I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Turning the Corner... Again

The negatives of this school year seem to flood me sometimes. I almost drown. Something always seems to pull me back up - a week - or maybe two - later. I've turned yet another corner on this school year journey, and I wanted to share some ideas that have helped me. Each time I need to get out of the quagmire, I find something different that helps me resurface.

Gratitude - I am one of the most privileged people I know. I have a job, insurance, a roof over my head, heat, working faucets, money to pay my bills, food in the fridge and pantry, clothes, a bed, a working vehicle, health, multiple masks, and lots of love. Sometimes when I feel I've hit "bottom," I realize it's not anywhere near "bottom." There are so very many people who are not in my situation. So many people have had their lives upended by this pandemic. Just last week, I heard one of our custodians chatting with someone, and she called this pandemic (for those at our school, at least) an "inconvenience." Yes. Teaching in a pandemic is a real sucker of an inconvenience. When I refocus like this, I am able to see all I have, and it gives me strength to head back into that school building one more time the next day. As long as I can keep myself masked and six feet from students and staff, I can continue on this path.

Less Social Media - I've cut down on Facebook (checking maybe once a week), Instagram & TikTok (once every three days or so), Twitter (mostly in the AM only), and solo games on my phone (the daily challenge only). This has helped me decrease worry, aggravation, envy, and thinking I have nothing "good" to post - because I don't feel the need to post. With less time for everything, cutting down this time on media has helped me remember why I got on these platforms to begin with. If I want to check in on a family member, sure, I can check Facebook, or I can actually call them. If I want to check in with students, I'll go through the updates on Instagram and TikTok. If I want to learn and share that learning, I'll check Twitter. What's also helped me is not checking what's "trending." When I catch my news in the morning, I'll get information on what's important, not what's "trending." Not playing so many games on my phone has helped me have more time for my family, for reading, and for sitting and relaxing. It's also helped me not be bombarded by advertisements. 

Reading - I'm reading so much more. Nonfiction, biographies, books my nephew suggests, books my students suggest, books I've wanted to read... I turn off my tech by 8pm, and I open a book. I get in a solid hour of reading (if I don't fall asleep on the couch), and it helps my mind relax before heading to bed.

Breathing - I'm learning to close my eyes and take deep breaths. Even in front of my students. Taking that time helps me realize that so much of this life is "small stuff," and we're not meant to sweat the small stuff. In that moment, I know I am healthy, safe, and so blessed to be able to take breaths. Sometimes I step outside alone (even in the cold) and breathe in... then out. When I'm out exercising, sometimes I simply stop... to breathe. When the sun is out, I face the sun and remember I'm just a speck in this vast world, and I can only do my best. 

Time - Once I realize what day of the week it is, I also check the date. The days just keep moving. They won't stop for me or for you. There is only so much time in a day - just like every other year. I do what I can, and I make sure I spend more time with my family than I do with work when I am home. I am in the moment at home, because the moments are fleeting. I am practicing being more in the moment at work, listening more than speaking. Soaking in all the funny things the kids share, the vulnerability, and the lessons we're all learning.

Some mantras I've used this year...

  • Connect with the kids.
  • Right here, right now - it's what matters.
  • Shake it off.
  • I am grateful to have a job - with benefits!
  • I am healthy. Those I love are healthy.
  • Breathe.
  • I am enough.
  • I am doing the best I can.
  • I am fair, and I am kind.
  • Try to not complain - listen, instead.
  • Let it go.
  • I am learning so much.
What is helping you turn the corner when you get bogged down this year?

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Nudge to Have Difficult Conversations

 ...with your students.

To my white friends, peers, PLN, administrators and parents reading this, I believe we should have provided a space for our students to ask questions and share concerns the day after our nation's Capitol building - and all those inside - was attacked. 

It was an insurrection. What happened did not just happen out of thin air. Many of my seventh graders know that the Capitol building was protected with armed guards during a BLM protest, and they did not see any during this "March for Trump." They saw photos and videos. They shared many on social media. True. We are not their parents. Some parents had discussions with their children and some did not. If their parents did not have the discussions with them, are they supposed to make sense of this by themselves? What if more questions arose overnight, and yet they were not able to process them with someone?

If you did not feel you needed to provide space for our students to discuss what happened, we disagree. I am very well aware you have a lot of things going on - I'm going through them WITH you. Wednesday night, I was thinking about all my students, especially my black students - present, past, and future. Yes, this year (as we should every year, I suppose) we need to put our own mental health first. I hear that. I understand that. It actually HELPED my mental health to provide room for discussions the day after. And it's not too late.

If you feel you were not comfortable enough to do so, I'd like to nudge you - strongly. I am not an expert - by any means! - yet I feel as if I was able to facilitate a useful discussion with students who wanted the chance to participate and learn from one another. Here I will simply list resources that have helped me hold these conversations (which are all on this LiveBinder). Just try these four for starters:

As for my own discussions led, since my seventh graders are all remote this week, I started with two Jamboard questions (a platform my students are familiar with): What do you KNOW about what happened yesterday? What do you WANT to know? We were going to begin class with independent reading, so I told students they could either stay in the main room for the discussion, or if they'd already discussed it with an adult and didn't want to participate, they could read independently for this time in another breakout room. After students moved, we started by looking at their answers on Jamboard. When I saw a thought or opinion, I moved that sticky note off to the side. I let students know we'd only focus on the facts, clarify misconceptions by looking at various sources if we needed, and then I'd try to answer their questions. I warned against using words to represent one group (such as Republicans or Democrats), and told them I'd try to facilitate and guide their discussion. I had a time limit (20 min), and their statements and questions led the way. The reason this helped my mental health? I was able to teach a bit (they didn't know what was supposed to be happening in the Capitol building that day, we looked up terms they'd heard, we discussed finding our news from many reliable sources instead of one sole source, and we discussed how easy it is to create fake accounts and hide behind anonymity), some of my quieter students shared openly and privately, myriad questions were asked and answered by peers, they took turns, and I found out they have faith in the election process. We ended each discussion with hope - that this event leads to positive changes.

