a simple hop from one foot to the other, yet, for her, flight: for an instant she is suspended, legs open, arms circled, closed, her act both giving and receiving; then she is bound again, landing crunch hiss, her blade holding an edge firm into a smooth curve, her free leg stretching, her arms reaching up, out– not in a pose, but a celebration. Then she is off again, sharp air pushing against her cheeks, turning them pink, turning her into a ripple of sleeves, skirt, hair, and she breathes deep, moving backwards still with long, sure strokes, feeling she’s pulling the ice in, to her, consuming it with her limbs, knowing she’s found the element she was born to exalt in, and intoxicated by it all– the air, her speed, the power in her body, strong and fresh as clean ice– she drives her toe down to propel herself up again, arms and legs held close, tight, never thinking of the pock in the ice, the hole that is the price for this glorious, twisting flight, or of her landing, which may or may not crunch hiss into a smooth edge that curves gracefully as the arch of her tender back.
I wrote the first version of this poem in the fall of 1987, the day before I began my first “real” job after graduating from college. It had been more than 10 years since I’d quit skating, but these were the words that came to me as I thought about leaving behind my life as a student, the only one I’d ever known. I was going to be working in a cubicle, with two weeks’ vacation every year. Sitting at my sunny dining table, I thought about how it would likely be decades before I would again have time on a weekday morning to write poems.
I wondered what I was gaining and what I was losing and how I would feel about it all far in the future, at the end of my work life, when I might again be able to spend weekday mornings writing poems.
This week, trying to write a post about my return to skating, I remembered the poem I wrote nearly 35 years ago. I went searching for it in a box of papers I have in my attic that is full of essays and resumes and news articles I wrote during those years in which I was figuring out what my life might become. Taking that first job–as an editorial assistant in an educational publishing company–felt like taking a leap, and I didn’t know what it might cost me or how I would land. I knew then what I knew as a skater, though: to complete a jump, you have to trust that you will, while simultaneously being OK with knowing that you might fall.
Two weeks ago, I had to formalize my decision not to return to teaching in September. This week, while talking with one of my classes about how much time we have left and what we need to get done in it, I told them that we would only be meeting 15 more times.
“Only 15 more times?” one boy said in mock dismay. “But Ms. Ramstad, I’m going to miss you!” The others laughed, and I did, too.
“It’s OK, we’ll see her next year,” another one said.
I hesitated, then said, “Well, actually, I won’t be teaching here next year.”
The feeling in the room shifted. “Why?” someone asked, and I said something about retiring.
“I’m already retired, you know,” I said. “I only teach two classes here now. I’ve just decided that I’m ready to retire more completely.”
There was a pause before another student said, “It’s ’cause you don’t want to work with us anymore, isn’t it?” He, too, used a joking tone, but as always with jokes, I knew there was truth in his words.
“No, no,” I said, quickly, seriously, anxiously. “I really like working with all of you. I’m so glad I got to do that this year. It was a hard decision because I didn’t want to give that part of teaching up.”
“Then why?” someone else asked.
I hesitated, then gave them the truth. “I’ve realized that I’m not really into teaching English any more,” I admitted. I didn’t say what I’ve said privately to friends in recent weeks: “My heart’s just not in it.” Not in the way it should be, the way it needs to be, the way it used to be. I can’t make myself care about teaching multiple approaches to literary analysis, about participating in academic discourse. As with so many things now, I’m a one-time believer who’s lost her faith.
“It’s time for me to do other things,” I said instead. I know this is true, even though I don’t know what, exactly, those things are.
Who will I be and what will I do if I’m really no longer a teacher? I don’t know. Stepping away, for real this time, feels like driving my toe-pick into the ice to propel myself into the air. It leaves a hole behind, and it–along with the possibility of falling–is always the price for flight.
But jumping I am, knowing this time what I didn’t at 11 or 22 (or even 33 or 44): That inventing ourselves is a lifelong activity, something we have to do over and over again. Wish me luck that my landing will crunch hiss once more into something as sure as the curve of my tender heart.
