Teaching

Delivering Minilessons in Distance Learning: Live or Pre-recorded?

Each of my daily 80 minute blocks of 7th grade humanities begins with a 5 minute class meeting and then 20 minutes of independent reading. Next, I deliver a 10-15 minute minilesson, which is followed by 30-40 minutes of student work time. I approached this year with a personal preference to pre-record the minilesson that developed over my distance learning experience last year.

To give some context, students leave our Zoom meeting to watch the video and start their work, but I stay in Zoom. If they have questions, they return to Zoom and I answer questions or help them if they are stuck. It is common that students return for questions or help. At the end of the 30-40 minute offline work time, we come back to Zoom for 5-10 minutes as a class to share how the work went and ask questions.

Behind the scenes, I’m in an apartment with 3 school-aged children who have basic human needs and homeschooling needs. This means that my attention can be pulled away unexpectedly.

Second, the Internet, as we are all learning, is fickle. I have lost my connection or frozen in the middle of delivering important information. I find this super frustrating. I often don’t realize I’m not connected for a few minutes. Then there’s the frantic router switching, restarting, etc. It adds to my overall discombobulation. The internet is also fickle for my students, who may get kicked out in the middle of a lesson and have to return and then need the info to be repeated. Much time is lost.

In addition, I find that the pre-recorded video helps me iron out my lesson. I realize that maybe I need an example in my first take, so I add one. Then I realize that I need to create a checklist or graphic of the instructions, so I add that. What about a non-example? I add that to my lesson and record again.

Finally, I prefer pre-recorded lessons because they can be filmed after my children are asleep and I know that I won’t be interrupted. I start the next day feeling ready and calm–always good.

Curious about these video minilessons? I use Screencastify to record them. Our school has purchased the professional “Unlimited” license. I’m a big fan of the program. Here are some examples:

But what about how the students feel about video vs live minilessons? I decided that I would try both and then survey the students. I told them in advance that a survey of their feedback was coming. The first day, I used a pre-recorded video lesson and stayed in Zoom to answer questions, then called everyone back after work time.

The second day, I gave a live lesson in Zoom, then sent them offline to work, calling them back at the end of the class to share. During my live Zoom lesson, I was interrupted by my children 3 times and had to change wifi routers once. 2 students were kicked out of Zoom due to dropped WiFi and had to return, and then be re-taught during the work time. I felt significantly more stressed out.

At the end of the second lesson, I sent the survey out. I have 41 students and 22 responded. Here are the results.

1=Strong dislike, 5=strong like

Here are their comments on the first question about pre-recorded video lessons. (I have not edited or removed any comments.)

Video mini lessons dont give me a chance to ask questions and participate.
I prefer video mini lessons because there is no like, poor connection, no interruptions
I like it a lot it is very good because you don’t have to spend so much time on zoom
because I can pause, go back etc
its good and fun
Its better when there’s a lot of work but not as good when you want to give a mini lesson.
i think i like it because i take notes while the video is playing
Because its already recorded so that means that I can’t ask questions.
I liked because you could go back and re watch
I don’t loveee it but I like it
Because prerecorded we can rewatch how many times we want.
I really like pre recorded classes because i can rewatch as many times as I want and I feel more free when its a pre recorded video
I liked it cause it helped me.
I do like it because we get to rewatch if we have any questions or what to do.
I like being able to watch it at my own pace and going back if I didn’t understand what the teacher says.

Next, I asked this question, with 1 being a strong dislike, and 5 being a strong like or strong preference.

Here are their comments on the question about live Zoom lessons. (I have not edited or removed any comments.)

I really love them!
Poor connection, interuptions, and talking, not paying attenton.
I really liked it cause you can ask questions
Its good because I can ask questions
its better to understand and can ask questions
There good because you can interact and ask question.
i think it is hard because there are internet problem and etc
Then I can ask questions to the teacher and clarify my questions.
I liked because you could interact with us
Because we can ask questions.
I really like the part where we get to talk and read together but having a zoom lesson for me is a bit distracting because i will zone out often.
I DON’T LIKE BEING ON THE SCREEN SO MUCH BUT OVERALL IT WAS GOOD.
I like it equally because, I like that we can interact with you and our other classmates!
it is nice because if I have a question, I can ask you right there in the moment.

Then I asked them to choose their preference: pre-recorded minilessons, live Zoom minilessons, or an equal preference for both.

And again, I gave them a chance to explain or give a comment on their answer. None have been edited or removed.

zoom mini lessons is the closer we get to normal. it also gives me a chance to be active and participate in class
I prefer that one because there is not interruption and like there wont be anything lagging no the vid,I understand better on video.
I thought both we’re very fun and nice to do
It’s better
Because on live we can ask questions, but prerecorded we can rewatch how many times we want.
As I said before I love getting to talk and revise my work with teachers on zoom but for the lesson itself I prefer videos.
because if its recorded and you don’t understand something you can rewatch the video.
I would do fine with both! I can learn in both ways without any problem.
I like both of them, it’s nice to be able to ask questions and get an answer in seconds, but it’s also nice to go back and replay the lesson as many times that I want.

