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Igniting a love of words and worlds.


Why I Secretly Like Writing Report Card Comments, or, Why I Don’t Use AI to Write My Report Card Comments

I am wordy. There’s not denying it. I am rarely at a loss for words, words flow from me, words are my artistic medium. This is what I usually tell people when I admit to them that I like writing report card comments.

To be fair, writing 75-85 short paragraphs isn’t easy, and it can feel like Groundhog Day to keep churning out a repeated comment structure that has some repetitiveness to it. Despite all this, I do like writing them.

First, report card comments have a real audience. We talk all the time about giving students authentic audiences for their work, and any of us who have had our students share their writing with families, a writing competition, or the community, you can attest that the writing is better when real eyeballs other than yours are on it. I’d argue the writing is better because the students engage with it more. They care.

Thus it is for me. I care when I write these comments. I know that as a parent, I read my own kids’ comments very closely, often two or three times. I can assume that my students’ parents are also reading them like this.

Of course, some may be thinking that not every parent is reading the comments that closely, if at all. But the chance that even a handful of parents read them makes them meaningful. I also don’t have any reason not to believe that parents who don’t read the comments are the exception, not the rule. At the lunch table yesterday, more than one teacher told the story of a parent quoting their report card comment back to the teacher in a conference.

I also don’t often get the opportunity to talk about a kid like this, in a written form, without interruption. Most times when we talk about kids, it’s a conversation, or perhaps an email, with interruptions and back and forths. But report card comments are my chance to boil down my thoughts and impressions of a kid and their work into an uninterrupted little nugget of text. There’s room for me to think, write, re-read, and revise. I would liken report card comments to a thank you card or a note delivered to someone on a special occasion. Those are meaningful notes, and they usually contain the kinds of things that don’t get said on a daily basis.

My comment writing process is my own, and I know every teacher has one. My husband, David, writes the rough and the final draft all in one go. He doesn’t stand up from the computer until the kid’s comment is done, perfect and ready to be turned in. I, on the other hand, write a messy first draft in a tornado of key strokes. I sit down and compose wildly, without re-reading. Of course, I have a rough structure that I use for each comment, so it’s not a total chaotic mess. I also write with correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in the first draft. Typos will inevitably slip in, but it’s not an untamed mess.

Then, I let the comments go cold, which is writer speak for I don’t look at them for a day or two. Then, I re-read. I can usually spot any problems right away. If I can, I take another break from them and then return to paste them into our online gradebook system. That’s my last chance to read each one over and make sure the tone is right and no mistakes lingered.

I often take things away in the final re-read and paste. I usually have a line with a bit too much emotion that doesn’t belong. I let myself keep it in the early drafts as a little gift to myself. I can usually tell on that third re-read if the wording is off or I’m straying from the objective and constructive. To err is human.

Just yesterday I submitted final report card comments for 72 students, totally 7,943 words. And I wrote every single one of those words. I did not use predictive text, AI, chatbots, or Grammarly. I didn’t even use a comment bank. I wrote and revised each of those 7,943 words with no more than spellcheck.

This year, I had to refer 6 students to our administration for academic dishonesty, specifically for using AI to write part or all of an assignments for them. The consequences were wide-ranging based on how many times the student has plagiarized in the past, but some of the consequences were severe and had a real impact on their educational trajectory.

To me, my statement about my own comment writing and the students I have caught using AI are of a piece. It’s been a rough year for cheating and academic dishonesty. I’ve spent hours documenting and investigating what a student did, using Chrome attachments that can play a document history like a movie, AI checkers, TurnItIn reports, and good old fashioned “this doesn’t sound like a 17 year old wrote it.” I’ve sat down for conversations where I had to ask a student to explain very sophisticated vocabulary or a reference that I’ve never seen a high school student use.

It’s been demoralizing. It undermines not only the educational goals of the classes I teach, but it also touches on some core beliefs I have as a person about the power of writing, of voice, of expression.

So how could I ask a robot to write a comment about a kid I spent the last 10 months with? How could a Large Language Model understand the challenges a kid faced as a second language learner, or the anxiety a junior felt in an individual oral exam, or the way a freshmen dug deep into an academic journal article about Plato’s Symposium? What does a bot know of joy, triumph, frustration, or tears?

I can hear Taylor Mali telling me what teachers “make” in my head right now, “I can make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honor and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Has Gemini or QuillBot ever spent an afternoon extra help session helping a kid identify personification, symbols, metaphors? Sure, it can scrape the internet for other writers’ ideas about poetic devices, but has it sat and read Juliet’s soliloquy before her suicide, in a room full of teenagers, and sifted through the iambic pentameter to find how odd and thrilling it is to contemplate her use of the word “rust” as she uses an apostrophe to speak to the dagger she will plunge into her chest: “there rust and let me die”? Has ChatGPT listened as your teacher tells you that until the 20th century there was a censoring of that word rust. The Victorians found it too graphic for a lady, so they changed it to “rest” and that revision of Shakespeare lasted until the 1960’s, when scholars decided to restore the original word, discomfort and grotesque imagery and all. And how when this teacher went home from college after the Shakespeare course she took, she found her mother’s old college copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare on the shelf, fanned through the collected works to find Juliet in Act 5, and there, would you believe it, is Juliet telling the dagger to calmly “rest” in her chest. And isn’t that just a moment to pause and think about the power of the original words. The power of the choice that Shakespeare made, even if it’s odd or perplexing (does she imagine her hot blood will rust the dagger, or that the dagger will stay in her chest for eternity?), but that is what Shakespeare intended. And Shakespeare, like all of us, was just a human being–a talented human being, but a quirky, imperfect one even still.

