Wouldn’t it be nice to be a 2-year-old? Not having a worry in the world, being hilariously honest, and most importantly getting to be your true authentic self every day. Here at Foundations, no two days are ever alike and our students are full of surprises always keeping us on our toes. We wanted to know what some of our youngest saints thought about their time at school and learning in general. As I’m sure most of you know, it can be a bit of a challenge interviewing a 2-year-old but it is always entertaining. Here is a little look inside of what goes on inside the mind of a 2-year-old:
“How old are you?”
“What is your favorite thing to do at school?”
-“Ummm I like legos.”
“Where do you go to school?”
“What is your favorite animal?”
-“I like a tiger”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
-“I be a dragon”
-“Oh I want to be a alligator”
“What is your favorite song?”
-“I like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I like golfing last year”
Well, we just made it through parent teacher conference season here at St. Andrew’s. From all accounts, they were generative and collaborative conversations in which it was clear that parents, teachers, and admin are all part of the same team dedicated to supporting youth in their growth and abilities. In the spirit of those dialogues, we are thrilled to release our latest season, entitled “Parent Teacher Conference.”
In this series (which includes both a video and audio only version), we feature illuminating conversations between parents, students, and faculty about a range of issues that especially impact the age group of focus. (Sorry- we are not sharing actual recorded parent teacher conferences, although that would be fascinating!) Dean Julius hosts our first release focusing in on the delightfully messy period of middle school and the pursuit of creating positive classroom environments. Learn more in his write up below:
Thanks for stopping by to check out the first episode of Parent Teacher Conference! This episode features a thoughtful conversation with 5th Grade History Teacher—and St. Andrew’s parent—Meriwether Truckner, Haydenne Archie, a current 8th grader at St. Andrew’s, and Katie Hathcock, a parent of two St. Andrew’s students, Stella and Carter. We chat about classroom management styles and student behavior, centered around an article in Edutopia by Ben Johnson. It was such a privilege to sit and chat with these three ladies. Mrs. Truckner has been a colleague I’ve looked up to since I started at St. Andrew’s because her organizational skills and her classroom management are among her many talents, and I loved hearing Katie and Haydenne’s perspectives on parent involvement in student success in the class as well as what students can do to be more successful stewards of the classroom. Hope you enjoy the episode!
Our conversation is time stamped below:
What makes for the best classroom environment (1:45 – 7:00)
Self-care & its impact on behavior/teaching (7:20 – 14:00)
Parent & Teacher communication (14:05 – 19:20)
What do you do when things go amuk? (19:30 – 24:00)
COVID’s impact on management & behavior (24:05 – end)
“The 4th grade retreat is one of my favorite Lower School traditions each year because of the way it fosters teamwork, collaboration, communication skills, and self-awareness in our oldest lower school students. We’ve watched many of them grow through the years, and at the retreat, they have the time together to reflect on what it means to be leaders within their community.”
-Shea Egger, Head of Lower School
This year’s 4th Grade Retreat took place a couple of weeks ago on Friday, October 8. At the risk of mixing metaphors barely two sentences into this recap, it has to be said: this year’s retreat was considered on all accounts a slam dunk smashing success!
Buses rolled out about a half hour after Chapel in the gym, students were encouraged to eat a snack on the short ride to north campus, and I suddenly found myself in possession of a hefty bag filled with medical supplies, EpiPens, and fancy-looking asthma inhalers.
Since I’ve already decided on employing a narrative voice which assumes we’re already all dear friends on intimate terms, let me also say this: being responsible for a medical bag full of things–God Willing–no one will never, ever need is a shockingly potent way feeling like a mildly competent human. Trust me, it does wonders for your self-esteem.
…which, funnily enough, was one of the supporting tenets of the retreat. Shea was kind enough to elaborate on this by adding:
Shea Egger, Head of Lower School, and Chelsea Freeman, Associate Head of Lower School, kicked off the retreat with a short introduction that was immediately followed by several songs led and performed by a few musically (not to mention, comedically!) talented representatives from the SA high school. The kids ate it up, the grown-ups were chuckling; on all accounts, it was good, old-fashioned fun. Would. it be fair to say that most all of us, no matter what age, have missed that at some point during these last 2 years?
Shea and Chelsea explained to students that this year’s theme was Community Building that challenged the 4th grade to take collaborative approaches to 4 different rotations of activities including arts, cooperation exercises, teamwork, strengthening connections amongst their peers, and developing reliance on personal self-worth.
After cheese pizza for lunch, we then all indulged in a much-needed gymnasium break. The day would conclude with an exciting, multifaceted activity requiring focused group participation that would ultimately reinforce the importance of We over I.
A rough schedule for the four rotations that morning:
Rotation I: Ropes Course
Rotation II: Strength Flags
Rotation III: Cup Stacking
Rotation IV: Teamwork/Unity Activity
Before deep-diving into these rotations, would you mind terribly if I introduced a second narrative thread of a more personal flavor which I hope will make sense to you–its reason for inclusion–in a couple more paragraphs? And if it still doesn’t make sense, contact me directly, for I have failed, and someone needs to tell me.
On several separate occasions, when glimpsing children deep in play or hard at work world building or otherwise bewitched by the promises of playtime, recess, etc., my grandmother—according to the story my uncle told to me earlier this summer—was known to say things like, “Don’t you wonder what all kinds of things are going on in those little heads right now?”
For the next several days I found myself more and more frequently returning to that image of my grandmother saying these things. It was as if the story had registered her presence in my life again, somehow. The force of my grandmother was strong with me, if you will. I have always thought that the concept of a ghost is suspiciously similar to that of a well-digested memory.; the kind you keep with you throughout life as hybrid talisman-scars, relying on them like the oldest of friends. Despite the 17 years since her death, I recall my grandmother’s finely boned face with spooky accuracy, her cat-scratch ballpoint pen handwriting in the margins of my homework. My favorite way of remembering her goes something like this: she looks up from her desk in her 3rd grade St. Andrew’s LS classroom, it’s the late seventies and I don’t exist yet. Since I’ve edited this memory to fit my specific needs, she still acknowledges the great perhaps of me with a trademark gentle deadpanning she was famous for. My grandmother’s southern accent was mellow, opaque, more lilt than drawl. Children adored her long after they stopped being children anymore and in turn she remembered them as they had been. I’ve had the moderately awkward pleasure of meeting several of my grandmother’s former students over the years and each of them described the same thing, just in different ways and with different words based on different memory touchstones.
She’d remembered their joy for them, keeping it safe long after they’d completed the messy business of growing up. Fossilized Joy. I don’t think it’s going a step too far to argue that this is what a truly great, exquisitely gifted teacher can offer students. St. Andrew’s has–and has always had–startlingly high percentages of these sorts of teachers.
Which is where I’ll now take a moment to shout out the 4th grade team in particular.
I am still frequented by my trusty imposter syndrome and compulsively wonder how I of all people got to be the person who gets to support, eat lunch with, laminate for, and simply sit back and drink in the 4th grade team’s combined power, force of will, capacity for radical kindness, and my favorite–the easy laughter, the graciousness. In their case, the sum is very much equal to the parts. These last two months have shown me how certain contrasts actually beget the most surprising and productive of intimacies. Learning how to work for and towards the right kinds of tension(s) in a place with so much raw radical kindness feels a little like magic when left in the measured, meticulous hands of the St. Andrew’s community. At least, that’s what it looks like from over here.
There was a moment during the 4th grade retreat when I bore witness to something I’d never seen before and it reminded me of something Caroline Pratt wrote in her book I Learn From Children:
The child, unhampered, does not waste time.
As the 4th grade teaching assistant, I was helping out with one of the four activity stations set up for students. A team of four had just successfully been the first in their class to stack all of their solo cups using the ingenious string and rubber band method Chelsea had demonstrated for them.
