Sunday, September 13, 2020

It started with a tweet...

More than twenty years ago, I met  my friend, Amy, on a listserv for quilters.  We connected, challenged each other, and became fast friends, despite our ten year age difference, our careers -- she's an engineer working with computers for Dell -- and the style of our quilts.  (She's avant guard art, I'm pretty darned traditional in my design.)  Yet over the last almost 23 years, we've seen each other nearly as many times face to face, text or chat frequently, and think of each other often, so it didn't surprise me when I got an email from her Wednesday afternoon.  What surprised me was that she was asking if she could share my contact information with Scott Simon from NPR.


Amy is a serious news junkie.  Even more so than I, and that is saying something.  Apparently Scott Simon tweeted about the difficulties in teaching during a pandemic, and she responded to that tweet, referencing our own conversation from a couple of weeks ago about the start of my school year.

One thing led to another, and by Wednesday evening I was actually talking to an editor about my school year, after securing permission to do so from my superintendent.  His "estimated" ten minute phone call was nearly 40 minutes long, and I was told we'd schedule the on-air taping for sometime the following afternoon.

I woke up Thursday morning thinking I'd had another of my really vivid dreams, this one being particularly specific, and pretty outlandish, even for me!  After breakfast, I checked my email, and noticed actual contact with NPR, and realized the reality of the entire situation.

By the end of the day, I had downloaded recording software on my phone, and was Zooming with Scott Simon about the challenges and revelations of teaching both in person and online simultaneously.  It was a lot of fun, and twenty-odd minutes passed quickly.  I was coached by Sophia, his producer, how to upload the interview I'd recorded on my phone -- which explains the crystal-clear sound that NPR projects, even during ZOOM calls -- and it was over.  On Friday, I was told it would air on Saturday.

Every weird experience somehow relates back to my classroom, and this was no exception.  I haven't deleted the recording app on my phone, in case my National History Day kids might be able to record their own interviews more clearly than our previous attempts with a variety of other platforms.  I love being able to take life and turn it into improving a learning experience for others later.

On Saturday morning, it was interesting to hear how they edited 20 minutes down to four, and still maintain the integrity of our conversation.  I also noticed, listening surreally to myself, that my "telephone voice" that Sara Frazier and Erik Ewing both have teased me about over the years translates to "radio voice," as well.

And, now I've had to cross off of my "Never have I Ever" list, "searched my own name on the NPR website."  

I hadn't anticipated a flurry of emails to my school account from Donegal alumni who have retired to Florida, or fellow teachers about to start remote/face to face teaching  themselves, so the conversation with Scott has widened the conversation even further.  I figured I'd blog here, given the number of friends who have asked how NPR found a small school in Lancaster County for commentary on a Saturday morning.

Pretty cool stuff, and all because of Amy's addiction to the news, and her response to a single tweet.

#npr @NPRWeekend @nprscottsimon

Monday, August 3, 2020

On Becoming a Leper

It's August.  In a typical year, I love this month.  School supplies are on sale, and I spend most of the month scurrying around the county buying sharp new markers, notebooks, and organizational stuff to make my classroom a magical place.  I work on bulletin board design, updating my syllabi, and start planning the first week or so of ice-breaker activities.

None of that is happening this year.

Since March 13th, I've left my house less than three dozen times.  When I do, I scurry out, grab what I need, and scurry home.  I Norwex myself, my shoes, and my car, and shower when I get home.  My social circle of people I've been closer than 10 feet for more than a minute or so is less than a dozen people.

I'm a neurotic mess.  I'm not doing a Target run for school supplies, because it's risky.  I'm not shopping for cool Llama chairs on clearance at Walmart for fun flexible seating, because they are verboten by the School COVID police.  I'm struggling to design instruction, because how do you plan for the myriad of possible scenarios, and do so effectively?

I'm not sleeping.  Sure, I fall asleep, and then 1:30 comes along with weird nightmares where I'm in a giant sterile maze with students seated in individual corners talking to each other through those whisper tubes that they have on playgrounds.  They can hear each other, I can't hear any of them, and I have no earthly idea what the topic of my course even is as I scramble through the maze trying to pick up a clue.  My principal calls my cellphone and asks where my updated syllabus is.  Seriously?  If I had a syllabus, I'd know the topic of the course.