If I were to try to have a discussion in the next week, I'd find a way relate my content to what happened. I'd allow for student questions - verbal, in the chat, via small slips of paper students put in a hat. I'd let the conversation roll out from there. When students bring up what they've heard or seen, ask, "Why do you think this is? What evidence have you collected? What sources did you use? What do you think about that? Why do you think this?" The list goes on. When students ask questions, ask their peers the same question. We don't have to have all the answers. Our students need to know that, too. If we don't provide space for our students to inquire, what are we teaching them?

If you provided space for your students to have discussions, I'd love your help for me and other educators for the future. Please tag me on Twitter or add your own ideas in the comments below.

During this year especially, when safety and connections come before instruction, I believe we should be helping students learn. What message will our students receive from us? What will they remember of our content from this school year? Events of 2020 and 2021 are learning opportunities that our students won't forget - with or without our guidance. After my first class had their discussion, I received this direct message:

As an aside... this is Day 302 of my IL village staying safe due to a pandemic.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Books of 2020

Best Books of 2020

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2020 like I have the past six years. I read a bit for myself, along with many books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy or books they recommended for me.
     2019 Favorites
     2018 Favorites
     2017 Favorites
     2016 Favorites
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 81 books I've read this year... I tried to whittle it down to one or two per genre, but I read some genres more than others! I'm not going to describe them for you - you can check out the complete list with my thoughts for this year here. Another note: One of my goals again this year was to read many more books by authors who are not white.

Biography / Autobiography / Memoir
     Such a sweet story of innocence, humility, and effort. My Name Is Tani… and I Believe in Miracles was one I will purchase and share with my students. I also believe I'll be rereading Between the World and Me.

Graphic Novel
     I only read two this year. Guts is relatable to my seventh graders on so many levels.

Historical Fiction
     It was another good year for historical fiction for me. I'd recommend Saving Savannah by Bolden, Death Coming Up the Hill by Crowe, and Show Me a Sign by LeZotte for my own seventh graders, for sure.

"How to"
     One for my students and me: This Book Is Anti-Racist Here are my notes for this book
And one for educators (and any other adult, really): Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less    I wrote about that one here.

     One of my six nonfiction books this year... and I read it twice: So You Want to Talk about Race    My notes from this one are here

     I loved listening to the teacher in this audio book. I'd have to take notes as I drove. Once I got over the fact that it was a sequel of sorts, I could just focus on the lessons. The Courage to Be Happy: The Japanese Phenomenon that Shows You that True Contentment Is In Your Power

Realistic Fiction
     Always so many. So Done by Paula Chase, I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kelly Jones and Gilly Segal,  SLAY by Brittney Morris, Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes, This Side of Home by Renee Watson, and my adult favorite was The Rent Collector by Camron Wright.

     New for me was a bit of romance this year. Two more mature reads I enjoyed: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (adult), and Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (YA).

    I only read four (and that's good for me!), so I'll share them all, as I think they all have different audiences... How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trohy by Crystal Allen is for 7th grade on up, Bear Town by Fredrik Backman and Painting the Black by Carl Deuker are both for high school on up, and Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt is for middle schoolers who understand the witty references.

My reading gap this year? I only read two new science fiction books (the rest were re-reads for our scifi unit), and even though I tried a couple of short story collections, I abandoned them due to their mature content. I'll look for a couple more graphic novels next year and also a couple more mysteries.

What awesome books should I put on my list? Please share your favorites in the comments below!

For the quotes I love, check out this slideshow that I update with each quote that touches my heart or soul:

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

What I Hope I Continue in 2021

I've got time to write today. How did that happen? It's winter break, and I've been leaving more work at work... something I hope continues in 2021. Here's a list I hope to add to as I think of more: 

  • Leave more work at work.
  • Breathe.
  • Be in the moment.
  • Continue to walk outside - when I'm frustrated/mad/sad... and when I'm not.
  • Keep the hard conversations going, even if it's at a different time.
  • Slow down.
  • Know it doesn't have to be perfect.
  • Keep lessons simple and organized.
  • Read more books written for adults.
  • Judge less.
  • Listen more.
  • Ask questions.
  • Give more to food banks.
  • Make more home-made gifts.
  • Enjoy the little things to the fullest... yes, even washing dishes.
  • Share more gratitude.
  • Make quality time for others.
  • Have ONE priority to guide all actions.
  • Sing loud and proud.
  • Do my part.

As for any parents reading this... I hope you continue with the Binny's gift cards for your children's teachers. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป Hehehe!

What do YOU hope to continue in 2021?

Thursday, December 10, 2020

His words...

We were hesitating over taking the niece and nephew to camp - in our own trailer - in Holland, Michigan this summer. We'd had reservations since January (they're tough to get!), and the campground was open once again. It's something we'd done for many years in a row. We would bring our own food, have our own shower and toilet, and only swim in the waves. We'd be away from people. 

What did it matter? Why was the decision so huge? Because it was the summer of 2020.

I wanted to go so bad. We hadn't been anywhere all summer! I was so tired of this whole quarantine thing! Our niece and nephew wanted to go even more. I cried over what to do. They may have cried not knowing if we were even going. This year has brought "too many" cancellations and oh-so-many tears. Who has it not affected?