Cane and I had our usual Friday night date–dinner at a nearby dive bar–even though it was spring break and so we had none of our typical need for end-of-the-week ease and release. We each had our usual drink (a whiskey for me and a beer for him) and ate our usual meal (a shared happy hour burger and fries).
We sat in a booth in front of the big windows, even though the sun was shining and it might have been comfortable, again, to eat outside in the tables put on the street temporarily (or so we thought) in the first year of the pandemic.
“Oh, we forgot quarters,” I said, remembering how the week before he had said we should try to remember quarters so that we could play pool. (We are both fairly terrible pool players, but we like to play it anyway. We get a lot of value for a few quarters because it takes us so long to clear the table.)
“Eh, that’s OK,” he said. “The tables are full.”
We sat in our usual booth in the window and didn’t talk much. The fries were good. One of the pool players approached our table. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but aren’t you a teacher at…” He was looking at Cane, but I recognized him, sort of. A friend joined him, and he looked even more familiar to me. He confirmed that I had been his English teacher his junior year. I knew his face, but I couldn’t attach it to a specific student in my memories. I deduced, after learning their graduation year, that I’d had the friend in my class the last year I taught before leaving the classroom to become (I had hoped) a school librarian. It had been a hard year, my first as a single parent. At the end of it I knew I could no longer be both a parent and full-time classroom teacher. Not good ones, anyway.
“You don’t want to remember me,” the friend laughed. “I was a little shit.”
I still didn’t remember exactly who he was. “That’s OK,” I said. “Lots of kids are little shits.” I smiled.
The first young man continued to talk with Cane. He now works in a field related to the one he first learned about with Cane. He was dressed nicely, spoke well, has a good job. It’s nice to see former students doing well. I don’t remember what his friend said he was doing. He was dressed more like the other patrons in the bar and didn’t have his friend’s polish. He mentioned having lived in San Francisco for a time.
They went back to playing pool, and we talked about who they were. Cane remembered both of them; he’d had them both for two years, and I’d only had the one (most likely) for one, my last one.
“I remember that kid,” he said of the friend, naming him. “He was a little shit.” And it clicked: Memory served me an image of a short, skinny, angry boy who sat in the front and scowled at me for all of that last, hard year. He didn’t do a lot of my assignments; instead, he told me how stupid and pointless they were. Often. Our students attended our school only half-time; the other half they attended their regular high schools. We drew them from 4 different schools, and his often sent us angry, conservative, young white men. Even in 2009, when social media for teens consisted mostly of MySpace and before angry, conservative young white men were as prevalent and vocal as they are today.
They were behind us, and I kept glancing at them through a mirror in front of me. They were in a small group, laughing, talking, playing pool. At one point, my former angry student pulled his hair out of a ponytail holder and released a long, glorious corona of wavy hair that fell past his shoulders. He laughed easily and often, bearing only a shadow of resemblance to the young man-boy he once was, with short, severe hair and tidy clothes. His shoes were always white and clean. I hadn’t liked him, and he was part of what made a hard year harder.
They finished their game and moved to an outside table. Cane and I finished our meal and gathered our things and made our way out the door, happy to be heading home to watch an episode of Game of Thrones with our old Daisy between us on the couch.
He stopped at their table to say good-bye, and we all smiled at each other. As Cane started to move away, I leaned down to speak privately to my former student.
“I remember who you are now,” I said, and his face shifted, just a little. I want to say that he looked a bit wary, but I don’t really know if that’s how he felt. (We so often don’t know how each other feels.) “You weren’t a little shit,” I said.
His mouth moved into a little twisty smile. “Oh, I was,” he said.
“No,” I said, and paused. “You weren’t a little shit.” I paused again. “I think you were probably just very unhappy.”
I saw something in his eyes soften. “Yeah,” he said, “I was.”
“You weren’t a shit,” I repeated, holding his eyes with mine.
“Thanks,” he said, and smiled a different way, without the twist. I smiled back at him and followed Cane down the sidewalk to our car, the setting sun at our backs as I reached for his hand.