But wait, there’s a catch…
The only way for a team to accomplish the cup stacking was to work together, with each member pulling one of the four strings knotted to the rubber band; this simultaneously served as a great equalizer and motivator.
Fourth grader Mia Machost especially enjoyed the Hula Hop rotation, while Madison Thornton and Bella Klein enjoyed the Cup Stacking and dodgeball rotations.
Bella adds that her favorite part about being in the 4th grade is having Mrs. Buggage as her homeroom teacher. Parker Purnell on the other hand thinks the extra freedom allowed to 4th graders is the best part.
Nina Craddock is confident that getting to change classes and getting to spend time with all four of the 4th grade teachers is one of the best parts. She also thinks that getting to eat pizza outside with everyone was one of the retreat’s highlights.
I walked around the room in an effort to both supervise and encourage, knelt to watch particularly nail-biting close calls, and offered a few stray (hopefully helpful) tips about aforementioned gravity and elastic potential energy (less helpful, as I successfully avoided ever having to take a Physics class, circa 2009).
It soon became clear that this was an exercise in power dynamics. It was about teaching our students the intricacies of the necessary give-and-take required in any successful, healthy relationship. Like any unique and self-sufficient organism, each of the 16 teams went about finding their own complex equilibriums in unpredictable starts and stops. Some big points of frustration. A few tears mixed in with a little hope and a major heaping of gritty resolve.
Honestly: I’d never been prouder of them.
A few groups achieved equilibrium within minutes of a few initial trial and errors. Other groups required a couple of detours nmbefore establishing functional checks and balances systems for the interplay of their group members’ powers.
CUP STACKING CHALLENGE
Time: 10-15 minutes
Supplies: Solo cups, rubber bands, and strings
Each member can only touch one string.
Questions/Things to Think About:
How did your team communicate with one another to solve this challenge?
What actions/ideas helped your group find success?
How did your group overcome challenges or frustrations?
What did you learn about cooperation from this activity?
All credit goes to Chelsea Freeman, Empath Wizard / Associate Head of Lower School who lead this rotation and originally provided these instructions and takeaways
Later that day, I started thinking about how annoyingly necessary tension is for almost everything we set out to do in life. This eventually led to me googling “symbiosis” on my iPhone while on the school bus ride back to the lower school. If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be too interested in any search results because as a child–actually not too much older than the students I currently serve–I developed my own problematic, entirely self-defeating relationship with tension. Instead of learning how and when and how hard or how soft to push back against challenges, I’d just stop, play dead; in other words: avoid! avoid! avoid! It wasn’t until I was 29 years old with nearly a decade gone by since I’d taken my last math class that a close and monumentally brilliant high school friend of mine suggested I do research on something called Dyscalculia. That’s another story for another time.
The fact that I was a generation and a half too early to benefit from Chelsea’s cup-stacking exercise and Emotional Learning doesn’t matter. There’s only the honest-to-god raw delight and something that feels an awful lot like the hope of knowing there are schools brimming over with teachers and administrators and staff members like the St. Andrew’s Lower School.
Thanks to Rachel Scott, the retreat’s finale was a brilliant, complex, multilayered, reading comprehension heavy group project that culminated in each group creating their own battery-powered lights. Honestly, chef’s kiss for that seamless blend of poetry, hope, and technology. As I walked around and spoke to groups once the project was over, I saw lots and lots of awe and delight on our students’ faces.
My grandmother had a quiet kind of intelligence. It ran deep and was deceptive in its stillness which oftentimes led to other adults prematurely discounting her and her talents. By today’s standards, she’d probably be considered as having had a genius-level E.Q. for her proven ability to know something was going to happen before it happened and not know how she knew.
By the time I met her, she openly maintained the opinion that children were far more interesting than most adults she knew. I tend to agree with her.
I think part of the hard work of growing yourself up and grasping at maturity is recognizing when you don’t have the proper lens with which to view a situation or someone(s). And I also think we all do this to some extent–fail to bear witness to the real truth of a thing because we’re too busy sussing out the bottom line of The Something, too infinitely looped into valuing the outcomes over the answers. Because outcomes and answers are two entirely different beasts, although they are oftentimes mistaken for each other. St. Andrew’s is doing its best in so many ways to change this kind of thing for future generations.
Special Thanks to:
She Egger, Chelsea Freeman, Rachel Scott, Julie Rust, Greg Buyan, Sarah Spann, Abram Jones, Hailey Allin, Anna Frame, Susan Pace, April Cosgrave, Chandler Buggage.
Something I have always appreciated—and continue to hold dear about St. Andrew’s—is how much my colleagues and the students show gratitude and support for one another in various ways, from observing and learning from one another’s teaching, to little comments students make to show their appreciation for those who teach them.
To highlight these little joys, I will be asking each grade over the next several months, starting with 5th, to take a moment and share why they are grateful for their teachers.
This month, the 5th graders’ reflections are earnestly heartwarming and a true catalogue of unabashed gratitude, as the poet Ross Gay would say. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have, and as another testament to shared gratitude, I’d like to thank Dr. Foley for his thoughts giving life to this idea!
“I really appreciate Mrs. Taylor because she’s very forgiving and can relate to things that we are going through. She makes learning fun by giving us projects like making computer comics on Pix-ton and doing some fold-able things . She really knows how to treat kids with work in a fun way. I also really like Mrs. King because she always doesn’t put a lot of pressure on us when we are nervous or scared. And she doesn’t give like melt your brain kind of work or make it too easy. She’s very understanding and lets us do fun things.”
“I like Mr. Lowe because he brings an element of humor and cleverness into his class. He is always singing or doing funny voices.”
“I love Mrs. King. She is an outgoing, kind, and loving person. I love her class too and her energy. I love her class because she makes good use of the class time and makes the work hard but makes it seem easy and nothing to worry about.”
“I appreciate Mrs. Bernhardt very much because she is very sweet and kind.” “Mrs. Bernhardt brings brightness to St. Andrews. I am super grateful that she is in my life.”
“I really appreciate Mrs. Ambriz because she goes out of her way to make Spanish fun. Also she is kind, sweet, and understanding. I’m really grateful for her.”
“Mrs. Watt gives us fun activities to do, especially with instruments, while still teaching us new things every day. She also teaches us funky music, like Mi Gallo and Hey, Ho, Nobody Home. We got to sing them in rounds as a class and it sounded SO COOL! For example, about five people would be singing “Hey, ho, nobody home,” over and over again, while another group of about five people would sing “I said hey!” over and over again. In result, the background music would be: “‘I said hey!’, ho, nobody home.” Another group of five people would sing the four lines of the song, and then the remaining five people would sing the four lines of the song, but starting a little after the first group. Music is always so fun!”
“I also appreciate Ms. Bernhardt because she makes science really fun and exciting.”
“I really appreciate Mrs. King. She is so calm and kind and is great for when you need some help. I love the books she picks out for us to read, and we always have a great time in her class.”
“I appreciate Mrs. Ambriz because she is always willing to help us get better In Spanish and because she always plans fun activities for us to do every day.”
“Ms. Taylor makes learning fun, and she is kind. She also disguises the learning to make it fun, and we also do a lot of all hands on deck projects, and that is what I think makes her a unique and a kind person.”
“I appreciate Mrs. Bernhardt because she lets us know when we have missing work. I also appreciate Mrs. Runnels because she helps us organize the space around us.”
“Mrs. King makes reading fun, and I love the conversations we are having about The City of Ember. She is also very sweet and very welcoming. I am so glad she is my advisor.”
“I love Ms. Taylor as a teacher because she will go out of her way to help a student. She is very kind and never makes me feel pressured. She has amazing and fun games to play for strategies to learn a topic! I love all my teachers, but Ms.Taylor stands out!”
“I like Mr. Lowe because he makes math fun and he sings a lot!”
“I think Mrs. Bernhardt really teaches well. I appreciate Mrs. Bernhardt for being our advisory teacher. Thank you Mrs. Bernhardt!”