What helped me figure out what the right thing to do was my husband's words. We were sitting in the truck after visiting my parents in their backyard, exhausted from going back and forth on this decision. Finally, these words of his sunk in.

"If I'm wrong, we are all safe. If you're wrong..." 

We didn't know what would happen if I was wrong. It could affect us, my sister's family, my parents...

His words have helped steer my own decisions since that day. 

I truly hope that our school board made the correct decision in not having an adaptive pause for the last two weeks before winter break until the two weeks after winter break. (More numbers: Most students would only miss EIGHT days in the school building).

I truly hope more parents who travel will keep their children out of the schools for two weeks afterwards (even though this was not always the case after Thanksgiving - please, please, students, stop telling me where you went if you're going to show up in my classroom for 80 min of my day).

If an adaptive pause was wrong, at the very least we (students, staff... and my sensible spouse) were all safe.

I do not let my students know I worry - about my husband's physical health, along with my own mental health trying to be my best for all 75 students. At least during remote learning, I can break down between classes with no one knowing. While in front of students, I'm still acting like my "normal" teacher self. I have it easier than many teachers - every teacher I know is struggling. Every teacher I know is working on making it through.

I don't know the rates of cases in the community where I work. I do not live in the community where I work. Instead, I'll document here the rise in deaths in the US for the past weeks our district has been in hybrid mode: 

This piece was another story I had to make sure to document. Sometimes writing about struggles helps my heart and mind.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Moving Forward

First, the popular saying was, "We got this!" Hah! Um, no. We didn't have this.

That was soon been replaced with "We'll come through this stronger."

I doubted this at first, as I found myself truly breaking down on the first Friday of remote teaching, September 4th. I remember it well, as I hadn't broken down like that since one memorable day during the year I got my divorce (and was still living in that house). Some of us would NOT come out of this stronger. Some of us would quit. Some would be forced to take a leave. Some would retire early.

Now, it's November 15th. It's been eight months since our schools shut down on March 13th. I've been through what I thought was the toughest teaching ever - remote / online teaching. After I got into the swing of things, I was thrown into what I thought was the toughest teaching ever - hybrid teaching. I'm kind of - sort of - maybe getting into the swing of things once again. I think it's partly due to my true commitment to my own mental and physical health that I've needed to do the last couple of months.

Reading this recent post from Annick Rauch, it brought me back to my fears that now, more than ever, there will be some people who do not come out of this stronger. I have peers who are given more work than ever this year, and there simply isn't enough time to complete it all. Truly. I have peers who have to make no-win decisions about their job. We are in a pandemic. Many of our own families and those we serve have been upended due to work (or lack thereof), sickness (or even death), and compounded stress. We all have different problems and privileges on our plates, and as Annick pointed out, all of our plates are different to begin with. We cannot compare problems. Our paths we've been on and supports we are able to access are so very different.

I attended a webinar from Mandy Froelich on Tuesday evening, and I've heard much of what she's shared before, but some of it is sticking this week. I've been fairly mentally healthy the rest of the week due to what is sticking. Here are my quick notes from her webinar (if you'd like more, check out her site - I'm thinking of signing up for her free course, as well):

  • You are the catalyst for your own engagement.
  • We're future thinkers. In the pandemic, we're in a constant reaction mode instead of being able to be pro-active.
  • You HAVE to be focused on something else (for me, it's mental and physical health).
  • One solution for demoralization is to rediscover your identity and/or get involved with a passion project or advocacy. (This summer, for me, it was to build the Antiracist LiveBinder. The past two weeks, it's been learning how to post to TikTok.)
  • Find JOY - find what helps you stay afloat. (I've found it's engaging with the kids. I'm learning about Among Us and TikTok and gaming vernacular.)
  • When the pandemic hit, some teachers had already 1) started self-care and had really well-developed boundaries  2) some parts of teaching were student-directed learning  3) had an interest or a willingness to try new technology ... it was easier for these teachers to bounce back a bit to how they taught before the pandemic. We're not going to be the same people, because we've learned (post-traumatic growth). Resilience means we love the person we're going to become AFTER adversity.

I felt it was time for me to post what I, personally, am doing that is helping me, personally, move forward and become the person I want to be. Maybe these are actual directions for me to go back to when I dip low once again (I'm betting it'll happen - it's how life goes), and maybe ONE thing on this list will strike you as something you feel you could try.

  • Eat well. This includes adding fun snacks once in a while.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Keep up with hygiene - teeth, hair, body.
  • Head to sleep at a consistent time each night.
  • Don't look at tech at least an hour before bed.
  • Limit my time on social media.
  • Don't look at work email after 3:15 or on the weekends. (I admit, sometimes I sneak a peek. I do this FOR my mental health. The times I'm feeling good think I can handle bad news, I look.)
  • Get out in nature.
  • Be present in each moment.
  • If I feel a need to complain, do it quickly, and then share something positive. (My thoughts from a year ago that I need to re-read are here.)
  • Avoid toxic people. 
  • Choose to ignore or address negative comments, then let them go. Don't provide them the space in your brain. Replace it with something you're grateful for (such as... I'm grateful I don't have to live with this person.)
  • Let go of guilt. It's over. Learn from mistakes.
  • Play.
  • Make time for your hobbies.
  • Practice gratitude often. (My posts about gratitude are here.) Mandy reminded us that our brains will do what we practice. While we have positive thoughts, the negative thoughts can't be there. It will take time, but we can change the way our brain functions.
  • Read. Read other perspectives. Read fiction and nonfiction. Notice the problems others face, and realize you're not alone. Notice how others have persevered.
  • Care for others. Do a good deed. Be an ear and listen with intent to truly hear. Ask questions about someone else's life without responding about your own.
  • Leave early enough to not be rushed in the morning. This way, I can drive at my own pace and not worry about those in a hurry.
  • Find, and take time to document, what's going WELL. (My post a month after I broke down here.)
  • Do not take any opportunity unless you KNOW it will be helpful. (My reasoning is here.)
  • Be consistent in my own care for myself. (My post about consistency is here.)
I can only do so much. In 2018, I started reading self-help education books. I wanted to survive until it was time to retire. 