Last week, I didn’t write here about the school shooting in Michigan. I wrote about a Christmas tree stand, which was my way of writing about hope.
Last week, a friend sent me a poem, written by a father whose daughter is an art teacher, that was, in part, about his wife spinning wool in the wake of the school shooting, and I felt the deep pull I have been feeling for years to leave schools and take up useful, concrete work I might do with my hands, so that I, too, like the poet’s wife, might “disappear” into “gentle quiet.”
Last week, though, I stayed at school and didn’t take up wool-spinning. I went to school and taught the lessons I’d planned not knowing there would be another school shooting. (Know that, for me, school shootings are not unlike my migraines, in that the question is never if there will be another, but only when there will be another. I try not to let them dictate too much of my life.) I taught my students about the media bias chart because it is a tool I am asking them to use to evaluate sources of information. To be able to comprehend the chart, we had to dive into conceptually-rich vocabulary: liberal, conservative, fact reporting, news analysis, propaganda, fabrication, extremism, reliability. I divided them into groups and asked them to find sources to verify their definitions of the terms, something that proved valuable when we realized that different groups were sharing different, sometimes contradictory ones for the same words.
We talked then about nuance, about how Wikipedia, despite being routinely banned as an acceptable source of information by many teachers, is (like most tools) neither all-good nor all-bad; we talked about how it can be useful for some purposes if you understand how it works and how to use it. We talked about how most sources of information contain articles with varying degrees of bias and reliability, making it nearly impossible to blindly trust anything we read only because it comes from a particular source. We talked about the more-than-sometimes arbitrariness of rules and how my restriction that they can only use sources with a reliability score of 40 or higher on this bound-to-be-flawed (because created by humans) chart is both arbitrary and reasonable.
And we talked, just a bit, about the school shooting, though only to use it as a vehicle for understanding the differences between “original fact reporting” vs. “fact reporting” vs. “complex analysis” vs. “analysis” vs. “opinion.” We talked about it without emotion, I think because the possibility of lethal violence is just a part of the landscape for all of us who spend our days in schools, in the way that my poorly-functioning projector or classrooms that are often too hot or too cold or laptops that don’t work are so much a part of the backdrop they aren’t remarkable enough to comment on. (Outrage and despair and bewilderment are not sustainable over time; the unthinkable, if it persists long enough, becomes not only thinkable, but normal.) I used the school shooting as an example to illustrate the chart’s concepts because it was a current event that didn’t require me to build any schema for anyone; we all know about school shootings (though some were not aware of last week’s particular one) and how they are reported on in our media.
Last week, what I wanted my students to learn is that even in a world full of cacophonous contradiction, there are facts and that we can find truth if we know how to look for it. I wanted them to know that the world is full of far more gray than black and white, and that multiple shades of it can all be useful in knowing how to find answers to our questions.
Last week, this week, every week, I wanted and want and will always want to give them what they need to live in a world where school is–and, for them, always has been–a place of lockdown drills and existential threat and adults who refuse to do what’s necessary to keep them safe.
There is more than one way to “knit whatever it takes to keep another warm.”
On Wednesday my head exploded. Or maybe it was my heart. My soul? Something. Everything?
Maybe it didn’t explode. Maybe it just boiled over. I have known for weeks that something was building under the surface. Bubbles of anger kept rising within me, occasionally splattering some mess over the stovetop of my day, but I’d just slap a lid on it and do my best to turn down the heat (which looks a lot like eating chocolate and watching Ted Lasso every night).
On Wednesday I had a meeting with my principal to discuss the class she’d observed as part of my formal evaluation process for the year. She opened with: “When I left your room, I walked back to the office and announced to the office staff: ‘And that, folks, is how it’s done!'”
Isn’t is strange how, sometimes, affirmation and praise can be the things that push you over an edge you didn’t fully realize you’d been teetering on?
The news is full of stories of all the ways in which students, teachers, and school systems are struggling. On Tuesday we learned that a local middle school (one that some of my school’s students attended) was shifting to remote learning for the next three weeks because student behaviors have become so unsafe.