“I appreciate Ms. Taylor because she is really kind and cares for everyone. She also makes learning history seem like an adventure.”
It’s easy to forget, as Esperanza says in The House on Mango Street, our “reason for being.” But when we take a moment to enjoy the little things, like these comments from the students, as Esperanza says, they help us “to keep keeping.”
Sometimes, in the thick of things, we have to come up with innovative ideas to get students wrapped up in the lessons we teach or the books we’re reading. And as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and coincidentally, invention and innovation both begin with the letter I and they’re synonymous, according to ye old Merriam-Webster. Mrs. King, our beloved 5th Grade English teacher, has been doing exactly that this year by incorporating STEM projects into her book units.
“I decided to start doing STEM projects with my students to help them better understand the material we’re reading and engage in class,” Mrs. King said.
She also took this as an opportunity to collaborate with her colleagues, so with the help of 5th Grade science teacher, Mrs. Bernhardt, they came up with a couple of projects based around the book City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, as well as the concepts they’ve been studying in Science.
“Dune, one of the characters, works in the pipeworks/sewers underground and must help to repair them and their leaks while also working on a way out of Ember to save humanity,” Mrs. King said. “So the activity was to get students to move water from one cup to another using straws.” The challenging part, of course, was making water move (two feet!) from one cup to another using only those straws.
“They also had duct tape to help repair any inevitable water leaks that formed along the way,” she said. And to make things more difficult, Mrs. King added, students “had to move the water from one cup to the next horizontally. A lot of them wanted to hold one cup in the air, but we didn’t allow that.”
Students in Mrs. King’s class have also been working on another project to complement their science curriculum, which is currently focusing on surface area. They’ve been competing to build a box that has the greatest surface area possible with only two sheets of paper.
“There’s a secret box in the City of Ember that has the information necessary to help Dune and the others leave Ember because it’s falling apart,” she said. And projects like these help students visualize, in hands-on ways, what’s happening in the book.
“Part of it is reeling in my non-readers,” Mrs. King said. “I’ve overheard my students say things like, ‘Wow, I never thought we’d do stuff like this in an English class,’ and I know there are some students that are likely more excited about Math and Science than they are my class,” she said.
“Anything I can do to help get, and keep, their attention, that’s my whole goal,” she said. “I want to get them interested in reading and literature, and if STEM projects can help, I’m all for it.”
Not to mention these collaborative, cross-curricular projects seem like good old-fashioned fun!
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is a laughable sentiment for most St. Andrew’s faculty, particularly for Claire Whitehurst, one of our Upper School art teachers and an artist herself. This SA alum (‘09) gets her artist blood honest–and got it early too. When a young Claire got in trouble at school for eating a variety of Crayons, paper, purple gluesticks, and Elmer’s glue, her mom picked her up and said, “It’s okay. I ate glue too.” And there was the time her dad made a costume out of cardboard and went to a Town Hall meeting dressed as a sturgeon (yes, a fish) to emphasize the harmful effects of ATVs on stream beds. Even her brother, Andrew, another alum (‘11), is a musician in New York. And then there’s Claire, who, before she sat down for this interview in my room, grabbed a tissue from my desk, which was used solely for doodling, never nose-wiping.
Somehow my conversation with Claire quickly turned to a discussion of our self-diagnoses (hers: synesthesia and trypophobia; mine: trichotillomania and cleithrophobia). But her diagnoses seem kind of perfect and almost helpful for her artistic soul–and a lot more fun. Her synesthesia of associating words and numbers with colors is not only fitting but really kind of inspirational for an artist–and really incomprehensible and fascinating for those of us for whom words are, well, just words (don’t get me wrong; I’m an English teacher: words have loaded meanings for me too, just sadly not colors). Claire realized she wasn’t alone as a synesthete in high school when a fellow student said, “My name is yellow. What color is yours?” In fact, in describing her art, Claire says she is “obsessed with color.” Makes sense. Like the eating of her art supplies when she was little, Claire physically senses art, which also explains her trypophobia: holes are too visceral, too much like open wounds, she says. Claire, who has always been compelled to draw, actually first loved art through the natural world: through drawing science diagrams and making a diorama of planets. Even now nature influences her art, which she describes as “organic shapes” and “sourced from biological things” such as bird migration patterns. Claire says she is often forced to call her art abstract, but that labeling does not sit well with her. “I like art that’s about stuff,” she says, so even though some might view her art as abstract, it’s always about something–even if dreams. “I daydream a lot,” she confesses (it’s okay, Claire; I think my students do too). People, of course, have various opinions about art, and she says sometimes people might prefer “more realistic” art to hers, which she dubs more “lofty, dreamy, whimsical.” However, Claire also loves the moments when people say to her about a piece of art, “I don’t know what this is,” and she can agree and say, “I don’t either!” Other times, people assign their own meaning to her art, which is also just fine by Claire who lights up remembering one woman telling her about a piece, “It reminds me of this dream I had when I was little.” Moments like these fuel Claire who is always “so fascinated by how strong connections can be when you have so little information.”
Now, don’t let all this talk about dreams and whimsy fool you. Claire recognizes the unfair but bad rap that artists typically get; she knows that “people talk down about artists all the time” because the perception is that artists are somehow “lazy” or “unmotivated.” She made it very clear that stigma doesn’t fly with her: “You have to sit down and do the work.” “I’m in my studio every day for at least an hour,” she says, and these are the hours she keeps when she is not planning for a show. When Claire is preparing for a show, her studio hours are before school, after school, and all weekends (you know, on top of being a teacher). “The only time I don’t produce is when I don’t feel good,” she says, a fact that does not surprise me in the least given how Claire seems to be intensely and viscerally tied to her art.
Even in high school Claire was a dogged artist, so much so that she says, “I drove Jerry Goodwin crazy.” Mrs. Goodwin, frequently trying to get Claire to her next class, would be met with obstinate retorts from Claire: “I’m not done!” Reflecting on these memories, Claire says, “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.” Given her own headstrong desires when it came to art, Claire gives her own students plenty of room to run. “I just want to get them excited. I just want them to make one thing that they are excited about,” she says, “and then chase that excitement.” As for being a fulltime artist, Claire says she actually really likes the dual role of artist and teacher: “I like being around an environment of questioning.” In her classes Claire is working as her students are: tinkering with art, toying with designs, and problem-solving alongside students. Teachers doing their craft as a means of teaching their craft has got to be one of the most effective tools in teaching ever, right? After I told Claire what an awesome example and tone she was able to set for the students watching her and taking their cues from her engaging in her craft, she said, “Don’t write that in there. Wait. Are students going to read this?” I think she was afraid I was going to give away all the trade secrets of teaching that are working really well for her (don’t worry, Claire; I will give all the money in my wallet to the first student that mentions this blog to me). I also really love that Claire credits others tied to the SA community such as Celia Wood and Ginger Williams Cook with a profound impact on her life as an artist, going so far as to say they are the reasons she is an artist. She calls Ginger, another local artist, “the captain of my ship.” I am pretty sure Claire is going to be someone’s captain too.
Like many artists, Claire has difficulty letting go of her art when it sells. “They are like my little puppies,” she says of her pieces, “It makes me sad. Because I won’t ever see them again.” But like a true teacher/creator/parent, she also knows when it’s time to let go and says to each piece: “It’s time for you to go off into the world.” In fact, Claire is about to start getting 15-20 new pieces ready for a major solo show in Los Angeles in April of 2022. In addition, Claire already has pieces hung in St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, at Jackson Academy in Jackson, and two pieces at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. She has also just finished 50 hand-done books called Mirror Drawings of pair drawings with loose narrative (that’s right, she’s also a writer) that will be out November 2. Don’t worry; if that’s not enough, Claire also has shows coming up in January (Memphis, Tennessee), in February (Tbilisi, Georgia!), and in March (Atlanta, the other Georgia). I just texted her this afternoon to confirm these locations, to which she replied: “I CONTAIN GEORGIAN MULTITUDES.” Yes, Claire, you do. And not just Georgian ones.
