Saturday, May 23, 2020

Pandemic Teacher Summer Day 1: It's Time to Play in the Dirt

Yesterday I wrapped up my twenty-fourth year of teaching with one last visit to my school building (I had to deliver some yearbook payments that had been hastily grabbed from my mailbox on the day teachers were given a half-hour to grab essentials to help facilitate instruction from home), helped a fellow teacher take down her twinkle lights so she can transfer to another school in-district (we wore masks and I re-rolled the LED strands from six feet behind her), planned a very tentative instructional schedule with the remaining members of our grade-level team (two have left) during an informal and productive Zoom meeting from home, wrote and sent my last weekly newsletter to my Super Stars and their families, and held my last parent-teacher conference of the year before dinner, three hours after I technically stopped being my students' "official" teacher. A few last teacher-appreciation gifts made me smile:

This morning I woke at my normalish time, made coffee, and checked to see if there were any education Twitter chats planned but found my regulars on break for the Memorial Day weekend. For the past few years I've enjoyed #satchat and #sunchat get-togethers as transitions to the beginning of my summer break, but this year it seems I'm to dive right into my end-of-the-year reflection.  I reread my self-check from the start of the year and found all of it to still ring true.  The raw feelings of my last few posts since the stay-at-home order have started to heal and fade, and I remain determined to find some semblance of balance between my professional and home lives as I look forward to spending quality with my family, tending the food and flowers growing in my greenhouse and taking online courses addressing the creation of effective online teaching and content creation. No, no "summer off" for this teacher.

I'll update my district web page so that parents of my next class of Super Stars who go searching for sneaky-peeks into our classroom this summer are greeted warmly, and I'll undertake the Herculean task of cleaning up the desktop of both my school-issued and personal computers. I created so much content and didn't sort it effectively as I went along, and I don't want to risk throwing it all away with the possibility of still needing it during the upcoming year.  I already took down the classroom props and essentials in my craft room to return it to what I hope will be a comfy and cozy creative space for my continued hobbying.  I'm working on two afghans, plugging along on my goal of crocheting at least one big blanket per month. Last night I took a long soak in the tub and began reading Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

My family and I plan to continue to stay at home as much as possible and to socially-distance ourselves if and when we have to go out to run essential errands.  Masked people are my people, but I've noticed far too many children, who, while accompanying their parents, cower in fear, like many kids do when faced with something or someone scary, as they encounter me in an aisle, or see me sitting in my vehicle waiting for my pick-up delivery.  Some families aren't preparing their children for this new normal, so I anticipate creating and sharing content to help normalize mask-wearing for future students. If I see one too many "prevent the summer slide" or "fill curricular holes created by the pandemic" advertisements or even blog posts by fellow teachers, I'll probably get all ranty in an attempt to explain how no, children don't really shake their heads and erase everything they've encountered and explored like an Etch-a-Sketch pad, and yes, play really IS the best way for them to develop their awareness, knowledge, and interest in this world.  Though I really would have enjoyed a longer break from taking college courses, the workshop I've applied for was frankly irresistible, since I'm a just-in-case person.  With the likelihood that I'll need to continue to reimagine and modify my future students' learning environment, I want more resources and inspiration to help me creatively problem-solve.

With year twenty-five on the horizon, do I hope to remain a kindergarten teacher for the rest of my career?  No.  I would like to become a library media specialist and am waiting for the all-clear so that I can reschedule the taking of my PRAXIS.  I'd pack up my teaching belongings in a heartbeat if I were offered a library in my district, even during a pandemic. Thankfully, I'm not feeling like a reluctant kindergarten whisperer: a year (or a few more) working exclusively with young children and their families doesn't fill me with dread- I will love them forever.  But I do rather feel like I'm on autopilot, and my spirit is chomping at the bit for a new challenge and adventure in education. It's not abandonment or burnout, but a continuation of change and growth, and its possibilities excite me. Shouldn't we all get to feel that several times during our careers?