Since reading Essentialism this last September, I've had ONE priority: Take care of my mental and physical health. It has taken root, because I've needed it to work in order to keep walking into my school building each day. I've been consistent about it. Everything I'm asked to do, or everything I think of doing, I think first, "Will this help or hinder my mental and/or physical health?" And then I do what HELPS me. 

I want to survive this. I want to thrive again some day. 
As Hubby taught me years ago, "You know what's right. It's an easy decision." 
I will do my part.

Two of my hobbies - nature + photography.
This was taken a few years ago at Morton Arboretum and it's how I feel these days - upside down, but kind of balanced and kind of happy - doing what I can with what I have.

Saturday, October 31, 2020


Our awesome school district has been having many more board meetings than they have had in the past, due to all the options and struggles and opinions in the community - all around COVID19.

I was watching the board meetings as they took place for the start of the school year, but I soon realized I could not watch in real time anymore. I was not sleeping those nights. I need sleep in order to be a somewhat effective classroom teacher. Just when I realize I need to watch the videos on a weekend morning, I felt the need to attend the latest board meeting as it occurred. I am currently teaching as many as 15 students at a time in my classroom, along with as many as 20 at home on a screen. It depends on the day, and numbers are always fluctuating. I shared a few things that make this hybrid time different in my last post.

Our union president, an educator and resident of our district, spoke first. I agree with her entire speech. Here are the statements that stick with me:
  • The teachers... want nothing more than to be with our students, in person, and to deliver quality education for every child. ... We agree with parents and the board that this is important and necessary, and this is what we strive for. We feel strongly that while numbers continue to rise in every community around us, and even [our town], bringing students back in person, full time, without safety mitigations in places, poses a danger for all of us. We are not opposed to in-person learning. We are opposed to unsafe learning.
  • Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, most of us would not invite 25 people into our homes, especially if you didn’t know where those 25 people have been, in terms of who they have been hanging out with, where they have been going with their families, if they have traveled, if they are playing on sports team, etc. This is essentially what happens when 25 students enter our classrooms. It is like inviting 25 people
  • into your home with no background information as to how safe they have been. Middle school classrooms are inviting a different group of 25 children into classrooms every 40 minutes, which would be like having close to 200 people in your home over the course of one day. Right now, everyone in Cook County are being encouraged to have gatherings of no more than 25 people in your home, and the only people gathering should be close friends and family. Bringing back all students at once is irresponsible and ignores the advice of medical experts.
  • The teachers in [our district] are committed to making sure each student has the best education. (She shares how we'll be in and out of school, quarantining, substitutes will be in classes, stress will be added, and some teachers may be forced to take a leave or resign. None of that is good for children.)
  • We truly want what’s best for all our students and would love to be in-person when it is safe to do so. The only barrier standing in our way is COVID19. COVID19 is the barrier.
  • We all want the same thing for our students, families and community. We want students in school, and we care about the health and safety of all.
Other teachers spoke. Parents spoke. I took notes. I cried. Again.

Our superintendent's team put together a presentation that included advice from the district's insurance, current numbers of students in remote and hybrid for each school, and numbers should we stay six feet apart or numbers if we are not six feet apart. The cost to the board should all students go to school in person five days a week (except those remote, of course) was eye-opening to me.

If you'd like to know how a school board meeting in the time of COVID19 goes, check it out for yourself:
This meeting looks a bit different, as the teachers showed up earlier than parents, so the physical room is full of teachers on this night. Everyone who had brought something to say had their time and space to say it, like always. Check previous board meetings to hear more parent views.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

First Week of Hybrid - Observations

I've had one week of hybrid at our middle school. Our hybrid situation goes like this: On Mondays, everyone but the teachers are remote. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have students with the last name starting with A-K, and the rest of the alphabet is home. On Wednesdays and Fridays, it's the other way around. We've had more parents share that their child will be remote just this week, and many students stay home with symptoms of COVID, just in case. So, really, I never know who's going to show up in front of me. Attendance takes longer than it did just on Zoom. Here are some other examples of how my days are changed.