I don’t know about you, but when I used to teach middle and high school English, I felt the visceral weight of all that I wanted students to accomplish as a result of my class: vocabulary, speaking/listening, comprehension, literary devices, love for reading/writing, basic knowledge of literary canon, openness to diverse perspectives, writing, multimodal design, discussion skills, and on and on and on. If you are where I was, it may be nice to know that you are not on your own. We have some incredible support on this campus through the Writing Lab, the Math Lab, and adults that train and build these programs, like Jennifer Gunn and Hollie Marjanovic!
The image above features Writing Lab Fellows showing tenth grade students how to set up a historical essay. They answered questions and did a whole group essay outline. Next, some will return to work individually with students on essay outlines that they start tonight. If you have interest in working with the writing lab, just email firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget that Math Lab Fellows can also help in classrooms. In the past, we have had them to help specifically on test review days. For help, email email@example.com or Cathy Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do your students need more help with study skills broadly this year? Email Hollie (email@example.com); she loves to go into classes and help with study ideas, note-taking, active reading, and organization. Think this is just all about upper school support? We now have math and writing lab fellows working with middle school students one day per week, so middle school teachers don’t hesitate to reach out!
I’ve heard it again and again from faculty. Different words, sure. Different tones, different rifts on the same melody. But the gist is the same: “Julie, I know you mean well, but I don’t have time to read those emails you send out.” “This year is somehow much more stressful than last year.” “Anytime you send out an article or idea in relation to teaching/learning it feels like you are shouting that I am not doing enough.” “Why is it the teacher is always the one that has to make adjustments? What about the students’ sense of responsibility?!”
I’m always grateful for crumbs of truth from folks I trust and respect, even if the very utterance means that much of what I spend my time doing in my daily job may, in actuality, be perceived as a distinct waste of time.
It turns out that these sentiments are not exclusively a St. Andrew’s phenomenon. Last week I ran across the latest Cult of Pedagogy piece in which Jennifer Gonzalez writes poignantly about how teachers are doing this 2021-22 school year in “Teachers are barely hanging on: Here’s what they need.” She put a question out to teachers on Twitter to get a sense of what was going on:
Gonzalez analyzed the hundreds of responses and boiled it all down to three themes: time, trust, and safety. And she doesn’t just talk about them in the abstract; she offers school leaders concrete strategies for how how to do better. I have taken every single recommendation to heart: from this blog I shared, but also from the many conversations I’ve had with all of our faculty. You may also be glad to know I’ve shared this with my senior leadership colleagues. This is a historical-social moment in which all of us who labor are thinking differently about the work we do, the way we are compensated, and the sustainability of our efforts. For this, I am grateful.
Lest you think administrators are exempt, I too have fallen prey to a sense of overwhelming frenzy. I feel it in the air. It seeps into my everyday. Sometimes, most of the time, my calendar reflects my feeling. Other times I wonder how days fly by with very little to account for them. I think sadly to myself: “I used to be productive. I used to have a zero inbox. I used to be able to hold it in my head all at once.” I wonder if it is middle age, or now working at both campuses, or covid fatigue, or all of the above. I’ve heard our students feel this way often as well. From our vantage point, they aren’t doing the reading, aren’t trying their best, have lost their pre-covid commitment to rigor. Yet many of our youth cite feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and stuck.
And yet, I also firmly believe that our very imperfect community is a good one to teach and learn within. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’ve never worked with smarter and more sincerely kind humans: at the faculty, administrative, and student level. I’ve never been at a school that exudes such warmth: in classrooms, courtyards, faculty meetings. This is not a paragraph of toxic positivity. This is not my attempt at gaslighting. This is simply my truth.
My two cents: I do not think the answer is always reducing, reducing, reducing. When I am doing the work I love, even when it is difficult and time consuming work, I am reignited. What rejuvenates you? I think the answer is different for each of us. This is why I strongly believe in professional opportunities that are not one-size fits all. For some, a school visit will remind you of why you love what you do. For others, conferences or blogs or podcasts are more your style. For still others, an informal conversation with colleagues about what is going on in your classrooms fits the bill. Others enjoy deep thinking alone with texts to reimagine the possibilities in their classrooms.
What is draining you? What is enlivening you? Can the answers to these two questions help inform our everyday small realities and our larger institutional commitments? How can we make room for more of the rejuvenating stuff and less of the other? I honestly don’t know, but I am eager to, alongside all of you, imagine my way into a better 2022, 2023, 2024 . . . work that feels sustainable and challenging but also deeply rewarding.
I want to end with an apology, one that Jennifer puts in her blog in a more compelling way than I ever could:
“A few weeks ago, I had an eye-opening conversation with my sister, who has been a high school science teacher for the better part of two decades. I’m paraphrasing her here, but basically she said this: You put out really good stuff, Jenn. I mean, the ideas are great. It’s stuff I really want to try. But most of the time I’m thinking “That’ll never happen.” Because there’s no time. So I end up feeling like a crap teacher because there’s this ideal out there that I’m clearly falling short of and I know I’ll never get there. You just don’t understand what it’s like. For the past eight years, I have been putting out content on my platform to help teachers do their jobs better. And I really hope that it has been helpful, that you’ve been able to use it to improve. But I am deeply sorry if I have ever implied that doing it should be a piece of cake, that you should happily ignore all the jacked-up expectations that make it nearly impossible to do this job well, or that being a good teacher means running yourself ragged for the sake of the kids.” (Gonzalez, 2021)
I’m hopeful you don’t feel the same way as Jennifer’s sister about this blog, our podcast, any of our coaching conversations, our PD days, or our faculty meetings. My feeling is we all need all the help we can get because this job is so impossible. For some of us, these initiatives and ideas spark joy, collaboration, and feel like one manifestation of community. But they are never meant to infer anything beyond that.
Meetings, meetings, meetings. Perhaps you, like early childhood music teacher Susan Lawler, are a natural at note-taking. Any time I see Suan jotting away on her yellow legal pad, I am intensely jealous – her notes thorough, her penmanship pristine. Her green Ward planners are just as thorough and perfectly cataloged in her black cabinet. I wouldn’t be shocked if she still has every note and planner since her first coming to SA. If you ever have a question about anything – What was the May Day theme in 2005? What was the schedule three years ago? – Susan is bound to tell you, “Hold on. Ah, here!” So what about those of us who just aren’t that amazing at note-taking? Or perhaps you are, but you aren’t the best at retaining that information? Or do you have students who could use a little something to help them stay actively engaged during your lecture? Whatever your reason, visual note-taking can be both a fun and helpful alternative form of note-taking for teachers and students alike.
As the Lower School Art teacher, many folks often tell me, “Oh you’re so talented. I can’t draw a stickman!” I’m here to tell you that you can! Several years ago Virginia Buchanan, Marks McWhorter, and I all attended a simple, visual note-taking class at Nueva, and they were employing their visual note-taking skills long before me! Please see some of my personal tips below. I’ve also made a Tips Visual if you’d like to print it out for yourself or your students.
Pick out a LAYOUT.Do you want to start in the middle of the page and work your way out? Do you want to work from left to right? Top to bottom?
COMPREHEND+ SIMPLIFY You’ll be translating this information into a different language, a graphic one, so comprehension is imperative. Translating can take time, so simplify the process by only writing down the most important words.
SCALE Draw/write the most important words the largest. These words will function as your umbrella terms, thereby creating visual order/hierarchy. The easiest and fastest way to do this is simply to invest in some larger-tipped markers/pens.
FONTS can be a great way to make words expressive, thereby doubling down on their meaning.
COLOR is so powerful. It can be a great way to emphasize the most important information, create contrast for different types of information, and much more.