I know that AI is alluring. Even just to plug in your first draft, as I had students do this year, into a bot that can correct your grammar, smooth out your word choice, and amp up your sentence construction. No more agonizing over where to put the period, or if (gasp!) perhaps a semi-colon is needed, if you can manage to remember the rules for using a semicolon. Writing is hard. And the world is judging your writing. You just want it to look and sound good. Short cuts can sound appealing when the work is hard and the pressure is on.

Let’s put it another way. Would I want my child’s teacher to use AI to write my child’s comments? Would I want to read that? The simple answer is no. Ezra Klein, the writer and host of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, has described it as a lack of friction. When he writes to a friend, a real human, there’s friction. He wants the person he is writing to to like him. To think he’s witty, or funny, or interesting. He is invested in what that person thinks of him. He’s tried to create bots that he can converse with and he said he usually ends up dropping the conversation because there’s no friction. There’s no person on the other end to be invested in. (Listen to a brilliant conversation about this here.) If my children’s comments were written by a bot, would I want to read them? What is real there? What is it actually telling me about my child? Something generic that could be said about any 4th or 6th grader? I know what the generic child of that age is like. I want to know what it’s been like to teach my child.

Or, perhaps, consider if your current employer wrote a letter of reference for you using AI. Would you want that letter? When this question has been posed to me and other teachers, the answer is a pretty quick no. I wonder what answer I would get if I asked a student who plagiarized using ChatGPT that same question. Would you be okay if I wrote your college recommendation letter using a bot? I’m not sure what their answer would be, and I’m afraid to ask. Perhaps all they care about is getting admitted, because they’ve been trained to place their entire sense of self worth in their college acceptances. Maybe the scenario I offer is a speech at their wedding in some imagined future. Would you be okay if your best friend got up to give a toast about you and they hadn’t written it themselves?

What am I doing here? If I used AI to do my writing, what is this job I’ve devoted my life to? If it isn’t about working with kids and teaching them to express themselves, what’s the point? I didn’t become a teacher to teach kids to sit in a room and prompt a Large Language Model to give them work that will be grammatically and technically perfect, but devoid of any real thought or experience.

But the time! The time! It saves so much time! You know what would also save me time writing comments? Not being a teacher. I would have 100% of my comment writing time back. I would have zero minutes of teaching another human to use a comma after starting a sentence with a subordinating conjunction. I would spend no time of my day explaining how sentence variety is like different parts of the song that keep your piece from feeling repetitive and mind-numbing. I could leave teaching! I have colleagues who are choosing to change careers.

There’s another angle that is maybe too far, but maybe just right. I don’t think I need to collaborate with the bots in my own obsolescence. By that, I mean that I don’t need to embrace technology that some are already arguing will eventually replace me. Remember when American jobs were getting “outsourced” and “off-shored” to low-paid workers in other countries, and they made the people getting fired train their replacements? That’s depressing. Do I have to go along with it, just because it’s here? Do I really need to “get with it” and “be cool” and embrace it? Kids are vaping a lot too, should we just give them a room where they can do it so they don’t hide in the bathrooms? Okay, maybe that’s a false equivalency.

Why am I here if kids are just going to have AI barf up some amalgamation of an Internet’s worth of words by real people, both paid and unpaid, who struggled through the writing process? Am I training highway robbers or thinkers? Am I training lip-syncers or composers? I have no interest in training copy-pasters. If there’s one thing that makes me seriously think about leaving the field, it’s AI. And I say that with a pang of absolute despair in my chest. Absolute despair. I love this job. I’ve worked so hard for the last 17 years of teaching and 2 years of graduate school before that to be good at this job.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but for now, I will be writing my own comments. What is more worthy of my time and effort, than to write a little note for parents about the child they love, that is aging and growing away from them with every passing day? What is more worthy of my time and effort, than leaving students with a final thought, a word of encouragement, a declaration of admiration and respect for the 180 days they have just spent with me?

Happy comment writing, y’all.

Teaching, Writing

When a student uses your favorite obscure rhetorical device

I really enjoyed teaching AP Language and Composition for many reasons–if nothing else, I still think everything is an argument. An advertisement is an argument, a speech is an argument, a letter is an argument, a poem is an argument, a novel is an argument, a painting is an argument…someone stop me. But one nice fringe benefit was learning a lengthy list of rhetorical devices. Some you may recognize: rhetorical question, pathos, oxymoron, but some are more obscure: chiasmus, synecdoche, and metonymy. But my absolute favorite is zeugma (pronounced zoog-mah).

Right off the bat, Zeugma draws the eye down there at the end of the list, and that vowel combo is uncommon. It comes from the Greek word “to yoke” or to link together, and it essentially is when you use one word and apply it in two different uses or senses. If you are a millennial, I can prove to you that you already know a zeugma and make you sing at the same time:

You are the bearer of unconditional things
You held your breath and the door for me
Thanks for your patience

Alanis Morissette

Our Lady of 90s Female Rage Alanis Morissette sang these lyrics in “Head Over Feet”. It’s a bit of a deep cut, but I just earwormed a few of you.