  • When I mask up and walk into the school building, I consider it a wonder that so many educators are still showing up to work. At the school building... With children coming in and out of their rooms up to ten times a day...While many parents of those children are still safely working from home...
  • I can get to the office to check my mail and up to the classroom without touching anything (even though the entire building is (I hope) sprayed down each night. I use my sleeve or lanyard to open doors that pull outward.
  • I get to class and take down the shields students use at lunchtime. The students in the room 10th (last) period put them up so the custodians can spray them down at the end of the day.
  • I set up the laptop, plug in the external camera, the cord for the projector, and keep the laptop charged. Zoom takes a toll on that battery. I unplug the speaker/microphone we were provided, and turn it on, then turn on the bluetooth so the laptop and speaker connect. (I should really do something about all the messy dangling cords, but no one has complained, and I truly won't make the time unless someone does.)
  • Students come to school with their masks on, backpacks on, their water bottles and their lunches. 
  • I'm at the door taking student temperatures (how close we get then!) before they come in for homeroom. I start the Zoom for that period once they're in their seats.
  • Remote students for the day are still coming into Zoom a few minutes after the bell. Since I can't get used to showing one thing on the screen behind me and another in front of me, I've just decided to share my screen. This means that sometimes it's all our Zoomers for the day, or it's our slides plus a couple of Zoomers on the side (and hopefully it's never my email). I try to make sure my in-class students can see our at-home students often. 
  • I switch cameras often, so students at home feel as if they're more involved in the class - my face-time camera (which shows my masked face) or my external camera (which faces the class).
  • I've learned that the speaker that was provided works better on its side. Meaning - we can't really hear anyone from Zoom if it's sitting up like it should. I use the music stand I brought from home to keep the speaker on its side (it's round, and I can't think of any other way to turn it on its side), so we can all hear our at-home class.
  • I have to remember to turn off the speaker and plug in my earbuds when having 1:1 conversations with the kids at home.
  • We've ditched the idea of using the microphone part of the microphone/speaker combo that was provided, as it only covers up to ten feet, and we are all at least six feet apart, so...
  • When having a discussion (we tried for the first time on Friday) with everyone, I have now taped an "X" on the carpet where students in class can stand and share with the kids in class and the kids at home can still hear and see the speaker. I then change the view on Zoom to "speaker," so the person sharing at home is projected large on our screen.
  • We take mask breaks. We'll either jog or run for a few minutes, stand around, or play a short game. Sometimes my at-home students stay on Zoom, and sometimes it's near the end of a period, so I let them go when my at-school students head outside. I pray for at least "okay enough" weather each day. I, too, relish mask breaks.
  • Students get to the classroom one minute after the first bell rings. I haven't even had a chance to spray all the tables as they're using hand sanitizer and grabbing a paper towel to wipe off their table.
  • I feel as if I have six classes now instead of three, as the dynamics are very different. I'd guess teachers who have six different classes now feel they have twelve.
  • Most students stay in their (plastic blue) seats. (All our comfy furniture has been relocated.) When it gets near time to go, students begin to congregate.
  • I keep hearing myself repeat, "Six feet," "Mask up," and "Don't touch your face." I repeat directions to grab a paper towel to wipe down desks and to use hand sanitizer.
  • Three times during this one week a desk has fallen to the floor. Students aren't used to them having their wheels locked in one space (on a velcro dot on the floor to ensure they're six feet apart).
  • I've backed up significantly when a student gets too close outside. One even came into my "teaching area," and my eyes must've bugged out so much that she backed up immediately.
  • I can talk to students about what's on their sweatshirt or about their cool masks.
  • I have one child who has a mask that keeps slipping under her nose. I find myself holding my breath.
  • On Wednesdays and Fridays, students eat lunch in my room behind shields. With our homeroom. Quietly. When it's nice enough out, they will be able to eat outside. It was raining half of our week.
  • I've been eating in the art room - four of us can be in there eating with plenty of space between us. We clean the area before and after we use it.
  • I have my plan period with my remote teacher partner/friend in the hallway. 
  • Bus duty is fast - there is no need for students to linger, and there are no lockers to go to.
  • I haven't been around so many people since March 13th. When I leave the school building, I feel like retching. The feeling goes away shortly after I take off my scrubs and wash up and get my hug.

The students seem to be doing fine in this environment. 

I keep hearing that we need to "care for the students."

We also need to take care of the teachers - who truly want to care for the students (or we would be gone by now). Nobody but fellow educators that are actually trying to connect with - and teach! - students hour after hour know what we're going through. I hope readers here have found ways that are helping you cope. Since our students will most likely have the option of "remote" all year, it looks like this will be the routine until our numbers soar enough (um... 6,000 more cases yesterday, IL?) to go back to being fully remote.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Opportunity Not Taken

I haven't felt like I've had much to share lately that can actually HELP educators. I've got something today that I hope helps those who take the time to read it.

I'll say it again - I work in a well-off district. Not as wealthy as some, but during this school year, we've been provided extra monitors, small cameras for our laptops, and even bluetooth speaker/microphones. I've taken advantage of all of these. I've been fortunate to be able to attend the short training sessions that went along with these tools. I've watched the brief "how to" videos our main office created for us. I'm not saying that anybody but teachers teaching classes all day know what we need, but I am saying that many people in my district are trying. I've benefitted from some of this.

My own administration has also tried to help us in many ways. They've offered Q & A Zoom sessions, and I've taken those opportunities. They recorded a Q & A for our community, and I took the 40 minutes to listen to that one. Two teachers in our building have even offered an exercise routine after school a few times this year. Their own time; no pay. Some are taking that opportunity. I thought of it, but then realized I truly enjoy my walks instead.

Eight weeks in to this school year, the administration at my school offered another opportunity. They mentioned a couple of times to not worry about the cost - it was taken care of. They've partnered with a counseling service. It's a free wellness program with short videos you watch at your own pace. I contemplated it. It was supposed to help with our mindset, heartset, soulset, and healthset. It's to "help educators discover hidden hours in their day, sustain their energy through food and exercise, care for themselves through mindfulness and yoga, and embrace positivity." Sounds like a good goal.

When I first heard of it (during one of our two days provided to help us prepare for hybrid), I thought, "Not another program. Nope." Next, I thought, "It might be helpful if a couple of us did it together. We could support each other further." Then I thought, "It's free to me. It must have cost a lot of money. I should probably do it. I'll get something out of it, even if it's just a little. I'll wait to see if I hear that others are signing up."

An email reminder came. It said there were 16 videos, along with I-don't-remember-how-many pages of a workbook. My gut said, "No way. I'm not going to take a class on top of everything I'm already doing. I don't have time." Yet I still did not delete the email.

