Category Archives: On teaching

The Fight for Time

A friend once told me that if you really want to do something, first write down all the good excuses you’ve got not to do it. When it comes to writing, I’ve got a few:

  • All the words have been said.
  • I don’t have the right notebook or pen.
  • People will think I’m a fake.
  • People who didn’t like me in high school will say bad things about me.
  • I can’t teach AND write.
  • My kids keep interrupting me.
  • It’s too late. I should be further along by now.
  • I’ll wait until my kids are older.
  • Nobody cares.
  • I’m not that good.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • I just got a text.
  • I should check my email.
  • I’ll look at Facebook instead.
  • I’m way behind on laundry.
  • I should grade papers or revise tomorrow’s lesson or brainstorm a new unit.
  • I have nothing new to say.
  • All the other authors said it better.
  • I’ll offend someone.
  • I’m not spiritual enough.
  • I don’t have time.

This week I said goodbye to another group of college writing students. And the last words I left them with were: “Find that thing — that thing you don’t think you have time for or that thing you loved but stopped doing when you were 11 or 12 because you didn’t think you were good enough, and make time for it.”

As usual, I was mostly saying words I need to hear.  Giving reminders and passing along wisdom that good teachers and friends have shared with me.

Maybe a couple of them were reminded that they do actually enjoy writing — but for others, writing is not the thing, but it’s something else: dancing, drawing, gardening, baking, yoga, reading — whatever. I tell them, just spend a little time on it, and maybe even release the temptation to think you need to be so good at it all the time. I read aloud this piece by Anne Lamott in which she urges us to find “half an hour of quiet time for yourself…unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” And then the students walk out the door to study for exams, and I head home to a house full of people who call me Mom, and the hard work begins — we have to figure it out. We have to fight for it.

Excuses are, of course, easiest when I’m the busiest. It’s so much easier to blame my lack of writing on this family I have (who insist on eating several times a day), the boys’ baseball schedules (three boys in baseball is no joke, just saying), the papers I need to grade (collected 143 yesterday + 17 ten-page research projects on Thursday), and the laundry I never put away (thank goodness for the door on that laundry room.) Oh, and that awful habit I’ve gotten into of checking all things on my phone — email, Instagram, Facebook — one last time before I go to bed.

But the reality is that I make time for what matters — and too often I find myself using my busyness as a not-so-clever form of procrastination. “I would, but first I need to…”

Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for me.

And this is especially true for writing. Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

The month of May is a perfect storm for calendars — little league, end-of-the-school-year this and that, deadlines, and, and…but if not now, when? There will always be calendars, always be excuses.

So, I’m committing — on this Saturday morning when I tiptoed out of bed to steal an hour before the rest of my house wakes up — to taking the advice I offered my students about fighting for time for the things that matter in the months ahead. I know summer is coming and the pace of our household will slow a bit, but other things will be there too, including excuses.

See something, say something

All photos in this post are courtesy of my mother-in-law and gifted photographer, Audrey VanderLugt

 

The world feels extra fragile to me lately. The big and the small — so many cancer diagnoses in my community, a contentious election and now inaugagration, unnerving daily news reports, an especially dark January, and my own kids constantly picking at each other.

We had an Ice Day today – with school called off – and I’m grateful that I could let the kids laze around for a few hours this morning and for an extra day to recover from a head cold that has lingered for more than a week, making the already muddled world feel a little fuzzier.

As I sipped my coffee this morning, I clicked on one of those Facebook links I might usually pass over as too fluffy, one that promised to make me cry.  I started to watch, remembering seeing this one before — but I was compelled to stick with it — a story about a father who died in a car accident just weeks after his son’s birth, with that infant son critically injured. The story followed the mother’s journey as she went back to the hospital, to the aero med crew, to the entire team of people who had saved her son’s life 10 years earlier to thank each person face-to-face. She then threw an extravagent thank you party for these people who saved her son by doing their jobs well.

One of the women in the story, a nurse, mentioned that she had never been thanked by a family member, “not after;” commenting how you usually don’t “see people.”

Just yesterday, I received the kindest text message from a substitute teacher who had been in my classroom while I was out sick, complimenting my students on their thoughtful questions about a story they read aloud with her. She wrote, “I know I don’t deal with the ‘darn dailies’ as you do, but I love the atmosphere that you have cultivated in your classroom.”

She made my night — not just with kind words — but by reminding me why I do my job in the first place, reminding me of the potential and value of each of those students who fill the desks in my classroom everyday. By reminding me that while the daily work of those long winter months can feel tedious and wearisome, it’s important. That the best stuff can look mundane and be easily missed.