My big take-away is that 77.3% percent of the students who responded are happy with a pre-recorded lesson. This matches with my preference and instincts about the best way to deliver instruction, and also helps me to manage my home stress and responsibilities. I will continue to stay on Zoom for the students who need further explanation or guidance, or even just a re-teach of the lesson. And there will still be times when I teach a live minilesson. Sometimes a teachable moment arises and I can do it on the fly, and sometimes I will even plan for a live lesson. But, for the most part, I am going to use pre-recorded minilessons. The day I did the live lesson, I had a student who had a doctor’s appointment and missed the class, so I went ahead and made the video lesson anyways so that she was able to watch the lesson after school.

I also hope that the video lessons are helpful to parents who may be trying to support their children, but unsure how. My videos can help to educate them so that they can better support their child.

I gave my own personal context during distance learning because I don’t want to imply that this is the right decision for every teacher or every class. However, I do think it’s worth noting that a student admitted to “zoning out” during a live lesson. I think this is pretty common, and for students this happens to, what are they to do when work time begins and they are lost? They must stay back, lose work time, and be re-taught. Or perhaps they just log off for fear of admitting that they didn’t pay attention. Even if I preferred live lessons, I think I’d provide video lessons for students to rewatch in case they “zoned out”, had computer issues, or were just confused.

A note about community building. There many be some teachers who feel that the community building of a Zoom lesson outweighs the other factors. I use my class meeting, Q and A sessions, independent reading time, and share-out at the end to build community. Community and connection is a strength of mine, so I feel good about my ability to nurture the bonds I have with students. I also meet with students outside of class time during office hours and afterschool, and I try to send frequent “Good work!” emails to students and parents when a student is doing good work.

Beyond that, we have to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Explained
Source

For many teachers–and students–we are focusing on securing our physiological and safety needs. Many international teachers and students are stuck outside of their country of residence. Some may be ill or have illness in their family. Even the fear of possible illness can be hugely challenging. Some of us may have changes in employment or income. Some of us may have limited access to physical activities and nature. Some of us may be grappling with fear, anxiety, depression in both ourselves and our loved ones–leading to a loss of sleep or eating changes, part of our physiological needs. I say all this because the “Love and Belonging” layer really matters, but we have to make sure we take care of our essential, primary needs before we attend to that tier. (The good old mask on yourself before you put the mask on the child.)

For me, that means making the video lessons the night before. I can’t build community and tend to the needs for belonging until I have met some of my basic needs. Video lessons allow me to do that. They allow me to help feed my children if that need arises during class, or put a band-aid on a booboo. That 10 minutes of pre-recorded lesson time might allow me to get some water, eat lunch, go to the bathroom.

We all have a different row to hoe right now, and I don’t want to disparage or belittle anyone else’s pedagogy, especially if mine differs from yours. I just wanted to share what is working for me, and–thankfully–a majority of my students. If this helps you, or if you are also using video lessons, I would love to hear about your successes, struggles and take aways.

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Starting Therapy Again

I went through a couple titles for this blog post. Getting Help. Help. Reaching Out. Talking to Someone. Using euphemism didn’t feel right. I don’t want to hide this or shroud this in euphemism.

Here is what I posted on Facebook a week ago:

Started therapy again. Tonight was my first session. Maybe it’s weird to share this on here, but maybe we should be as open about this as we are about our dentist appointments. Teacher friends, especially, I just need to remind you that we are not alright. Parent friends, we are not alright. Friends who are teachers and parents, there are so few words for what we are going through. Not much more to say other than remember to ask for help.

I don’t like talking about silver linings, but one silver lining of this pandemic is that all therapy has gone online through video calls. That suits me better because it’s hard for me to get in my car and head out to an office during business hours. After school, we’ve got playing and dinner and homework. I would probably have to drive pretty far, deal with parking…it’s just a lot of hassle.

From a friend and colleague, I heard about the Truman Group, which specializes in mental health and counseling for expats–Americans living abroad. I think they were always a telehealth company, because of all the different countries and time zones. I was able to pick a time that worked for me (8:30 pm) and all of their counselors have experience overseas.

It’s not the same as talking to someone in a room on a comfy chair or couch. I have to bring my own tissues. But I’m so glad I’m doing it.

I saw a therapist a little bit in college, then in grad school, and then again after my kids were born and I had really bad post-partum anxiety. This feels different though. In some ways, I didn’t recognize where I was mentally and emotionally, because it doesn’t feel exactly like my old anxiety. (Ugh, go ahead and say “unprecedented” in your head. It’s what we’re all thinking, but I’m so sick of that word.) This snuck up on me. I wasn’t having panic attacks or trouble sleeping. I am just mad all the time. Mad and taking it out on the only 4 people I interact with. They deserve better and I deserve better. I can’t get my old life back yet, but I can work on what’s happening in me as a result of what’s happening to me.

I’m also reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. It’s a whole theme I’ve got going here. (Why yes, I read Untamed and Daring Greatly before this, how’d you guess?)