Meanwhile, in my classroom at a public charter school that serves students who attend our local public high schools half-time, things are going great–better than they ever did when I was last a classroom teacher, 12 years ago. The class my principal observed is full of 16- and 17-year old boys who like to design and build things (they are in our engineering and manufacturing program), and they have stayed with me for 6 weeks focused on reading complex informational text and writing summaries. (Yeah, that’s as dry and academic as it sounds.) Many of them have told me how much they dislike English class because it’s just not their thing. And yet, I have never had a bad or even difficult day in class with them. (Truly. The biggest disruption thus far came from one boy bringing in a bag of candy the day after Halloween.) I have been keeping this state of affairs mostly to myself or downplaying it when others ask how things are going. When I listen to my colleagues in other places, I feel guilty to be having it so relatively good.
But I have also been feeling angry. Angry about nothing and everything. The anger seemed so wrong–how could I be angry when things are going so well?–that I stuffed it as soon as I became aware of its presence. Wednesday, as I processed with my principal the lesson she observed, I finally understood where it’s coming from.
As we talked, I began to see clearly that things are going great not because I’m lucky, and not because I’m teaching in a charter school, where students have chosen to be, and not because I have especially “good kids.” (I’d tell you how much I hate it when teachers and others declare some kids “good,” but that’s a digression I’ll save for another day.) Those first two things might be at play, but other factors are far more important in explaining how I knocked my lesson out of the park:
I’m working in a small school with a healthy culture and strong leadership, where students are known and structural components of the program make it possible for them to form positive relationships with staff and each other.
I have reasonable class sizes (24 and 27 students).
I’m working my ass off, struggling and generally failing to limit my work to 1/2-time hours (20 per week) for my contracted 1/3-time job (13.2 hours per week), but because I can afford to teach only two classes and my personal life demands are manageable, I have time (no, am giving time) to do all the things we know are part of good teaching practice.
I know how to implement good teaching practices because, thanks to my years as an instructional coach, I’ve had the opportunity for deep, sustained learning about how to teach well.
Because of all these things (take away any one of them and the outcome would be different), in spite of everything we’ve all been through since March 2020, I’m able to be a really damn good teacher this year. It’s hard for me to write that last sentence, socialized as I have been to be modest and avoid any behaviors that look like arrogance, but I think it might be the most important thing for me to say–because it’s at the root of why I’m so angry and sad and disheartened about the state of public education.
I’m not a good teacher because I’m especially talented at teaching. I’m not. In fact, teaching is, in many ways, a poor fit for me. I’m deeply introverted and probably further along on the neurodivergent side of the autism spectrum than most people know and I hate being the center of attention. I’m not charismatic and I’m not a performer and, frankly, I’m not anyone’s idea of fun. I’m serious and earnest and I often don’t get the joke.
But I’m a really good teacher these days–the best I’ve ever been–which means that most people who are teachers could be, too, if they had what I have and were given what I’ve gotten. (Hell, most could be far better than me because they are so much more suited for peopling than I am.)
But I’ve had all of these things, and that’s why I’m not experiencing the kinds of distress that most teachers are this year. It’s why I am having the best teaching year I’ve ever had AND I’m not sacrificing my own health or my family’s needs to get it.
So why am I so angry? BECAUSE EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE WHAT I HAVE AND THEY COULD IF WE WOULD PULL OUR COLLECTIVE HEADS OUT OF OUR ASSES. BECAUSE IT’S CONFIRMATION THAT ALL THE BULLSHIT ABOUT SELF-CARE AND HOLDING BOUNDARIES TEACHERS HAVE BEEN SURROUNDED BY FOR YEARS IS THE GAS-LIGHTING TOXIC CRAP I ALWAYS THOUGHT IT WAS AND I SUFFERED NEEDLESSLY THINKING MY INABILITY TO BE OK IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM WAS MY OWN PERSONAL FAULT AND FAILING.
