You know that Christmas-morning flutter of excitement you felt as a little kid? I’m not even lying; when I saw Annie’s email about a daily release of an advent reflection from an SA community member, I felt it. An entire set of incredibly diverse, spiritually-informed perspectives on this season of waiting in the most hectic month of the year just popping each day into my inbox?! That’s what I call a gift. Thank you to everyone who contributed your words, your ideas, your heart. Our community is deeper because of you.
I could write pages about how incredibly amazing our 18 juniors and seniors were on our trip to Italy-Austria-Germany. (Are the kids all right? These kids were INCREDIBLE.) I could write about the beauty of the places and the tastes and the sites and the kindness of the host families and BREAD-CHOCOLATE-BREAD-CHOCOLATE. I could write about our British tour guide who had some crazy good teacher chops alongside his fab accent and dashing good looks. I could write forever about how dang good Emily Philpott is at her job as Global Studies Director.
But today I really want to write about Mayson McKey, Cool Teacher.
You see you hit a certain age, all of us do, when suddenly you transition from young-hip-trendy teacher to not-so-young-anymore.
And on this trip, I most definitely hit it.
I blame it on the fact that two other chaperones were the super trendy-cool-young Sara Clark and Mayson McKey. I blame it on the fact that I was most definitely actually NEVER trendy, not even in my twenties.
But this isn’t a story about me. This is a story about Mayson McKey, Cool Teacher.
Watching Mayson shine magnetic-like on the trip was a sight to behold. He has a way of drawing in whomever happens to be standing next to him with a joke, an aside, a quick little affirmation of “we are friends and this is going to be fun.” This is a fabulous trait in real life; but this is like gold on a global studies trip in which 22 near-strangers are catapulted into best friend/family status overnight. We either make this long walk uphill in the cold darkness a game of roasting each other or we just are tired and cold. Mayson always chose making it a game.
One thing he instituted early on in the trip, perhaps initially after our first all-night flight, was the “vibe check.” It was a quick flick of the wrist with a “Y”-shaped hand, almost like the sign language we use for “I agree” when we want students to nonverbally affirm another students’ statement. Initially he used it with his small chaperone group, then it spread to my group, and it quickly became an entire group phenomenon whether walking in the rain in Salzburg or boarding crowded trains in Dusseldorf. Vibe check meant, “are you doing okay, like on a scale of 1-10?” It meant “someone here is checking in on you.” But it also, just as crucially meant, “we are part of a group together and we have signals that have a significance of meaning shared just by us.”
The story could end here, but of course, like many things, vibe check became so huge that it eventually crumbled in on itself. Once we joined host families and started attending school in Germany, “vibe check” spread like wildfire. We would walk across a crowd of random fifth grade German students and, upon seeing Mayson, they would begin bustling excitedly, making the vibe check signal. “MAYSON!” they would shout with no irony, “Mayson is COOL teacher!” Literally this little signal that had started with just a few teenagers and their chaperone had become a schoolwide phenomenon.
Mayson began worrying the signal might mean other things in Germany, that it had taken on a life of its own, and so, he subtly stopped using the signal and it lost momentum. Our students caught on too and stopped promoting its use with their new German friends. After all, a trend is really only trendy when it is somewhat niche and novel. Even the coolest move has the potential to lose its initial intrigue. Our small in-house signal had simply gone too viral to maintain its special status. It was time to say goodbye to vibe check.
Of course, just because the hand signal died down didn’t mean that Mayson lost his cool teacher status. Mayson remained the center of intrigue for many of our students and the German students as well. After all, you can take away the vibe check, but you can’t extinguish that cool vibe. And the fact that Mayson always made sure to spread the love with all the students, that his popularity was never about exclusivity . . . that made Mayson the cool teacher in my book.
This is the hidden-bit-side-effect of a global studies trip, I think: relationships and unanticipated connections. Each time I see a student or colleagues across the plaza from that trip, now over a week removed, genuine squeals and delight result. You share time together and, whether or not you were the cool teacher, or the middle-aged-weird teacher that never could quite get used to the European coffee, a little sprout of a thing sprouts. “I didn’t really know you before, and I know you now, quite real and imperfect. And surprise surprise! We quite like each other.”
We all have those days of teaching when our patience runs thin, when we find ourselves in the constant space of “which battles should I fight and why.” I wrote this after one of those days several months ago. To be honest, revisiting this piece this week it rang less true for me; at this point of the year I feel like we are all a bit more honest with each other. (For example, I am much quicker to call students out about their surreptitious heads-down phone practice and we all just openly crack up when someone makes an innocent statement that could be taken inappropriately with a not-so-mature audience.) Nevertheless, I wonder if some of this resonates with others, whether you teach 18 year olds or three year olds. I hope it does, and I hope it doesn’t, all at the same time.
You think I don’t see you.
The way your eyes flit quickly around to each other with a glint of mischief when I accidentally say a phrase that could be construed as a double entendre.
I see it.
You think you may be squeaking by: when you send texts with your phone on your lap,
head down, device hidden; when you flip open the laptop pretending to take notes but are actually playing a game, watching a game, shopping, looking at the stock market, looking at game stats, doing other homework; when you have ear buds surreptitiously stuffed in your ear.
Just because I don’t say something in the moment doesn’t mean I don’t see it. I am practicing grace here. I am practicing planned ignoring here. We are all practicing “before you know it you will be in college” in this space.
We are also practicing being human together.
Still, your assumption that I don’t see it, don’t see you, can cut deeper than the fact that you do it in the first place.
You think I don’t notice when you consistently turn things in late, when you slip into my classroom 45 seconds-2 minutes late- 3 minutes late, that you have 10 times more excuses for each thing than most.
Please don’t mistake my patience for ignorance, my practiced “choose which battles to fight” with naivete. We have all lived lives far longer-bigger than you. We have all played games that rhyme with yours. Different vices-devices, different tools, different melodies. But all hauntingly familiar.
I see you are overwhelmed and behind and scared and insecure. I see you in the back row with the answer on your tongue. I see you stuff it back in because you don’t want to always be the first one right. I see you out-perform in class and under-perform in anything you need to do outside of class.
I am scared for you.
I am scared for the way you sometimes crumble under pressure that seems minute to me. Deadlines like these shouldn’t sneak up on you so. I am scared for a world of people that can’t do the thing by the time the thing is due. I am scared for a world of people that can’t cough up the motivation to care unless the thing is personally, inherently engaging.
I am scared the way all forty-somethings are scared of the generation that comes after them. I am scared of my own mortality. I am scared of difference.
Am I already growing out of tune with the world?
I am ashamed to admit I am often more scared of what non-compliance can produce than what revolution can redeem.
You think I don’t see the way that everytime religion is brought up in class your jaw clenches. Anytime politics might enter, you feel the need to make it known you are a vague reflection of the conservative-liberal-whatever-constellation you’ve grown up in. You think I don’t see you are silent. Listening. Watching me. We are all still figuring out who each other is. Where we stand. On our own and with each other.
You think I don’t see that he always asks for bathroom breaks and disappears from class for too long. He is 18. I’d rather let him escape than to declare this classroom a jail.
You think I don’t see you are still children, In tall-long-adult-esque bodies.Begging for a game-a prize-some noise- some fun. I know you can be both: a child and an adult. Both can be reckoned with seriously.
I know you need a break. I know you’ve been sitting too long. I know you act crazier in my class because you were holding it in the last class. I know you could act more mature, make better decisions. But so could I. So could we all.
I see this too: I see you being kind and caring for each other. I see you also caring for me.
I see that seeing this makes all the rest of it melt away.
The fake tree isn’t decorated. In fact, one entire section of built-in- lights affixed to the artificial tree has burned out.
The presents are not purchased. The Christmas lists are not made for the family. The elf is not hidden. (Alianna did, finally, out of annoyance find it herself and start moving it around the house.) The Amazon is not delivered. The traditional Christmas Crack and Puppy Chow has not been made.
The advent calendars haven’t been opened out of their plastic. The stockings literally have not been hung by the chimney with care.
I can’t even seem to get the dishes done. The clutter on our kitchen table has reached levels never before seen in this natural world.
The meal plan for the week obviously didn’t happen. We shall eat (oh we always eat), but the recipes will be courtesy of Newks, Chickfila, Arby’s, etc.
Is it because I took a two week international jaunt that I feel so ill-equipped for being catapulted into this merriest of seasons? An abrupt fast-forward into time? I still haven’t eaten pumpkin pie yet. It can’t be time for all of this.