That’s all, really. That’s all I have to say. I’m doing all the things that are in my control to do. And then I tell myself about how I’m doing all the things that are in my control. I’m even doing face masks and teeth whitening strips. Seriously, if you have any ideas of things that are in my control that might make me feel a little better, throw them my way.

This feels anticlimactic. Was this post building to something? I guess not. The work begins. That could be the motto of my Game of Thrones House. House Griswold: And so the work begins.

Teaching

Another year, another letter…sort of

I write a letter every year to students, but this year is a bit different. Video and text below. Year 14!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Dear Students,

This is my fourteenth year of teaching, so this is my fourteenth year of writing my students a letter of introduction.  I love the tradition of capturing who I am right now, and finding a way to share that with my students.  Normally, I’d read the letter out loud in class.  This year, because of the global coronavirus pandemic, I have to settle for reading this over a video.

Hello, hello, hello.  My name is Mrs. Griswold and I miss you.  Yes, you.  You, who I just met last week.  I miss you because I love teaching.  This global crisis has made me pay attention to what I really care about by noticing what I miss. Those are the things that really matter to me.    

I really miss my classroom.  I love being with students every day, teaching, laughing, working hard, and celebrating my students’ work.  Here’s what this pandemic has made me see clearly: I love my job.  

And I really love working at Graded.  I am an American, but when I was in 5th grade, I left the United States and moved to Mexico City.  At the start of 7th grade, I moved to Caracas, Venezuela.  I love teaching at an international school because that was how I grew up.  I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and I love travelling–another thing I am missing during this pandemic.  We moved to Brazil 2 years ago from Nashville, Tennessee.  We really love living in Brazil and can’t wait to get back to exploring it.

I have a husband who is a math and computer science teacher at Graded, and three kids who are students.  My son Calvin is in 3rd grade, my daughter Matilda is in 1st grade, and my son Everett is a K3.  One thing I really, really miss is being able to leave my house each day and focus on being a teacher.  I also miss being able to leave school and go home to focus on being a mom.  Now, I’m everything at once, and that’s really hard.  

Since I can’t do many of the things I miss–museums, parks, movies–I’ve focused on new sources of joy.  I picked up the mandolin I hadn’t played in two years.  Strumming and singing has brought me a lot of joy.  

Then I learned how to watercolor during quarantine.  A YouTube video auto-played one day with a watercolor tutorial.  I grabbed my kids’ watercolor set and started painting.  I like how watercolor is about luck and improvising–letting go of control. I took 2 online courses and bought better paints.  My plan is to watercolor at the end of the day to destress.  

My other new joy is roller skating!  I saw some TikTok videos of people skating and my daughter had been asking for some, so the whole family got skates!  It’s a great way to get out of the house, and I feel free and joyful when I’m skating.

What about you?  What have you noticed about yourself during this time?  What do you miss?  What new joys have you found?  I want you to write me a letter and help me get to know you.  Until we can meet face to face, and I can give you a hug or a high five or a hand shake, this letter will have to suffice.  

With love,

Mrs. Griswold

Travel

Camping camping camping

That pop-up camper in the background belongs to David’s brother Kenneth and his wife, Amanda.

We have been on 4 camping trips this summer. Two 1-night trips, two 2-night trips. We had planned for at least one trip, but since camping has been shown to be very low Covid risk, and parks opened, we jumped on it. It’s been a great antidote to online learning. The kids bring no screens to the campsite and we all look at our phones rarely.

We did our first family camping trip last summer, and then we did one in Brazil. We’ve learned a lot and have found a camping groove. We keep saying we need to make a list of all the things we need to bring so that we can consult it before heading out.

What to pack for the kids:

  • twice as many socks as days camping
  • old sneakers, water shoes, flipflops or crocs (You want something that they can wear in a river or lake to protect their feet, you want something easy on and off for going in and out of the tent
  • Hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Walking poles or sticks
  • Water bottles
  • Sleeping bag and pillow
  • Hoodie for cold mornings/nights
  • Pants for hiking or cold mornings/nights (if the weather is generally colder, more pants, but I find 1 pair enough for a summer camping trip)
  • Pajamas: if the temp goes below 65, consider long sleeve or fleece pajamas. But I recommend bringing some shorts jammies and some warmer jammies in case of any kind of weather.