One more reminder came (oh, the emails with links embedded in links!) - this time with a time limit to get in our response. My brain said, "Don't delay!" and suddenly I was reminded of one of the lessons in this book that my friend, Rik Rowe, recommended to me.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less: McKeown, Greg:  8601407068765: Amazon.com: Books

The author warned that many opportunities will come our way, and many times we feel guilty if we don't take them. This one had all the signs - it's free! It's helpful! It's on my own time! Hurry up - this offer won't last! And it was tugging at me with each reminder that I should probably take this opportunity. Once I realized this, I put myself through a little test. I told my husband about it, and he said what he normally does, "Do it if you think it will help." I left the email reminder in my inbox. This past Friday was the due date. I let it slip by without responding. And today, I feel good about that decision to pass on this opportunity.

The author of Essentialism talked a ton about our TIME. How we use our time is so important. I need to do what I KNOW works for me. I don't have time for what I think MIGHT work for me. This program offered might be outstanding. Oh, well. I needed to take a pass on it. I've gone nine weeks now into the school year taking care of my mind, heart, soul and health. If I hadn't - believe me - I'd already have quit.

What is my priority this year? (According to essentialists, we can only have ONE priority. That word should never have been pluralized.) 

My priority: My health. Mental and physical. Everything else comes after. A benefit of COVID-19 is that I'm so much better at keeping this a priority than ever before in my life. And I've got a good base as to HOW.

I'm sharing my self-care routine once again, with a couple of additions.

  • I rarely leave work after 3:30.
  • I don't look at my email from 3:15 until the next morning.
  • I'm finding time to send good notes home to students.
  • I don't let myself feel guilty for reading an adult book (as opposed to a young adult book).
  • I'm getting outside - sometimes between classes, at lunch (when the weather is okay), and after school.
  • I'm not on a screen a ton when I get home.
  • I read fiction at least an hour before bed.
  • I'm eating regularly, and well.
  • I have a regular sleep schedule (9pm to 5am).
  • I'm using the pens I like. (Yes, even tiny things like not saving the best for later helps my head.)
  • I'm wearing my mask, washing my hands, and staying 6 feet apart from peers.
  • I'm not saying "yes" to any other positions (lunch supervision, clubs) that do not help me.
  • I'm saying "no" to opportunities that come my way that I'm not sure will help me.
  • I'm letting peers and family know how I feel - I'm not covering it up.
  • At home, I'm spending my time with my husband. (See below - Today we prepared apples to be frozen in order to make our first apple pies some day.)
Here's to opportunities NOT taken! And may those who take them get a TON out of them!

P.S. It's Day 219 since I was told to stay home from school in March. I'll have some students in person on Tuesday, so I guess my count will end at 220. Two hundred and twenty days since my students have been in school. Should be a fun week, even if there's not much learning going on... we'll practice more mental health and being safe first.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Benefits of Teaching Online

Back on September 4th, I was crying ugly before dinner. I remember thinking, "This is harder than the divorce," because I hadn't cried like that since 2009.

This past week, I was just getting into some sort of a groove. I can handle this. I might not like it; it might not be the best way to teach, but I'm getting better. Then we were told we were going to go "hybrid." I have no clue what that will look like. I also had no clue what teaching "remotely" (from school, however) would look like. So... it's time for me to share the benefits of teaching students through a screen. I will be losing some of these benefits in a couple of weeks.

  • None of my books go missing.
  • I don't have to clean up blood.
  • No sign out sheet for a break. In fact, breaks do not disrupt the class.
  • I get more breaks.
  • We can't get each other sick.
  • There's not a lot of in-class drama (that I know of).
  • There are fewer distractions to our class (besides students being on Netflix or YouTube while also "attending" class, and not responding when I call on them or want to give them a shout out).
  • There are no drills.
  • I can eat stinky food at lunch, because I'm not breathing on anyone.
  • Students can have their pets in their laps.
  • I can leave all my supplies out - all over the room if I'd like.
  • We can have 1:1 conferences without disturbing anyone else (THANK YOU, breakout rooms)!
  • It's easier to differentiate by using breakout rooms.
  • I receive fewer emails on the weekends.
  • I now dance and sing at the start of each class as I'm letting students out of the waiting room.
  • I've slowed down my speech and taken my time with my words, as I feel as if everything I say is being recorded once that camera light appears. This has helped me formulate what I want to say, and I hope it helps those kids who have internet problems.
  • I've gotten better at looking at one screen, figuring out who's talking in the other screen, and managing the chat with its private and public messages. 
  • I can teach without wearing a mask.
  • I can head outside the last 5-10 minutes of class.
  • I can yell down the hallway - in frustration or celebration or just when I'm feeling especially loopy after a crazy day.
  • I don't have to wear pants (no worries - my husband won't let me out of the house without them).
  • I don't have to wipe down tables and chairs except the table I may use at lunch.
  • It's pretty quiet.
  • I don't smell student farts after lunch. (It seems as if every year there's that one student...)
  • The "touch up my appearance" button on Zoom works wonders.
  • I have an actual routine.
  • I have our supplies way more organized than ever before.
  • I can still visit with my family outside.
  • I've learned more about how to take care of myself, as it's a true necessity.

My students added my name to our question of the day!

I hope to find ways to recreate some of these with some of my students being in front of me two days a week, and some of my students not coming into the school yet. My gut says that those at home will be receiving LESS of an education than they are now. I really wish anyone besides classroom teachers could come in to a typical class and see what goes on. Maybe then community members could see the physical and mental strain we're under. They may also have ideas for hybrid that we haven't yet thought of.