On Friday, I went out.  I drove with a friend to a The Stitching Post in Maryland.  It felt safe, there was hand sanitizer that was mandated upon entry, and no more than four patrons were allowed in a very spacious store.  In fact, I'd estimate that store to be more than three times the size of my classroom.  We made one other stop to pick up an item, attempted to go to Trader Joe's, where 25 people stood, socially distanced, awaiting entry, in the rain.  As much as I like TJ, it wasn't worth the risk or the rain.  We ate Arby's in the car on the way home.  We were gone for less than five hours, on the road for most of that time, and I came home absolutely exhausted.

It was Friday night when I realized that what I had experienced is NOTHING like what is about to happen to my world.  Early Saturday morning I dreamed that I was becoming a leper, but the diagnosis date was not until August 25th.  Since that time, I've been strategizing how to cram summer into the three weeks I have left.  I seriously considered completely quarantining myself for two full weeks and then hosting Christmas in August, because it's VERY likely that I will be too dangerous a risk to be around the Christmas tree with family in December, a mere two days after winter break begins.  (Nobody can quarantine for 48 hours, and expect not to spread a yet-undiagnosed virus, right?)  

I've pretty much abandoned the August Christmas idea, because I can't possibly get all the shopping done, and it's too hot to have the oven going to make all those cookies, let alone find a quality tree this time of year.  Instead, I'm now treating myself like a therapy dog in training -- forcing myself out to do unnecessary errands.  Today, I am proud to report, that I went to the pharmacy, and lingered long enough to look at greeting cards.  I also bought a new welcome mat for my front door, which is ironic, considering how few people are actually welcome to cross my threshold.  I thought about going to TJ Maxx and sniff around, get used to people, see what's there -- you know, therapy dog-like -- in an attempt to move myself into a more advanced state of socialization.

Yet, my brain is still thinking that seems a bit too risky to attempt such an adventure.

So right now, I'm celebrating the little things.  The first tomato ripened on the vine and was quite handsome in size.  I shared  a photo of it on Facebook, mostly to show my neighbor, Sharon, that the first one had been picked.  Nearly 100 people LIKED the darned tomato.  Seriously?  

Last night, I dreamed that fewer people acknowledged my obituary than my tomato photo when it was posted on social media.  I spent from 2 - 5 am watching Golden Girls and Frazier, praying for sleep.

I love my job, I love my students, and I adore working in the field of Gifted Ed.  The closer I get to my impending leprosy, the weirder things are going to be, and the less sleep I predict I will get, as I play this giant game of chicken, waiting for a virtual start to the school year to be announced.  Should I retire?  My head says yes.  My heart says no.  

Compassion for everyone is definitely in short supply.  If it were available at Target, I'd be head-first into the cardboard bins, buying individual supplies for everyone, COVID Leprosy be damned.  

And so I wait, and hope, and ask that you care more about people than tomatoes on social media.  

Friday, July 24, 2020

Grieving the Loss of Normal

At midnight on July 1st, I officially relinquished the title of Co-President of our local Educational Association, after fourteen years. More than a year ago, I made it clear that there needed to be new representation for our union, and my co-president and I have spent significant time with the incoming presidents, providing advice and protocols we've used during our tenure.
Nothing we've said or experienced in the last fourteen years could prepare our replacements for the current educational environment and uncertainty of the fall. (And I am so very grateful to no longer be wearing those shoes!)

Teachers KNOW that the spring Virtual Learning Experience was significantly flawed. Most of us are spending the summer completely redesigning our courses as online content "in case" that is what the fall will bring, madly trying to figure out how to promote kindness, understanding, collaboration, public speaking skills, respect, mask etiquette, hand-washing instruction, wiping down surfaces, and monitoring of real vs. "I-don't-feel-good-as-soon-as-the-exam-is-passed-out" illnesses. Obviously every sniffle, cough, or verbal outburst will hold an underlying sense of concern for teachers. The fall is frightening, but the reality of the summer is even worse.

Please, I beg, please, give us a minute to grieve the loss of everything we know as normal.

Flying around Facebook this morning was a plea from Sera Deo, a 4th grade teacher from New York. Her words echo what is in the heart of every teacher right now. "Give us a minute." Sera begs, and I join her plea. (Along with encouraging you to read her entire post. Click on that hyperlink and read what she has to say -- she deserves your attention.)