(yeah, I’m shouting)
I have confirmation now that it wasn’t my fault. I have confirmation that things can be different, even in the midst of multiple kinds of existential crises and systems failure. I have confirmation that all the contortions I’ve put myself through trying to make things better were a waste of time. I have confirmation that the system is as broken as I’ve feared.
We know–from all kinds of research–what our kids need to learn. I know, from both research and deep anecdotal evidence, that the biggest factor in student behavior and success is what the adults are doing. Not the adults in their homes, but the adults in their schools. My students have chosen to attend my school, which is an indicator of factors that might make it more likely that they will be successful, but collectively they bring with them the same full range of challenges that exist in most public school classrooms. I am not perfect in my practice, by any means, and not all of my students are thriving, but what’s happening in my classroom is so relatively good it often feels unreal, and if we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, we’d put our money where our mouths are and do school differently so that teachers could have the time they need to learn, collaborate, plan well, and respond to students as individual learners because that is what’s best for kids.
Other countries do this. But we don’t. That’s the bottom line. (Insert screed about capitalistic values and how our children should not be treated like products or commodities.)
Instead of figuring out how to give teachers and schools what they really need to do a good job, politicians and school board members and parents are fighting over mask mandates and library books and the non-issue of CRT, generally to advance their own political agendas. We’re using our limited educational resources to manage a public health crisis and to comply with superficial directives (such as taking time for add-on social-emotional learning activities rather than making structural changes that will actually provide social and emotional supports) that will allow people in state-level administrative positions to look like they’re addressing our problems. I am so sick of what we do in schools being driven by adult needs to justify our practices, and too many days, I feel like I just can’t fucking take it any more. I retired earlier than planned because the system felt so damn broken and I couldn’t stomach being complicit in pretending that it wasn’t or that if we just tried harder or did some superficial things differently we could stop harming students. I couldn’t stomach being complicit in asking teachers to do more with less and contributing to the unmanageability of their jobs. I walked away from something I gave my life to and believe in the value of to my very core because I lost faith that things could be different.
And then I took this job. I took this job because it is both part of the system and apart from it, and I wanted to see if that was enough of a difference to make a difference. I wanted to find a way to not give up and to give to my community without having to give too much of myself. I have told myself over and over and over to focus on what I can control (my classroom) and the good I can do (for my students and school community) but I’m too angry at the ways in which all of us are being used and misused and how my continued willingness to be used (my true hourly rate is paltry, I don’t work enough to earn benefits, and my goal that I’m failing to reach is to work only one day a week for free) is part of what allows the brokenness to continue. I’m too angry about how all of this mangles my stupid heart and the hearts of so many people who want to serve and support our kids. Even though I’m a socially awkward introvert who often finds humans exhausting, I still love us, especially the youngest of us, and I’m so bone-deep weary of the ways in which we keep actively choosing to fail each other.
I have no grand conclusions here. I know that writing this here and publishing it on my little personal blog won’t change anything, and that I’m likely to have even less impact than that character in Network shouting about being mad as hell, but I want those of you who read here to know that our schools aren’t all right, and that our issues have not been caused by the pandemic, just revealed and exacerbated by it. I am writing here to bear witness, more like the people in that same movie shouting from their windows and fire escapes than the network executive having a televised meltdown, but maybe if enough of us do that it can be the starting place for putting broken things back together. Or, at the very least, for cleaning them up.
A friend and I have been talking about the Great Resignation, a phenomenon I consider myself to be part of. I’m still working in education, but I’m officially retired (drawing a pension) and have left the district I’d been with for more than a decade. I left for the reasons we’re presuming a lot of people have left and are leaving (at accelerated rates) their jobs: I was unwilling to return to my pre-pandemic life/job and found a way not to.
Now I work a 1/3 teaching job in a different organization, and I love many things about it. But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Things often feel weirdly off, and I can’t attribute all of them to my 12-year absence from classroom teaching.