This year's class photo (and yearbook, when it finally arrives) will get filed away with the others from all of my years of teaching but will stand apart, no matter what. I can only hope that my students and their families, and my colleagues with whom I've traveled and taught over this quarter-century remain safe and healthy. But for now, it's time to go play in the dirt.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

A Note from the Teacher

Families will be returning their borrowed tech devices to school this week, and many teachers are hoping that they'll be able to pick up one last packet from us before the start of summer vacation.  Some students will experience a continuation of their current stay-cation, while others will be packing up to move when Uncle Sam finally decides upon their military parent's next duty assignment.

This will be the last time this year's Super Stars will receive feedback or a note from me, and most likely it will be added by parents to their child's copy of Oh, the Places You'll Go! or some other keepsake book that will be given upon graduation from high school.  As seventeen and eighteen-year-olds there's a good chance my students won't remember me, but they may retain clear memories of when they unexpectedly had to continue their kindergarten learning activities from home.  While heartfelt, honest sentiments are always best, the conclusion of this year has me feeling raw and exhausted. I cannot bring myself to handwrite these notes. I've tried writing one to see if I could then scan it, a solution suggested by my husband, but I hate the look of the lined paper, and frankly, my wobbly penmanship.  With my thoughts clear but my wrist and fingers unwilling to execute, I came across another way to solve the problem: adhesive mailing labels.  I can type and then print what I want to say, handwrite each salutation and closing, and keep the sticker backing in place so that parents can easily add it to their child's book.  

Every year I give my Stars a final storybook, an end-of-the-year certificate, and a copy of our memory video on a disc. 

This year they will also receive this note:

Children will tell their parents "Oh, Mrs. Sommerville always says 'goodness gracious me' (or 'goodness gracious Google') and 'okie dokie artichoke-y,'" and hopefully my Stars and their families will understand how much I appreciate them without becoming sad.  It's been emotional, writing this last note from the teacher for both a present-day almost first-grader and a future high school graduate.  I hope that when my Stars read it again twelve years from now that it affirms how much they have been valued by not only their families but by their teachers, too. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Goodnight Room... But For How Long?

My room is packed and put away, my report cards are finished, and my curriculum is checked in.  At the same time that I was turning off the classroom lights and turning in my key today, other schools in the country were opening back up and admitting students.  I'll admit it: I cried. I cried for myself, cried for my Super Stars, and cried for the teachers and students stuck in horrible situations where going back to school while COVID19 remains just as dangerous and deadly is preferable to staying at home.

Because at home there might not be any food.  Or at home, the only engagement from family members may be abusive or neglectful. Maybe there isn't a home at all.

As for the accommodations that reopening schools are making for students, especially in regard to kindergarten and other early childhood grades, I just want to cry some more.  It doesn't matter if you space individual student desks and chairs six feet apart: young children seek connection, and they seek to interact with toys, materials, books, textures, nooks, crannies, scents, tastes, and one another.  They don't just want hugs when they get hurt, they need them.  They need them when they're scared, proud, unsure, and filled with joy.  They explode with enthusiasm, anger, fear, relief, discovery, and acknowledgement, and it doesn't matter if there's a poster with rules on it or a sticker chart "rewarding" (shaming) them into compliance, or a reminder note, or the threat of a phonecall home put in place to "manage" them: NOTHING is going to change the fact that these dynamic, organic, spontaneous and constantly inquisitive learners will not be contained.

And if they decide that their masks itch, or are too tight, or feel gross after they open-mouth cough and sneeze into them leaving a soggy mess rubbing against their skin?  How many extras will be sent to school in backpacks, or distributed by teachers? How about when students play with the masks or take them off while using the restroom, dropping them to the floor, or dangling them from their little fists as they grip the toilet seat and flusher?  How "preventative" and "protective" will that be? Nosepickers and booger-eaters (just keeping it real, because it's important that none of us ignores all authentic aspects of childhood as we swift march ourselves toward "solutions" that make grownups feel good) aren't going to stop picking, eating, and wiping those germy morsels all over themselves, the furniture and other surfaces or objects just because they're wearing masks.  And when those masks begin to chafe and hurt their faces, or families discover that their children are allergic to the fabric content of the masks and ties?  How about the vomit?  Good lord, the vomit.