How I'm taking care of myself:

  • I rarely leave work after 3:30.
  • I don't look at my email from 3:15 until the next morning.
  • I'm finding time to send good notes home to students.
  • I don't let myself feel guilty for reading an adult book (as opposed to a young adult book).
  • I'm getting outside - sometimes between classes, at lunch (when the weather is okay), and after school.
  • I'm not on a screen a ton when I get home.
  • I read fiction at least an hour before bed.
  • I'm eating well.
  • I have a regular sleep schedule (9pm to 5am).
  • I'm using the pens I like. (Yes, even tiny things like not saving the best for later helps my head.)
  • I'm wearing my mask, washing my hands, and staying 6 feet apart from peers.

Please let me know what I'm missing. What are benefits I've not documented? What are other ways you're taking care of yourself?

Sunday, August 30, 2020

My School Year Prayer for 2020-2021

My Prayer / Hopes / Dreams / Wishes for 2020-2021 - a year like no other.

At the start of my 26th year as a teacher, I pray...

...for the teachers, that they may make the connections they seek, and that they are a beacon of light to their students on this difficult journey.

...for the parents, that they find balance in work and play and school and discipline and really listen to their children and learn along with them.

...for the children, that they find school engaging, relevant, and are aware that we all love them and want to help them learn and make their world better.

...for the parent-teachers, that they find childcare and balance somehow.

...for the administrators, that they not act until they know in their heart they're doing the right thing.

...for those who want in-person schooling the way it was, that they find patience and perspective.

...for all - strong internet.

...for those who are scared, that they find ways to keep covered and distant until we find a vaccine, and that they reach out to others who will lend an ear.

...for those who spew hate, that they find quiet and peace to another route to try.

...for my family, that I may not bring sickness home with me, and that they, too, stay safe and not share it amongst themselves.

...for myself, that I may find strength to combat hate with patience, be creative with ways to know my students through a screen, and that I may continue to try to look after my own mental and physical health while trying to be the best I can be in the classroom.

...for those I have left out because I still have a ton to learn in my own life, that they may know there are people in the world trying to see you, trying to hear you, and trying to include you. ๐Ÿ’š


Photos from my school (which has educators teaching students who are home):

First days - meeting in the gym.

I threw away my footstool/seat & Yvette's (broken but usable) gaming chair. 
Karen threw away her blue round seat, too.

This is new (to me) furniture, borrowed from another classroom. It now fits 15 students.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Specific Ways I Will Be an Ally

I've been writing this blog post all summer. It was going to be titled "Specific Ways I Will Be Anti-Racist in School This Year" until I quickly realized I need to be this way ALL THE TIME. EVERYWHERE. Writing it for all to see will not only hold me accountable, but I hope it will help you, reader, with tools you can use alongside me, as an ally to our children and peers of color. I do not have all the answers. What I have here is a beginning.

From today-years-old, I pledge to do the following:

When I hear something from a peer that doesn't sit right with me, I will stop whatever I'm doing.
I will say calmly, "I'm uncomfortable with something that was said."

If I hear it in the classroom, I will stop whatever we're doing.
I will say calmly, "I just felt something shift in the room. I wonder if anyone else felt it."

I may follow up with any of the following:
  • Who else was uncomfortable?
  • Why do you think I am (or "we are") uncomfortable?
  • I don't find that funny.
  • We don't use hurtful words in our school.
  • I'm surprised to hear you say that.
  • That statement was racist. Why do you think it would be racist?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Tell me more.
  • What point are you trying to make by saying that?
  • Did you mean for that statement to be hurtful?
  • Using that word (or those words) doesn't help others feel safe or accepted here.
  • I'm having a "yeah, but" moment - can you help me work through it?
  • I need time to process. Let's come back to that in a moment.
  • Do these words unsettle you? I have some resources if you're willing to learn more and be more comfortable talking about it in the near future.
  • We wake up each morning and want to do what's right for our students. Let's focus on the impact those words could have on all of our students.
  • Let's confront challenges together, even when they're uncomfortable.
Besides using the language above...
  • I will have these phrases ready (literally in my pocket).
  • If someone else speaks up before me, I will echo their message with support.
  • I will ask students how they want to feel in our class. We will curate their answers and make a plan as to how we can accomplish this. I will share my responses with students (above), so they have tools for helping our classroom be all we want it to be.
  • I will provide students phrases to use when they feel prejudice against them, such as, "I don't feel good when you say that" or "I don't feel respected right now."
  • When I provide book talks, I will add descriptions of the authors. For example, I may say, "The author of this book, ____ is a cisgendered Black American woman." Calling out the authors will let students know that anyone can become a writer, let students know that I support writers of all races, genders, etc., and it will help me make sure my classroom library becomes even more diverse. 
  • When students are in partners or groups, I will ask them to first find out a difference they have with each other, and then something they have in common.
  • I will post a message that says, "Black Lives Matter." I want my students of color to know they matter to me just as much as everyone else. I want them to know our class (in-person and virtual) is a safe space. (Thank you for pointing that out in a webinar on Aug. 6, 2020, Dr. Tron Young.)
  • I will create a space of curiosity - where we all have room to learn from multiple sources, especially each other's stories.
  • I hope to have an activity or writing prompt where I can ask students, "Share your earliest memory of race" or "When where you first instructed about race" or "When did being your race first impact you" or "How has being your race impact you?" (I'd love help with wording this one.)
  • I will work towards finding a way students can change the skin tone of their "reactions" via Zoom, so we see our differences in color in multiple ways.
  • I will use Rudine Sims Bishop's idea of "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors."
  • When we are discussing ideas for school, I will inquire as to which perspectives we're missing.
  • I will continue to read (voraciously) and share perspectives of BIPOC.
If I do not speak up against biases or prejudices, it means I condone it.
I will make mistakes.
I will work towards being comfortable - with being uncomfortable.
I will renew my pledge to be an ally and to be anti-racist each and every day.
I will continue to strive to be a better person and better educator.