These thank yous, these intentional words of gratitude, turn things around for all of us —  those who take the time to pause and notice, those who receive the words of gratitude, and the bystanders who watch it unfold.

Last week we learned of the horrific shooting in an airport in Fort Lauderdale and were cautioned that when we “see something” we need to “say something.”

But what if we did this not just when we are scared or fearful, but when we witness the goodness of humanity in front of us? When we see a student stop to help another in the hall, when we notice that mom juggling her crying toddler and her groceries in the cashier’s line, when we’re served by a waiter or waitress who continues to smile as she manuevers a busy restaurant?

We have excuses. We avoid speaking up because of fear (“but I’ll sound weird”)  or busyness (“but I didn’t notice/have a chance”).  Yet, maybe those aren’t great excuses.

Our world is fragile and healing rarely happens in sweeping movements, but in the quiet, consistency of kindness that comes from showing up, seeing people, and just saying something.

P.S. Extra shout out of gratitude to that substitute teacher — it’s a rare thing to find someone who enjoys walking into an unfamiliar middle school classroom and following someone else’s lesson plans (for not-so-great money). What a gift — and a lesson for me in doing the everyday things with great care and love.

 

 

 

Thankful: the sacred mundane

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One of my favorite parts of teaching is writing with my students. In my Hope College class this fall,  we did a series of writing experiments — assignments more focused on exploration than perfection. One of my favorites was an imitation of a piece called “Thankful” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The piece is published in Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life — a ecletic memoir told through a series of Encyclopedia-style entries.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’ll share portions of our experiments in gratitude here. First, a compilation from a few of my students:

Thankful

I’m thankful for sunsets, hot coffee, sugar cookie dough, and happy endings. For allergy medicine and athletic shorts.  I’m thankful for my mother’s home cooked meals, especially when they involved mashed potatoes. For hikeable mountains and swimmable lakes. I’m thankful for handwritten letters. For forgiveness. I’m thankful for mac ‘n’ cheese, washing machines, and spontaneity.  That my family loves baseball. That baseball exists in the first place. I’m thankful for starry nights. For fireworks. For sunflowers. I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers, XL t shirts, and Instagram. For laughter that makes your stomach hurt and books to get lost in. I’m thankful that at the end of each day is sleep. For people who miss me when I’m gone. I’m thankful that children mispronounce words and for warm towels just out of the dryer. For chocolate cake and dirty white Converse that never get old. I’m thankful for sarcasm. For failure. I’m thankful for grace.  

With thanks to my students: Sarah Altieri, Josie Rund, Jamie Westrate, and Taylor Dolan.

And my own gratitude list:

I’m thankful for new pens, for vulnerability, for fresh salsa. I’m thankful for the stray cat in our neighborhood who hunts the mice that would normally find their way into my house. For dark chocolate. Red wine. That my husband has decided he likes roasted brussel sprouts. I’m thankful my children will not fight in my backseat forever. I’m thankful for dreams that haven’t come true. For Lake Michigan. For flowers. For the pile of books next to my bed and podcasts.  For strangers who smile back and those little grocery belt dividers.  I’m thankful for seasons, for soap, for the window above my kitchen sink. That my son has my grandpa’s mannerisms.  I’m thankful for the kindergarten teachers who tie the shoes of kids whose fingers haven’t managed the task yet. For insects that survive bike rides in kids’ pockets, tattered photo albums, music, and mornings I can wake up with the sun rather than an alarm. I’m thankful for bedtimes stories and boys who snore softly before the end of the chapter. For those who truly know me and still choose love.

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That first hill

Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com
Photo credit: Priscilla Westra, unsplash.com

 

It took me awhile to enjoy rollercoasters.

I was a nervous, cautious kid, not one to take risks — and it wasn’t until high school that I remember being talked into venturing onto a rollercoaster and walking off the platform with a smile on face. My problem was that as soon as I reached the pinnacle  — that moment of the first drop, as soon as momentum picked up — my stomach went under, and I would panic and forget to breathe.  But eventually, by laughing and screaming with a good friend beside me, I came to realize that if I could will myself to let out my breath as we plunged down that first hill, I might actually enjoy the ride. I might get why people waited hours in lines to ride these things.

(Now, as I near forty, my brain and my bladder would rather me speak metaphorically about this experience than get in line to prove it’s still true.)

For teachers, August can feel like that slow click, click, click up the first hill of the rollercoaster.

I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m anxious, I’m anticipating — I know the steep drop ahead of me. I know I will have 140-some names, faces, and stories to learn. I know I will trade my summer sunrise walks for earlier-than-usual alarm clocks and lessons that I am inspired to revise while in the shower that morning. I know that my email box will fill quickly, and I will decorate my desk with sticky notes of to-do lists. I know I will finish the first day and sit down relieved, only to grasp the reality that I get to do it again the next day. (More than a decade in, why is this continually a surprise to me in September?)