Things holiday movies have taught me: It isn’t about the presents. It isn’t about the glamor and shine. It’s about. . . family? Love? Gratitude? (And if it’s a Hallmark Christmas movie it’s about how I’m a career woman too busy for love that moves to a small town where a handsome young bachelor teaches me about the true spirit of the holiday. Thanks, this Twitter Post.)
But in all of those movies there are definitely lights and trees and cooking and snow. What happens if it’s not snowing and you forgot to turn on the carols and there is no fire crackling or lights to gaze at or sugar cookies to decorate?
Julie, it’s only December 5th. Get a grip.
What if, for this holiday season, instead of taking pictures of our browned meats and meticulously decorated cookies and smiling offspring in red and green apparel we took pictures of the everyday? What if decided to tell the truth about the cluttered corners of our lives? What if we humbled ourselves in the way God did in sending Jesus to this place to highlight our flesh-on-earth-flawed-everything?
Last year I was feeling pretty burned out, which is why upon joining TEAM, I shared that I’m interested in focusing on wellness for all of us – students, teachers, and admin alike. When at one of those low moments last spring, I found answers in the wisdom of a fourth grader but never shared. Here’s what I’d written:
Who’s with me when I say sometimes teaching can be downright exhausting!?! We’ve all experienced those mornings (I dare not reflect how many!) where we don’t want to get out of bed yet alone have the energy to give our best to our students all daylong. My giving-chamber has felt empty. I’m burned out, and I know I’m not alone. Even as early as workshop week, I felt I could see it on the faces of so many of us, teachers and admin alike: “Wait! We just made it through Covid but we have to do this all again? And now through accreditation? What gives?” Folks working like maniacs through two years of school with Covid protocols and stress, the adrenaline has finally dried up. My body and mind both feel depleted. To make matters worse, I’m also pretty talented at beating myself up about what I haven’t done, where I think I should be in my life, as opposed to where I actually am concerning wisdom, relationships, accomplishments – you name it! Seeing a professional occasionally doesn’t hurt, but the daily grind can take its toll.
Though middle and high school teachers don’t get a free pass by any means, teaching soft-skills at the elementary level is as necessary as academics: how to say good morning; how to make eye contact while saying it; a kinder way to say things; how to use words at all; or better still, how to stop talking incessantly and everyone all at once! Reminding myself that all of these moments are teachable ones doesn’t negate the fact that it’s still draining day after day, all day long. A few weeks ago someone in the hallway said, “Sometimes you just need five minutes” when Rachel Newman grinned and said, “And sometimes ya need more!” Being isolated in a room 24/7 with only young kiddos over time can take its toll – bah humbug!! But then there are moments that are truly amazing, moments that deserve pause, reflection, appreciation.
Abigail Shannon, one of our fourth graders this year, is one of those students who continually brightens my day and reminds me that maybe I can shift my own perspective! For the past four years, I have been fortunate to be Abigail’s art teacher. Last year Abigail was obsessed with mermaids, rainbows, glitter, and unicorns (Check out Facts about Unicorns in the LS Library!). Exploring what she’s curious about during Studio Time, I have personally witnessed her skills and voice evolve as an artist.
In the Disney animation book, Drawn to Life: 20 Years of Golden Master Classes by Walt Stanchfield, he shares writer Rebecca West’s quote, “I write to find out about things,” suggesting visual artists similarly use drawing as their medium of discovery. This year Abigail’s evolving study of drawing led her to explore and make-believe traveling across the world. For two months or more, Abigail illustrated the pictures for her first picture book. Excited to share her work, and possibly to bask in her glory, I impatiently waited – it was looking amazing! I constantly bombarded her and asked if it was finished. She worked continually, whether in art class, her homeroom, or at home. Once she completed all of the illustrations, she’d go back and finish the words. Adamant all of the school should see her book, I asked Rachel Scott if she’d help me create a QR so folks could see it via the SA Weekly News. Abigail had so much excitement every time she came to class and worked on it, and I knew I’d be scanning it any day now.
Abigail finally finished the illustrations!
She just had to finish up the last page of writing when I bumped into her at morning carpool. “Did you bring it? Did you finish it?,” I asked, but Abigail answered with a calm, “No. We looked and looked for it, but my housekeeper threw it away.” With a big smile she continued, “But it’s ok. I’ve already started working on book two!”
There are no words for how upset I was. As someone who’s studying animation and illustration in my spare time, I know how much work it takes to create an image that accurately expresses your idea. And Abigail’s characters and illustrations so perfectly show her positive spirit, her ideas, each drawn in her undoubtedly unique “only Abigail could make this” style. I was distraught. How could this happen? How could this person do such a ridiculous thing? Could they not see how much care and effort went into this body of work? And how could Abigail not be more frustrated, depressed, or ticked off? All those hours of creation lost! Better yet, how could she not have been more responsible and put her work somewhere a little safer?
Every time I’d see Abigail in the hallway, I’d ask again, “Did y’all find it?” but to no avail. It finally occurred to me that Abigail was handling this far better than I was, and that I was the one who needed to let go, if not for myself, for her. She was excited to begin her next idea, and she, the ten year old, was consoling me. Beyond proof of accomplishment or product, Abigail reminds me of one simple truth: joy lies in the doing of whatever it is you are excited to discover, create, or achieve. I continually think of what I should have done, should have accomplished, should have proven, which not only strips any joy from the process but also does a number on my resilience. I hope to learn from her wisdom because she’s following her curiosities and enjoying every step of the way, and with this mindset, she still has a lifetime of joy and discovery ahead of her!
“ . . . motherhood narrowed me, but it has also focused me. It’s made me as clear as I’ve ever been about what matters—and what doesn’t. I spend so many more of my moments on what does. I let go. I let go. I let go.” (Courtney Martin, 2015)
Sometimes, when writing an email to someone at St. Andrew’s and functioning in my Mom identity rather than my work role, I make sure to add the phrase “Parent Hat” to the subject line so folks don’t confuse the two. It also can help me not confuse the two. It can be easy to confuse the two. So let me preface all of this with: I’m putting on my parent hat for a sec. It’s not as cute as the hat below, but you get the idea.
In 2016, while still a professor at Millsaps, I published my favorite ever peer reviewed publication, entitled: “Mother-Scholar Tangles: Always Both This and That”. It wasn’t the most cited of my pieces, it wasn’t in the highest impact journal, and it radically diverged from my research agenda in a way that most people pursuing tenure would describe as unusual at best and unwise at worst. But it is the piece that still follows me. People, and by people I mean other professors who happened to also be mommas, would email me, find me at conferences, etc. to tell me “THIS IS MY LIFE. Thank you for writing the truth.”
One of the most fundamental truths I explore in the piece is the clash between theory and practice, the way that motherhood pushes you to face off with what you say you believe and humbles you to submission with its innate introduction of pacifiers, diapers, sleepless nights, and just general atmosphere of epic fails.
It is true that, in the tangled busy mess of mother-scholar, there is the inability to depict all things neat and tidy in the field of education. Constantly inundated with the realness of kids, and, if you are a mother of more than one, the complexities of their differences, you, in many ways, live in a wild, breathing, research site. . . . [They] invade every question you ask, every context you research in, every analytic method you employ, and every conclusion you reach. I grew into my status as an academic through a slow and tedious, brick-by-brick process. I watched my theoretical framework expand from the ground up. My furniture is built on ideas, on process, on peer review. Parenthood, though, rushes in like a flood and seeps into every nook and cranny available. It is fueled by a passion birthed of fierce love. (Rust, 2016, p. 113-114)
At the time of writing the piece, my children were still young, so today the piece functions as a time capsule of sorts: a freezing of the time that is both horrifying and sentimental. I largely write of the ways my academic field of educational research and my mom identity intersected by dropping Facebook posts and lived stories from a day in the life of a professor-momma.
In one section of the piece, I recall my (slightly smug) 21 year old teacher self musing about how irrational parents were when it came to their children. I write: “I couldn’t even begin to access the volatile love that is parenting at that stage in my life, couldn’t imagine these insane, biased, human beings could actually give me much information that was valid in the education of their child. I couldn’t see past the emotion into the wisdom.”
20 years later finds me in a very different place of understanding. And honestly, I’m also in a very different place than I was 8 years ago when I initially wrote the piece. My children are at entirely different stages of their school-life-development and parenting has morphed into a gig almost unrecognizable to what I captured in 2015-2016. Plus, I now find myself actually working at my kids’ school which introduces a host of swirling-complicated stories, most of which I can’t write about here because (1) My kids would kill me. (2) I would never want any adult who works with my kids to worry they would become the subject of my next raw and honest blog ha.