A blog post this week from Sarah Kain Gutowski, a poet and college-level teacher, gave words to something I’ve been struggling to describe for weeks now. She is experiencing a large number of students who aren’t meeting usual expectations. Some cannot because of continuing pandemic-related challenges. Others seemingly won’t, or also can’t, or…who knows? They just aren’t doing the kinds of things we’ve always expected students will do. Sarah notes that simply failing large numbers of students isn’t a viable option, and that in the face of this:
There is only so much energy I can spend pushing against something nameless and shapeless but larger and stronger than I am. At some point, I just have to go where it guides me.
And I felt that zing of recognition and ohyes that strikes when someone puts words to exactly what I’ve been living.
I think, perhaps, it is not just adult workers who are resigning from work situations that are not working for them. I think many of us are, even the youngest among us, and we’re doing it in a variety of ways and not just with respect to work. I feel as if I’m in the midst of something nameless (because I don’t think “great resignation” really captures what I’m sensing) and shapeless that is something so far beyond just my little existence. I realized within the first weeks of school that I would have to go where it guides me in my classroom, and now I’m getting curious about how this Thing all around us might guide us in other ways.
For many decades of my life, I viewed quitting as nothing but negative. I remember a conversation with my dad in my early teen years, in which he expressed concern that I never seemed to stick with anything. While I’d had good reasons for quitting Bluebirds, the clarinet, track, and ice skating, I still felt shame about my lack of…something. Some kind of strength or some quality of character that was going to be essential for doing Great Things and living a Good Life.
Not many years after that conversation, my dad’s brother once infuriated me by lecturing a boyfriend on the same topic. “It’s so important not to be a quitter,” he proclaimed to the young man I loved who had recently dropped out of college. Nearly 40 years later, I can still feel my outrage, but I know now that my feelings were as much about my own fear and disappointment about my beau’s choices as they were about my uncle’s rudeness.
I was socialized to put up with things, and to see sticking it out as a virtue, and to never, ever quit something unless I had an alternative something else already in place. I saw myself again in Derek Thompson’s words I linked to in the first sentence of this post:
The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one.
Oh, man. Do I know clinging to a crappy job (marriage, home, city) out of fear. What I know now is that fear is a terrible reason to stick with anything. Sometimes we have to. Sometimes we have to stick with something until we can find a safe way to escape it. Fear is a necessary emotion that often helps to keep us safe, and I don’t want to discount that or to ignore that, sometimes, quitting is really not an option.
But I am so here for this resignation thing going on, whatever it is. I’m still in process on my journey to a healthier, more manageable life, but I’m definitely getting there, and quitting my old job was a huge, first, and necessary step. I’m grateful, too, for my students’ various ways of quitting the ways in which we’ve always done school. They are pushing me to be a more humane and more effective teacher than I’ve ever been–and it’s leading me to new practices that are better for me, too. Sometimes I can get mired down in sadness and regret over things we have lost and are losing (truly bipartisan legislation, for just one), but this week I am finding value in thinking about things we should quit. I’m glad to be re-thinking the whole notion of quitting, and to rewrite some of the scripts that have shaped me, my life choices, and my feelings about myself for so long.
This weekend I got caught up on reading one of my favorite blogs, and truly enjoyed Bethany Reid’s recent essay about her marriage, written in an A to Z format. I love this format (similar in many ways to collage, a visual form I’ve always loved) and it reminds me of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, one of those books I wish I’d written. And now I’m thinking about writing an A to Z of things I’ve quit, just to see where it might take me…
Would love to know about things you’ve quit or want to quit, too, or your thoughts about the Great Resignation.
When I began my part-time teaching job, I was determined to work only on the days I teach. This would give me all of every-other-weekday off. I’d teach in the mornings and do all my prep and grading work in the afternoons.
Those off days? Those would be a luxury of time filled with things bolstering enough to get me through the work days: writing, creative projects, cooking, reading, leisurely visits with friends. Maybe even some naps.
It hasn’t gone like that, so much so that Tuesday was the first day this school year that I could actually have an entire weekday free from work.
I was going to run to a local shopping center to pick up some things. I was going to go to the produce stand to buy ingredients for soup and some pumpkins for the front porch, and then to the grocery store to get some other things we were out of. I was going to make soup, and put out the pumpkins, and process a box or two of things in the garage that is still full of stuff from Cane’s house. I was going to spend some time with my son.