What to bring in general for camping:

  • First aid kit
  • Tent (we bought our Suisse Sport Wyoming 8-person tent on Sierra for $90. It was a closeout, so it’s gone now, but we like it. In Brazil we have the Coleman Evanston tent. Love that too and you can buy at Target and Walmart.)
  • Tarp for underneath the tent
  • Sleeping bags (or just a blanket, depending on weather and your desires.)
  • Sleeping pads (we have these Klymit pads. They inflate with about 15 breaths, and roll up into an 8×4 inch bag.)
  • Pillows (regular or inflatable.)
  • Toiletries in an easy to carry caddy or bag
  • Towels (we bring beach towels)
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • Citronella candles
  • Camp chairs (or some kind of folding chair)
  • A multi-tool
  • Rain jackets for everyone
  • Optional: Hammock. You can hang it between 2 trees. The kids love them!
  • Flashlights and lanterns. I like a bunch of handheld flashlights, and then a lantern or two for on the picnic table or to hang in the tent. I also like a headlamp or two. Better than having to clench a flashlight in your teeth to cook in the dark!
  • If you are camping at an electric site: an extension cord and power strip.
  • If you are not at an electric site, battery packs, power banks, or other things like that are good to charge your phone.
  • Table cloth. I had a plastic one that ended up getting gross quickly, and if you rested your arms on it with sunscreen or bugspray on, it dissolved the color into your arm. So, I got 2 yards of marine vinyl from Joann for 70% off. $12 total! It’s nice and heavy, meant to withstand water and weather, and we will be able to reuse it for a long time.
  • 2 gallon expandable water carrier (We got this one at Cabela’s)
  • Dish basin

A quick note on dishes at a campsite. It took until our last 2 trips for me to develop a system I like. We use the expandable water carrier to bring 2 gallons back from the water spigot (there’s usually one every 3 campsites in state/national campgrounds.) I set the water carrier on the picnic table bench, and put the dish basin beneath it. I put a little Dawn in the basin and an inch of water. As people bring dishes over, I have them drop them in the soapy water. Then, when it’s time to wash dishses, I turn on the tap of the water carrier and start scrubbing, the water falls into the basin and keeps filling it. I set the clean dishes to dry on the table as I go. By the time I’ve gotten to the bottom of the stack of dishes, the water is about full. I dump it out and voila! I kept joking that I invented the sink and running water. Here is Everett demonstrating.

You can see our marine vinyl tablecloth in that picture and the clear plastic bins we use to transport all of our cookware, flashlights, tools etc.

What to bring for cooking and building a fire

  • A stove (we have this classic one from Coleman.)
  • Camp stove propane cannisters (2 cannisters got us through 6-8 days of camping)
  • Lighters (at least 2)
  • A set of pots and pans (we have this set from Kelty)
  • Plates, bowls, cups, silverware (Our Kelty set came with everything but the cups)
  • A cast iron skillet or 2 (we have a 12 inch and an 8 inch)
  • Cutting knives and cutting board (we have those thin ones)
  • Foil and a container for leftovers
  • A cooler
  • We have a Coleman water jug that we put ice water in. That way the kids can get cups of water at will. (Otherwise, they drive you crazy asking for drinks)
  • Dish washing liquid and sponge or scrub brush (my vote is a scrub brush because sponges tend to get nasty and stinky. The scrub brush we’re using came from my Dad’s camp set and it may 20 years old. Still works!)
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Pot holders
  • Spatula, slotted spoon, ladle
  • Can opener
  • fire starters
  • newspaper for fire starting
  • coffee cone and filters
  • insulated mugs for hot and cold bevvies
  • Marshmallow/hotdog roasting forks

What do we cook?

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, eggs and bacon, cereal. My sister in law made breakfast burritos that were already assembled and we warmed them in the coals of the fire. Super good! You could also just make cereal.
  • Lunch or dinner: Grilled sandwiches, hot dogs, charcuterie (crackers, cheeses, meats, hummus, veggies), Camp chili (we made this on our last trip and it was delicious. We added ground beef), 3 ingredient mac n cheese with peas added, brats or hotdogs on the grill, grilled baby peppers or nectarines, burgers or steak, baked beans, grilled corn, there are lot of options!

We’ve also worked on our food box of items that aren’t really for any particular recipe, but are good to have:

  • Coffee
  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar
  • Cooking spray
  • Brown sugar
  • Shelf stable milks (preferably little ones so you only need to open what you need, like the Horizon kids’ milk boxes)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Hot sauce
  • Snacks for the kids (goldfish, fruit snacks, fruit cups, fruit strips, granola bars)
  • Mustard, ketchup (or a handful of ketchup packets)
  • Honey and/or maple syrup
  • A little mixed spice holder (Walmart sells this one)
  • Raisins, cranberries or other dried fruit
  • Walnuts, almonds, pecans

What we pack in our cooler:

  • Beers, small wine bottles or boxes, tequila in a mason jar (or the liquor of your choice)
  • Lacroix, cokes, etc.
  • Yogurt pouches for the kids, maybe also yogurt drinks
  • A variety of hand fruits
  • Carrot sticks
  • Hummus
  • Mayo
  • Cheese slices
  • Deli meats

You have to buy firewood from an authorized dealer or from within 10 miles of the park, so we do that on the way into the park or at a nearby gas station. If the park has an office that is open, they usually sell ice. We usually have to add a bag of ice to the cooler once a day. We have two coolers, one 40 qt one for drinks and a 52 qt one for food.