I will leave it to say that although our community isn’t 100% perfect all the time, I am absolutely 100% grateful my children get to be at this school with all of you.
But for those that may teach/work here and don’t also have a parent hat to put on, I wonder if a few small snapshots might be illustrative or illuminating in some way. I write these rhetorically to my 21 year old teacher self, who sure had lots of book smarts, boundless energy, and a billion ideas . . . but very little understanding of the entire constellation of elements that frame up the life-worlds of families. I understand well that these snapshots don’t capture the reality for every child or family and they are very particular to my weird and specific nuclear unit. But here they are, offerings nonetheless:
The after school activity stress is real: Whether you teach very very young children or almost-adult children, I can guarantee that their lives are quite full, even if you decide to give everyone a break on homework or read aloud practice. A strange time-warp situation happens between 5-9pm, one that is accompanied often by sports practices, ravenous small people, concerts, activities, church services, other class homework, a walk with the family dog. If you took a poll of parents and asked “can I really genuinely count on you to practice math facts with your child three times a week” the most honest majority of us would say ashamedly, “we are so sorry; we know we should be; somehow we cannot figure out how to make the time, the will, the way.”
The procrastination is also real; so is the regret..: I’m not going to name any of my children’s names, but let’s just say a particular child of mine that is unerringly responsible in all the ways EVEN THAT KID has been known to sit on a project (like not even touch during an entire week of Thanksgiving vacation when nothing is going on) that they are not excited about doing until two nights before (and there are major sports events the next two nights so that child won’t get home until 8:30pm those evenings). These are hard lessons to learn, but I am in favor of letting kids learn them rather than being the keeper of due dates.
One learning platform makes [Rust] kids cry.: The theory part of me loves how IXL gives real time feedback and skill data to students and faculty alike. The momma part of me hates how it results many times in any given Rust crying at the kitchen table after 65 minutes because they made a silly error and it has bumped them down 15 points. The theory part of me thinks “this is good for your children to experience some failure and build resilience.” The momma part of me is like “ABOLISH IXL!”
Kids worry so much about what you think of them: Whether or not they show it, kids are obsessing over how they word emails to you (faculty/coaches especially), particularly when they are in those middle school years and learning how to communicate/advocate for themselves. They want you to trust them; they want to be polite; getting sick is the worst thing ever; they worry they will fall behind or you will perceive them as weak. When there is evidence that you know them/see them in a kind official note or quick comment, they positively glow. When they feel as though they have been falsely accused or unfairly treated, the world goes a bit dim. They sometimes struggle for the right balance between respect/submission and self-advocacy/clear communication.
Ipads, iphones, video games are the best/worst parts about childhood these days: As a fairly hands-off parent, I never set very strict boundaries on tech and this has rippled in good and bad ways. One kid has self selected out of social media participation because they read the research on mental health impacts. One kid would go home and play video games for five hours a night if he could, but the practice is incredibly social as he engages with multiple friends at a time and shrieks with such a high pitched voice the walls shake a bit. (He’s even been known to study for a test with a buddy while playing Fortnite.) Another kid has complex lives on her iPad when she has time, simultaneously playing Roblox and facetiming with friends to try on clothes and see what they think. In the game for attention, we know it’s not a fair fight. And sometimes I don’t mind. And sometimes I do, such as this morning when I set a new rule about “no iPhones during our morning commute because I want to have conversations with people I love in the morning.”
Assume they tell parents nothing about their school days: Your students may project engagement and enthusiasm and enjoyment throughout the school day, but (depending on the kid) generally by the time they get through the activities and back into the arms of their loving family they are BEAT. While they may talk animatedly about a moment in the school day, it’s likely not about your excellent teaching like it should be. It’s more likely to be about a weird thing a popular kid said at recess.
I think sharing stories of our funds of knowledge, whether they come from our teaching or our parenting is the best gift we can give each other in the community. And most of all, if parenting has taught me anything, it is that I don’t know what I don’t know and I likely am wrong about a lot of things I THINK I know. In other words, parenting has forced me to look straight on at a level of ambiguous mess that I never thought possible. But the mess is occasionally cute and often entertaining, so there is that.
I’m gonna end this thing with a portion of the preface to my dissertation about mess, which I wrote before I knew I was pregnant with Alianna and is still one of the truest things I’ve written even though no one in my family really eats goldfish anymore. (Salt and vinegar chips though . . . totally different story.)
With a five year old and two year old at the time of this dissertation drafting, it is safe to say that I am quite familiar with a wide range of varieties of messiness. My primary space for writing, for instance, is a cluttered mixture of stuffed animals, loud electronic toys, scholarly articles and books, coffee cups, and spilled chocolate chips (writing fuel). I’ve never been the neatest person, and the entry of these two short people into my life has cured any hope I ever had of having the kind of house where things are shiny and tasteful. Instead, I watch my two year old gleefully throw a handful of goldfish on the floor and, just before I can reach him, I see his little sweet, slightly dirt-stained foot rise to grind a satisfying crunch of crumbs into the carpet. I watch him run off laughing, no doubt intending to dump that huge toy container of little cars and animals he so loves out into the only clean spot of floor left in our tiny apartment.
All of this to say, I am at a phase of my life where I feel a bit suspicious of all things neat, tidy, and in-the-right-place. My life space is composed of conflicted interplays between my school self and my mommy self, my professional books and my children’s toys, my desire to finish this dissertation and my desire to play hide-in-seek until the summer dusk settles over the horizon. These juxtapositions that create so much mess simultaneously fuel my every pursuit. And so this dissertation has been, in many ways, a tossing of some proverbial goldfish on the floor to highlight the untied laces that keep tripping me, the bright orange crumbs that I found ground into the carpet of my research journey.
I’m not writing a dissertation anymore. But my life-space is still composed of these conflicted interplays. I think we all have lives that make us wonder and occasionally trip-up with their complexity. And I think it is these parts of life that can be the most beautiful.
We’re back with another installment of “If Only You Knew”,where I try to pick the brains of some lucky (?) kiddos around the middle and upper school, and see what kind of insight I can gather about the parts of their school experience that their teachers may not always be privy to. As with our first installment, I’m keeping in mind that, while their middle or high school experience is important and worth hearing about, these students are also teenagers! They can be moody, stressed, and can’t see outside the bounds of their own experience (developmentally speaking). High school or middle school is literally their entire life right now, which means that the way they’re feeling about school or life in general may be disproportionately strong with respect to the rest of the world around them. Such is life as a teenager! I can safely say that we’ve all been there.
*Author’s note – Can I just say that sitting down to write the “next installment” of my “regularly occurring column” is a huge power trip? Will I do a career change and become a writer? Somebody stop me! And under no circumstances should I be given a personal blog.
Let’s kick things off with a (in my opinion) very fair ask from a middle school student. This student simply wants to be let out of class on time (presumably so that they’re not late to their next appointment). Seems like we may have a case of “the bell does not dismiss you,” but, when there are no bells, we are left in a pickle when we teachers lose track of time. I have a quick conversation with my students at the beginning of the year that sounds like this: “I will forget what time it is, and may not realize the end of class is upon us. If you can say it respectfully, I would actually appreciate it if you could remind me of the time, if I’m running late.” Like everything else in the 8th grade, there are growing pains, and “don’t say it like that” conversations, but it helps make them feel comfortable enough to remind me if we’re over time. Just something to consider! Respecting their time starting now may help them to grow into adults who also respect other peoples’ time (one hopes).
Another student wanted you all to know, “Exams are useless.” Claim your truth, bestie!
Our last student voiced to me that they sometimes can feel embarrassed or defensive when teachers call them out in front of their peers. They gave me a few examples of being called out for being off task, or having lots of questions, or maybe just not understanding the task at hand, and they said that they sometimes feel insecure in those moments. Hold on, let me put on my teacher hat… *ahem* I quite literally do not have time to have a private conversation every time I need to correct a student. Between me and the readers of this blog, I told this student that they may also just be sensitive sometimes, and they agreed, but challenged me that even if they are sensitive to this style of feedback, maybe the delivery also matters. I think all of those things are true! I am super quick to call kids out and redirect, and, in my mind, it’s no big deal if I say “Johnny, stop talking,” or “Sarah, close your computer.” To me, all that situation needed was a quick and clear redirection, but Johnny and Sarah may receive those comments differently. One thing that I, as their teacher, am responsible for, though, is establishing a strong enough relationship with my students, that, when I do have to redirect them “publicly” or by name, they know that it doesn’t diminish their value in my classroom or in my eyes. I can’t control their emotional responses to my words, but I can do my best to help them contextualize those redirections as a part of our relationship, and not a reprimand/indictment on their character. Dang, these teens have some FEELINGS!