ARROWS can help guide our eyes from one cluster of information to the next.
Use PICTURES when necessary! Visual note-taking is 90% words, and if you can write words, you can draw anything! All contourdrawings are made up of two things: straight lines and/or curvy ones. Beyond that, it’s combining those two things in various ways and/or orienting them in different directions! If you can write words, YOU CAN DRAW! Please see the “Basic Math” section in the visual above for an example!
BE KIND TO YOURSELF and HAVE FUN!
Interested in seeing some more examples of visual notes? Click through the slideshow below to see how Jessica experienced the various components of our October Professional Development Day:
So what exactly is going on with the lower school Makerspace and Tech lab? The newly reimagined Makerspace at the lower school is not just a place that houses a bunch of equipment (really cool equipment, no less), but a way for students to get hands-on and bring their learning to life.
Makerspaces are being added to schools across the country, and for good reason. They promote hands-on, kinesthetic, active learning, help in the development of critical thinking skills and the problem solving process, and allow for differentiated and engaged learning. The lower school makerspace is still a work in progress and continuing to grow, but it is already allowing students to use a variety of tools to engage and apply their learning in an organic way.
Take a look at our newly added laser cutter at work on a 3rd grade project.
3rd grade students have recently been learning about maps, direction, etc., and the focus one particular day was on the compass rose. Not just as an element on a map, but how the design of a compass rose can be considered an art form. This is where their project came to life. Each student was able to research compass roses and create their own unique compass rose design. They visited the new Makerspace to scan, size, and engrave their work into wood. Cool, right?!
Maker is truly NOT a place; it is a method of teaching. A MINDSET. It is the “Wouldn’t it be cool if the students could________.” moments and then giving the students the opportunity to MAKE it happen. Makerspace is the workshop, but maker is the mindset. It may not always turn out like we envision, which is totally okay. Sometimes it turns out even better! It is a way for students of all ages to move through to the highest levels of thinking and let their imagination, problem solving skills, and the use of tools make learning come to life.
Several years ago, while teaching the elements of plot and how events in the story affect the character traits of the characters, I explained to my students about a Disney ride (I think it was Pirates of the Caribbean). We talked about how as you travel in your little boat through the ride, you can follow the events of the story as you go. We related every single element of plot to a part of a rollercoaster, all the way down to the engine room. They loved the “plot roller coaster” and it became one of my absolute favorite standards to teach. Then, I had the absolute craziest idea! (My team seriously thought I had lost my mind.) Wouldn’t it be cool if the students could build their own life-size version of the plot roller coaster that tells the story of the novel they are studying?!?! (No joke, no sugar plums dancing, but I had visions of cardboard carts the kids could sit in, student made mural sized illustrations, student recorded sound effects and narration, the whole-nine-yards) I am being completely honest when I say that my absolutely crazy, elaborate idea did not come completely to life, but what did happen was absolutely MAKER, and learning magic. 4ft pieces of bulletin board paper became illustrations for key events in the plot, the 6th grade hallway became their rollercoaster, and they led other grade levels (walking, no cardboard carts, unfortunately) down the hallway giving them a tour and explaining how events connected, how they impacted the characters, and making this teacher’s heart so happy! They made their learning come to life! It came to life for them, and they helped make it come to life for other students, as well.
Some of you might be wondering, what is going on in Foundations? What type of learning takes place for the youngest members of the Saints Community? We are an Early Education program for infants to 2-year-olds and are bringing innovations to the way our students learn every day. We have been growing as a program since the doors to Foundations opened in July. I am delighted to introduce some of the new faces we have here at St. Andrews.
Cynthia Gibbs: Older Infant Teacher
I am a graduate of St. Andrew’s and Millsaps College with a BA in Elementary Education. I have worked with young children for over 20 years as a preschool teacher and director of Children and Family Ministries at our church. In our classroom, we listen to music to play and then lullabies to sleep. We have a room full of crawlers and love to watch them as they learn.
Idelia Walker: Younger Infant Teacher
I have been teaching young children for 20 years now and I’m currently in school for Early Childhood Education. In the classroom we implement music, art, outdoor exploration, playing with toys, and growing.
Ashley Singleton: Older 1-Year-Old Teacher
I received my bachelor’s degree in Child Care and Family Education from Jackson State University. During Transitions, I love to play silly fun games with my students.
Tabitha Gibson: Younger 1-Year-Old Teacher
This is my 22nd year of teaching in the early childhood field, it is truly my passion. Each day I’m excited to teach and nurture those little people I have in my classroom. My class favorite thing to do any kind of art sensory activity.
Sandra Flores: Older 2-Year-Old Teacher
I have been an educator for 19 years. I was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. I went to college at the University of Monterrey N, L CEDIM and received my accreditation in early childhood in 2008. I worked at Texas and Mississippi in Catholic Schools, then moved to St. Andrews in 2015. Last year I served various roles at St. Andrews working at ECC with Pre-K3 then moving to different First Grade classrooms and finally working with St. Andrews at Home Program. Working with younger kids has been my heart and passion. I love to see them grow as develop their many gifts and talents. In our classroom, we develop physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development.
Maggie Secrest: Younger 2-Year-Old Teacher
I am so excited to be a part of the Saint Andrews Community. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Family and Consumer Sciences, with an emphasis in Child Development. This is my 6th year in the teaching field and my third year teaching Pre-Kindergarten. I love to teach and my daily goal is to make our classroom a happy, safe, and fun place to learn. I played college soccer at Delta State University so I love incorporating movement and dance in the classroom. Right now my class is working on learning the sounds and recognizing the letters in their names. My student’s favorite thing to do is explore our water and spaghetti sensory bins.
Teacher, writer, singer, cyclist, traveler, and newest addition to St. Andrew’s Upper School English department, Dawn Denham is, above all, a storyteller. And an honest one at that. Despite the fact that she had been coming to Mississippi since she was 16, “I didn’t like Mississippi,” she told me. “I had a deeply embedded prejudice against the South.” What Dawn eventually grappled with was the idea that perhaps her prejudice was a more personal one, tied up in family dynamics. Nevertheless, how did she come to fall in love with a home in Mississippi’s Water Valley called the Blue House? And how in the world did she find her way to us at St. Andrew’s? Only one word works to explain these two pieces of her life: serendipity. Okay, I can’t believe I just wrote that; truly I don’t throw that term around lightly (read: ever), especially after the John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale movie, but Dawn’s story is so filled with moments of fortuitousness that it made me think the ancients I teach about really were on to something with their ideas about fate. Dawn is obviously a much better teller of her own story than I, but here is an abridged version of what I gleaned from her fascinating journey so far.
After the dissolution of a 30-year marriage in 2016, Dawn traveled for nine months, and when her father received a cancer diagnosis, Dawn came to her family’s cabin at Lake Enid to help care for him. She had a plane ticket to leave in a week, but she kept pushing the departure back, and back, and back. After a series of not-so-misfortunate events in seeing an ad for a home to rent called the Blue House in both the waiting room of a hospital and the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley, Dawn, over all the people on the waiting list to rent this house, got a call from the renter who said, “We want you in Water Valley.” She went back to New Hampshire, packed up, officially filed for divorce, and moved to the Blue House in Water Valley, Mississippi. If you know nothing about Water Valley, you should know it is a little resurging town outside of Oxford brimming now with artists of all kinds, teachers and professors, and characters in general. Dawn was among her people; and as soon as I met her, I assessed her as “groovy” and told her she must live in Belhaven or Fondren when she moved to Jackson. And, now, one more fortuitous story later, she has moved into the perfect house in Belhaven. But I’ll let her tell that story later.