For the funs:

  • We bring everyone’s bikes. At least in Minnesota, there are awesome bike trails. The kids are often told to take off on their bikes around the campsite whenever they say they’re bored. Everett has a trailer that we bring and we go on family rides as well.
  • If your park is flat, roller skates/blades are as well
  • If you have room for them, lawn Jenga or lawn Farkle are really fun, and games of their ilk.
  • Sand toys or dirt play toys
  • Squirt guns
  • Friendship bracelet materials
  • Guitar or mandolin or other sing along instrument. Despite being a mandolin player, I haven’t brought mine on any trips. Mostly just tired and overwhelmed or busy. Ugh. Maybe next year.

We also had my sister-in-law’s mom make us a campsite sign!

You will also notice our car top carrier. That came out of my parents’ attic this summer and it was on our minivan in the 80’s! Super vintage and works great. We will keep that sucker going for as long as it will last.

There you can see our Klymit sleeping pads and Everett who slides way off his during the night! On our last night of camping, I saw him wake up and walk back to the pad and flop down with his sleeping back like a cape. Very cute.
Marshmallow roasting forks in action.
Hammock fun.
You can see our tent, a camp chair, and the camp stove in the top right.
The kids biking the road through the Willow River campgrounds.
Our car with the 4 bikes loaded on the back (Everett’s trailer is in the car top carrier.) We bought the Allen 4 bike rack that uses the tow hitch we had installed. Works great. We have two straps to hold the wheels secure during driving.

Tip: Look for second hand camping equipment. You can get some from family or friends, or at Goodwill or Facebook marketplace. 3 of our camp chairs, 2 of our sleeping bags, one of our coolers and our Coleman water jug came from a thrift store. Then, go to Sierra Trading Post. We bought our Suisse Sport Wyoming 8 person tent there. Originally $150, we got it for $90. They get closeouts and old seasons’ stuff for a great discount. Our Klymit pads and Kelty camp kitchen set came from them too at a great discount. After that, I recommend Walmart first (shocking, I know) and Target second. Walmart has a larger camping section. Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops also have some good stuff, but also guns, so decide on your comfort level. Of course there’s Amazon and the internet and stuff.

Tip: Before you pitch your tent, especially if you are doing it with a spouse or partner, each of you should do a shot of tequila. A little liquid sense of humor is always called for when pitching a tent.

Tip: your kids won’t fall asleep until the sun goes down. So, that’s their camping bedtime! But, I find that in the darkness of the woods, they fall asleep fast.

Okay, I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. And I don’t want to pass myself off as some kind of pro camper. We forget stuff and we lose our cool sometimes and make dumb decisions. But camping is fun and you can dive in and have fun.

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No Flow

David, my math teacher husband, said something in a moment of desperation this week that really stuck with me. He had for the 17th time that day gotten distracted from a task. Because we’re all fried, I snapped at him. He answered in anguish, “Yes! I got distracted. I didn’t finish. I haven’t thought one continuous thought in 60 days!”

He’s right. As teachers working from home with 3 kids under age 9, we are constantly pulled away and interrupted. Our 3 year old always wants us to go to the bathroom with him. Our 8 year old needs the password to his Chromebook so he can log in to his class Zoom. Our 5 year old needs help reading the math workbook instructions. Repeat every 6.25 minutes from 7 am to 8 pm.

You know that scene in A Christmas Story where he says, “My mom had not had a hot meal for herself in 15 years”? Just as she’s about to put a bite in her mouth, Ralphie asks for something. Then the dad. Then the little brother. That woman cannot eat her food!

So, that’s our lives. We used to go to work outside of our house. We had morning time and free blocks. We could go get a few minutes of work time at lunch. We had an hour after school. We could put headphones in and plan a project or grade papers or tests. We could find flow.

Remember that Flow book? The subtitle is “The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” That almost makes me laugh. Working from home, parenting from home, and homeschooling should be subtitled, “The Psychology of SUB-Optimal Experience.” Except sub-optimal is not strong enough.

I need a book that studies the long term effect of the constant flow interruptions. I can tell you my hypothesis, based on observation. Being deprived of flow makes you irritable, tired, un-creative, and depressed.

It’s so hard to convince myself to sit down to read 22 short stories. I don’t know that I can make it through even one. If I get pulled away to peel an orange, then return, I’ve got to start again. But it’s frustrating because I will realize that I remember some of this and I’m losing time. I might even get pulled away again, maybe to wipe a butt, before I get to the end. And if I finish reading, but I have to litigate a fight over a stuffed animal before I write my feedback? I’ll have to read it again to remember what I was even going to say to that kid.

My in-laws came to stay with us and yesterday I was able to spend 3 straight hours grading and reading papers. It was amazing. Grading is challenging and draining and hard, but it felt good to get it done without being interrupted. There were two other adults to blow on the mac and cheese or take them outside for sidewalk chalk or peel open fruit cups.

Flow–that uninterrupted momentum–is so satisfying. Even if it’s flow while grading. It’s such a luxury. Such a gift. And I know it’s essential for most work, but it’s especially important for a teacher. I prefer to grade in a big push, where I can get the scope of the whole class’s work. I can sense trends, and see where my mini-lessons produced consistent growth in student work. When I look up after 3 hours, I have both the bird’s eye view and a fresh impression of each student’s work.

