Paper reinforcers

August 18th, 2011 | Filed under: personal

meticulous: showing great attention to detail; very careful and precise

fiddling: annoyingly trivial and petty

I spent a disturbing amount of my puberty putting paper reinforcers on the holes of college-ruled notebook paper. This started as early as eighth grade when I attended a small, evangelical Christian school in Chesapeake, Virginia. While the school’s curriculum included a number of unofficial yet unfortunate topics (ie: how Catholics are idolators, why dating isn’t Christian, etc.), I came to appreciate its emphasis on primary-source documents and the development of notes and resources by the student that would then become a resource/textbook. Maybe it stemmed out of a need to save money, but “your notebook is your textbook,” they would always say. With this in mind, I would convince my mother to drive me to OfficeMax at the Janaf Shopping Center in Norfolk where I would think and mull over which folder or tab system would be best for which subject. Always ready in my well-organized Jansport backpack was a roll of paper hole reinforcers, White Out, and various shapes and sizes of Post-It notes. Oh, and who could forget the mini stapler and the matching, very necessary mini staple remover? Needless to say, I was poked fun of by my friends for my quirky concern with office supplies.

And this was just office supplies. I would also go through phases in school where I decided to suddenly alter my penmanship. I went through the phase of writing in tiny CAPS before moving onto a Frankenstein hybrid of print and cursive that I thought seemed more adult. As if the penmanship was more important than the words going onto the paper – the college-ruled, hole-reinforced paper.

That was then.

My love of the Internet and technology has ushered in an entirely new way of obsessing over and tweaking my systems. I recently read David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done.” As someone perceived to have so much potential and yet hopelessly prone to procrastinating and missing deadlines, I am always in search of something to save me from myself. I approached GTD out of the same desperation. Many of Allen’s concepts blew me away – I had lots of aha moments and lightbulbs. Yet I still spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking and fiddling with my Evernote, with tags and saved searches, to set it up as a digital GTD system. I even had a friend bring a box of plain manila folders over from the U.S. for my paper reference/filing system because I just wasn’t into the folders here in The Netherlands.

Tags and file taxonomies and GMail labels – these have become my paper reinforcers and White Out and file tabs. I am still doing the same thing and letting the same behaviors mask problems and confidence issues I have lurking underneath all of this seeming “organization.”

I come from a family of attention-deficit folks. My father, my brother, my uncle, and probably countless others are textbook “ADHD” and have been diagnosed as such. I have never been diagnosed nor have I sought out doctors to tell me either way. Young girls weren’t diagnosed with ADD or ADHD as often as boys when I was in middle and high school. If you were a daydreaming girl who couldn’t focus or stay on task, you were deemed lazy or told to “get your head out of the clouds.” I always seemed to be on task, seemed to be busy focusing and working to the untrained eye, but any close inspection (which my teachers never did) would have revealed a serious problem. I did not have trouble focusing, but rather found it impossible to focus on the right thing when I needed to. I can cook a big meal from start to finish and not forget an ingredient. I can knit a pair of baby mittens while listening to a podcast. However, ask me to meet a writing deadline after I’ve finished the interview and I shut down. I’m not ready. I’m still thinking. I’m still brainstorming and figuring out my lede. Ask me to sit down and write that unit plan, the one I’ve been googling and saving links for, the one I’ve been jotting down notes on legal pads for, and again I shut down. I’m not ready. I’m too busy thinking and trying to plan before I plan before I plan. These behaviors are problematic for someone who has an affinity for jobs that require grown-up homework (journalist, teacher).

I came to think about all of these issues while listening to one of my favorite new podcasts. At first blush it would seem to have nothing to do with my life and work, but “Back to Work” with Merlin Mann & Dan Benjamin seems to speak loudly and clearly to my current situation and the way I approach my work and creativity. These are two guys that seem a world away from my life as a teacher, but I can’t help but identify with them. In many ways it’s a superficial connection – I’m a nerd and enjoy the geeky banter, strange facts and movie references that pepper the conversations. I’m also a Mac geek like the both of them. But more than these, I identify with the hunger to create something and the many, many things that can distract and keep you from doing just that if you allow them to.

I just started listening to this podcast, so I’m a bit behind on the episodes. In the most recent episode I listened to, Merlin Mann said that “no one has ever thought a novel into existence.” He rambled on about how the brain and the gut can do a lot to discourage our hand from making something (and I mean ramble in a very good way). He clearly admires writers like Don Murray and Natalie Goldberg and references them often, in connection with writing of course, but also in creating anything. I too came to love Don Murray for the way he framed writing as an approachable practice – it is something you have to practice to get good at. Before he died, he wrote every single day. If a writer stops writing, she is no longer a writer. Anyone can write, but to be a writer, you have to sit down and write. You can’t just think about writing and expect a piece of work to appear. Seems simple, right?

Writing is another activity I avoid – a creative process for which I find countless justifications for not engaging in – because I am afraid of the permanence and finality of having something on paper or screen. With my students, we write in journals every day and practice the act of freewriting – of letting your hand just move across the page, without editing. I tell my students that they can save a piece of writing or throw it away – it doesn’t matter, because it is the act of doing it that is important. However, I also understand how difficult that can be for some of them. This is my own complex, but yet it is something that connects me to those students as they sit down to write. Some get this concept easily while others need support, encouragement and coaxing to move toward a regular writing practice. They need to practice writing if they ever hope to slough the fear of writing. I am not there yet myself.

One of my favorite quotes is by E.M. Forster who pondered “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That to me is one of the things that can be so intimidating about writing. You may not truly understand yourself until you get things down on the paper or the screen and maybe there’s a reason you avoid doing that – maybe there are things you aren’t ready to understand about yourself. Julia Cameron and her recommendation of “Morning Pages” – of writing three pages every morning, long-hand – approaches writing as near-therapy.

