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The weird way I am dealing with my back- to-school anxiety

11 Jul

I am not an anxious person, but as the details of my school district’s opening plan evolves, I have an unfamiliar feeling in my chest that I can only call anxiety. I am trying to deal with it by thinking back to times when I have felt this anxious and, despite living in Medellín Colombia from 1991-1994, I have nothing that compares.

What has been helpful, though has been thinking about my years in Colombia. It was the height of the drug war. Pablo Escobar had escaped from prison and there was a nationwide manhunt. FARC rebels were attacking police. Vigilantes were attacking narcotraficantes.  And yet, I only have two recollections of times I felt anxious there.

The first is at the end of my second year, when I had to change houses. I was struggling to find a house in Envigado where I could still employ my maid, Teresita, and have my dog. It ended well and I loved the traditional house that I found. It had thick white stucco walls and a floor with alternating yellow and green tile. The two barred windows at the front had wooden shutters that opened from the inside. There were two interior patios that had openings in the roof. In winter, when it rained, I loved the sound of the rain falling into the patio. My anxiety of looking for this house has been almost erased by my joy at finding it.

The second time I felt anxious, was in my second year. It was a particularly trying time in Colombia. In a country with the highest rate of murders and kidnappings in the world, it was hard to believe things could escalate, but they did, and it impacted us at school. The murder by vigilantes of the father of a girl in the class next to mine was bad enough. But then, on a family evening out for pizza, a boy in my class was affected. As the family car drove past a police roundabout, rebels detonated a bomb in the police station. The family’s car flipped. Lucas, my student, suffered a broken arm. His mother was taken to hospital and was in serious condition. When the principal and counselor came to talk to my class, I got tears in my eyes when a sweet girl named Veronica asked if we could pray. I had to wipe the tears away as each and every student got out of their chair and knelt in prayer for Lucas, his mother, and their family. We all felt like we were part of their family. A few days, when things took a turn for the worse,  we all attended a mass to pray for his mother’s recovery. Fortunately, she recovered and this horrible tragedy helped bring this class together in a deeper way.

So, all of this has me thinking about finding joy. Every day in isolation, I make myself do four things: exercise, read, write, knit. I think I am going to start writing the joyful stories I have from my years in Medellín. I might even post some of them here.

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Packing up the room

19 May

Two years ago, I was told on the last day of school that I would be moved to a different grade and team. I had anticipated this news and had started packing up weeks ahead.

Last year, on the last day of school, my entire hall was told we would be moving to a different hall. I packed my room in one day, fueled by frustration and anger.

This year. Oh, this year!

This year, we are being given three days to pack up. Only one teacher per team can be there on any given day. A spreadsheet sign-up has been sent out. The school will provide boxes and gloves. It will be a bring your own mask party.

I hope pack up 2021 is less eventful.

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Questions and answers

21 Apr

Officially, I have office hours. All the teachers in my district do. And yet, I get interesting questions by email at all times of the day (and night). I thought I’d share a few of these with you today, with my answers.

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A1:
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Q2:
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A2:
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Parents are in the mix, too. Especially since we started getting in touch about students who have not turned n work or participated in online activities. And then, there are the random ones, like this, from the parent of a former student whose son is in a friends class:

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I haven’t replied yet, but at 55, I felt like she was making me a job offer.

Learning to navigate

14 Apr

Just before we knew we had to begin online teaching, I saw this tweet from Pernille Ripp:

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I took it to heart.

I mentioned it to my principal the day I went in to school to collect the materials I’d need for online teaching.

I mentioned it to my teaching partner and any other teacher I’ve spoken with.

I did two Webinars last week to learn more about online teaching and the presenter said the same thing.

As the expectations for teachers have shifted from two ungraded lessons a week to four lessons a week and 5 hours of “office time” with grading still TBD, I have held this idea in my heart and mind.

We have kids who have to share devices with siblings – maybe even parents.

We have kids with little quiet space in which to work.

We have to shift our perspective of what and how we teach.

So, thank you Pernille Ripp, for writing that Tweet. It has been my compass as we navigate these uncharted waters.

 

Hammer time

24 Sep

Week four and the hammer falls.

We have spent the last three weeks in training – learning when and when not to go to their lockers, what to bring to each class, when to go to the bathroom. The first two weeks were friendly reminders. Last week’s reminders were a little more serious.

“If you do that next week, you’ll have lunch detention.”

Lunch detention is hardly a hardship. Students sit in silence, eating their lunch and reading a book. In a school of 1600, where over 500 6th graders eat at the same time, lunch detention can seem like a respite, but at this point in the year, the 6th graders don’t know that yet.

I had an idea of who my first detainees might be. So, imagine my surprise when one of the sweetest, most responsible boys in class confessed he had left his writer’s notebook in his locker. They students had just taken their seats to begin generating ideas for personal narratives around first times, last times, and times they learned something. This young man, because he was sweet and honest, didn’t just get some notebook paper, he confessed.

I don’t make a big deal out of lunch detention when it happens. Most kids are worried the first time, and ask funny questions like “Are you going to tell my mom?” or “Will this go on my permanent record?”.

The student came back to class with a worried look on his face, so I tried to alleviate his worry with some humor.

“Maybe you could write about “The first time I got lunch detention,” I suggested, grinning.