And the bonus was that those 3 hours of flow were in the middle of the day. Without help from my in-laws, my only uninterrupted blocks of time would be after 8 pm. I’m tired at the end of a crazy day. And there are dishes in the sink, laundry to be folded, floors to be mopped, bathrooms to be cleaned and floors to be vacuumed. David and I divide the work, and we’re usually done by 9 pm.

Even before this, I was not an evening person. My tank is empty. I want to do something relaxing, not something that requires too much decision making. I prefer to work during the hours of the school day. I tune in and get to work. I’ve been getting all grading done at school since I had kids and bringing home work became nearly impossible. So 9-11 pm is about the worst time for me to try to get into a flow state.

My in-laws are here until the end of next week. I will be using every moment I can. And when I can work out of my house again, in my quiet classroom, with my headphones on and my medieval chamber music going, I won’t even complain that I’m digging into a stack of research papers or argumentative essays. I’ll be grateful for the gift and privilege of flow.

Uncategorized

Seeking Creative Outlets

Teaching is exquisitely creative. I face challenges every day that require me to think on my feet, ponder, experiment, and try again. Even just coming up with multiple choice grammar questions is creative. I am trying to create something novel to solve a problem.

Just think about generating sample similes and metaphors and then guiding students through the same activity.

Consider this: I have to think of a way to respond to a question about why the suffragettes didn’t support black and native women in their fight for freedoms. What questions can I ask to students? What images or text could I show them to spark a discussion?

I write sample essays with my students, and I always write on a slightly different topic so as not to crowd their territory.

Or when a student is struggling with a piece of writing, I have to think of prompts or exercises that might shake their block and get them flowing.

Students who are disconnected or checked out? I’ve got to think of ways to connect, to draw them in.

All of that is so creative. Not to mention that I am “on stage” two or three times a day.

And now here we are. Weekends are spent planning the week out, but the creativity drops off after that. Zoom is not inspiring, the feedback from students is slow and disjointed. I don’t get the same zing of creation when I’m talking to 22 silent squares. I miss reading the room, taking a student suggestion and running with it into new territory I hadn’t planned.

I’m feeling the loss of creative challenge every day. I feel that creativity and creation is a basic tenet of who I am, and it makes teaching a good fit for me. So what am I doing now?

I started playing the mandolin more. I bought it on a trip to Brazil on a fellowship from my college in 2005. I played more when I was single and before I had kids. And while I’m not writing songs, the act of using my hands to make music is very fulfilling. I was hopping on Facebook live almost every evening.

Then my kids did a drawing tutorial on YouTube, and a watercolor tutorial autoplayed afterwards. I pulled out the kids’ watercolors and went to work.

(Jay Lee Painting YouTube channel is what I used to paint those.)

It felt awesome. I haven’t done watercolors since high school, and I wasn’t able to let go then (what high schooler is?). I didn’t realize this then, but watercolor is about letting go. You can’t micromanage it into perfection. You let the paint do what it’s going to do. You work fast and don’t stress over the last stroke as you go to the next. This was the mindset I needed.

I did probably 15 of Jay Lee’s videos. They are silent except for instrumental music playing in the background. I just watch him and follow what he does. I don’t feel competitive or judged. He’s not coaching me to death. I’m just mimicking and noticing. I don’t know why he did a certain thing until I’ve done it and realize it was genius. One drop here creates shadow. Mix a new color in with every stroke and it gives it depth and variety and looks more real.

I found a British lady (Painting with Nicola) I really liked, but she talked more. It was okay, though, since my confidence was growing.

(That watercolor is my favorite so far.)

Then I got one of those Domestika ads on Instagram. I could get 4 watercolor courses for $23. I’ve done enough of these that I felt like it was worth it. I need instruction. I want to move beyond mimicking, but I need to understand the concepts.

I started the first course last night. It felt so good. The woman teaching it is Mexican, and I grew up there and I’m fluent in Spanish, so I don’t need to read the subtitles. I realized that I miss the Mexican accent so much. So lush and musical.

I did such an academic thing in the introduction unit and made transparencies before I got called way to help with bedtime.

I’m waiting for my nicer watercolor paints to arrive. I can’t wait! I bought a nicer kid set at an art store here, but I did some research and found a high grade student set.

And I’m also writing more. I’ve been signing up for 10 page consultations with agents on Manuscript Academy. I’ve spent the last year and a half revising my Elizabeth historical novel. I’ve already had 2 consultations and made revisions. I know more are coming.

I’m also working on a new project. I’m filled with self-doubt at times, and swept away with the idea at others. It’s historical as well, so I’m researching now but itching to start drafting.

When am I doing this, you wonder? In stolen moments of quiet. Right now I’m writing this post as the kids draw with sidewalk chalk. I work while they watch TV. I work with them sometimes, in the case of the watercolor videos. I work at night until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. It’s never enough, but no one has enough. You have to steal time. No one is given time. There is a great book called The Right to Write and she has little vignettes about being a writer. One is called “The Time Myth” (I think that’s the title, it’s been a while) and she says that everyone has to steal time. Don’t wait for time because you’ll die waiting. The myth is that you’ll do ____ when you have the time. You’ll never have the time–you steal it.