And so this weekend, I’m mentally rehearsing my breathing. I’m reminding myself that the joy is in the work, that the reward is in showing up — and that the fantasy of finishing it all or doing it perfectly is silly.

Because that’s not the point.

I most enjoy teaching and my students most enjoy learning when I remember the basics — when I keep it simple and share my passion for reading and writing. When I don’t overplan or push too hard. When I honor the slowness and the messiness that is learning.

My tendency to forget to breathe is a symptom of trying too hard to control things that are not mine to control. My tendency to tense up and feel overwhelmed is a symptom of forgetting that life is, in fact, not an emergency. That teaching is an art, not a science, and that I’m working with adolescents, not machines. That the beauty — the fun of the ride — is easily missed when I’m closing my eyes, holding my breath, and clenching my hands too tightly.

Tuesday morning I’ll walk into my classroom to teach, but I’ll also send off my three sons to their own classrooms. Like me — like their teachers — they will be a little nervous, a little tired, a little afraid, a little excited. Let’s all promise to breathe, to laugh, as we take this first hill together.

A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.
A past first day, minus the youngest, who will be a preschooler this year.

 

Questions

 

Grandma, about 60 years ago.
Grandma, about 60 years ago.

Earlier this summer my cousin, Sara, and I sat on my aunt’s couch with my 86 year-old grandmother between us. We asked her questions and then listened as she talked about her life growing up on Seneca Street as the eighth of ten children, about playing hopscotch and paper dolls, about how she wished she had stayed in school past the age of 16. She told us about rationing during World War II and about how my grandpa bought his first Ford and then started “coming around” to see her. She admitted her years of worry and how she’s not ashamed to say she’s “done a lot of praying” for her children, grandchildren, and now her great grandchildren.  This woman whose life has centered around her family, her table, talked about how she preferred a full table, a noisy house. “I was always glad to see you coming, and hated when you left,” she said. “And the more that came the better.” She lived a life of practical hospitality — always making enough dinner for whomever she expected and then some extra for any guests — or strangers — who might walk through the door.

It was a beautiful day of listening to a woman who isn’t always the first to speak, one who is usually standing in the kitchen while she pushes everyone else to have a seat, one who has never given a lot of unsolicited advice.

My family is very close, but not overly affectionate. We are rational, Midwestern apple farmers. We gather — whoever is able to make it — weekly, but few “I love you’s” are spoken, though they are known. Few hugs are given, unless someone is leaving for months. We value stories, laughter, and being together, but we don’t always know how to say all that. We are good at showing up, but not always good at talking about it.

So, when my cousin brought up the idea of inviting my grandma for an interview, I hesitated. I quietly worried Grandma would think it was silly, worried she wouldn’t want all that attention, all that feeling. But as Tuesday afternoon ended, she must have thanked us no less than 10 times.

I’m still processing that afternoon and there are 10 more essays I could write about the experience, but my mind keeps coming back to that simple act of acting questions and then being quiet enough to listen. I’ve been thinking about all the questions I’ve missed asking because I’ve been busy talking, doing, or thinking.

As a teacher, I do lessons on questioning. I encourage my students to ask “thicker” questions as  readers, to dig deeper, to push more. I more often need to take my own advice.

When my own sons ask me a question, I’m too often too busy to listen or looking for the quick answer, the right answer, instead of questioning back, instead of taking the time to stop and wonder together. While a bit of space from my kids is healthy and needed (those times when I say: go down to the basement, outside and I don’t want to see/hear you for 30 minutes), it’s those moments I slow down to sit with them, to be with them, that they have a chance to say the things I don’t hear amid life’s usual background noise.

In this wild world of violence and terror and division,  (and that just covers the presidential election) we may need to stop and ask more questions. When someone says something we disagree with, our initial bent is almost always toward defensiveness. But maybe we don’t need to fix it. Fix them. Maybe we can just ask more questions.

There is almost always more brewing below the surface than we can first see — and a lot of ground can be made up in the space created between questions and answers.

Grandma's first selfie, after our interview this summer.
Grandma’s first selfie, after our interview this summer.

 

Middle

Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something

 Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.

Photo credit: unsplash.com; Alex Jones

When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”

I teach the years most people try to forget.

“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.

There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air.  Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)

Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said,  “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable. 

Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying).  It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.

But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)

 There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…)  Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.

I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.

Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.  

We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.

Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.

When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see.  We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.

We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.

Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story.  And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.

Photo credit: pixabay.com; jacqueline macou

I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.

The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”