Teachers haven't recovered from our "vacation at home in our yoga pants" last spring. (Someone actually had the audacity to ask me that in June.) March 13th -- okay, maybe even March 10th, was the last "normal" day of school for me, because the vibe in the school was the sort of anticipation that teachers and students feel when a blizzard is predicted. We knew, in our guts, we were going home, even before it was officially announced. And no, that online learning and teaching-in-yoga-pants wasn't anything close to a vacation for anyone - teachers least of all.

We are exhausted, we are scared, we are emotional. We usually use our summers to plan for the fall, and to recover from the previous year. We've been worried, confused, and scared for students since that time. Any teacher can name a student who is on their heart, at risk for food insecurities, domestic violence, depression, homelessness concerns, potential child abuse, or suicide. (But they won't NAME those kids, because they can't. They are protecting them under the confidentiality laws that exist.) We worry, because, as Sera says, "For every idea you have, we know a student and a family who needs something different. What works well in your house for your children is not necessarily the solution for all."

We know the needs of last year's students, and know in our hearts that the needs of the incoming classes will have some extra needs on their lists of concerns.

During April and May, the world was praising the efforts of teachers. Jimmy Fallon sang his praises. And now, appreciation for teachers has been replaced with demands for the need for childcare, for schools to open, and things to return to normal.

Guess what? NORMAL is a setting on the dryer. There is no Normal. Last night, our Board of Directors approved the Health and Safety Plan for reopening in the fall. All districts are required to do this, and it is up to parents to be informed. Please read the protocols put in place by your district. Discover what teachers are facing as "the new normal." I realized some seemingly very trivial things when reviewing ours: that the locked classroom doors to protect kids from gunmen will now be propped open to keep us all safe from the virus. The volunteers who help teachers in their classrooms will be few, as most are retired community members who now fall in high risk categories. All the "normal" stuff that happens in high schools - giggling in the bathroom, chatting in the hallways between classes, cramming 16 people at a six person table because the whole posse absolutely can't be split up at lunchtime, drinking from a water fountain, and countless other staples of "normal" won't be permitted. Realize that those who drafted these plans did the very best, with the limitations presented.

Give us a minute.

Did you do as I asked above and read Sera's commentary? ("If you didn't, shame on you -- it's required text for this lesson. Be fully informed before you engage in discussion. Understand the nuance of the author's words..." Sorry - I lapsed into teacher-mode.)

There has never been a time before when we weren't ready to make it ok.

We want to do what is right for our kids, and yours, because we consider them ours, too.
Give us a minute. Please.

ALL EDUCATORS I KNOW — feeling emotional.😔

We're trying to put on our game faces (and figure out how to express all of our feelings using only half of our faces, because, well, MASKS), and make things okay for ourselves and our students. We'll do our best, because we model what we want our students to do. But do the teachers a favor, and don't share your fears and concerns, and expect us to make you feel better. We need to save our energy for the students in our charge in the fall.

Give us a minute. Let us recharge.

As Sera stated, "There has never been a time before when we weren't ready to make it ok."

We'll do our best in the fall, but we need to sleep, breathe, and process all of this before we can answer questions or start laminating nametags for desks.

I'd like to shake Sera's hand sometime -- when it's safe. Maybe even give her something other than an "air hug" or "air high-five," both permitted by the current plan, (socially distant, of course.) She is a teacher with wisdom to share, and speaks eloquently for the need for time, space, and grace as we had into the 2020-2021 school year.


Friday, June 5, 2020

On Grief, Grieving, and Facing the Next Level of Jumanji

photo courtesy Donna Yingst Shenk
I cleaned out my classroom on Wednesday. It was the first time I'd been in there since March 13, with the exception of two 20 minute "grab and go" opportunities during Virtual Learning this spring. It was weird to be there, and the experience was emotional. I packed away several boxes of books, including class sets of "On Grief and Grieving" by Elizabeth Kugler-Ross. Now I'm wishing I'd brought one copy home to re-read.

The year is over, and we didn't get to say goodbye. 