Okay, this was written in haste, so forgive dead end thoughts and typos. I’d love to hear about what you are doing to bring some creativity into your life.

Teaching

Nothing Works and I Hate Everything

This has not been a great week of distance learning. Zoom keeps crashing, I can’t share audio when I’m sharing my screen, I can’t get any grading done, and I just hate it all.

Yes, I’m being extreme. Yes, it could be worse. Yes, I’m still annoyed and frustrated and tired and I can be all of that at the same time.

I almost lost my mind yesterday. I spend all of Sunday making a weekly slide that is embedded on my Powerschool page. I have the whole week laid out. Links to videos and documents, links to flipgrids, links to the Zoom call.

Students in 6th grade, for example, are writing a compare/contrast essay about the books we read this year. I made a document explaining the essay and with an outline of what needed to be in each paragraph. Underneath the outline is a sample essay that I wrote.

But wait, there’s more! I made a video where I walked through the outline, then read my essay sample, pointing out key things.

And then, in my Google chat pops this message: What is the second paragraph supposed to be about?

I’m about to go Office Space on my computer.

But then, I felt better when students said in my class today that my weekly slides are so organized and helpful and everything is right there. One student wrote in the chat, one word at a time: I. LOVE. THE. DAILY. SLIDES.

It isn’t all bad. But until I get purposeful messages like that from students, there’s not feedback! There’s no room to read, no heads nodding or kids falling asleep.

David and I keep saying that we’re shouting into the void. No idea if any of it is helpful or heard. It’s so demoralizing. Teaching is hard, but it’s also so rewarding when it clicks. When our teaching works, the relationship and moment of connection with students is so amazing.

So, here we are. There are no other choices. The whole world is like this. That’s almost worse. The feeling of being stuck is so loud.

Man, I feel like I’m in my 20s again, unsatisfied and unhappy and trying to find myself. I just want my job back. I know what I love to do. I know what makes me feel stimulated and happy. It’s so sucky and unfair. I want my job back.

Teaching, Travel

A Change of Scenery

I haven’t written in a while because life is absolutely batty, which I don’t even really need to say, I guess because we are all living it. It’s weird. Normally, you’d have to compose a blog post or a social media post about going through some stuff, and sorry that I’m absent. Ha. No explanation needed. We all understand.

But, I wanted to give you an update on our lives. I’m going to start doing some more blogging about my teaching and things I’m doing to survive my teaching. But first, a personal update.

Our school works with a team of filmmakers and they asked me if I would be interested in working with them. They dropped off tripods and steady cams and an iPhone at our apartment. We spent about a week documenting what our life was like, teaching online and raising 3 kids. The film team, The Filmistas, edited it into this amazing final product:

I got so many amazing messages from parents, students, and other teachers. I basically cried every time a message came in. Every time I watch the video I cry. I cry a lot.

About a week and a half ago, we got the call that our school would not be reopening during this school year. David and I had been talking about next steps. It’s so hard to know what next week will bring and how I will feel about it. There are about 100 scenarios of what might play out, and I’m never sure how I’m going to feel.

We happened to have the May Day holiday coming up, which gave us a 3 day weekend to travel. We got yelled at by doormen for letting our kids play in the sand below the roped off playgrounds in our condominium. We both realized it was time to go.

I felt some guilt about leaving. Staying was a point of pride at first. Maybe I shouldn’t have felt pride at staying, but I did. Deciding then to leave felt a bit like abandoning ship.

But my admin was really supportive. They understood and they knew that we needed to do what was right for us. That gave me some peace. Just the idea of being somewhere different suddenly sounded amazing.

We have a key factor in place for us to leave: a place to stay. We have a townhouse in Minnesota that technically belongs to my in laws, but we’ve made it ours for the summers. We spent nearly 3 weeks here last year, and we put bunkbeds in it, beefed up the kitchen stuff, stocked it with art supplies.

So now we are hunkered down in Northfield, Minnesota, an incredibly cute and cool college town. It’s small, it’s quiet, and there’s lots of open space. There are only 2 cases of COVID here as of my last reading, and the governor is making thoughtful, careful decisions–in my opinion, at least.

Brazil is also getting bad. The cases are rising, the deaths are rising. More scary to me is the number of people facing starvation because of the shut-down economy. The government is not providing significant support. There is a quarantine in place, where only essential businesses were supposed to be open, but right before we left, we noticed lots of businesses on the street open.

I don’t want to get into a whole big debate, but let me tell you where I always go first: the children. Bear with me while I explain. When you shut down all retail–all malls, bars, restaurants, stores, etc–that is a huge segment of the Brazilian population. They live hand to mouth. And they have children. What happens when the money and the food run out? If you want to keep the economy closed, then the government has to feed those kids. I don’t see that happening. (To be clear, I am not minimizing the death toll. I am just afraid of those other deaths, the children facing malnutrition.)