So there are two senses of the word “hold” at play here. Holding the door, which would be using your hand to keep a door open, and then holding your breath, which means to trap air in your lungs.

Another example of zeugma: he stole my heart and my camera. The two senses of stole are yoked together.

So imagine my delight when I open a short story that one of my 9th grade students wrote. It’s vivid, the setting is engaging, and then a character is introduced: “Among the mournful crowd of peasants and soldiers stood a man with a heavy armour and a heavier guilt.

Y’all. I gasped! I don’t know if he knows that what he wrote is a zeugma, or if he did it intentionally. I definitely did not directly teach zeugma. But I love, love, love that he wrote a brilliant one. His sentence is a great demonstration of why I love zeugmas: they surprise and pivot. It’s a little switch that delights the mind. It’s also very tight, in that sense that in just one sentence we can visualize his armor, but we also establish that he’s done something bad. Zeugmas make for zippy plot and characterization. In an assignment that limited them to 1000 words, this was a good technique.

Okay, that’s all. Just wanted to say I am here for all zeugma-related content.


All teachers should teach middle school at least once

A colleague said to me in passing last week, “I’d love to sit down sometime and hear your thoughts on middle school vs. high school.”

(For background, I’ve ping ponged in my career from MS to HS and back. I spent the first 4 years in MS, the next 7 hears in HS, the next 5 in MS and now I’m back in HS.)

I’ve spent a lot of the first quarter thinking about the differences. What I’ve arrived at is that I think all teachers should do a tour of duty in middle school–metaphor completely intentional. For some teachers this would be a joyful home to stay in forever, other teachers would find it challenging. But that is precisely my point: teaching middle school can make you a better teacher, if you don’t run screaming for the hills first.

First, teaching middle school reminds you of the fundamental skills in each discipline. Far from the anxiety and pressures of college and GPA, middle school is a little island of time where it’s a teachers duty to instill a love of their subject. Teaching middle school humanities, sometimes I felt like I was in a friendly competition to get students to like my subject the most. Science really gives us a run for our money.

Truly, though, teaching middle school English is about the wonders of reading and writing. We watch movies in our heads, we compose things that make other people feel something. What a gift! Teaching middle school you will be reminded about what really is at the heart of your subject, and probably what drew you to loving that subject in the first place.

Next, you can’t be sloppy or unprepared in middle school. They will eat you. Ha, I kid. But you will feel like you’ve been eaten. Middle school students are honest and they also don’t have a lot of self control to spare. So if something is confusing, illogical, rushed, incomplete–they will smell it and let you know. Sometimes they will raise their hand and tell you it doesn’t make sense, but more often then not, they will begin to roll across the floor, do a handstand, cut pencils in half, or make strange bird calls. This is your sign. You must right the ship immediately.

You better have all those photocopies made. You have to get the desks pre-arranged. Doing a group activity? Pre-sort and number the materials. If you lose time trying to sort things or arrange the room during the first 5 minutes, pandemonium will ensue. By contrast, in the high school I share rooms, and I often arrive to a desk arrangement that I need changed. I simply project the seating arrangement on the board, the 9th graders move the desks and then sit, ready to learn. If you’ve never taught middle school, asking them to rearrange the desks is disastrous. They will build them into a pyramid and then begin launching themselves at the ceiling. I kid, sort of.

When I began my last 5 year stint in middle school, in the first semester I went and talked to lower school teachers about transitions. I would transition from a minilesson at the front to independent work time at desks. Except it wasn’t a transition, more like it was a bunch of molecules firing off into infinite entropy. I was completely losing them in the transitions and I couldn’t reel them back in or get them to be productive after the transitions.

I learned that you keep those transitions tight, the instructions clear. If you can introduce a timer or a competition of some sort, even better. No dead air, no breaks, no loose ends. A well-choreographed dance.

If the instructions aren’t written in addition to being spoken, forget it. Make sure there are posters around the room with the concepts you’ve been teaching. Yes, you’ve told them the website for printing 16 times and asked them to bookmark it. They did not bookmark it. Put it on a poster and just point at the wall. Middle school students are easily distracted. They can miss instructions because a cool bird was outside, or their thumb nail is a weird shape. They are like smaller children in that way. While high school students may not need so many reminders, I’ve found they really appreciate the posters around the room that they can consult. High school students often have questions about the instructions, but they might be too shy or self conscious to ask, so putting them on the board is helpful.

In middle school, the attention clock is ticking down so fast. Give instructions efficiently and get them working as quick as you can. They cannot sit through 25 minutes of instructions and explanation. Spend 5 or 10, then get them working and address questions as they come. Middle school students often can’t envision an activity until they are doing it, so if you let them ask endless questions, they can can caught in the bog. Give instructions verbally, project the instructions on the board, and send them off, ideally with a timer or a ticking bomb or some kind of fun device to get them working.

Even though high schoolers have longer attention spans, they also don’t love endless instructions. They also appreciate getting to the work quickly.

In middle school, you need to save middle school students from themselves. I learned very quickly that if they are working on computers, they need to turn so that their screen is facing me. They don’t have the self control to resist games, YouTube, whatever is currently obsessing them. Are middle school students starting to sound like manic squirrels? Yeah, that’s not too far off. But as soon as they know you are watching, and you’ve told them three times to stop playing Fortnite, they get down to work.

Turns out that high school students might be more tech savvy, more mature, but they also need to be saved from themselves, technologically or otherwise.