These memories are bubbling to the surface as I think about my students. Those few students who, like myself, are painfully organized and enjoy using highlighters and Post-It notes, only to miss out on the messy, real learning that can go on if you just let go. One of my favorite comedians  is Marc Maron. He joked once on his podcast that he visited a friend’s house only to find the friend’s house was extremely clean and organized – every little thing in its place. Maron chuckled and asked “So what are you running from?”

I struggle. I concentrate too much on getting the system just right that I miss out on the opportunities to create somehting with the system. Right now I am thinking and thinking about units and what to do with my students, but avoiding putting anything down on paper. I am letting my mind run wild as my hands sit idle – as the creating muscles atrophy.

I’m just beginning to analyze my perfectionism and procrastination as a sign of something deeper. An apprehensiveness about making mistakes. And when you’re a teacher, mistakes are par for the course. As a teacher, you take time getting to know students, their learning differences and interests so that you can meet students where they are and help them stretch and grow. And, now and again, you make mistakes. You select texts that bomb. You assume students know something only to realize mid-lesson they don’t and then you need to reteach it. You have your “off” days.

I am walking into this new year with goals in mind, hoping they aren’t too pie-in-the-sky or unachievable. I plan to sit down with students and have a discussion about what we all want out of this learning experience. I’ve been reading through “The First Days of School” based on rave reviews from teachers. While I understand the need for procedures – and I will certainly have them – I am more interested in getting to know these kids first than in scaring them into submission with lists and policies. It’s important that I see who has the messy bookbag and who is fiddling with organizing papers rather than paying attention. These observations are just as important as responses on surveys and paragraphs about summer vacations and writing diagnostics. And it is important that they learn who I am, faults and all. Building trust and community is my goal. But first, I must create learning experiences that will allow this all to happen naturally. I must commit them to paper and shake that feeling of permanence and remind myself: every lesson is a draft.

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Your PLN gives you more people to disappoint

August 2nd, 2011 | Filed under: teaching

It’s a strange thing being a part of a digital network of teachers from all over the world, especially when you’re still a new teacher, feeling your way through this complex profession (when do you stop feeling new?). Even weirder when you’ve moved to a new country and are helping to open a school from the ground up. A terrifying, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Did I mention terrifying?

As the time ticks down to the end of August when I will meet my students for the first time – students that will likely be from all over the world, with experiences my younger self could only dream of having, with passport stamps to lands I’ve only seen in movies – sweat is beginning to bead upon my brow. My breathing has increased in pace and seems unlikely to slow until I get into a groove this fall and find some confidence and systems and routines. Sleep is unfulfilling and interrupted with bursts of 3:30 a.m. panic or inspiration or both.

See, I haven’t taught for the last year. I moved to The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 and spent months securing residency and trying to settle into my new home. I have had my head in the education world thanks to some other work and planning this new school, but as for teaching, I’ve not been in a room with students since June 2010. And really, I hadn’t spent too much time working with students before that. Still a “new” teacher, remember?

I am a new teacher. In a new school. In a new country. Doing so many new things, I feel like I’m learning with every turn. Nothing feels like something I’ve done before. This is a powerful and exhausting experience and I constantly find myself asking “is this right?” I try to see my newness as a positive and not as a disadvantage, but there are those days where you can’t help but feel like you will never measure up to the pros.

Thankfully I have that digital network of teachers behind me. It can feel, at times, like a sounding board in the form of a well-worn safety blanket – something to run to when you just don’t know where else to go. This metaphor could be perceived any number of ways – is it a way to feel “connected” in a profession prone to loneliness? Or a false sense of security in a job where, in the end, you really do it on your own every day?

But a strange thing has happened. As I feel the pressure of not disappointing my colleagues, parents, my new students, myself…I feel an even bigger pressure not to disappoint this network. See, when you surround yourself with people you consider experts – people you admire and learn from every day, sharing wowing ideas and experiences in education – you also have an even bigger cadre of people you can disappoint. This pushes me to try harder and do my best, but I know there will be mistakes. There will be days when I think “man, should I even BE a teacher?” I’m wondering if I’ll be confident enough to share those moments with these same teachers, or if I will bury them away in my notebook and keep the shame to myself. I find myself wondering if the “mistakes” shared by the educators I connect with online are akin to the “weaknesses” job applicants share in interviews – perceived downsides that really just beef up your strengths in the end. Do we really share the teaching skeletons in our closets? The moments we were so happy no one was observing that day? The strategies we used and think back on with the sort of stomach turning that only an embarrassing, high school moment can induce? And if we don’t share them, acknowledge them, and think about them, do we really learn from them?

I will be teaching Language A & B English and Technology in all years of the MYP* in addition to some other hats this year as our new school opens later this month. A new school necessitates many hats being worn by only a few teachers. I bounce between moments of feeling brave and proud of myself for tackling such a project, but as the days tick closer those wins are punctuated with “are you crazy? What makes you think you can do this? Leave this stuff up to the pros – you’re not there yet.'” My consolation is knowing that my colleagues are in this with me. We are heading into unfamiliar seas and it is scary, but we are together.

I know the path toward becoming a great teacher means walking that path as a teacher. I know at some point you have to leave behind consuming and reading and learning from your network – the theory – to do the thing you believe you were meant to do – teach. After a year of floating around, I may not feel completely ready to do that, but I am hoping when I do I can turn back to that same group of teachers and say “you were right. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was amazing. And damn, it feels good to be here again.”

*This equates to 6th through 10th grade in the U.S. As a small school, we will have some grouping of grades, which is yet another new and exciting experience for me.

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