Resources I've used to help me with what I plan to say or do:
Would you like to join me in this pledge? Put your name in the comments below, along with your Twitter handle, and I'll connect with you once a month to see how we're doing and where we can use more guidance.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Day 141 - Sports During COVID-19

I'm fascinated with what the nation (U.S.) is trying with sports...

I'll focus on the NBA for this post - they just started playing their games two days ago. 

First, the players, coaches, referees, and everyone involved with the NBA (of the 22 teams that chose to play in Orlando, FL) are in a bubble. They have been since July 7-9. They can order food from five places if they don't want the food there. They can't leave. If they do, there's a hotline others can call to report them. Their families aren't there. They play games (like ping pong). They fish (in a stocked lake). 

Then there are the visible changes (photos are from my television)...

All players hooked elbows and kneeled for the anthem.

There are fake fans (when there aren't ads or points or a team name) on screens behind the benches:

And behind the nets:

Some on the spaced-out bench seats are wearing masks.

Players on the bench wear shirts that say, "Black Lives Matter."

The floor says, "Black Lives Matter."

On the back of their jerseys, they can choose their last name or there is a list of social justice phrases from which players can choose:
     Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can't Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom, Enough, Power to the People, Justice Now, Say Her Name, Si Se Puede (Yes We Can), Liberation, See Us, Hear Us, Respect Us, Love Us, Listen, Listen to Us, Stand Up, Ally, Anti-Racist, I Am a Man, Speak Up, How Many More, Group Economics, Education Reform, and Mentor.

Coaches have a badge on their shirts that say, "Coaches for Racial Justice."

I think this all fascinates me because I'm constantly thinking about heading back to school. In fact, when I hear "athletes," "players," or "coach," I often substitute, "students" or "teacher." If we could be in a bubble... If we could all wear masks and have the space to social distance... If we could get paid for not playing... (HAH! That's a joke, parents. Just a joke. I'm not in the sports entertainment industry, so I don't expect to get paid for not teaching. I heard just two nights ago that I'm "essential," yet I shouldn't be working - just as hard - from home...)


Golf is doing okay. It's a no-contact sport. Players usually stay away from each other.

In baseball, there is no bubble. The Marlins have at least 18 positive cases of COVID. They're being sent back to Florida by bus. The positive cases there... woah. The mound says "Black Lives Matter." Some players kneel for the anthem.

In hockey, they're trying to play the playoffs. No bubble. No news there yet.

In football, at least 30 players have opted out. They'll get $150,000 anyway.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Day 140 - One Teacher's Summer

I watched a school board meeting last night.

I heard one parent state that teachers have been out this summer ("vacation, restaurants, bars, protesting"), so what's the problem with returning to the school building? (Even though, once again, teachers are not deciding these things. And, once again, I'll say I, too, want to return to school when it's safe or when we can maintain six feet distance.)

So... I thought I'd document all the things I've done outside my own home this summer:

  • Grocery shopping every week - with mask on and distancing in place.
  • Sometimes we pick up food from a drive through. (We're saving a TON of money not going out every weekend like we used to.)
  • I picked up four house plants (didn't even get out of the vehicle - they put them in the back seat).
  • Social distance lunch (three of us) to celebrate a teacher who retired this year and give a gift. In case you're wondering - no hugs for this coworker.
  • Backyard planning with a coworker - never closer than six feet - not even heading into the house to use the restroom.
  • Front yard distanced lunch with two other teachers.
  • Social distance walking (me in the street, because I'm the "rebellious" one).
  • Social distance bike ride (one).
  • Played tennis with Hubby.
  • Front yard distancing at my parents' house. I decided to hug my parents on Day 100 - with a mask on. I know some teachers who still haven't hugged their parents yet.
  • Walks and bike rides.
  • Still learning my Spanish on Duolingo - 581 day streak as of today.
  • I went to my school building to pick up my book for a book club. No need to go past the foyer.
  • Two nights of camping for our anniversary - just Hubby and I. Hiking on our own, driving around, just the two of us. Here we are that day in June:
  • Drove one day to Illinois Beach and one to Warren Dunes State Park to swim in Lake Michigan. Loved that everyone kept their distance both days.
  • We hit golf balls at a driving range once (so far).
  • Each of us got our hair cut. Our second one is set for August.
  • I plan on going to the school building next week to take out the extra furniture I'd purchased myself to make our room more comfortable for my seventh graders. I'll wear gloves and a mask and not need to see anyone.
Maybe I should mention that day we... nope. We didn't do anything else this summer. Unless you count taking great care of the lawn and landscaping and house and puzzles and television and reading and writing and listening to music and making our own meals and ordering $180 worth of scrubs + masks when we heard school was starting "all-in" and keeping myriad ideas in mind until we heard I was going to teach remotely. THEN I could finally start planning. I've now had four days of planning for my next school year... on my "summer vacation." I want to do my best for the children.

I've held myself accountable and had this type of summer for a few reasons:

  • I want to stay healthy.
  • I want my family to stay healthy.
  • I want our nation to kick this virus.
  • I want to go back to school safely and be with (stranger's) children again.
I don't assume all parents are out and about with their kids not distancing or wearing masks. I have seen some, but I would never say a blanket statement about all parents, or really about any one "group" of people. This summer has been a struggle for many. We're in a pandemic.


Ideas that I heard at the meeting that I hope educators can do this school year:
  • I'd love to be able to meet the students before we start - somehow, someway.
  • I'd love to be able to meet 1:1 somehow with kids (maybe our homeroom?) each week or so to set goals and check in on progress and create new goals if needed. I hear it's not safe to meet 1:1 virtually, so I hope districts find and share ways to make it safe.