Middle school students make you realize that if things don’t go super well, it’s probably your fault. Sorry to break this to you, but middle school students are basically doing the best they can, and if that lesson didn’t fly, you need to rethink the way you did it. In high school, it can sometimes be easy to shift the blame to the students. That sounds harsh and judgy, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, high school students can be held to a higher standard, but it’s worth reflecting on how you as a teacher could have done things differently.

I shouldn’t let you walk away from this believing that middle school is just a post-apocalyptic wasteland with more hormones in the air than oxygen. When things go well, students will tell you both with their words and their engagement. They will hug you spontaneously, they will tell you that they really loved your class. The highs are high! And this will give you the feedback you need to find what works.

The growth is huge in middle school. The leaps can be impressive and the victory dances are joyful and unbridled. It’s a heady place to teach, middle school. And while I knew I needed a break, there are so many powerful teaching practices that I carry with me.

Teaching, Travel

Leaving the flowers in the dirt

When we were leaving Nashville and selling our house, I had a reaction to that massive change I didn’t expect. I got very worried about the landscaping in the backyard.

I had hired a local landscape architect to design a plan for our back yard. Then, David and I, with the help of many family member conscripted into the effort, dug up the beds ourselves. We drove an hour to a nursery that had great prices so that we could get all the plants ourselves. They were so tiny! To save money, I bought the smallest, youngest versions of each plant.

Our final garden plan

When we left, the backyard was thriving and lush. And I was struggling to imagine leaving it behind. What if the new owners didn’t prune the bushes at the right time? What if the crepe myrtle got leggy? Would they weed it and mulch it?

Cuttings from our garden.
Moved this hydrangea from under the deck and nursed it back to health.

For a fleeting moment, I had this moment of insanity where I thought about digging up all the plants and selling them or giving them away to good homes. This is obviously nuts.

Siberian Irises
Bleeding hearts
Tulips! Coralbells!
Peach tree. Those blossoms, man.

The only answer was that I just had to leave the flowers in the dirt.

This year, my fifth year of teaching 7th grade humanities and journalism at Graded, I started to think about something different. The world is scary right now, the pandemic is still reverberating, and in all the upheaval and uncertainty, we decided to consider our options. We started looking at job openings around the world.

Meanwhile, our kids are happy here. Matilda moved into the native-speaking Portuguese class. Everett is finally no longer saying he hates school. Calvin has friends and loves his teachers. This is the backdrop of our search. We watched schools post openings and each one led to the conversation: is this place good enough to leave Graded now? For most schools, the answer was no.

And then a high school English position opened up here. Before moving to Graded, I taught high school English for seven years at Harpeth Hall in Nashville. When we left Nashville, I was excited to return to middle school. Honestly, I didn’t want to hear the words “college” ever again. I wanted a break from high school problems. And for the past five years, I’ve loved working with middle school students again. Their joy! Their unbridled enthusiasm! Their silliness! A breath of fresh air.

Until the point comes when you are tired of silly noises, spacey students, forgotten materials. I started to feel myself needing a break from teaching students to use the TAB button and not the space bar five times. Reminding them to get their notebooks and folders for the 85th time. Telling them to stop very obviously mouthing words across the room to their best friend in the middle of my lesson. Threatening life and limb to the next person who blasts that annoying song from their laptop in the middle of silent work time. Sometimes students said or implied that they felt like the work didn’t matter, it’s just middle school anyway. Dare I admit that I wished someone might mention college and have it lend gravitas to the work?

I applied for the high school English job. I felt that panic again. What would happen to the 7th grade curriculum, or the journalism class? I needed to be there to guard these things I’d helped build. I couldn’t just let them go.

But I could. This is life, especially for teachers. The curriculum you wrote will be rewritten or thrown out. The new teachers will bring their own ideas and expertise. And? That’s beautiful. That’s life. That’s this ever-evolving field. It’s not meant to stay the same forever.

I went back and forth; I slept on it. I talked to some new teachers and some old ones. And I took the job.

I wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing at first. That feeling changed when I started to feel some joy and appreciation again. This was, after all, the last time I’d be teaching The Giver for quite some time, maybe ever. It stopped feeling like, Ugh, fifth time with The Giver, here we go, and started to feel like, Oh, The Giver, you’re great. Let’s do this and move on.

Of course, this isn’t a grass is greener. The grass is just different, and I’d like a change of turf for a while. Yes, high school students have their own problems. But they’re different problems. Problems I’m not tired of troubleshooting.

We signed a two-year extension and the kids are elated. We are all happy that our time in Brazil and at Graded is not coming to an end yet. We have time for more Portuguese, more travel, more time working with and learning from these amazing educators.

I’m working on leaving the plants in the dirt and trusting that the next generation will do with them what needs to be done–including replacing them or letting them die. It’s alright; I’ve got a new garden to tend.


Agency: Observations From the First Day of Middle School

Playing zipper tag with 100 7th graders on the first day of school.

In our pre-service deeper learning work this year we delved into a few areas in our new statement of deeper learning at Graded. One of the items on the list is agency.

To kick off our discussions, we read this text, “Making sense of student agency in the early grades” by Margaret Vaughn from Kappan. Despite the title, it’s very applicable to all ages and grade levels. And I love an article that begins with a teaching anecdote. According to Vaughn, agency is “a student’s desire, ability, and power to determine their own course of action.”