He smiled back at me, opened his notebook, and got to work.

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Waiting

25 Jun

I have officially been on vacation for a week, but the big end of the year drama happens today.

Sunday afternoon,  staff got a text telling us to check our email. I did and the message was short and sweet: Tuesday the administrators will call all staff to tell them what their job will be next year.

It’s been a long wait. The discovery of budgeting irregularities meant that our district had a severe shortfall and the projected cutbacks for the 2019-20 year meant jobs would be eliminated. At first it seemed like the RIF might be as bad as the bad year, after the financial crisis. But with retirements and consolidation, it was projected to be not as bad. But still bad enough that we left school last week not knowing for sure what we’d be teaching.

But today is the day.

The staff are buzzing, trying to predict how the calls will happen. By grade level? Alphabetically? Bad news first? Moving first, staying second? It’s a way to try to make sense out of this crazy process.

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I don’t normally bring the phone with me when I walk Lucy, but today I will. Lucy will be there to support me if it is bad news and celebrate if it is good. Wish us luck.

Late Tuesday Update: Good news: My team gets to stay intact!

How we roll

30 Apr

Once a month, my teaching partner and I sit down and formally plan out the upcoming month. We sit down together every day to talk over the day and eat second breakfast but this is our most formal of meetings.

As we sat to plan May, we realized how close the end of the year really is, so we decided to plan June as well, since it had only two weeks of school.  There was so much we still wanted to do – and we couldn’t make it fit. Outdoor School (ODS) had been moved  to June 4-7, taking out almost a week. We’d scheduled speeches for the week before ODS. We could wedge things in, but they’d start before and end, rather awkwardly, after ODS. we felt frustrated.

“What if we scrap it all?” I asked. “We could move the speeches to the last week of school and then plan backwards.” This was a radical concept for us. We always started on the first of a month and planned forward, knowing what we didn’t accomplish could spill into the next month. But there were no next months for us this time around. And so we boldly took the plunge.

And it worked. We are planned through June.

We always know our monthly plans are subject to change, but we have a roadmap in place and can face any detours because that’s how we roll.

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Plan B

23 Apr

This morning I should be on a bus, headed to outdoor school for four days and three nights. The sixth graders from the other three halls in my building are going. Alas, Green Hall is staying behind.

Two Saturdays ago we got a text saying the main lodge at the camp we were supposed to attend had burned to the ground.  Most of last week was spent waiting to find out if we could go to another camp this week or if we’d go a different week. The kids had tones of questions.

If we don’t go this year, can we go as seventh graders?

When will they tell us?

What happens at school if we don’t go?

If we don’t go to Outdoor School, do we still have to come to school?

Their agony was ended Thursday when we were – finally – told we would not go the same week as the other sixth graders, we’d go June 4-7, the second last week of school.

Action and consequence. The kids were relieved, but the teachers and admins started scrambling. Schedules had to be created for a rotation through Specialists. My team decided that we’d toss out the schedule on Wednesday and have kids rotate through camp like activities and have a picnic lunch outside along with a massive game of Capture the flag. It won’t be quite the same, but it will be a good placeholder until the real this comes around.

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SBAC Math

9 Apr

Even though I was administering the ELA test, yesterday’s first session of state testing was all about Math for me.

Six sets of headphones. Until a student pulled one set out of the bag and the headphone jack fell off. 6-1=5. Five sets of headphones.

I teach at a more affluent school than I used to. At my old elementary school, we tested in a lab and each computer had its own headset. We wiped them down between tests.

My current school – a middle school – most kids have earbuds and everyone has a Chromebook, so we test in our rooms and kids are supposed to bring their own earbuds. Of course they didn’t. They’re middle schoolers and it was a Monday! Hence, my SBAC Math test.

Five sets of headphones + 8 students with hands up needing to borrow a pair = lots of juggling and wiping of earbuds for me.

I hope they all remember their headphones the rest of the week.

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Planning ahead

23 Mar

“Wow! You sure have a lot of energy this morning,” my teaching partner commented as I handed here the prototypes of the revision centers our students will visit when they return from Spring Break.

“I had three cups of coffee at the staff breakfast this morning, ” I confessed. “I also have an idea for a rubric they can use to evaluate their work at each station.”

My teaching partner puts up with a lot from me in the morning. I am naturally a morning person, but today I was over the top. Although I was grouchy and draggy last week (what is it about the week before the week before Spring Break?) this week, I became happier and more energetic as Spring Break neared.

“Do you want me to print them?” she asked.

“They aren’t quite ready. I want to make them pretty – maybe add a border or something,”  I replied.

We had brainstormed a list of “issues” we’d noticed in their writing overall and narrowed it down to six, because we both have six tables in class.

  • paragraphing dialogue
  • punctuating dialogue
  • writing numbers
  • commas VS periods (run-on sentences)
  • verb tenses
  • showing elapsed time

I showed her my idea about how to assemble folders. Sometimes, having been an elementary school teacher really makes you better equipped for organizing things like this in middle school.

Later that day, with the rubrics and each center’s direction printed, I got out my Sharpies and wrote each center’s name in bubble letters on the front of a folder. While the kids worked, I colored in the bubble letters. The coffee had worn off and I was ready for Spring Break to begin.

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Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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