Being a teenager has always been difficult, and will always be difficult, but in the reality of our current age, I think being a teenager now might actually be harder than it’s ever been. I believe that’s worth remembering as we live life with our students, which is why I am taking the time to write this column! Their reality and ours will always coexist, and we can’t escape that fact just because sometimes we wish teenagers were less egocentric, or dramatic, or confusing. Part of being a teacher must be embracing that messiness, in their lives and in ours, and acknowledging that we have no choice but to live this life together. What lessons do we have to teach them about being a part of the real world? What lessons do they have to teach us?
I grew up attending a church of roughly 2500 people, and, when I was nine, I was selected to try out for a lead musical role along with two other little girls. When the day of the audition came, I was ready. I’d practiced nonstop. I knew every line, every lyric. I’d been dancing and singing around the house like a crazy person. I’d stumbled upon PURE JOY.
Jump to the day of the audition.
Sitting nervously in that large auditorium waiting for my turn, one of the other little girls went before me. As she was performing, I was filled with dread and doubt. What was I thinking? I don’t know what I’m doing! She’s playing this character as pitiful and sad. I was going to act this character as strong, happy, and determined. Finishing her tryout, off the stage she went, and all eyes veered over to me. Around 6’4”, assertive and intimidating (at least to a shy nine year old) the director leaned in only inches from my face. “Alright Jess. You ready to do this? You ready to go? You’re up!,” he said. I felt myself fall to the floor, but wait … I was still standing? Think dolly-zoom camera shot, where everything closes in on you. My insides screamed, No, no! I can’t do this! Before I knew what was happening, I found myself halfway across the room. I’d bolted out as fast as my feet could carry me, all the while thinking, Oh my gosh. You idiot?! What are you doing? What are you hiding under? You can never show your face here at church again. You just ran out right while they were talking to you?! What were you thinking? How embarrassing! Need I say all the while I’m crying profusely? I wanted to die. Still my most embarrassing moment. Ever.
Jump forward nearly 30 years to May 2021.
It’s our Lower School End-of-the-Year Party tonight, a time when we celebrate (surviving?) yet another successful (define as you will!) school year. It’s also a time when we celebrate, honor, and remember folks who are transitioning, whether changing teams/campuses, retiring, or moving on to a different chapter in their lives altogether. One way we do that is by writing and performing skits and songs for them.
I’ve been writing alternative lyrics to songs for a while now (Thank you, Covid-19!), but this year I’d also written a monologue for one of my longtime co-workers who was retiring, and my heart was pressing on me: You’ve gotta act this out for Susan. She’sgiven much of her life to this community. You’ve written the script. You assisted her twice a week for five years. You know her, her curriculum. Do this for her! Just like before, I prepared myself. I practiced all her typical phrases, the tone and cadences in which she’d speak… that look she’d give! I did my best to pair an outfit just like she’d usually wear for student performances: black slacks, a blazer, pearl and gold earrings and a necklace to match. A co-worker lent me the jacket. I even had my computer screen glasses. I. Was. Ready.
The moment was finally here.
It was the night of the party, and co-curriculars were up next. Once again, I was having thoughts, doubtful ones like, I’m not going to be able to do this! Reminding myself I was doing it for Susan helped me brave the mic. We went out there, and I did my best. While performing, ironically, I felt 100% myself and, once again, PURE JOY. Co-workers were smiling, and most importantly, so was Susan. One small moment of connection led to another, and then another, and in so doing, I’d celebrated a friend, connected with coworkers, and rekindled a long lost dream of my own.
When thinking about one of the most important things we are given the responsibility to do as educators, we know it is to instill a love of learning. But how can we do that if we ourselves have lost touch with desire? Passion? Curiosity? As I’ve shared previously, my internal voice is often narrated by a limiting one. She says things like, You’re only capable of this much or You really should be doing X out of a sense of duty. Thankfully this past year someone shared a wise quote with me that I hope never to forget:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman
Rather than listening to that limiting internal voice (or whatever it may be for you: self-doubt, a sense of duty, or scarcity of time), I encourage you to instead start your morning by asking, “What makes me come alive?” and brave to do that! Because I promise, whatever it is, it will fill your heart, and if your heart is full, all that joy, love, and passion will overflow into your teaching, your students, and your community as well!
Last week, my AP English 11 classes and I spent a week working with several poems by Emily Dickinson–as any good American lit survey would. I assigned them a handful of more familiar, frequently anthologized poems to read as class prep. Then I gave them another option and had them make the call as a class. We can start with one of the assigned poems, I told them, or we can let a random number generator choose a poem for us.
Even having done some prep work, they all chose the random number generator.
Dickinson wrote 1775 short poems that are untitled and known to readers and scholars primarily by numbers assigned by later editors. I had the generator choose a number from 1 to 1775, and that was the poem we discussed, no matter how long or short, accessible or weird.
I cannot recommend this move highly enough. Have some decision fatigue as a teacher? Embrace a mild degree of randomness. Let the universe make some decisions instead.
A few things happen, when some unseen tech gremlin chooses a poem for my class, that take us out of our normal procedures. Primarily, the likelihood becomes really high that I’m going to be talking through a poem with these students that I’ve never seen before. That gives me the opportunity to model reading and interpreting a poem from scratch–which doesn’t mean I become the instant expert either. Yes, sometimes I do get to point out how a word many students know might have a less frequently used secondary meaning on which the whole poem depends, or something like that. But It also means I get to say, “wow, that last line is puzzling me too… anyone have anything?” as a whole class thinks together about the same set of words.
And so the entire class acts on one level together as readers of a single text: everyone’s taking it in all at the same time, allowing different students to bring their skill sets to the table. Once last week the generator took us to a Dickinson poem with an unfamiliar Latin phrase; asking students to try to puzzle it out by recognizing word roots helped some see that they can do more interpretive work on their own than they initially suspected. Another randomly-chosen poem included a quote from the Bible, which led to some practice at how to pick up on an allusion and think through how a writer might be putting it to use. Another was oddly straightforward; we read it aloud, saw that it was far more literal-minded than figurative, and decided that there wasn’t a huge amount there to discuss. So it was time to get a new number. And repeat.
Here’s one other way that I’ve brought randomness into the classroom fruitfully, and again, it’s about poetry.
Last spring I knew I wanted to do a short unit on contemporary American poetry, but again, some decision fatigue had set in, and there are also just too many poets I love for me to make those hard calls of who makes the plan for the week. So I borrowed a wheel from my esteemed colleague Matt Hosler (who, if you didn’t know, has a wheel in his classroom and is happy to lend it out). I put poets’ names on it, and (sigh)… isn’t it beautiful?
Ignore the view of the utility closet, and notice instead the vast options for where in our anthology we might go next, every time a new student volunteers to spin the wheel! And notice as well the danger of landing on Lose A Turn or Bankrupt. (I mean, you’ve all watched Wheel of Fortune. Land on Lose A Turn, and another student gets to spin. Land on Bankrupt, and you lose all your poetry money.)
This worked like a charm in my classes for a few reasons: first, people seem to just love spinning a wheel (don’t you?). I think that’s because it feels like gambling but bears no risk. Secondly, it keeps me on my toes. I’m ready to lead discussion on at least one poem by all of those poets, but having no idea where we’re headed next keeps me (and hopefully a class) interested. And best of all, unexpected things happen, with randomness, like how the most male-heavy class I had last year, with the bro-y-est energy, kept repeatedly spinning the feminist poets on the wheel. If I planned that, it would feel strange and aggressive. If the wheel decides it… well, Audre Lorde it is!
Decision fatigue in the classroom is real. And we can all benefit from the occasional lesson plan that sets aside the usual mode of operations in a classroom and perhaps even throws caution to the wind a little bit. How might your classroom benefit from an intentional dose of randomness?
About 17 years ago I was lucky enough to land a job at this place. This place where I grew up, all my friends grew up and I knew one day my children would attend. My first year I was surrounded by so many of my former teachers and even a few of my dear friends’ parents! So here I was going on my fourth year of teaching where my former teachers were now my…colleagues?? Can you imagine?!