During her time in Water Valley, Dawn got a job teaching in Oxford High School where, she says, despite being “deep in grief,” the relationships with those young people “saved her life.” However, when Covid became a serious threat looming over schools, Dawn resigned to give herself more time to work on her book. Dawn, who refreshingly confesses, “Writing is very hard for me,” is finishing her memoir. After rewriting and reworking and self-reflecting (and at the command of a sticky note on her computer that says, “IT IS TIME”), she had finally come to a place where she had the moment: “I know what the memoir is.” Dawn revealed that her memoir, fittingly titled The Blue House, has much to do with personal transformation and particularly the role Mississippi has played in that transformation. At this time, she has had seven pieces accepted since February! Don’t worry, we will be on watch for publication so that we can celebrate with Dawn as this memoir journey continues to unfold.
So how did she get here to us? Well, earlier this year, on a Saturday bike ride on the Natchez Trace (I mentioned she’s a cyclist, right?), Dawn and her beau Eddie stopped at the Crafts Center on Rice Road where she picked up a handful of pamphlets to read on the way home. Among those pamphlets was one about St. Andrew’s (shout out to our marketing and communications people!). After perusing the pamphlet, she looked up the school on her phone on the way home and (shall we say serendipitously?) saw on the school’s website the listing for an Upper School English teacher. “This is where I could spend the rest of my teaching years,” she thought. And fortuitously for us and her students, she submitted her application three days later and now here she is!
After a little over a month here, Dawn has brought so much care and craft to her senior classes in discussing anti-racist pedagogy, doing significiant community-building, and helping them find their voices in personal narratives, which in turn is helping many of them with their college essays. In return, she has been so impressed with the fact that “these young people read and talk to each other” and have a real “facility for communication,” not to mention how “beautiful” their writing skills are. Dawn’s goal in the classroom, she says, like many of us, is “getting me out of the equation.” Unless singing is involved. I told you Dawn’s a singer too right? And I found out that she loves to sing to her students. She told me, “Avery and I are working on a duet,” which I, for one, cannot wait to hear. Also, just this morning, she said she couldn’t get out of her car in the parking lot until she finished singing along with the Waitress song “She Used to be Mine.” So whenever y’all get the opportunity to meet Dawn, ask her to sing for you or tell you a story. Just wait until her personal car concert is over.
Hi. I’m Marty. And I’m a hater of change. Like the U.S. Treasury. Okay so not that kind of change (but can’t we all agree that pennies are so over?). No, I’m talking about change change–of the sea variety. Like the time we moved houses in second grade right before Christmas (who does that?) and then my parents tried to put the Christmas tree in the dining room in the new house (again, who does that?) and I cried so much they finally had to move the tree on Christmas Eve. Except it fell apart (the tree, that is). ‘Twas very much the night before Christmas and all through the house ornaments shattered amidst four-letter shouts.
Or the time my husband told me he would return from a work trip on Thursday and called Wednesday to say they finished early and he was on his way home; and (take note: this is not, I repeat NOT, a great relationship strategy to make your partner feel loved) I got UPSET that he was coming home early because that was not “the plan.” It should come as no great surprise that literally no one’s love language is not being welcomed home.
Look, I understand I am not painting myself as the picture of good sense or rationality, but as I said, I am a hater of change–and I don’t discriminate. Good change is bad, and bad change is badder. Though I am notorious for mis-singing most songs (I thought “On a Straight Tequila Night” was “On the Strength to Keep the Night”), my thinking Aretha was singing, “Change of fools,” could have predicted long ago how I feel about change.
By now, I hope I have set the stage well enough for you to *somewhat* fathom how well it went last year when Blake drew the short straw of informing me that my precious Room 4 of the Upper School was being, shudder, renovated (Narrator: it did not go well). Moreover, that my big, beautiful wooden desk with all my glorious stacks of books (my babies!) in front of it was, the horrors!, being torn away from me. Dramatic much? You betcha. And if you know me, you have heard this sob story of mine so many times I’m sure your eyes are stuck in the back of your head from rolling them so hard. Get over it already, right? I am, I promise. Meriwether and others told me it would be okay and it really is. For the most part. I mean, definitely still a little fussy about my desk, but Paul Buckley is the proud new parent and taking really good care of her and says I can come visit whenever I want.
Thus, when I decided that I wanted to write an update about how renovated room usage was going, I figured the least biased, most objective report would come from, you know, probably not me. Yay for self-awareness and journalistic integrity (Linda, don’t correct me if this is not what that is)! So, in a game I call “getting other people to do my job for me,” I consulted some new* middle and upper school faculty for feedback on their classroom experiences so far in the new rooms. *Some of our new faculty are what I call old/new in that they are an alum or they have taught here previously and returned or that they just moved to a different division. So here is what some of these old newbs like Buck Cooper and Val Prado have to say.
Question 1: What do you like about your classroom?
Val: I had an “i2” room last year in 4G for the first time and again this year here. I do love the writable wall space – it is so awesome for math. We do something called “studio time,” in which the students work on various problems that are prompted out of order and come from different concepts. The goal is to explain your thinking so others can follow your mathematical reasoning. Once your work is up on the wall, your work is “public” and we can all learn from you!
My favorite part about my new room here is the dimmable light. I strongly advocated for that feature to be added in the LS and it truly makes a big difference for the learning environments, e.g. during different times of the day with the sunlight, or for simply setting a certain mood.
Buck: I appreciate that it’s reconfigurable–that I can have students working quickly with a good workspace in a variety of ways: partners, groups of three or four around a table, individually at a table either with two or three other people. I also love that I can tinker with what “the front” of the space is. With 270 degrees of whiteboard space, I can do a better job of not privileging the children who are sitting closest to where I stand and talk because it’s where the screen/whiteboard is. I can spread the love all around, so to speak. I also like that there isn’t any required shelving beyond the rolling gray library shelves. I can maximize the space we have for teaching and learning and store stuff not immediately needed out of sight.
Question 2: What do your students like about your classroom?
Buck: Some love the spinning and rolling functions of the chairs. Some seem to love that there’s sufficient whiteboard space for absurd graffiti that I’m less likely to erase.
Question 3: Is there anything your classroom does not allow you to do that you would like to be able to do?
Val: The movable chairs are awesome for storing materials underneath, however, they are super bulky and cannot be stacked.
Buck: I’d love a moveable smart board so I could keep the space de-fronted, but also be able to easily annotate something for all the class to see. I’d also love it if I could remotely lock the rolling and spinning functions of the chairs, maybe an app?
Question 4: How does your classroom compare to classrooms you’ve previously taught or been taught in?
Buck: I’ve spent much of the last five years of my career trying to create this type of space by making do. We could push desks and tables together, but without lockable wheels, it’s potentially bad for the floor and noisy and a bother to our neighbors if it happens during instructional time. These classrooms provide a simple space, which is what I’ve grown to love. College classrooms are fairly generic because they don’t belong to anyone exclusively. I like that this space is more like that than like a space that somehow I feel like I have to go all out decorating. The pillowy, homestyle furniture, the thematic decor—it’s not me. I respect the people who want this in their classrooms because it helps children feel more comfortable, but I don’t want this in the space where I work, and yet here I have a wonderful classroom space that’s functional, clean and as I said, simple.
We end our mini-series, “Living it: Stories from the Teaching Life” with a laughter and truth-packed episode featuring two of my favorite humans (not to mention educators) in the Jackson Metro Area: Shamia Hopper & Lucy Kaplan. I had the pleasure of working with both of them while at Millsaps College, and I can quite honestly say that both Lucy and Shamia feature the killer mix of being simultaneously (1) real (2) brilliant (3) 100% committed to more equitable spaces for teaching/learning for all youth, and (4) super fun to be around.
Shamia Hopper is a founding fourth grade teacher and grade team leader at Smilow Collegiate. Her passion is teaching black and brown kids that live in low-income areas in our state. After school she runs a vegan meal prep business called Shamia’s Food Diaries (Find her on Instagram). Lucy Kaplan is entering her third year teaching middle school ELA in Jackson, MS. She is passionate about teaching writing, creating an accessible and inclusive classroom, and education policy. After school, she self-publishes her own writing and sings in a punk band. Both have taught for three years which puts them squarely in that sweet spot of “knowing stuff” and “still discovering stuff.”