Arranging desks six feet apart is a new classroom layout. It is not proof that the children who sit in them (or the teacher who will sit and stand elsewhere) will be safe. Requiring children to wear masks shows that we're attempting to reduce the spread of disease, but it doesn't prove that we're going to succeed, especially when we continue to make decisions while purposely refusing to consider how young children will, in fact, remain tactile young learners who simply aren't designed to leave things alone.  And for those students who will remove their masks, refuse to wear them, or wear them ineffectively?  Who will be blamed when those children become sick?  How many long-term subs will be available to replace the teachers who become sick due to exposure from children or from the over-use of disinfectants?  How many family members who remain at home will become ill from school children?  And when parents return to work, only to become sick themselves?  Their family goes into quarantine, including their schoolchildren, correct?

I'm no virologist, but I **know** kindergarteners.  I **know** children.  And I **know** adults.  So do you... which is why reopening schools is an experiment, at best.

At worst, it'll cause more than just tears.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Teacher Appreciation: Dedicated Teacher

Yesterday was the "flipped" Teacher Parade in my district. Teachers and staff lined their school's sidewalks while families drove their students slowly through the street to see us. My incredible colleagues and I somehow managed our emotions as families drove by in their decorated vehicles with their children, our students, shouting our names and holding up signs as their parents honked their horns. We laughed, smiled, waved, cheered, held back the happy tears, fought back the I-miss-you-and-hurt-over-not-being-with-you tears, blew kisses, threw long-distance hugs at anyone and everyone, and signed "I love you." 

Mother Nature knew better than to rain on our parade, saving the sprinkles for later in the afternoon. And for the first time, the post's monthly test of the tornado sirens wasn't frightening: they blended in rather nicely with the honking and music blasting from all of the cars. I may have gotten carried away with a noisemaker that a colleague gave me. Can you blame me?

It was wonderful, painful, joyous, surreal, and... needed, this recognition of both the palpable grief and the bright flashes of hope that we're experiencing and using to keep ourselves going.

This is the shirt I wore.  As usual, my teacher's wardrobe is full of affirmations, whimsy, humor, and lots of messages. I found it on Etsy, in this wonderful little shop... head over to @DesignsByManon and show her some love.

It was a good day, a wonderful parade, and yes, I cried in my truck on the way home. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Reflection: Mentorship and Pencils During COVID19

COVID19 has certainly been effective at throwing all sorts of systems and semblances of normalcy out the window.  Creating new teaching environments, using new communication platforms and tools and completely reorganizing our days and routines are pretty weighty changes to experience in a short amount of time.  While I wrap up week four of "instruction" and collaboration and problem-solving with all of my colleagues, be they grade-level or building teammates, building and district administrators, special education and other support staff, I know that some folks within the district are likely already beginning to anticipate any needs that parents, students, teachers and staff might have come the fall semester.  Long-range planning happens every year, whether there is a pandemic or some other hurdle in play or not.  No matter when their stay-at-home orders were enacted, other schools and other districts have started to do the same.

During many past springs, I pencil-planned for the upcoming year as soon as the finalized school calendar was published. I pencil-plan rather than ink-plan because I know that events will be rescheduled and our calendar will change.  I'll find new resources, experience new jolts of inspiration, and have to be flexible for unanticipated accommodations. Nothing is set in stone despite the hope that everything will, in time, go according to the way I had both intended and hoped.  Using a pencil indicates that it's a rough draft, the version that precedes the working draft.  For many years the working draft got its fair share of White-Out dabbed across its pages, simply because I liked the glide of ink over the abrasion of pencil. Nowadays, I simply double-click on text, delete it, and revise data within the cell. Knowing that changes will inevitably happen has never caused me to rethink the merit of pencil-planning. It's another way for me to mentally map the foundational pieces I need and plan to implement for my students' benefit.  I doubt I'll ever choose to fly-blind just waiting to be "surprised" during back-to-school PD. I can be informed now and pencil-plan so that future mandates don't throw me against the wall in August.  