I put my back out in the morning, sliding a storage container out from under the bed, but I downed some ibuprofen and was out of the house by 10:30. I had finished the shopping center stops by 11:45, when I took a call from a friend. I sat in my car for over an hour, mostly listening and being witness to a challenging situation she’s dealing with. I thought of my list and let it go for a bit. This is what you wanted more of, I thought to myself. Time to be present for the people in your life. That’s more important than pumpkins or cleaning the garage out. And it was, and I was glad to use some of my day for that. I still had plenty of time left.
After our call ended, I turned my key in the ignition, ready to head to the produce market, and…nothing. The engine didn’t even click. The dashboard lights blinked at me, then went blank, except for one with a lock icon.
I called Cane, who helped me troubleshoot, and we thought the problem might be that the antitheft system had been activated. From our Googling, it seemed that perhaps I needed to let the car sit for a bit, so I decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.
I let a little more of my plan go, but not as easily. It was not the lunch I had wanted, but it was not a bad lunch, either. Still, I had so wanted a day mostly at home, puttering and making comfort food and just being in the place I love. I was now going to have much less of that than I’d hoped for.
I went back to the car and tried the things the internets had suggested I try, and…still nothing. I called the dealership and talked to someone in the repair center, who suggested it might be more likely that I had a dead battery. “Try giving it a jump, and then call us back if that doesn’t work.”
And there went what was left of my day. It was already after 2:00 by then, and it didn’t make sense to call for roadside assistance when Cane would be off work at 3:30. After having a mini-melt down (my back still hurt, and I wasn’t going to have time to make the soup, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if the car didn’t start, and I hate it when I feel at the mercy of things I can’t control), I let the rest of my plans go. I used a bit of my time in the car thinking about plans and how they do and don’t serve us. Then I took a nap.
The car started right away when we gave it a jump. (We still don’t know what caused it to go dead, but it’s been just fine ever since.) Rather than trying to make the soup work or figure out something else to make for dinner, I gave myself permission to go home and sit in a comfortable chair with a heating pad and a book and have my son pick up takeout pizza.
I had a wonderful evening.
Wednesday I had every intention of working all day so that Thursday could be that work-free day I’ve been dreaming of, but Wednesday afternoon I was so exhausted from low-grade headache and back pain and a morning of teaching that I took a nap instead. This, too, is what you said you wanted, I reminded myself. Enough ease in your schedule to give your body more of what it needs. I slept well, and when I woke I made the soup I’d originally planned for Tuesday. I never did do any prep work that afternoon, but it was OK. I adjusted my plans for Thursday.
Thursday afternoon I had a long and unexpected visit with a different friend, and my plans flew out the window again. It was the first time we’d talked since we both returned to in-person teaching, and much of our conversation was about how our lives are both the same as and different from what they were before March 13, 2020, when our world stopped. We did some wondering about our labor and supply chain issues and all the folks who, seemingly, have decided that they are not going to return to life as they knew it before that day when we went home for what we were told would be just a week or two. How do they do it? we wondered. Then,
“I guess I’m one of those people,” I said. “I didn’t go back.”
I can see, too, that my students haven’t really gone back, either. Like me, they are where they were–but important things are not the same, and we’re not the same, either. They are not driven by the same things as those I knew before, and they expect different things from us. “Good morning, Ms. Ramstad,” one began an email to me this week. “I want to let you know that I won’t be in class on Friday because I am taking a mental health day.”
Good for you, I thought, and marveled a bit at how things have changed in the twelve years since I last had my own classroom. On Friday, my students gave presentations about aspects of their lives that have likely contributed to their biases, and they talked freely about all kinds of things that would once have been the stuff of secrets or privacy or shame: religious belief, gender identity, divorce, addiction, discrimination, incarceration, mental health.