So here I was feeling so grateful for the opportunity but also feeling a bit…out of my depth…to say the least. I was very lucky to land a job here, but I think back to that time and realize the real luck was being paired with my wonderful mentor… Robyn “Robbie”(as I refer to her) Touchstone.
I began my journey at St. Andrew’s in first grade and as an elementary student, I always wished that I had spent my preschool years in that magical little building (current Discovery Center). I remember seeing pictures of my classmates in large Easter Bonnets made from paper Mache and tissue Paper Flowers. I fondly remember visiting a room and seeing the lofts and wonderful little nooks and crannies that had been designed with such intentionality for play. Above all, I remember how fondly my classmates spoke about these preschool years.
When I began teaching at SA, the Kindergarten had moved to the Foundations Building. The classroom I was assigned was my middle school choir room…what a trip. Storage was minimal but it felt like a lovely little room. There was nothing “traditionally classroom” looking about the space. I noticed that the other rooms were similar in size and materials, but all had certain hallmarks of that teacher. All the teachers had their special theme and what fun they all had making it uniquely theirs. I can remember a trip to the dollar store with my mentor. She found black and white check contact paper, “Oh my goodness how great will this look on the backsplash of my housekeeping sink!” Just as a little backstory I worked very hard to have lofts installed into my public school classroom only to be told later that they would be used for computers and not the housekeeping wonderland I had originally envisioned. So here I was hearing my mentor get excited about a toy backsplash and a new pair of satin heels she had found at goodwill for the dress up center. If you haven’t taught preschool this paragraph may not yet make sense…well let me spell it out. The MAGIC is in the DETAILS. That is what I saw each and every day of that first year. All these wonderful special touches that were so much more than just the set out curriculum. They were all the little things that draw a child in, that make a room feel more cozy and safe, that spark imagination and creativity. It is those extra touches that make this place special.
I only stayed in kindergarten for one year but all those little touches really struck a chord with me. To this day I still visit Robbie’s room during work week and look for inspiration. Her classroom is truly an idyllic place. It is colorful and beautiful. Around every corner there is a little special touch inviting children in.
My little girl Mary Manning was lucky enough to spend a year with Ms. Touchstone..
It was the year after Covid year and my little extrovert/spot of sunshine had really struggled during all those months at home. That kindergarten year was a welcome respite full of fun and exploration. She remembers fondly all the wonderful art that was created in Ms. Touchstone’s class. Robbie’s room is set up for an artist to shine. On her walls a Miriam Weems painting hangs and some of her own wonderful creations.
There are examples of color study all over the room. She places items in windows to reflect different colors in the room. Ribbons hang from the ceiling and art supplies are readily available
Ms. Touchstone attributes many of her bits of sparkle to the teachers who taught her how to be an SA teacher. Candy Coker along with several well known SA names Sally Caffery and Mary Jane Lambert began what all St. Andrew’s students know about… THE Fairy Tale Tea Party. It began as an English Tea Party and as the curriculum grew and evolved so did their biggest event. Yes, some years it has gotten a bit out of control…but really don’t all great parties get a bit out of hand! I remember the year I was in Kindergarten the parents constructed an actual Beanstalk in my classroom. The team spends so much time on this wonderful unit. The art, literature and even teaching materials produce the most wonderful conversations. Castles are brought down from the attic and props are brought in for storytelling fun.
All of this to say there are really too many tiny magical details to list. I have honed in on all the aesthetic details but it is so much more than that…the way Robyn teaches is like an extra ruffle to a dress. She has numerous activities, games and songs up her sleeve. If you are lucky enough to walk in a K classroom with new shoes…they will serenade you with the new shoes song. If you shine in front of a crowd on Friday there might be a talent show on the stage. Her students are her priority in everything she does and it truly shows in her teaching. A hallmark of any independent school is this freedom to truly teach to the children and not at the children. We are able to modify and adjust based on the needs and feelings of each individual child. It is in these adjustments and in these details that true teaching begins. The outcome is the joy found in learning and of course…a little bit of magic!
Sentences I’ve heard/thought a lot about since I started at St. Andrew’s:
“I just need to know where we are as a school.”
“Where do we draw the line?”
“I’m so glad we are living into who we are.”
“I feel as though this school has taken several steps [in a particular direction] without me knowing.”
“This isn’t the place I thought it was.”
“This is exactly the place I thought it was!”
“Can we all just get on the same page?”
Identity is a slippery, slippery thing. I think recognizing that truth is the first step.
In our last blog blast, I wrote about educational philosophy as a mirror, window, and north star. I wrote about why it matters. I wrote about why the process (not the product) is most of the magic.
I believe that still. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our identity as a school in lots of directions, and I’ve been thinking about Dorothy Holland, a cultural anthropologist I loved in grad school, and her work on figured worlds. Basically her big move is to talk about the stories we make up in our minds; for example, the stories we tell ourselves about our own identities:
“People tell others who they are, but even more importantly, they tell themselves and then try to act as though they are who they say they are. These self understandings, especially for those with strong emotional resonance for the teller, are what we refer to as identities.” (Holland, 2001, p. 3)
This is complicated enough with individual identity work. But when the identity of a shared organization, institution, or social practice comes into question, pure madness ensues. Shared spaces like these are filled-to-the-brim with individuals with competing figured worlds at play. Likely these figured worlds are overly-simplified stories in our heads about the “what is”: what is this school, what is this classroom, what is this state, what is this church? We carry around these smaller-than-life and simpler-than-life constructions because we can only fit so much complexity into our head at once. For example:
St. Andrew’s is a school for rich kids.
St. Andrew’s is a school for smart kids.
St. Andrew’s is really liberal/conservative compared to ________.
St. Andrew’s is super progressive in teaching methods.
St. Andrew’s is super conservative in teaching methods.
I argue that all of these are true. And I argue that none of these are true.
Holland points out that identities are “improvised- in the flow of activity within specific social situations- from the cultural resources at hand.” In other words, slippery. But more than a fun jazzy game, figured world development is serious business:
. . . Groups are caught in the tensions between past histories that have settled them in and the present discourses and images that attract them or somehow impinge upon them. In this continuous self-fashioning, identities are hard-won standpoints that, however dependent upon social support and however vulnerable to change make at least a modicum of self-direction possible. They are possibilities for mediating agency (p. 4).
I think in some ways we are all always caught up in these tensions. I think we can talk about and name these tensions, and that this honesty is productive, humble, and generative all at once. But I think a lot of the questions or statements at the top of this blog are the wrong questions or statements. Why? Because I don’t think there is one solid “truth about who we are” that we are sorting through to find. We don’t have a needle-in-a-haystack situation here. We aren’t looking for my car keys which are buried under a heap of unfolded laundry from last weekend. We are actively constructing who we are with every small and big decision we make as maintenance workers, teachers, parents, students, administrators. I trust who we will become because I trust the people who are living-working-being-making this figured world of St. Andrew’s.
I am, though, very grateful for the flying questions about who we are. Identities are, after all, “key means through which people care about and care for what is going on around them. They are important bases from which people createnew activities, new worlds, and new ways of being.” (p. 5) Those of us asking these questions very clearly care very deeply about and care deeply for this place.
Let’s keep making this place what it is together. Let’s keep asking these questions.
Holland, D. (2001). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Harvard University Press.
But first, a quick note from Julie: Are you the type of person that grabs a program for a show and then stuffs it under their seat, or are you the type of person that reads every word, cast bios and all? If I actually make it my seat with time to spare (an embarrassingly rare occasion for my family and me) I absolutely LOVE a program, and the director’s notes are one of my favorite places to start. (In art museums, I also love an artist statements, the unveiling of the intent behind the art.) But it wasn’t until David and Marie shared this blog with me that I realized how much a director’s note has in common with a blog: what a lovely mix of informal, personal narrative mixed with big picture philosophical meanderings. Thank you, David and Marie, for sharing this piece of your work with us. Now, on to the blog!
The importance of a director’s note cannot be overstated. The perspective and introduction to the play is set by the note. In youth theatre, this is especially true. Why we do what we do is encoded in these notes, from the play itself to the overarching theatre program. Upon reading you will find an introduction to the play, the context in which it was produced, and hopefully a deeper meaning or understanding of the message within the play. Why is the play important today and what should the audience expect to get from it? Tickets can be purchased at www.gosaints.org/performances.
DIRECTOR’S NOTE: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
I first read this play about a year ago. My immediate reaction was that we couldn’t do it. There was no way to put a train on stage. Little did I know this would be the most fulfilling and challenging scenic project yet undertaken. Find a way or make a way… we officially selected this production about six months ago.