As the most veteran member of my grade-level team, and despite having missed the beginning of the year with them thanks to my late-summer surgery and extended recovery time, I am both formally required to act in a mentorship role and personally feel responsible for making myself and my experience regularly available to my colleagues.  I have expanded my PLN over the years to include groups on Twitter and Facebook, and I have been fortunate to meet and learn from all sorts of wonderful early-childhood educators, college professors and library media specialists during my career and master's program.  When I'm asked for help by a teacher in my building or one five states away via social media, I try to make sure to preface what I share with "use it or don't," so that my PLN can cherrypick the best of what I might be able to offer them while hopefully feeling the autonomy to make their own choices and to innovate, rather than pressure to comply and risk becoming a cookie-cutter teacher. I also believe in playing the role of devil's advocate in order to broaden thinking.  Affirmation, agreement, and the feeling of being a contributory component of a trusted partnership where ideas can be shared, explored, or simply explained are essential emotions for members of any team or purposeful group to experience.  I believe that a common goal for teams should be to balance harmony while avoiding tunnel-vision because being repeatedly blindsided by information that could have been shared earlier but wasn't results in wasted time, increased frustration, and eventual mistrust.  Whether lurking or being actively involved in these conversations, I reap the benefit of diverse perspectives and the experiences of others.  I am a mentor and "mentee," a colleague of other educators.

Working from home I still feel like I must operate within dual roles as I teach, collaborate, plan and share.  I'm a colleague who is not only a kindergarten teacher, but the yearbook producer for the school and the moderator for the professional development points requests that teachers submit towards their re-licensure.  I don't respond in philosophic terms to inquiries about the cost of yearbooks, whether or not I have a piece of writing paper that I can scan and share as a template, or the number of points needed for a fifth-year teacher without a master's degree to renew his or her license. However, when colleagues new to teaching and/or new to our building and district ask for a heads-up regarding what to expect from an upcoming grade-level district meeting, or need clarification so that they better understand the shift from academic grading to marks for engagement, my role as mentor requires that I go a bit deeper, and invest time to not only offer the reasoning behind answers and explanations, but to really hear their concerns and worries, too. This can be a highly emotional, intense component of mentorship, especially for someone who empathizes with others.  To me, there is a distinct difference between the nuts and bolts of teaching and the soul of teaching.  As a colleague, I can hand you a ream of construction paper when you've run out.  As a mentor, I can suggest different ways of using it to benefit your students when you ask or express an interest.  Both responses are helpful within their constructs and contexts.  I experience this emotionality and desire to share authentically via social media as well. 

Having to try to teach remotely isn't a choice I, or many others, would have made, but wanting to do it as well as I possibly can remains my intention. I hoped to be both an effective colleague and mentor during this time too, but at this point, I feel like I'm failing at giving my immediate colleagues and some distance-edu-friends what they want or need.  None of us is operating at one-hundred percent, and we all react differently to stressful situations.  Issues that have arisen likely wouldn't have become issues at all if the status-quo of our daily instruction with students within our classrooms had been maintained and COVID19 hadn't come along.  We're not all in the same boat, and even our storms differ.  Perhaps some need me to metaphorically just hand them a ream of construction paper, despite the fact that their questions and assertions resemble requests for guidance and/or context.  Compounding this uncertainty for me are *of course*  my old standbys: for one, I can't "hear" another person's tone within an email and rely heavily upon the use of emojis and gifs (score one for social media where emojis reign supreme).  Not many people have the energy, inclination or patience it takes to find the wink, the laughing out loud, or the thinking faces right now, or maybe they're just not considered professional. Secondly, I continue to falsely assume that politeness and consideration will be reciprocated in return for my efforts.  Not everyone says "thank you," during a pandemic (another point for social media where showing appreciation continues to be considered proper etiquette), so I remind myself that it is those with whom we are most familiar that we should afford the most grace, especially when it's for something as simple as forgiving a social faux-pas. After dipping my toes into the ponds and streams of Facebook and the lakes and oceans on Twitter, I'm confident that there are many other teachers across the nation and in other countries who also find navigating their colleagues' emotions a wee bit tricky this month. Perhaps a gross generalization would actually be appropriate for this moment in time: none of us is getting what we hope for right now. 