Okay, so, on Friday night, May 1, we flew out. We snagged a cheap upgrade to business class and jumped on it. Business class was full, but the seats are very separated. In coach, there were empty rows between passengers. The airports were ghost towns. There were maybe 40 people on our international flight, and 20 on our domestic flight.

As soon as we rented our car and got the house, our kids hopped on the bikes in the garage and went around the block. We walked to a playground that wasn’t roped off with caution tape. I almost cried watching them play.

I have more to say and more stories to tell, but I’ve got to go teach my 7th grade class via Zoom.

Signing off from the prairie,

Meg

Uncategorized

Cutting my own hair

Yes. I am going to cut my own hair.

Let me back up. I read this article in the New York Times about stylist Jayne Matthews. It was fun and interesting. I followed her on Instagram. I found myself pining for a haircut like this. Funky, fun, playful. I have wavy hair and she talks about helping girls with thin wavy hair shape it, reduce frizz, frame the face. This is what I need! I love her ethos about wash and wear and respecting a hair’s natural style.

I haven’t had a haircut I like in Brazil yet. I’m busy, I don’t live in the hip neighborhood, and the list of excuses goes on. Right before quarantine, I got the name of someone, but that obviously never happened. In general, I find that the assumption in Brazil is blowouts or serious levels of work each morning. Ha. That’s not me. 3 kids, a teaching job that start at 8:00. Nope. I’ve had a hard time finding someone who understood my personality and my desires. Not that they don’t exist, I just hadn’t found yet.

Cut to a few weeks ago. Jayne announces she’s doing video call haircut and bang trim tutorials. I knew right away I wanted to do it. I ordered the feather razor she recommends and a nice comb. I booked a slot. I am going to be video coached through cutting my own hair.

I probably wouldn’t have done this before quarantine. But no one really sees me, I have nothing to lose, and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t think stylists really offered video call self-haircut tutorials before this. Let’s hope this opportunity never presents itself again! So, here we go. I will video it and take before and after photos, of course. I feel positive and confident. I’ve gotten into such a rut with my hair. I just whip it into a ponytail and make videos. I’m bored. I’m tired of having long hair just so I can pull it into a ponytail.

I also need some diversion. This feels like an authentically real experience and I haven’t had many of those in a few weeks. Honestly, if you asked me about the past few weeks, what I remember is playing the mandolin more, teaching Matilda to ride a bike, and this! This has given me energy and hope. I seriously can’t wait.

I will write a post in the coming days with the results. In the meantime, I hope you all find something exhilarating to look forward to. What do you have to lose? The bigger question is, did you ever have something to lose?

Before photos:

Uncategorized

My First Coronavirus Cry

I wasn’t sure what would crack me, but it was hot water.

Let me back up. Yesterday, as we were running the kids’ bath, the hot water shut off. We had enough for their bath, but we spent the evening playing around with the water heater. E4 was on the panel, which a Google search revealed meant faulty sensors. More searching hinted that that meant some major repairs were needed.

We had what looked like two leaky toilets, and one that was also leaking from the bottom–ew. Now we had a broken water heater. Oh, and there are dry wood termites in one bathroom cabinet. In the new apartment we moved into 10 days ago. During the coronavirus lock down.

I seriously started to plan in my head for having to boil water to make hot baths. We put in a maintenance request with our school’s HR who helps with these kinds of things. But my hopes were low. Who would be willing to come do the service? Should I break some social distancing rules for this?

Right away this morning, I got an email from the woman in HR who mainly handles issues like this for foreign hires. She was sending over the maintenance man from school. She asked me to take a picture of the water heater, and then I was bummed to learn their technician doesn’t fix that brand.

But, the school handyman was coming, and he would at least take a look. He is the nicest, most versatile guy on the planet. He can fix anything, like an angel with a multi-tool. He came over and I walked him through the leaking toilets. Turns out that it’s probably just bad plaster work, and not active leaks. He said he would try to tighten the toilet to the floor to prevent that leaking. He took a look at the termites and said that probably the best idea was a new cabinet. As for the water heater, he messaged a friend who knows the brand. The friend messaged back that the electrical panel needed to be replaced.

My worry was growing, but I didn’t really notice it. How can you notice one worry among so many right now? But I got a text an hour later from HR that she was going to contact the real estate company that worked with the landlady. It would obviously be their job to fix the water heater.

Then another text that a technician was coming at 2 pm! He arrived early and traded out the panel. Voila, hot water! He told me to go to the bathroom and turn the shower on full blast hot to check it. It was so hot and steamy. I will confess I have not had a shower in at least 2 days. As steam filled the room, I started crying.

This is such a hard time. I feel so lucky to have a job, to have an HR team to support me, colleagues to video call with, technicians willing to come in and let me give them a wide berth. I didn’t realize how much this was all building up.

I sat down at my desk, and I heard Calvin in the next room having a Zoom call with his teacher. “Distance learning is now fun. I miss school so much,” he said. Then I started crying more. Oh man. I’m grateful for everything we have to help us, but I wish this wasn’t happening.