In the last year, the theatre department has grown. Our recent production of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, featured a double cast of actors. We look forward to producing Willy Wonka Jr. and The Addams Family later this year. Auditions for these productions start on Monday! We hope you can join us for those productions as well. Last winter, we joined the International Thespian Society, a national honor society for theatre arts. Last winter, we competed at the state level and had four students earn Superior ratings across five entries (top marks at the state level for monologue, musical theatre, and lighting design), more students will be inducted soon. This year, we are joining the Mississippi Theatre Association as well and taking multiple theatre pieces to competition. Good luck and well wishes go out to all our students competing this year.
Specifically for Murder on the Orient Express, thanks go to Dr. Foley for helping us research the context of this story based on the real-life kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. In brief, Charles Lindberg was an American hero. He made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927 from New York to Paris. His son, born in 1930, was kidnapped and ransomed for $70,000 in 1932. Not long after, his child was found dead. For two years, the FBI searched for the murderer and the nation was enraptured in finding him. This play imagines that the killer was not found. In reality, Bruno Hauptmann was arrested in 1934 and convicted. But, what would have happened in a world where he did not answer for his crimes?
One of my favorite questions for students – and one of the reasons I love the arts – is how do you know what you know? St. Andrew’s promotes the idea that we don’t teach what to think, we teach how to think. So, how do you think about this play? On the face of it, we have a comedy murder mystery. At the core, it is a play that questions the values of each character, neither glorifies nor condemns the actions of the characters and instead lets the audience decide the guilt.
As Hercule Poirot observes, the need for justice, order in the world, and morality is at the forefront of this plot. This play observes these ideals and questions. I hope we can also reflect on that as this semi-farcical-adventure proceeds into the depths of the human psyche. It’s a tightrope act that balances entertainment with engagement for the audience. Enjoy the show and thank you for supporting St. Andrew’s Theatre.
David Orace Kelly
Director of the Center for Performing Arts and Fine Arts Dept. Chair
DIRECTOR’S NOTE: THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
I remember when the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out when I was in the sixth grade. I was personally more of a Harry Potter kid, so I didn’t take much interest in the movie and I didn’t read the books. I wasn’t even really familiar with the story until we chose this play for the season, only knowing that it was a beloved children’s book.
However, I believe that this timing was right. I genuinely don’t feel that I would have appreciated the story of the Pevensie children as much as I do now. Regardless of age, we all have challenges, our own evil witch, that we have to overcome in some way. Whether it be completing a big project, writing a paper, memorizing lines for the Middle School play, admitting that you need help, or asking a friend for forgiveness, big or small, we all have something scary that we have to face. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy face a much more fantastical version of our inner struggles. The siblings are challenged not only to defeat the evil that has taken over, but to do it as the destined leaders of Narnia with Aslan’s guidance. I challenged my students to think about how the children must have felt in this strange world and how quickly they have to accept this call to greatness.
We all have our own versions of a call to greatness. Though, in most cases, Father Christmas doesn’t come with the tools that we need to face the battle. We have to forge our tools on our own with the guidance of others: our family, friends, and teachers. The support of a community, like ours here at St. Andrew’s.
To forge these tools and to grow as people, we must use our imaginations to see beyond what we think we are. To question why. To look at our situations with curiosity. To wonder why and how something works. To see someone in trouble and ask how to help. To figure out why it’s always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas.
To take that extra step and leave your comfort zone behind to become someone greater than you ever imagined. To imagine is to be brave. With bravery we create a better world.
As you travel through the world of Narnia with us, I hope you can see yourself and how much you have overcome to be the person you are now. Thank you for supporting the arts at St. Andrews, and I hope you enjoy the show.
This year has been quite a change of pace in the Makerspace and PBL world at the Lower School. Not only are students engaging in a more integrated approach in the classrooms, 1st through 4th grade students are also spending scheduled time in the Makerspace workshop each week. Throughout the year, I want to take time to showcase the maker magic that is taking place both in the classrooms and inside the makerspace.
International Day of Peace
As you may already know, September 21st was the International Day of Peace. Students in the ECC and the Lower School spent time prior to the International Day of Peace on learning and discussing this special day, as well as brainstorming what peace means to them and how they each can spread kindness in their homes, classrooms, and greater communities.
4th grade students worked on a special project as a result of collaboration between Hailey Allin, the Lower School chaplin, Mayson McKey, Asst. Director of Global Studies, and myself, Technology Coordinator and Integration Specialist over the Makerspace. The 4th grade students in Mrs. Black’s, Mrs. Cosgrave’s, Mrs. Frame’s, and Mrs. Lin’s classes spent 2 weeks designing, and constructing their very own peace lanterns.
Students drew and traced out designs that symbolize peace and kindness. They later laser cut their designs into a thin plywood, and constructed the lanterns that were later displayed during the Lower School chapel service.
Take a look at their final peach lantern project:
Each year students from several schools are invited to attend a coding competition sponsored by CSpire at the Mississippi Children’s Museum. This year, the event took place on September 14th. I was honored to bring four 4th grade students to participate in the all-day event. Grant Abston, Kaiden Ambrose, Robert Farr, and Beau Wright attended the competition where they were able to work with mentors from CSpire where they worked as a team to design and build a course. They then worked to complete the coding sequence for a Cue robot to complete the course of their own design.
It was a day full of learning new things, hard work, and lots of FUN!
I can’t wait to share more of what our little makers are working on next time!
I admit it. I used to assign those teaching philosophy statements to my poor undergraduates. I can’t quite count the number of times I talked students through how problematic “gardening” metaphors were, as in: “I believe that children are like seeds and my job is to nourish and water them so that they grow into beautiful flowers.”
I shouldn’t have blamed them. They were 19 years old and had never taught a day in their lives.
Philosophy comes in handy, in my experience, only insofar as there is practice to shape it up. In other words, teach a week or a month or a year and let’s revisit that statement. Some of it will hold true. Some of it won’t. The blessing of articulating an identity comes in the mandate to confront a whole bunch of elusive “whys” that surround every teeny tiny and big teaching decision you/we make. As in, Why did I start class that way? Why did I set up that particular procedure? Why did I pace things in that particular order? Why do I talk to students that way? Why do I grade that way? Why are we reading/writing that text?
I believe the more we examine the whys, the more we can (1) shift our practices to better align with our values and beliefs and (2) consider how our practices and real experiences with actual youth in classroom spaces might convince us that our beliefs need shifting.
I want to be clear here: there are better and worse ways to help youth access content. There is an entire body of learning science, brain science, sociocultural studies, etc. that we owe it to ourselves and our children to learn about, internalize, and acknowledge.. . . . (link to fields of education) We are not merely islands trying things out and guessing and picking what we like. We are growing together to do this impossible thing we do better, more efficiently, and more appropriately. So let me add a third reason why ed philosophy matters: It can function as aspirational. By naming who we want to be, and not merely who we are, we can better support every member of a school to reach those goals.
After all, you put together all of our individual micro-teaching decisions and look across the corpus of all of our classrooms across every program at St. Andrew’s, you make a school culture. It’s important to be honest with our students (prospective/current), parents, alumni, admin, staff, and fellow faculty about who we are trying to be.
Different schools offer different flavors and cultures of education. I recall in my first meeting in my first day at St. Andrew’s, I asked the group I was with “what do we mean by innovation?” There was a natural resistance to unpacking that term, because the moment we operationalize something we might limit freedom or possibilities. Besides, how could we possibly account for the wide variation of best practice that accompanies every field of discipline at every age level? We are an independent school, after all. Teachers need independence.
Yes, AND sometimes the number of choices and ways of being can become a form of exhausting torture. Sometimes I want the comfort of knowing the practices and norms that my incoming class will have internalized. We have all been new to the community. The lack of already-established structures and practices can be terrifying.
That is why I believe the most important initiative I can help forward this year at St. Andrew’s is ensuring we articulate a philosophy of education. (Footnote: That, and also because Kevin Lewis put it as my top professional goal in my role this year during our end of year review this summer. But mostly, I really do believe in it.)
In case you were wondering, it just takes one SAIS or NAIS publication or conference to see we are not alone. Everybody and their brother is attempting to find their ed philosophy, which is now often popularly called “finding your school’s north star.” Cool, right?
But just now I did a little googling and I discovered something amazing. Sure, the north star is a guidepost that marks the sky’s north pole. But (brace yourself for a shock), guess what?