During our conversation, we discussed:
3:31-5:15: How Lucy’s experience with challenges in her own schooling led her to a career situated in the classroom
8:32- 10:50: Why the best teacher education is steeped in community engagement; Shamia’s story of becoming inspired to educate.
11:20- 14:17: Why Shamia loves math, and when it comes to math instruction, multiple strategies beat out one-size-fits-all recipes.
15:19-18:32: Real talk about what it was like teaching kindergarteners at-home and in-person concurrently during a global pandemic.
18:32-20:03: That oh-so-recognizable-teacher-feeling of “I KNOW THIS COULD BE BETTER!”
22:25-26:33: Stories from Lucy’s first year of teaching seventh grade English: on the feeling of being “coached” and the vital importance of just being yourself as an educator.
28:10-32:04: The most valuable lessons Shamia learned with her five and six year olds first experiencing school in the midst of a pandemic; “it wasn’t me versus them; it was us together.”
33:50-36:55: The time Lucy raced one of her students during recess.
37:05-41:10: Two reflective teaching practices you have to try, courtesy of Lucy: (1) keep a list of something good you observe each day when teaching in tweet form and (2) ask your students for “one piece of advice you’d give youth taking this class next year.”
44:58- 45:33 : Shamia’s final tip, bound to inspire us all: “Do it anyway.”
This week’s podcast features Tonja Murphy, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Mississippi Book Festival. Tonja is an amazingly passionate and talented woman who uses her skills as author, consultant, and motivational speaker to give back and invest in the community of Jackson, MS. I first met Tonja at a banquet for Red Door Jackson, an after school tutoring program for kids in JPS. I was serving as a coordinator and she had come as a community member and JPS parent to support the work that Red Door was doing within the community. From the moment we met, I was blown away by her heart to empower others to be their best selves. This theme is at the heart of anything she does, whether it is helping kids navigate what books they need to get and how to do online schooling in the middle of a pandemic, mentoring young teens, or promoting a love for reading. I could go on and on with her list of accomplishments and why you should know her if you don’t, but I’ll let the podcast speak for itself. I always come away from my time with Tonja inspired and challenged. I hope you too are able to come away with some strong nuggets of wisdom.
During our conversation we discussed:
The wonder of teaching middle school (2:00)
Guidance for middle school students vs. telling them what to do (3:00-4:00)
Expectations vs. rules (4:00-5:00)
Mentoring and tutoring in the middle of a pandemic, using the platforms that students already used to connect with them , and the power of meeting students where they are (6:20-11:00)
Using Tik Tok as a means to get students to analyze music, apply critical thinking, and engage in textual analysis (11:00-13:15)
How Tonja came to do working in community, where passion met vocation (14:00-16:25)
The importance of having something outside of you to inform your work (17:00-17:30)
What do you wish educators knew? (17:45-20:)
What advice would you give teachers coming back into the classroom this year?(21:00-21:25)
The importance of community engagement (23:00- 25:50)
Instances that have stuck with Tonja (28:20-30:08)
Was there an interaction that was a pivot moment that moved you to turn outward vs inward? (31:30-32:47)
Avoiding the scenario of “when helping hurts” and cultivating mental health (33:05-38:08)
Living what you preach and teach; fostering the skill of reflection. (38:08-44:10)
Socio-emotional-learning and the loss during a pandemic — getting to know the students and where they are at now (46:15-50:00)
Fostering community within a classroom and knowing who is in the room (50:01- 52:05)
What book should every educator read? (52:20-53:25)
Don’t let your experience frame how you help them navigate theirs (53:45)
Organizations to connect your students with (54:50-56:25)
This week we’re pumped to release our second episode of Series 2 (“Living it: Stories from the Teaching Life”) with a conversation with Josh Brister, a great human and an even better Spanish teacher at St. Andrew’s. Josh Brister came to St. Andrew’s in perhaps one of the most challenging years for educators in a century. In the episode we discuss being a new teacher, being a new teacher in the time of COVID-19, the joys of teaching middle school, and developing meaningful relationships with kids. Personally, I’m honored to be able to call Josh a friend, I’m even more fortunate to call him a colleague, and I had the pleasure of being his mentor last year during his maiden voyage at St. Andrew’s. Hope you enjoy the episode!
During our conversation, we discussed:
Being a teacher, especially a new teacher, in the time of COVID, Imposter Syndrome, and working at a place like St. Andrew’s (1:30 – 12:00)
The educational value of YouTube for Teachers (13:00 – 16:00)
“Show me you’re a middle school teacher without telling me you’re a middle school teacher” + Why Josh hates baseball (16:00 – 25:00)
Building relationships with kids and dealing with setbacks/conflict (26:00 – 36:00)
Burnout & managing other interests/hobbies while teaching full time (36:30 – End)
One of this year’s goals at St. Andrew’s is to continue engendering a collegial spirit of watching one another teach, taking what we observe, and stealing those ideas. After all, Picasso famously said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And in the spirit of great artists stealing, Mr. Goldsbury’s 7th grade science class put to good use a database of local flora gathered and catalogued by Mr. McWhorter and students in the upper school.
Mr. Goldsbury’s students have been learning about and practicing how to use dichotomous keys in their class. Using the website Mr. McWhorter put together, Mr. Goldsbury asked his students to create a dichotomous key for how they could identify various plants around school. And the results are stellar!
He said, “I have done several campus searches before in class, but by using this website the students have a more structured and informative assignment, and with the help of the locations that Marks has put for each plant, I will be able to make it into a competitive scavenger hunt!”
This is a perfect example of teachers inspiring other teachers. Mr. McWhorter made something that, quite frankly, is awesome. And Mr. Goldsbury, inspired by that database, decided to use it in his own classroom to create an engaging science scavenger hunt. Something equally awesome! Teachers inspiring other teachers, great artists, stealing from other artists: it’s what we do at St. Andrew’s. Not all thievery is malicious, especially when it comes to perfecting our teaching craft.
What do you get when you interview two longtime educators? A bucket of metaphors apparently. (I hope you see what I did there.) Listening to Julie’s barely twenty-minute interview with now-retired middle school teachers, Virginia Buchanan and Harriet Whitehouse, I counted at least five analogies about teaching and school: being on a journey, being on a ship, preparing a meal, doing housework, and creating magic. For some of us, we perhaps relate most fully to a ship metaphor, envisioning a rocking vessel buffeted with wave after wave of various crises; but lest we lose hope, we are far from a sinking ship, and as Harriet and Virginia confirmed, we are all in the ship together (very High School Musical of us). Read on to see what this math teacher (who taught me as a student) and English teacher (who inspired me as a colleague) have to offer in nuggets of wisdom for those of us not quite at retirement.
For starters, forget fancy stuff. Professional development is all well and good, but Harriet points out the tool that “works better than any educational strategy” is “pure unadulterated common sense.” And to butcher J.Lo’s song, that kind of teachering don’t cost a thing. But what does common sense in a classroom mean? According to Harriet: “Listen to the kids, see what they need, listen to yourself. Do what’s practical… Just go with what’s logical and reasonable.” As one who has wrestled with and feared and been fatigued by the amorphous goal of “innovation,” I felt a sigh of relief and validation come out of me when I heard her say the words “logical,” “practical,” and “reasonable.” I am finally coming to a place where I realize that practicality and my gifts and my students’ needs and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Who knew? Turns out, Harriet did.