After dinner, I took my llama-like chair down the street to watch the 2020 version of The Senior Parade.  It was a little comforting, and a lot bittersweet, to see the eight minute parade led by our SRO, Scott Ney, and firetrucks from all three municipalities, followed by car after car filled with seniors celebrating the previous night's "Virtual Graduation."  Many wore caps and gowns, some had signs, some threw candy.  It was a giant rush -- that same rush I get when I have a truly wonderful day of meaningful discussions in my classroom with my students.  It made me grieve the loss of the "real" school year all the more.

I've previously mentioned the TDO, the Talent Development Opportunity, project that is part of my Themes in Lit course.  A week after school closed, I received an assigned reflection from one student which included a sentence that said:

 "I really hope we go back, because I don’t 

 want that random Friday to be my 

last day of high school ever."

photo courtesy Donna Yingst Shenk

Those words have haunted me since Taylor wrote them in March, and they make me incredibly sad.  All of the "what might have beens" are still tumbling through my awake mind, and my dreams, and I'm forty years older than the kids who are making history by living through their high school years during a pandemic.  I should be able to handle this better than they are -- yet, somehow, they're demonstrating strength in accepting change much more readily than many of us.

Thursday morning, I awoke to seeing the Tribe perform the ritual senior circle and tossing of caps in a field at a neighborhood church after the parade.  I was crying, before I even got out of bed - for the loss I felt for this year, for the safety of the non-social-distanced circle, and the downright glory I felt for the sense of normalcy that existed for that brief moment in the twilight hours of June 3, allowing the class of 2020 to gather together and celebrate because a wonderful group of community members made it possible by collaborating on social media.

Everything is not normal, and random is the only word we can all claim at this point.  Somehow, with the support of a wonderful community, the class of 2020 picked up the pieces and satisfied the challenge Dr. Lausch had offered to all of us this year at Donegal:  

Every Name, Every Need, ONE TRIBE.

It remains our duty as educators to identify the struggling, figure out what they need, and continue to bless and nurture every member of the Donegal community.  Amazing things have happened, and will continue to happen, because of the parents, teachers, friends, and surrounding neighbors who love and support our graduates and graduates-to-be.  It's easy to say that we'll come together, one way or another, in the fall to welcome the next class of seniors, and we'll improve upon what we've learned and make better use of technology or ramp up the quality of our lessons, all while focusing on Every Name, Every Need.  It's really hard to do that without looking back, and shedding more than a few tears for what could have or should have been.

To the class of 2020, I say congratulations on your graduation.  Please, go change the world, using the compassion, kindness, and unconditional flexibility you've learned.  We need you, now, more than ever, to constantly remind us of our need for flexibility and imagination to solve whatever obstacle we encounter.    

To the teachers and parents, it's officially summer, after a few more professional development days.  Restoration and renewal will be replaced by getting ready for the next level of Jumanji 2020.  

Monday, April 13, 2020

Closing Time...

A month ago, I started a blog entry.  It struggled to figure out where it was going, so it's been sitting in DRAFT mode since then.  For perspective, I offer you the beginning of that entry.

Friday in any high school usually has a sense of both exhaustion and optimism radiating throughout the hallways.  This week was particularly long -- maybe it was the full moon, the impending pandemic, or the fact that (unlucky?) 13 was falling on Friday.  Additional exhaustion for a large portion of the student body this week could be credited to the final week of preparation for Seussical, the Musical!, which was scheduled to open to packed audiences that night.

The only way to describe  the vibe accurately was that underlying feeling that you know that a blizzard is coming, and that the teacher-gut is whispering "Pack your bags, we won't be here on Monday."

By 2 pm, we had received an email from the superintendent that we were closing for a week.
By 2:50, the closing doubled to two weeks, by order of the governor.
By 3:30, we were warned to take home plants and animals, as there are plans for heavy-duty substances that will be sprayed to disinfect our classrooms.

I've watched a lot of coverage, and talked to people across the state who are educators.  While cable news casually mentions "moving to online learning," the realities for that are much more complicated.  Administrators across the country are scrambling to figure out what to do, and how to do it with fidelity.  Teachers are hoping that the accountability tests like PSSAs and Keystones, that usually disrupt the schedule for more than two weeks in April will be suspended this year, and allow an opportunity for face to face instruction once again.  Parents are trying to figure out childcare, entertainment at home, and, in many homes, how to feed hungry and bored kids on a fixed, or significantly reduced income.