IT SEEMS FIXED, BUT IT ACTUALLY MOVES.
Not a lot, of course. The star can still help us find the direction north. But apparently it makes a small little circle around the exact point of the north celestial pole every day.
As we engage in trying to pin down who we are, we should perhaps find solace in knowing why this work is so dang slippery. The point is not in locating the exact spot: “hurray! I found it!” The point is in the pursuit, the maddening, glorious conversation. The constellation of all of our individual north stars coming together to form a school that is going places with students who are, perhaps most importantly, in their own furious pursuit of their personal north stars.
I have shared extensively about my myriad failures and falling shorts with my senior English class. This is because I am honest to a fault, and I am that peculiar brand of person that both hates not being perfect and learns a lot when I make space for my imperfection.
But let me act out of character and brag a minute about a thing I think I know, something I do decently: Classrooms function best as communities of practice. So in my English classroom, we better darn well be sharing our writing with each other all the time.
I attempted this the first day of class (let’s write a poem inspired by a mentor text) and the discomfort was visceral. I may be a fool, but I wasn’t born yesterday, so I expected this to happen. We pushed through the discomfort. “We are going around the circle and you can talk ABOUT what you wrote if you aren’t ready to share a sentence, phrase, or the whole piece.” Everyone talked about their poem. No one read aloud the actual text.
I built in daily ways that their writing would be showcased. If we were working on thesis statements, I’d feature anonymous excellent thesis statements folks submitted and we’d talk about why. If they had submitted journal freewrites about why homecoming is important to SA, I featured anonymous snippets of those.
Every class this is my goal. We may fail in a million ways but we are going to write together. And then we are going to have the opportunity share that writing with at least one other person.
This includes me and my own sharing. Last week I nearly started crying reading aloud a piece conveying how much I longed to make my dad proud by loving the things he loved, but how rarely I actually found a shared interest with him. The poem wasn’t great. But their support in the moment was.
Right now I’m in the midst of mining their first essay drafts for mentor sentences that show off things some students are struggling with: powerful introductory sentences, thoughtful commentary following up evidence, a properly constructed paragraph, a correctly cited quote.
I never use anonymous student work to show mistakes, only to show moments of success. The amazing thing is it is quite easy to showcase everyone at different times. One kid has an incredibly creative voice, but not thoughtful commentary. Another senior can mine quotes from a text like no one’s business. Another student is killer academic in his big ideas but lacks specificity of evidence.
If I put all of these writer’s strengths together, I’d have some magic.
That’s what classrooms can be.
Last week we were in a hurry, had lots to do, and I was thinking we might skip doing an original poem inspired by the poem of the day.
“If I could stop talking, completely
cease talking for a year, I might begin
to get well,” he muttered.
Off alone again performing
brain surgery on himself
in a small badly lit
room with no mirror. A room
whose floor ceiling and walls
are all mirrors, what a mess
oh my God—
not how begin
again, but rather
So we sit there
and me, Li Po
said, until only the mountain
The students seemed into it though so we had a short freewrite. “Maybe we’ll skip the open share out,” I thought to myself. But the writing time felt so intense, I felt the urge to ask if anyone wanted to share. Four hands went into the air. Four very different creatives read excerpts for their piece. There was no vestige of the discomfort I sensed on the first day when no one wanted to share. Students snapped and smiled in appreciation of the brilliance within their ranks.
As I walked out of the room that day three students stuffed their poems in my hand. “We know you aren’t collecting these for a grade or anything,” they said, “but we just thought you might want to read them.”
Scenario 1: Over two weeks ago in class I gave students this very clear, scaffolded assignment sheet and timeline for their literary analysis paper. We worked on chunks (thesis, evidence building, drafting) in class. Yesterday was our peer review day in which they were asked to bring a full draft, hard copy and one submitted digitally. There was a visceral sense of panic. Students came to class by our 8:15am start time, and most had at least part of a draft digitally completed, but only a handful actually had a printed out hard copy draft. Several said “I only have a few paragraphs done.” One said “I need an extension; I don’t have anything.” Another said “I have a full draft, but it is terrible and makes no sense.” Another comes in visibly frustrated, with a loud volume of a voice: “It was WAY too much to have us bring an entire draft today, Dr. Rust! We can’t write an entire paper in two days!” I swallowed my frustration. I let people go to the library so they could print out their draft and engage in the peer review exercise, despite the fact that class had begun. I calmly talked through how deadlines like this will also sneak up on them in college, and gave them some tips for how to better hold themselves accountable. We discussed what a fair next step would be, and ended up with a one day extension and one extra Monday class for writing conferences.
Scenario 2: TEAM members and I gathered over the summer and then more recently to co-construct deadlines for blog blasts. We first planned a clear deadline for September. Then, when we met that month we decided we needed an extra week. I updated the shared google doc timeline and sent everyone a calendar reminder of the new deadline. I started an informal TEAM google chat to start sharing about my in progress blogs to get everyone’s feedback and put the deadline on everyone’s radar. Then, three days before our newer extended deadline, we all began to feel a sense of panic. I realized I had never caught up one of our TEAM members in-person that had to miss our last meeting because of a sick child. Besides, my plan to blog for hours the past weekend hadn’t gone to plan because of unanticipated kid obligations. I got a message from one TEAM member: “This week has been overwhelming; would it be a disaster if I didn’t have a blog this month?” I felt an unexpectedly huge sense of relief. Perhaps I could have another weekend to put words on a page instead of accumulating incredibly late nights! What a gift that would be! “Let’s push it to the first week of October! We could all use the extra weekend,” I quickly messaged back. When I sent the news to everyone, the joy was communally shared. I could be wrong, but I have the distinct sense that the content on this blog blast was the better because of it.
I put these two very true anecdotes side by side, not to make any solid points, but merely to raise questions:
How should I have better scaffolded deadlines in both situations? Should I have?
Are expanding deadlines actually a normal part of any workflow process? Should we just expect them?
Is there an appropriate age difference situation in our relationship with deadlines between when I work with seniors in high school and our collaborations with adults/or our own adult work?
What are deadlines for?
Is it possible that some types of deadlines, purposes, and audiences should be held more strictly and others should allow for more flexibility? Which types for which?
Would I fail/serve both my seniors, myself, and my fellow TEAM members more if I:
Extended with great grace or
Held strictly to the original deadline or
Found a balance between the two?
Should we seek to cultivate class cultures so that students are more or less likely to put our class last in their invisible triage of tasks (aka “Dr. Rust is nice, so she’ll let us have an extension but I absolutely HAVE to do my other homework”)?
Should we believe our students if they say they are overwhelmed by a deadline, or should we assume they are being lazy procrastinators?
Should we believe ourselves when we feel overwhelmed by our adult deadlines, or should we consider we are being lazy procrastinators?
How can we cultivate honest and clear lines of communication for our students, our collaborators, and our own selves when we need to share that we are quite honestly overwhelmed and need some form of support?
Are we all just too durn busy?
In essence, yet again, the question remains: how do we balance grace/responsiveness/flexibility to our learners and ourselves with high standards/accountability/commitment?
If you are anything like me, you are in no way facing a dearth of ideas for teaching. There are so many things to cover! There are so many WAYS to cover them! I just learned how to turn any old boring worksheet into Capture the Flag! Thanks, Teacher Tik Tok! (Yes, I did just type three exclamation points in a row. Yes, I do have to edit my writing for excessive exclamation points.)
For me, the real challenge is slowing down. Slowing myself down. Slowing my students down. Is everyone in the room on the same page? Are we hearing each other with a clear ear and learning from the moment well, deeply? Breathing. Remembering. Reflecting. Why is this thing we are doing important? Why are we doing it? What did we do yesterday and how does it connect to today? And where can I locate myself in the midst of all of this?
In other words, are we actually learning anything at all if we don’t make space to jog the old memory banks and remind ourselves about that learning from time to time?
We all need people that help us do this well. Enter Rev. Hailey, stage left. She does for me often when we are in meetings together with her trademark humility (e.g. “sorry- I want to make sure I am clear on what you are saying” or “what I’m hearing you say is . . . “) but really what she is doing is clearing the space for us all to take a breath and get on the same page. She is gently nudging us into what is far more appropriate, more human pace for collaboration.
She also did this today in chapel at Lower School in a way that is going to shape something I do next week with my seniors in English class.
Backpack on her back, she did a quick review of topics covered in chapel throughout quarter 1. Pulling laminated big topics one by one (“honor”, “prayer”, “respect”) she did a quick spiraled review of what was covered. Then she did a quick synthesis/tie together of the logic of these chapels with the climactic laminated heart she whipped out of the bag. Love. The seemingly disparate topics all had love in common. Jackpot.