Also in the category of things I wish I had been told as a first-year teacher, Harriet and Virginia dove into the concept of never feeling caught up. Harriet says, “You know from day one of a school year that you are behind … and you will never be caught up and that is the way it is.” Defeatist? Nay. It’s for real. I feel it. You feel it. We all feel it. And instead of fighting it, Harriet says, “I think making peace with that and making space for it and not worrying about it… that probably kept me sane.” Easier said than done, I’m sure, but Virginia chimes in, “I’ve always thought of it like housework, at least at my house, it’s never all done. If it ever was, it might be for a second because there was stuff crammed in the closet or something momentarily.” So cram away and if you need an extra hand getting that closet door to close, call me. Kidding. I don’t think Virginia wants us to cram stuff away like we do our emotions (is that just me?) but try to accept certain feelings as a part of the natural rhythm of school: “Just go with the flow, evolve with it…. enjoy the journey instead of the ultimate goal.” Okay, Virginia, I’ll try… but no one has ever accused me of being a go-with-the-flow type of gal.
This next piece of advice is perfection. “Never be bored,” Harriet says, “If I’m bored with what I’m teaching, they will be bored with what I’m teaching. So boredom is not an option.” Now, are there times when I have pulled out all the tricks and strategies and the students still look at me lifelessly and I want to scream like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?!”? Absolutely. But *most* of the time, if students get that we are into something, they can get behind it, and they at least respect the vibe we are putting out. A 5-minute pop culture lesson about teens will tell us it’s all about the “vibes” for them and what they are “vibing” with. I have ended so many sentences with prepositions in this blog, but it felt so awkward to write “with what they are ‘vibing.’” Jests aside, students are actually scarily good at reading people and can sniff disingenuous enthusiasm and hypocrisy faster than you can say ‘Bama Rush TikTok. So if you feel passionately about the Oxford comma (which I do) let it be known and maybe, just maybe, they will campaign for the serial comma too.
BUT (big but) here: our job is not to tap dance at the front of the room to keep student attention and keep them happily entertained for over an hour (don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of stamina). Of course, there is a time and place for everything (at least according to Ecclesiastes 3) including lecturing and being in the spotlight, but I think Virginia speaks for all of us when she says: “I’d much rather be a facilitator than a lecturer. That’s when I’m in my happy place.” Me too, Virginia, me too. Listening to all five of my classes sustain a Harkness discussion for over 30 minutes without my input was what I needed to give me life in the first full week of school, during a pandemic, you know, again. Virginia calls this “eavesdropping” when students are “discovering” on their own. It definitely feels cheesy, but it felt so right to me when Harriet described these moments as “magical.” As she admits, “it doesn’t happen all the time,” but sometimes “there’s just this magic in the room,” and “you feel as if you’re in tune with the spinning of the galaxy.” And for a long time teacher of A Wrinkle in Time, I can think of no more apt analogy. We won’t ever have perfect pitch in the classroom, but chasing those moments when we are in tune sounds pretty magical to me too.
It’s that smell-of-fresh-marker-beginning-of-school-season again and Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators is back at it with a mini-series to get you back into the swing of things. Without a doubt, our first series released last Spring (“Teaching in the Time of Covid”) remains relevant. We are still masked, still distancing, and still very much figuring out how to teach and learn and build relationships in a pandemic-world. But we are also very certain that the same enduring truths about youth, systems, and the subjects we teach that we’ve learned from our collective years of doing what we do continue to resonate and inform what we do today. We are also quite certain that the best way to figure out this impossible business of teaching well (pre and post pandemic) is to network with educators showing up every day in our local realities and beyond. That’s why we think you’ll glean a lot out of this four-episode mini-series that centers on local educators in the Jackson metro area giving it to us straight in: “Living it: Stories from the Teaching Life.”
Ep. 1: “Leading with Love, Featuring Dr. Anita DeRouen”
This week we are proud to release “Leading with Love,” featuring Anita DeRouen, Ph.D., an English teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson, MS. A former professor at Millsaps College, DeRouen has published on race and media representation, digital literacy, and most recently Richard Wright and modernism (with Anne MacMaster). DeRouen also serves as Community Liaison for the Millsaps College Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center and is an independent racial dialogue consultant. I’ve been lucky enough to count Anita a colleague and a friend, and her ability to crystallize truth into words has shifted my own thinking in powerful ways.
During this conversation, we discussed:
(5:45-6:35) Poetry as a vehicle transporting youth to literary love.
(9:45-13:17) How Anita “winnowed her way” into teaching (and why every single person should work in retail or food service at some point for at least a year).
(13:35-18:00 ) The role of empathy, bounded choice, and addressing perfectionism for teachers working with “high achieving kids not living up to their potential.”
(18:28-19:37 ) How particular school contexts produce particular expectations around “what learning looks like” which then trickle down to assessments.
(20:19 -23:55 ) Why the next time a student misbehaves in your classroom, you need to internalize the phrase “it’s not you; it’s the chair.”
(24:23-25:50) What a gift it is to see the humans in our classrooms, not as a homogenous group, but as a collective of unique individuals, including our own “geeky . . . nerdy sel[ves]”
(31:29-33:30 ) Keys to growing and working with colleagues: brought to you by a compliment from her grandmother and “listening with a healthy, not a sick, ear.”
(33:31- 35:10 ) What it requires to work as a Black academic in predominantly white institutions.
(35:27-39:37) Pitfalls of white institutions seeking to become “more diverse”: on labor and the importance of discomfort in the process.
(40:28-44:21 ) How “leading with love” could open up an entirely different set of questions, positively transforming our education system (and our world).
Stay tuned for more educator-centered real talk to be released the next three Tuesdays; this series may be mini, but each episode is mighty.
Last but certainly not least in Season 1 of Inspire & Innovate: A Podcast for Educators, we feature NAIS Chief Innovation Officer: Tim Fish. He started his career as a 4th-grade teacher and has served as a founder, board member, and consultant for a variety of education and technology-related schools, organizations, and companies. His Magnetic Mountain metaphor has been formative for school leaders across the country as representation of the trajectory of innovation that school organizations take on, and we found that speaking with Tim really brought it home for classroom teachers as well. We found Tim warm, honest, and thought-provoking, and we hope you do too.
During our conversation, we discussed:
How fourth graders gave Tim his first orientation to the world of teaching and why playing football with the kids at recess can have unintended consequences (4:02-7:15)
How Tim conceptualizes innovation. Spoiler alert- it has nothing to do with chasing the shiny and new! (11:07- 12:39)
Why it’s important to differentiate between the what and the how of innovation . . . and why doing “retrospectives” can reframe failure as learning (16:10-18:04)
Why deep empathy and vision-led innovation are a powerful combination in this particular historical moment (18:05-19:25)
How Tim’s interest in “nose down to nose up” NAIS schools led him to first conceptualize the Magnetic Mountain (20:05-25:27)
What this journey metaphor has to do with the micro everyday choices that classroom teachers make (26:45-32:28)
What Tim doesn’t mean by “not returning to now-town” (teachers- you are going to applaud!) . . . and a reminder that innovation is a disposition. (33:30-35:55)
What now-town has to do with bias, privilege, and inequity (37:57-38:59)
The difference between reactive and proactive innovation . . . and why the reactive innovation we’ve all been doing in response to the pandemic is much more draining (39:13-40:25)
Why agency is a big deal for both faculty and students now more than ever and one trend Tim’s noticed among teachers that have maintained energy during this difficult season (41:25-42:38)
How one high school faculty member managed to maintain high academic standards in this difficult past year while recentering the student experience (43:45-48:19)
How Tim’s favorite teacher when he was a young reaffirms the importance of “really climbing into kids’ lives, being present with them, and helping them take the next step, whatever that might be” (53:26-55:15)
Must-reads from Tim! (57:44-58:50)
In this week’s Teacher Talks episode, we feature the amazing Sheena White (Head of Foundations), Susan Pace (4th grade teacher extraordinaire), and Dean Julius (7th grade English). They extend, adapt, and reimagine Tim’s metaphor in powerful ways and collectively help us take a breath just in time for summer.