The sense of unknown is the most unsettling.

The first few days seemed a bit like a really big snowstorm.  No reason to go anywhere, and pajamas all day long.  By Thursday of the first week, I found myself having panic attacks that woke me up in the middle of the night.  I'd go out in the driveway and stare at the stars, looking for reassurance that the world was not, as I had dreamed, closing in on me at warp speed.  The sense of unknown was now unsettling my usual Fitbit Sleep Score that hovers in the mid 80s.

Within the first week, a friend reached out and asked if I could make masks for the local nursing homes, so they could donate their supplies of PPE to the frontline hospital workers.  I obliged, until I ran out of elastic, which coincided with the startup of school and my new job as a virtual learning instructor.  

Meanwhile, my octogenarian mother had organized a virtual army network of mask-makers, who
have, I can only assume, been purchasing elastic on the black market.  (Last count was over 750 masks made and distributed.)

Teaching online is absolutely nothing like teaching in a brick and mortar classroom.  I'm not sure that society understands that the current models of delivery for most districts are being designed minute-by-minute, with the warp speed feeling from my dreams that first week.  What I've come to realize, is how both modes of instruction foster relationships between teachers and students, and while I'm struggling to feel like this current content looks anything at all like the last time I taught it, I'm finding surprises in what I originally perceived as adversity.  

Several students who I felt incredibly disconnected to in the normal classroom, are sharing and engaging with me, and asking me questions that cause me to think critically, and then push out new ideas to classmates.  One such experience was a student who shared a quote from literature, trying to explain how the pandemic felt to him.  I posted the question to my classes, and got more than 30 contributions quoting everyone from Voltaire to Nicholas Sparks, which also served as a great way to check in on the students who posted particularly depressing quotes.  

Where am I going with this rambling?  Well, two things.  First, it is obvious to me that like my mother, I need to keep engaged and busy.  This is helping me to continue to push off that retirement  date that I am asked about on a weekly basis.  The second thing resonates with my Key Club members who are at home making cards for veterans, working on one of our ongoing projects, that I/we need a sense of purpose to get through each day.

And my eighty-three year old mother?  Well, she continues to manage the sweatshops of a network of seamstresses, sharing elastic in a no contact dropbox on her front porch, distributing them as quickly as they are collected.  Last evening, she spoke with enthusiasm about her involvement, and commented, 

"I haven't felt this giddy since I was hit by a truck!"

For a full explanation of the adversity she faced in December, 2014, click the link.  And, much like our current situation, read the good that came out of her experience, when she bought the farm.

Flexibility, Understanding, and Patience.  The mantra for teachers shared by our administrative team.

Truly, CLOSING of school has become an OPENING of my mind in what is truly important when connecting with students.  They'll learn something during this time, and what they do learn, will be a life lesson to share for generations to come, and adults will have a new perspective, and, with any luck, a new sense of purpose to share.

Friday, July 26, 2019

It's About Time!

Almost five years ago, I told the tale of Alex, who had attended a SEE (Secondary Enrichment Experience) Seminar entitled "The Art of Swiss Watchmaking."  At the time, the idea that high school students would be interested in an entire day watching people make watches seemed pretty unlikely to me, yet Alex, being Alex, jumped at the chance.  He went on to receive a full ride to Franklin and Marshall College, yet the gnawing memory of that day at the Lititz Watch Technicum continued to haunt him.     

Alex walked away from Franklin and Marshall, and into the very selective and rigorous program at the Lititz Technicum, learning the secrets of  fine watchmaking, taught by the experts at Rolex.  Two weeks ago, he sat for what I can only assume was the most rigorous test of perfectionism, proving his steady hand and keen eye, and whatever other skills are key to the success of a watchmaker.  That afternoon, he sent me a message, inviting me to his graduation ceremony.  My response, "I WOULDN'T MISS IT FOR THE WORLD!"

So today, I had the privilege and honor of watching this very wonderful young man start the next phase of his life -- as a Rolex Watchmaker.  In his speech at the graduation ceremony today, Eric Grippo, the Manager of Rolex World Service, GENEVA, spoke about the passion of the seven graduates of the program.  I've known Alex since third grade, and he's been passionate about many things.  Mr. Grippo suggested that his father's goal for him had been that he find a career where he was so passionate about what he did that he would never feel like he was working a day in his life.  He enthusiastically welcomed Alex, and his classmates by saying "Welcome, to the first day of not working, beginning tomorrow!" 
Alex, and his gorgeous Betsy.