It should be said, the kids were squirming in their criss-cross-apple-sauce positions, several raising hands in not-so-subtle pleading to be picked to hold up one of the signposts. I mean, who wouldn’t?
She took a whole chapel to do, in essence, a spiraled review with a cherry on top tying the whole first quarter together. She could have covered another burning topic. Instead, she decided to take a breath so that the children could see the internal, invisible logic behind what they had perceived as disparate chapels and topics each Friday.
What if we all found a way to celebrate the end of the first quarter by making our invisible backpacks (link to research on invisible curriculum) visible? What if our students helped us hold up the concepts, ideas, and aha moments in simultaneous recognition, realization, and celebration? What if we all took a moment to say to our students, ourselves, our colleagues:
“Sorry, can we just take a breath? I want to get clear on what we are all learning.”
It was just a few weeks ago, at about 4:20pm on a Wednesday. I ran into Matt Luter in our collective dash to the post-PD-time parking lot.
I blurted out my predominant feeling at the time: “That was TERRIFYING!” Any story involving blood, unconsciousness, emergency medical situations gets my heart going. I am not in the medical field for like about 100 reasons.
Matt, however, had a different initial observation: “I am so impressed with that presenter. I remember her from last year as well. She fit in so much information in such a short amount of time and yet kept us locked in.”
He was, as he usually is, completely right. Sure. the husband-wife duo weren’t visiting our campuses to help us get better at teaching/learning. They didn’t have doctorates in pedagogy. But there sure was a lot we could take from them to level up our classroom impact. Here are some of our greatest takeaways from the CPR training this year:
They spoke loudly and clearly with big voice modulation.
They kept the pacing super quick and made sure to get us out on time.
They asked questions throughout to see what we already knew.
They included dramatic personal stories (often locally situated) to lock us in emotionally.
They related it to our own risk (self, family, etc.) to gain investment.
They provided props for each of us participate
They differentiated by offering other options for those with knee/back issues, etc.
Learning how to save lives while singing “Staying Alive” in our heads is important enough to spend PD time on. But simultaneously learning lessons about how to teach better by excellent presenter modeling? That’s worth staying after school for.
I’ve already shown off the wrist x-ray that signifies my past summer of “oh yeah you are middle aged, not a figure skater.” You know, this one:
(Good news side note: the x ray was clean. It was just nerve damage!)
But there’s a part two to that story.
Several weeks past the injury, I was still in major pain. Texting and typing and carrying anything at all in my left hand were impacted in a way that made me wince constantly. I remember at one point trying to cut vegetables for stir fry for my family and bursting into tears because, even with every smart modification I could attempt, I couldn’t make it happen.
Lucy and Justin (it’s always Lucy and Justin) rushed to the kitchen. “Ask for help,” they admonished me, taking the knife gently out of my hands and becoming my on-demand sous chefs.
A few days later, I was lamenting to my office neighbor buddy Annie that I had a work trip coming up and I, for the life of me, couldn’t figure out how I was going to manage the carrying of luggage required for flight. I had tried to call a few orthopedists to see if they could fit me in before the trip, but no one had a slot earlier than two weeks away.
“What about [one of our co-worker’s] husband? Do you have her text?”
I hesitated. I knew this colleague peripherally, as a beloved member of our community, but she wasn’t a bestie I had in my contacts. Also, I wasn’t that kind of person, ya know, the kind of person that jumps the line because of a connection I have. Also also I didn’t want to bug her. I imagined her confusion if I texted: “who is that weird woman texting me?” and “doesn’t she know my husband is super busy?”
Annie (as she often does in a way that I so admire) took matters in her own hands. She sent a quick text to Leah connecting us. Approximately 53 seconds later, my phone dinged. “I’m going to go ahead and have my husband’s nurse call you. I bet he can fit you in Monday morning first thing.” 33 seconds later the nurse messaged. I was speechless. Suddenly this big, insurmountable problem was fixed. Just like that.
I thanked Annie profusely. I also articulated how unlike me it felt to take advantage of a connection. She laughed. “Julie, you know that good feeling you get when you help people? Guess what? Other people get that same feeling when they help you. Don’t take away their chance at that good feeling.”
Asking for help is more than just taking advantage of all the doctors that are part of our St. Andrew’s community. It has a lot to do, for me, about becoming a better teacher. And the first step is being real and vulnerable about my teaching struggles. When I mention a mistake or tension that I face in my Tuesday Teaching Tips, I am always met with grace, commiseration, and help, and often a mixture of all three.
I think my October new year’s resolution (that should be a thing) is to ask ask ask for help. I think the work we do is too difficult and too potentially isolating not to. And I know I am surrounded by a community-network of helpers. We are literally in this profession because we are professional helpers.
But people can’t help if they don’t know I need it. So maybe we can all work to make spaces in which it is possible to say how this thing is hard. I’ll raise my hand first.
THIS THING IS HARD! I AM SO NOT PERFECT AT IT! HELP!
There. I feel better. Now if you can help me do a better job of scaffolding deadlines with seniors, I’m all ears.
As teachers, we’ve probably all had moments where students were just maybe a little too honest with us. Maybe it’s our “course evaluation” survey, and the teenagers see it as an opportunity to air their grievances, or maybe it’s when we found out that Sally’s “mommy said a no-no word,” and straight from Sally’s mouth, no less! Sometimes, I long for the day that the adolescent filter (if we can even call it that) falls into place, and they realize that they don’t have to share everything that pops into their head. But sometimes, I find myself wishing I could peek into their brains, just for a second.
As a middle school teacher, I am aware that students, particularly in the 7th and 8th grades, are maybe living the hardest years of their lives. Everything is changing, everything is weird, they’re always hungry, and nothing seems to be easy. I’m aware of this on our best days, when we make inside jokes and giggle together, and on our worst days, when they give me the “lights on, nobody’s home,” stare as I ask why they haven’t turned in any of their assignments. Particularly now, it seems that students are retreating into themselves, and are having a hard time communicating with people not through a screen – in fact, some would actually prefer if they could TEXT their way out of having a real conversation with an adult! Some of them think even an EMAIL is too much!
This may seem wild to you, but for me, as a 27 year-old baby-adult, I kind of get it… I’m not exactly jumping at the chance to make a phone call and schedule an appointment, honestly. All of this got me to thinking; what would the students tell us if they didn’t have this fear of conversation, fear of confrontation, and fear that they may somehow suffer for sharing their thoughts? What do they wish we knew?
Now, obviously, these are teenagers. I’m going to share their messages within the context that we sometimes need to filter this stuff out. They can be emotional, stressed, and say things they don’t mean (which we totally can’t relate to, as adults), so bearing that in mind, I asked a few lucky kiddos, “What do you wish you could tell your teachers?”
To start us off strong, in an absolutely BRUTAL response from an upper schooler, this student wishes we knew that we aren’t as funny as we think we are. I beg to differ.
A few middle school students wished that we understood that they have more going on at home than we may know about. I think their teachers wish they had this inside info, too! One of the students actually gave the example, “Well, I didn’t do my homework, because my dog died.” Oof! I got to have a nice chat with this group, and shared that there are things we don’t know because we can’t read their minds… we wondered what it would look like for them to actually go to their teachers with things like this, openly, rather than hope that their teachers somehow discover it. It was a nice picture.
Finally, another student wanted us to understand that each of our classes isn’t their only class. They feel like they’re juggling so many plates, and that they are still figuring out how to keep them all spinning. They wanted to share that, although each of their classes is uniquely important, there’s more than one important class on their course load. To me, this sounds like a classic thing to hear from any student who could maybe stand to improve their organizational skills (this student in particular is highly organized and high achieving, so there’s that). Rather than discount it entirely, I found myself trying to consider their perspective, and feel some compassion toward this teenager doing their best. Of course, ultimately they need to turn in their work and study for their tests, and that’s not going to change, but is there room for us to acknowledge just how much we ask of them?
For me, the kids are the best part of this job! Getting to hear things like this is helpful to me as I form relationships with them, and I hope it’s the same for you. Hopefully, as I share these things through the filter of my brain, this column can help us all to learn something new about our students, and maybe, in my conversations with the kids themselves, I can try to (possibly? sometimes? if I’m lucky?) encourage them to be better students in the long run… but we’ll see how all of that goes.
I wonder what we’ll learn next time… if only you knew.