After four weeks of remote learning, fifteen years in my present district, twenty-four (twenty-five?) years of teaching, and with a nationwide PLN at my fingertips, I still feel both able and inclined to pencil-plan this spring, just as I've done almost every year.  I've worked ahead to curate, create and schedule content via Seesaw, which has afforded me extra time for other pursuits and chores.  Because I've purposely sought out multiple news sources, surfed and chosen to read information shared from teachers in other districts and states regarding their immediate and future proposed solutions to closed schools, and have tracked the daily updates from health officials (I'm ignoring politicians who are advocating for the economy over problem-solving that will save the most lives) that have made it clear that we are, in fact, 1) presently both lab rats and human test subjects and 2) that it won't be safe for us to "return to normal" until we have a vaccine that is at least a year away, I've set myself the task of envisioning what remote learning might look like in August and September (and October, and November, and February, and April 2021). So when questions from colleagues near and far arose this week regarding possible changes and tweaks to the present emergency based technology-heavy format for delivery of instruction, I suggested that any and all continued fine-tuning might reflect not only a current but possibly future need as well: there's a significant chance that we will not be returning to the classroom as hoped for in the fall.  Can I articulate whether my response came from colleague-me or mentor-me?  Not really. Can I unequivocally say that I didn't intend to cause additional stress and worry when I shared my thoughts?  Yes. 

Suffice it to say, I now realize that many teachers are not ready to pencil-plan or entertain possibilities for next year.  Perhaps they don't plan to return and are focusing all of their time and effort into making their last weeks of remote teaching the best that they can for their students and their sanity.  Perhaps their boats and their storms have them planted squarely in the middle of the fiercest fight of their lives and their immediate needs require that they invest all of their time and effort bailing water from their vessel.  Perhaps they prefer the top-down approach, believing that their "circle of control" (yay, ontological coaching, my favorite), is solely dependent upon the decisions of others, so they'd prefer to not do anything at all until an administrator tells them to.  I can admire their perseverance and any commitment they have made to be the best teachers for their students possible. I can empathize with their fear, and sympathize deeply with their pain, with full acknowledgment that it's not just students who have to "do Maslow before Bloom."  No, I'll never advocate that teachers completely hand over the reins of education to administrators and politicians, no matter how much I appreciate all of the "good" ones.  While I believe it's prudent to start the work of tomorrow today, or at least soon regarding the next school year, I understand that not everyone feels the same way for a multitude of reasons. 

And it's here, with these most passive or even resistant of educators, that I find myself feeling neither like colleague-me or mentor-me, but instead wanting to channel Chrisjen Avasarala, a character from one of my favorite science fiction series as I choose to concede (slightly) with this:

"Well, we disagree. One of us is wrong. I think it's you... but I hope it's me."

I hope a true miracle presents itself that enables us to get back to business without fear for our health, or the health of our families, students, colleagues, and neighbors, soon.  But until then...

... hand me a pencil, will you?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

How are you doing? What are you doing?

Fellow educators, how are you doing?

Me... I'm still in the process of establishing a new daily routine.  The stay at home and help my teenager adapt to his new schedule routine. The stay at home and help my teenager adapt to his new schedule while connecting with students and families routine.  The stay at home and help my teenager adapt to his new schedule while connecting with students and families at the same time I'm doing laundry and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces routine.  The stay at home and help my teenager adapt to his new schedule while connecting with students and families at the same time I'm doing laundry and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in between learning new digital platforms and creating content to be posted to those platforms routine.

The do-all-of-the-above while attending multiple Zoom meetings, and then, when the videoconferencing is done for the day, sewing masks for the family routine.