The best part about this day was seeing the genuine love of life this young man has.  His family travelled from far and wide to be in attendance, and every single one of us was hugged, and kissed, and appreciated by the reason we were all there.

So yes, there's never enough time in teaching -- or many careers for that matter.  For Alex, the rest of his career is all about time.  

And it is days like today that make me so very grateful that I have a career that, despite a 20 year pin on my lapel, is actually one that has me feeling like I haven't worked a single day.  Mr. Grippo's speech solidified the very thought in my heart that I feel every time someone stops me and asks me "How many more years do YOU have?", implying retirement is overdue for me.  Somehow I've blinked, and five years have passed.

Oh, and reminiscent of Alex's first day at the Technicum five years ago, he's sporting a new watch on his wrist.  (No word on whether it glows in the dark, although I suspect it does!)  

Clearly, those dimples are evidence of his passion, pride, and complete joy that comes with this achievement.

My prayer is that all of my students can find their dimples -- whether or not a Rolex is part of the package.  Because the joy of watching this kind of happily ever after is reinforcing the heart of this not-ready-to-retire teacher.

Thanks, Alex, for the invitation, and for reminding me what I've known all along.  Magical things happen when gifted kids discover their passions.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Is Ketchup a Jelly or a Jam?

Today, the students in my two afternoon classes asked 3700 questions, almost simultaneously.  

While this may seem a tad confusing, and a lot deafening, it might help to clarify that they were writing the questions in their Whitebooks, and not actually shouting -- or even whispering -- them aloud.  I spent the time giving the class some space, and then quietly circulated and chatted with some individually.

"Is ketchup a jelly or a jam?"

Honestly, not a question I had ever considered, and almost dismissed the thought, until the questioner chatted a bit about the confusion the world has over whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables.

Now the goal of this exercise is to randomly write, freeing your mind, and generate 100 questions.  In past years, we encouraged this by creating dice with WHO-WHAT-WHEN-WHERE-WHY-HOW, helping to keep the questions flowing.  That proved to be more of a distraction -- especially when 20 kids were simultaneously tossing wooden dice on a table.  Not exactly conducive to free-thinking creativity.

I encourage you to try this activity for yourself.  Ask 100 questions, but think about none of them.  Just write them down in a list, all in one sitting.  (If you want to play along, STOP reading this blog now, and go do it. ) 

This semester's topic in Themes in Literature is "Think Like da Vinci," and loosely based on Michael Gelb's book by the same name.  The first exploration is a focus on "Curiosita," (with an accent over the "a" that I have no idea how to insert in this platform), or a study of how curious one might be.  The most difficult part of teaching this class -- and there really is very little that is difficult once the "teacher of the gifted" succumbs to the idea that he/she will NEVER be the smartest person in the classroom, so "sit back and enjoy the ride...", is wanting to chat and explore fascinating scenarios about condiments, and the like.  

I am proud to say that NO ONE in my class was entertained by my knowledge of the difference between jelly and jam today.  (You, however, may not be as fortunate.  One has chunks of fruit, while the other is strained before canning.)  I simply moved on to the next student, leaving the questions on fruits vs. vegetables percolating in the head of the questioner.

For those of you playing along:  Choose eight colored markers, and sort your 100 questions through the following lenses:


What causes you to think the hardest?  Are you a philosopher or a sociologist?  A scientist or a politician?  Just like da Vinci, these kids are all over the map, subconsciously, and consciously, asking questions through nearly every lens.  Next week, we'll examine the areas of fascination, and collectively consider, just like da Vinci, a little bit more about how we think.  The Environmentalists will go head to head with the Economists.  The Futuristic folks may just clash with the Historians.

While I can definitively defend my position that ketchup is neither a jam or a jelly, there is little else that is that black and white in Themes in Lit.

And that's exactly the way it should be.  Every day should leave them wondering, asking questions, and wondering why everything that they knew is no longer black or white, but actually a confusing gray -- scratching their grey matter for a greater quest, and another da Vinci exploration day.