Reading that text, I immediately thought about students in my middle school journalism elective. The way I operate it, it is much like a workshop where students are writing on their own topics at their own speeds. After our first assigned topics, there are no required or common topics, and I don’t set deadlines for students. Everyone writes at their own speed, ideally matching the writing and revision speed to the type of article and level and complexity they have chosen.

This freedom of choice and pace is amazing for some students and paralyzing for others. I started to think that the difference between the two reactions comes down to agency.

I’ll come back to the journalism course as a study in agency later, but today was our first day with students and there were so many moments that made me think about student agency. A first day of school is hard for anyone, but for new students, it demands a high level of agency. They have to listen closely to instructions, decide which peers to follow or reach out to, ask for help of adults they maybe have never met.

After a morning of advisory, grade level, and middle school assemblies, after lunch, students got to go to their first four, each for a short 30 minutes. Every student had 3 copies of their schedule given to them in the morning. The schedule lists the block (1-8), the course (humanities 7), the teacher (Mrs. Griswold), and the room number (D27). But it’s a schedule of a normal school day rotation.

Students had to use the printed schedule to find blocks 1, 2, 3, and 4 for our short afternoon classes today. They had to notice the teacher and the classroom printed there. Then they had to use our classroom numbering system or ask a peer or adult for help. This all requires a lot of agency.

Standing outside my room, the most common question I got was “Where is Mr. Lockhart’s room?” or a variation on that. My follow up was always, “What’s the room number?”

Very few students had noticed the room number or remembered it. Many claimed that room numbers were not listed on their schedule. I loved waiting patiently for them to show me that they were no room nu–oh, it’s right here. E07.

Sometimes a student came up knowing the room number. I was standing outside room D27. “Where’s D28?” I would point out that I was in D27 and D26 was to their left. Any guesses for D28? Being middle schoolers, they often forgot to say goodbye or thank you after the lightbulb went off and they scampered to class.

There was one student who stood out today. He came to my room during the start of block 2, when I had already started the class. I could tell he wasn’t a 7th grader. I asked if he had my class right now. He said yes. I asked to see his schedule. Block 2 said PE in the main field.

“Do you know where the main field is?”


“We just had recess. Did you go to the field for recess?”


“Okay, head back there.”

That seemed to click for him and he turned and left. Turns out he only made it to 2 of his 4 classes successfully. I think he switched block 4 and block 1.

Listen, he’s a new student on a big campus. I totally get it. But there wasn’t a lot of giddyup in his step as he left my room. He seemed a bit passive, unfluffed, adrift. I know his cognitive load was probably at the max, but I theorized that I was seeing a student who generally lacked agency. I’m curious to see if this pattern holds. He was one of almost 30 new students in the middle school, and the only one I saw or heard about having those difficulties. It wasn’t a common pattern for new students.

I think there’s something here in this first day experience about agency. Agency means using the tools in your hands, knowing when and how to seek help, planning ahead and setting your speed to compensate for lost time. These are important parts of driving your own ship. I know that the definition I gave of agency was about determining a course of action, but part of agency is weathering storms. Steering through rough weather.

If the first day of middle school isn’t the purest form of steering through rough weather, I don’t know what is.

(I started at a new school in a new country in 7th grade myself. Sheesh, I could tell some stories. More on that to come.)

My challenge for myself is to think about ways to teach students to be agents. How can we help them reflect and then try to exercise more agency? How can we be explicit when teaching them how to be agents? I bet some kids today thought I was being mysterious when I prodded them to find the room number on their printed schedule, or when I explained how the buildings were numbered–this is D, the next building is E; 1 digit number is 1st floor, 2 digit number is second floor–rather than just pointing and telling them.

I’m not being difficult. I’m showing you that you, like Dorothy, had the answers all along. The power was always yours.

Group in journalism class tries to remember all the news they heard or read this summer.

Better, Not Awesome

Things are better, but not awesome. I don’t think awesome has really been on the table for the last 55 weeks, but it’s worth adding that caveat. Sometimes when you are struggling, people who wish you well want you to be great again so that they can not worry about you anymore. And sometimes those struggling get tired of carrying their own load plus someone’s else anxiety and worry, so we smile and say we’re fine! All cleared up!

It’s not “all cleared up,” but it is better. This Monday, Everett’s day care reopened. As a day care, they are classified as essential, even in the emergency phase we find ourselves in as a city with regular schools closed. On Monday morning, I sent this gif to my coworkers in our group chat with the message “Me walking away from dropping Everett off at day care this morning.”

For a moment I felt a bit bad. I don’t have tons of mom guilt, but sometimes I worry non-parents are going to be shocked.

So I followed that up with this gif and the caption, “To be fair, this was Everett running in the door without looking back.”

Monday was so much better. The two older kids did their work and due to leading less attention, I was able to focus on what I needed to do with less interruption.

Everett was sad before he went to school and said he’d miss us. I reassured him that we’d pick him up at the end of the day. He still repeats that feeling some mornings, but he comes home dirty from the sandbox and talking about what he did that day.

The other change I made that has improved my mental state was planning in more offline time in each of my 80 minute blocks. When we started the school year, I planned in 30-50 minutes of off-screen (asynchronous) work time for students. But as we went back to campus, I started running 80 minute live Zoom classes. It’s just exhausting for everyone involved, and I need to be free to help my children with their lessons and activities. Just being able to send my students off to work while I go get lunch started or help a kid with their writing assignment has done so much for me.