As each shared pieces of themselves with the rest of us, part of groundwork we are laying to be able to talk productively about important and controversial topics, I felt myself softening and opening and feeling connection with fellow humans. By the end of my classes, I felt fuller, not depleted. I needed no recovery from the day’s work; instead, the day’s work gave me some recovery from the on-going dire news of the world.
Each day, they teach me more about how to be a teacher for them and how to live in the world that is emerging from and for us. In the presence of these complex, resilient, and open people who sit in front of me every other day, I have seen more and more clearly how arbitrary and unnecessary so many things in schools have been–like rigid plans and inflexible due dates. The last time I was a teacher, I spent so much energy managing due dates and absences and the rules around them. If your absence was excused you got an extension on a due date, and if it wasn’t you didn’t, and if the assignment was late you lost points on it, and if it was on time you didn’t. Tracking all of that was time-consuming and exhausting, and our practices rested an all kinds of assumptions about what students would do and should do.
I didn’t question it much, though; it was just how it was. I never liked it, but I felt I had to go along. It was what everyone did. We assumed that if we didn’t do such things, no one would ever turn anything in on time. It was what students expected, too. If we didn’t take off points for late work, students who turned their work in on time would complain that it wasn’t fair. They’d stayed up all night to get it done and they should be rewarded for that. (And others punished for not doing it.) If we didn’t hold students accountable for meeting deadlines, we said, they’d never learn the importance of doing it.
What a crock! What a waste. What needless labor and pain for all of us that didn’t need to be. We imposed it upon ourselves. We did it because that’s how it had always been done, and because it’s what had been done to us. It felt natural and right (even when it felt wrong), but it was all something we’d manufactured. It didn’t occur to them or us that, perhaps, the true unfairness was in expecting students to sacrifice their health or other important things for a grade.
Now, in the wake of Covid, doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past. We are reminded frequently of all that our students have been through and of what they are still enduring, and many things seem up for reconsideration.
Now, I strive to ground all of my practices in authentic purpose and true care. When I could see that some students were submitting assignments in the middle of the night, I told them that I never want to see that they’ve turned an assignment in after 11:00 pm. I’d rather they sleep and turn it in late. It doesn’t mean I don’t have due dates. I do. Every time, many students meet them, and some don’t. When they don’t, though, our conversations are not about the points they’ll lose. They are instead about what barriers are keeping them from getting their work done and what strategies we might use to remove them. No one seems to care that someone who turned the assignment in late gets the same full credit as someone who turned it in on time. Maybe it’s because we’ve talked about how grades should reflect what we know and can do with regard to our learning standards (rather than our behaviors), or maybe it’s because they like knowing that, should they need it, they will be given some grace when they can’t meet a deadline. (Because things happen to all of us, eventually.)
To be honest, I don’t know why they’re responding differently. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.
It is so freeing to teach this way, to be this way. It feels so much more humane. There are some natural consequences when deadlines are missed (say, when progress report grades are due), but I am driven much less by plans and deadlines that I’ve created and much more by what all of us need. The grace I extend comes back to me; when I explained to my students that some assignments wouldn’t be reflected in the progress report grades because I hadn’t had time to grade them yet, no one grumbled. It’s just how we are now, it seems. We trust that the soup will get made eventually, and some nights we eat take-out pizza because that’s all we can manage if we want to be OK. We’ll all live.
As I rest from this week and begin turning toward the next one, I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to. This week, the more I let go of ideas about some days being for work and others for the things I want to do, the more work became a fulfilling thing I wanted to do, and the more peace I felt about whatever I could and couldn’t accomplish in any given day, either in my school life or my home life.
All of this pondering about plans sent me back to the Burns poem alluded to in the title of this post, and re-reading it I focused on things I never have before, such as its line about Man’s dominion breaking social union. I realized how much our pandemic has been like his farmer’s plow, and how much I’m coming to think, like the farmer, that in spite of the sudden and unwanted destruction we’ve lived through (those of us who are still alive), it might be better to be the mouse than him, who looks back at prospects drear and forward to fears. Even though I know it could be upturned at any moment, I’m much preferring the honest nest I’m building now than the one that gave me false security before.