For me, the hardest of all has been the do-ALL-of-the-above while reminding myself often that everyone is free to have their own opinions and coping mechanisms and latitude in how they express their emotions, even when it's in not-so-nice ways and inflicts additional stress upon everyone else while we're calling it all "granting grace" routine.  There's a very good chance you know what I mean.  Not everyone rises to the occasion.  There are even some who refuse to try. 

Yes, there are folks whose stay-at-home routines include health issues, and the loss of friends and family and security and safety.  I can't let myself wallow in either empathy or sympathy simply because I'd feel like I was drowning in sorrow. I experience it, affirm that I am still a human being, and then put it aside.  It's how I continue to function semi-effectively.

What are you doing?  Have you annexed some part of your living space to serve as a makeshift backdrop for your time with students? Are you scrambling to learn Google Classroom, Seesaw, Loom, or some other such thing?  Have any of your pets, children or spouses "crashed" your video recordings or meetings? 

Thankfully, my recent Master's Degree in Educational Technology has already served me well by planting my feet directly upon the baseball diamond, rather than on the edges or barely within the ballpark itself.  Seesaw, Loom, Zoom, and creation tools such as PowerPoint are intuitive for me, but I know they aren't for many other teachers.

Whether I'm recording "good morning," storytime, fingerplays and songs, instructional, or "goodbye, see you tomorrow" videos, or attending grade level, building or district Zoom meetings, Tish-Tish chooses to join me, enabled by the fact that my teaching backdrop is situated within my craft room downstairs affording her easy access.  Teachers in my district were able to retrieve essentials from our classrooms, our choices guided by the Kansas State Department of Education's Continuous Learning Plan. I brought home my document camera, manipulatives, some recognizable classroom charts and lots and lots of storybooks that have been stored on a bookshelf and in tubs on the floor near my desk.

I was also able to rescue plants from my classroom and grabbed some other decor to catch my students' eyes, though the wall of yarn was a really big distraction for the first few days.

I've worked ahead, creating ELA, Math, and social-emotional content four days in advance in an effort to avoid the frequent internet outages that take place in my neck of the woods. Reading and recording a story the day that it's to be enjoyed by kindergarteners is a gamble I'm not willing to take. Has it helped that my internet provider was bought out at the start of the pandemic and is now owned by a company whose customer service has yet to yield an actual human being with whom I can interact in real-time as I inquire about my account and service?  No, not so much.  I know, they're experiencing the same difficulties we all are. 

If only we'd had, oh, I don't know... advance warning that this type of situation was on the horizon.  But I digress.  

I've found humor and joy in the little things, like drinking my coffee out of previously not-appropriate-for-school mugs:

... and lending my smiling face and a sweet sentiment so that a colleague could create  a "we miss you" video for all of the students in our school:

 I've also discovered new things about myself, such as:

1) I'm not a pajama-wearing teacher even when I'm at home.  I'm a business-on-the-top-and-yoga-pants-on-the-bottom professional. 
2) I have never wanted sneak peeks into my colleague's bedrooms, especially not during meetings.  Didn't have to worry about that until now.  As it turns out, I still don't want sneak peeks into their bedrooms.  I don't care if you're comfortable rocking your best bed-head hairstyle, just do me a favor and choose to flaunt it while you sit at your dining room table or out on the back porch during our meetings, okie dokie?
3) I'm not a big fan of motion sickness, which is probably why I've never enjoyed videos featuring hand-held videography or subjects who insist on always being in motion. Lordie, people, put the device down on a sturdy surface and plant yourself in front of it. 
4) I go into withdrawals when I don't have access to my students, our routine, our schedule, our laughter, our... us-ness. It's not pretty. 
5) Though I'm a kindergarten teacher, I would love to do read alouds for upper-elementary and middle school students.  The Girl Who Drank the Moon would be the first book I would read and record for middle schoolers if I had the opportunity.


I hope you're well, and that your friends and family and co-workers and neighbors are experiencing good health while exercising good judgment.

As for me, Tish-Tish has decided it's time to collaborate and sort through activity pages for next week, and I'm not one who tends to argue with administration.