In case you needed reminding, I’m working two jobs and parenting at the same time. Matilda can’t read her math word problems or log herself into her computer. She needs help with instructions. She needs pencils sharpened and clean sheets of paper. She needs help finding her Portuguese book. They all need a time keeper to get them logged into their 4 Zoom classes a day. David and I have all these alarms set and we have to stop our teaching to tell the kids to join their Zoom classes when our phones start playing funny songs. And many times, we have to strong arm them into logging on because they resist.

They resist? I must admit that until March of this year, my kids have done 0 specials classes in distance learning. No PE, art, music, or counseling classes. And until this semester, they weren’t always consistent about going to their Portuguese classes every day. So, about half the time I tell them they have Portuguese or special, a cloud rolls over their eyebrows and they start negotiating skipping it. We’ve held the line and they always have a good time in those classes.

So I’m not in the low-bottom any more, in the words of Marc Maron. And that’s huge. I’m more focused, I’m less stressed, I’m less depressed.

We’re still waiting to find out if the state and city government will allow schools to reopen next week. Because we have parent/teacher conferences next week and only have classes on Monday and Friday, we bumped our tentative reopening to April 19, the following Monday.

The situation in Brazil and Sao Paulo is still really bad. You have to be really avoiding the news to not know that. There are a few signs of improvement in our state and city. Hospitalizations are down and we have some days of lower cases. It’s going to take some time for that to have an effect on the death rate and the ICU occupancy.

Teachers 47+ can get vaccinated starting on Monday. They haven’t announced when teachers under 47 will get vaccinated, but I’ve pre-registered and our school is hosting a vaccination site, so we may be able to get ours on home turf.

So, everything is “a little better, but…” That’s about as good as it gets in this pandemic, I guess.

But, hey, both my kids went outside to play with friends during our lunch break today and I’m writing this in a quiet, nearly empty apartment. I’ll take it where I can get it.


The relationship between my kids’ joy and my own

I’m back in distance learning this week after a week on campus. It’s been a rough couple days. The depression and anxiety–vague, amorphous–have crept back in. I just feel a general despair and frustration. To combat it, I want to tell you about a moment of joy yesterday.

Starting yesterday, Matilda is beginning 2 weeks of full-day, on-campus learning. Everett is beginning half-days on campus that will be indefinite. His half-day session rotates between mornings and afternoons each week. And without buses running, this means that David or I have to transport him to and from his day care and Graded. In the middle of the day. When we also have classes and duties.

Yesterday, I picked up Matilda and then we went and got Everett, then began to walk back across campus to where we were parked. We stopped at the library and Everett loaded his arms with every single dinosaur book he laid his eyes on, then demanded we sit on the couches and read. Matilda got two more books (to add to the two she checked out during the day when her class went to the library).

Walking up a ramp from the library, I was carrying my backpack, my swim bag, my tote bag with books and teaching stuff, Everett’s backpack, and the bag of library books. My shoulders hurt and I was panting.

But the chatter of the kids next to me was like hearing birdsong after emerging from a nuclear fallout bunker. Everett was talking about singing a dinosaur song, and Matilda was telling me about lunch and snack. As I write that, it doesn’t sound that remarkable. But my eyes started to fill up. They had a normal day. They were both energized and tired. They had things to tell me that I didn’t already know about. Matilda said, “Today I learned that the Earth goes around the sun. I didn’t know that!” Amazing. I was weeping. A day at school felt like a miracle.

I knew then that for me, the risks are worth it. Sending them to school, having Everett go to day care the other half of the days, all of it is worth it. To hear them chattering away about what activities they did, their specials, whatever, it’s worth it.

I felt a joy I’d forgotten I could feel. The joy of knowing that my kids are happy. I don’t always think consciously about carrying the weight of my kids’ pain. Honestly, it’s so painful to consider, so I think that I shield myself. Instead, I get mad about distance learning and students not turning in assignments. But that moment after a day at school made it clear to me that a huge part of the anxiety and depression of this time is how hard it is for our kids. How powerless we are to help them, to soothe them, to give them hope.

With kids as young as mine, we have had to soften all of the blows of the pandemic for them. We don’t tell them about death rates and ventilator shortages. We don’t mention variants. We don’t talk about the risk that their grandparents could die. Matilda is fascinated by birth and death, and so she’s often asking just the right questions. But even when she asks, I have ways to reassure her that I won’t die, her friends won’t die, even though I know that it’s not 100% certainty. I guess I’ve decided that I’ll apologize to her in the small chance that life proves me wrong.

Man, that’s some heavy shit. There’s a weight to all of this that we don’t let ourselves consider. The weight was somewhat lighter on Monday, and it made me realize what I’ve been carrying. Today it feels like I picked it all back up again.

I’m teaching from home today, so David will bring them home, and maybe that rush of chatter and flutter of papers from the backpacks will get me through the rest of the day.


Let’s Face It: Teaching with an Intense Desire to Quit

I remember being in my 20s and not really knowing who I was as an educator or what my value was. I dove headlong into committees, task forces, seminars, clubs or anything else I could sign up for. It wasn’t the wrong choice for me then. I was single, I didn’t have kids and I was trying to learn as much as I could. As I was trying to find my voice, and I ran myself ragged in the process.

The first two schools I left, it took me a while to realize it was the wrong fit and make the decision to go. I didn’t know if what I was feeling was normal, or if it was just growing pains. I didn’t know what the just-right fit was.

Now, here I am. I have a solid sense of my strengths, my goals, my worth as a teacher. I have made choices to be in a school I feel really strongly about. I am doing work I love and value.

And then the pandemic.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have jobs I hate now. Online teacher? I’d rather wait tables. Homeschooling mom? I’d rather…every thing I stick at the end of this sentence is horrifying. Just know that I’d never choose this for myself.

Many times a week, sometimes many times a day, the voice in my head says, This job sucks and you shouldn’t put yourself through this anymore! Quit! Find something new! RUN AWAY!

[This is where I jump in and say that I need you to finish this post before you jump to conclusions. I am not saying I hate my real job. I’m saying I hate my pandemic job. Stick with me.]

But online teaching from my apartment with my kids next to me isn’t really my job. This is a temporary terrible job that I have to do until I can get back to my real job. But my inner sense of self worth doesn’t know that. It just knows that I deserve better than this. I do! And that better is my real job teaching in a classroom, at my school, to a room full of real-life middle schoolers.

And yes, I am very fortunate to still have a job. I know that. But knowing that rationally doesn’t change how the experience internally.

Cut to every day when I have to talk my inner voice off the quitting ledge.

We can’t quit. These kids need us. Our colleagues need us. We love the job we get to go back to (someday). We love living in Brazil. We love our brilliant colleagues. [Deep breath].

One thing I’m learning is that it’s both/and.

I BOTH want to quit AND I will keep going.

Maybe that doesn’t seem revolutionary, but how many people acknowledge the first part of that? Our culture tends to emphasize the positivity without acknowledging the real feelings. So, the feelings get silenced or swallowed. That doesn’t work; that only backfires.

So, what am I suggesting? I think we should acknowledge that we want to quit. Say it out loud. When teachers say that we hate this and want to quit but are choosing to stay, I want school leaders to know this is a statement of love and dedication. Please don’t police our tone or chastise us for not being a positive team player. (Magic phrase: this sucks, I’m sorry.)

I know that for some, to say “I both want to quit and I will keep working” sounds purely negative and unproductive. You are dragging us down; you’re disrespecting the work.

I propose that we shift our thinking. When people show up, listen when they tell you how hard it was to show. Hear them. Because they didn’t run away. Hear their pain, and celebrate their courage to stay.

This is part of a bigger strategy that relates to mindfulness. I’m learning that the first step to gaining some mastery over my thoughts and feelings is just to acknowledge that they’re happening. That sounds so obvious, but it’s hard.

“Oh, yeah, I’m starting to worry about that. I’m starting to panic.”

“Oh, look, I’m feeling some dread about work tomorrow.”

It’s amazing how naming it deflates it. The unspoken has so much power–name it and you take back some of that power. It’s a classic trope: you can’t outrun yourself. You’ll have to face yourself sooner or later.

So, let’s face it. Let’s face the dark side, because we withstood it for another day. The dark side didn’t win today.

Again, Glennon Doyle says it better than I can.

May be an image of text that says 'glennondoyle A journalist once asked me, "With the onslaught of bad news and endless needs- how do you not quit?" said: "Oh, do quit! Quitting is my favorite. Every day quit. Every single day." I wake up and care the most amount. And then- at some point put it all away and melt into my people and my couch and food and nothingness. And care not at all. forget it all. Then go to sleep and wake up and begin again. Begin and quit every day! Only way to survive. Embrace quitting as a spiritual practice, loves. G'

That’s the both/and.

Are you sticking around as a teacher even though you want to cut and run? That’s amazing. You’re incredible. You live to fight another day. I’m right next to you.

Administrators, leaders, mentors: can you have the courage to acknowledge what teachers are feeling, really listen to the struggles? Can you also hear the love and dedication implicit in their presence, in spite of it all?

Am I saying you should high five me each time you see me on campus and say, “Woo! Didn’t quit today!” Hey, I wouldn’t mind that at all.


What teachers need: Gratitude and Acknowledgement of Challenge

I just finished my second day of parent-teacher conferences, conducted entirely through Zoom. I have one more tomorrow. At the end of the day today, I felt strangely happy. I even mentioned to David at dinner. “I’m really happy. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that I exercised more today?”

In talking to my therapist tonight, she asked me to tell her how conferences went. They were great actually, I told her. The parents really listened and they showed a lot of gratitude and empathy. So many parents said things like…

“I know you have little kids at home, and this is so hard…”

“I can’t imagine how you do it with little kids at home and a full time job…”

“We know how hard this is, and you are juggling teaching your own kids and teaching our kids…”

I realized that this is something that has been missing from my life: Personal acknowledgement. To see and say out loud that what I’m experiencing is really, really hard. I know that they can’t really do anything to help me, but to just say it out loud, that what I’m doing is hard. And they see it. They appreciate it for the struggle that it is. There was another unspoken element there: thanks for showing up. Thanks for taking all the hard stuff and continuing to show up.

A friend sent this Tweet thread a few weeks ago:

The parents gave me something I need. They saw me. They acknowledged the challenges and made space for them. They saw me and they thanked me.

Yes, of course, I’ve heard “Thank you,” from administrators, but it generally happens in group emails and in large meetings. By contrast, in the parent conferences, it felt much more personal. The parents mentioned details of my life that they knew about, so it wasn’t just a canned line to say to every teacher.

The other really important thing that came from the conferences was parents and students saying positive things about my class and my teaching. These affirmations of my work have been something I’ve really missed in distance learning. You don’t sense a student’s joy, you don’t hear them saying, “That was so cool!” as they leave the room. You don’t see the giant smiles or the “Yes!” when they get a good score on an assignment.

But in the conferences today, I heard kids and parents say that they were excited to come to class, liked this class the most, talked with their parents about what they were learning. Parents thanked me for my enthusiasm and encouragement. I had been feeling like I wasn’t able to encourage and celebrate kids enough because I couldn’t walk around the room and give students little check ins. Yes, this isn’t ideal teaching, but parts of me are still coming through to kids.

One student said she was so proud of herself for reading 5 books during independent reading in just 3 months. Many parents thanked me for including independent reading in class each day. They are happy to see their kids rekindle (or kindle) a love of reading.

I heard from parents how much they appreciated my feedback on assignments. Now, all my feedback is online in our open gradebook, whereas before I’d write comments on a piece of paper. As a result, parents are able to see the time and detail I put into the feedback I give to students, and they thanked me for that effort and attention.

One parent said that he felt like I really knew his kid, really got what he was like and what he needed. I was so shocked by that. I always feel like online learning is so much more disconnected, that I have way less opportunities to form relationships with students. But my relationship building hasn’t been completely lost.

One parent even said she loved my voice! That had me laughing.

Okay, this isn’t magic. I think what’s so good about today is that I got real, personalized compliments on what I’m doing well. Not just like a “Thanks for doing your job,” but a thing specific to me. That’s the first part.

The second part is acknowledging how hard this is. How much this sucks. How much I’m juggling. How much I’ve lost. Just say it. And again, make it personal. Point out what is real about each person’s struggle.

Sincere, personal thank you + acknowledgement of specific struggle. That’s the formula.

I’m not a school leader, so I don’t want to make guesses about what’s going on in their hearts and minds. But those of us in the arena of daily Zoom classes and online teaching really need to have our challenges acknowledged and our efforts celebrated. There’s so much our school leaders can’t do, but this is one thing they can.

This year, our PTA gift for teacher appreciation week had two items. First, was a monogrammed blanket–a super fuzzy and soft one.

Second, we received a candle. I really love what’s printed on the candle:

This is a gift that speaks directly to my human needs, my struggles. It is my favorite gift I’ve ever received for teacher appreciation week. It just so happens it’s a chilly night here in Sao Paulo, so I think I’ll go get under that blanket right now.


Grieving My Lost Silence

By talking to a therapist each week, I’ve started realizing how much grief I am experiencing. I’ve been lucky in my life to not have much experience with grief–the kind of grief someone feels after a death, a divorce, an illness, a lost job.

But I am grieving. On March 18, 2020, from one day to the next, I lost the life I used to live. And I am grieving.

One thing in particular I think about a lot is the loss of silent space and time. I used to have either 80 or 160 minutes of free period time each day at school. Add to that the 15 minutes in the morning and an hour after school. I had time to sit and read student work. To plan an upcoming unit. To create samples of work to show students. I lost that so suddenly.

While I may have blocks when I don’t teach in distance learning, I am doing my other jobs in that time: homeschooling and being a stay at home mom. I have to get my kids in their Zoom classes at the right time. I have to help them read the day’s activities and complete them. I have to cook, fold laundry, do dishes, clean the messes. I have to put the toddler in time out and solve the dispute over the couch blanket. I have to get snacks and wipe a nose. I have to remember to drink enough water and brush my teeth.

Here is what my week looks like:

Every member of my family has a color (I have two, one for school and one personal). Anything on the schedule is a Zoom call or meeting, not just an activity or suggested off-screen thing. Those are all things that are part of my job or my children’s classes. The people in pink, blue and green don’t wear watches and only one can read the Zoom app. The brown is David because he and I juggle who teaches from the living room while also parenting and who teaches in the back room.

By comparison, if I was on campus, my schedule would look like this, if you ignore Wednesday. Wednesday would look like the other days.

That first calendar feels like it looks. From one day to the next in March, I lost all opportunity to sit and work without interruption. Overnight I got 2 more jobs. And the expectation is still that I deliver quality instruction and quality feedback to students every day. When and where will that work take place? That’s not rhetorical. It’s a real question. My children go to bed at 8:30 pm and it is the first time I am able to work. After a day like you see on that calendar, what is left at 8:30 pm?

Let’s talk about Maslow again.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology

I live in red and orange all day, every day. Yellow is an aspiration. Yellow is reserved for small moments on Saturdays and Sundays. Green is nearly impossible when my teaching is done on screen.

I am grieving. I know this because I am angry and depressed. I cycle through those two over and over each day. I had a good life. A curated life. One with balance and separation of work and home life. I no longer have that. That was taken from me, even if I know it was for a good reason. It was still taken and I am grieving its loss.

Just know that if you ask me for yellow, green or blue, I am going to feel a wash of new anger and sadness. Because I remember what I had. It feels like mockery.

If you want to help teachers, give us the gift of silent time. If you can’t give us silence, give us time. Time when you don’t tell us where to be or what to do. Time where we can decide for ourselves how best to get through this day. That is the help we need. You can’t come baby sit my kids. So, take my advisory one day. Be a guest teacher in my class. Run a check in on Wednesday with a student who is missing work. Release me early from a meeting.