Self Schooling

My favorite picture of the Big Guy and Thing1 doesn’t show their faces. To the casual observer, it’s a picture of them replacing the radiator on our 20 year old Volvo wagon. for me, it’s the moment when our oldest kid learned that sometimes you get the best education when you roll your sleeves up and learn how to figure things out. Yesterday Thing2 got started on that same path.

Time and weekends are almost meaningless, these days. Thing2 has a few assignments every day, but, without the interactive component (and friends) offered by the classroom, our social butterfly has greeted homeschooling with as much enthusiasm as cleaning his room. Yeah, that room.

Friday, however, his iPad which is still my iPad, served up an ad for MasterClass, an online series of courses hosted by famous writers, lifestyle gurus, and artists. T2 watched a video with Carlos Santana and then a couple with a super chefs before rushing to my office. he regained his composure a few steps inside the door and casually begin the process of trying to talk me into buying the discounted two for one subscription.

I’ve seen their ads before and always been curious about the classes but leery of the price. Seeing it half price, however, and seeing T2 getting excited about directing his own homeschooling a bit, I cracked open my wallet.

Last night before bed I walked in on my multitasker reading his English assignment and keeping an eye on the video game, all while watching Gordon Ramsay teach him how to make the perfect soufflé . I put the kibosh on any more video games for the night and figured he’d go right to bed.

we slept in a bit because it was Saturday, but the sun was out and the boys have chores to do outside. I went to rouse my would be guitar playing chef, curled up under his blankets, buried in the kind of oblivion one only experiencesafter staying up way too late. I knocked on the door jam asked, “Do you still want to make eggs for Daddy?” I wasn’t sure if he would even remember the aspiration had mentioned the night before.

“Mmmph,” was the only sound he could muster from under the covers.

“You two have got a lot of work to do in the garden today,“ I said as I walked into the kitchen. I went to the fridge but as soon as I closed the door and turned around to go be the snooze button, there was Thing2, Wondering if dad would actually like him to make scrambled eggs.

Five minutes later he had his answer as the two of them were hovering over the stove, discussing the finer points of making eggs and soufflés and homemade bagels. Thing2 did most of the cooking with just a few pointers. The Big Guy made the toast and coffee. I did a little heavy lifting and got a picture of Thing2 discovering that there are a lot of ways to get your education. That picture is going to go perfectly right next to the original.

The Absence of Sleep

Two years ago we were celebrating April Fool’s Day digging out from under a thick blanket of snow. We were closing out in March but had seen four major snowstorms–one each week. Our family was closing out a winter of worry marked by Weekly hospital visits and a nearly fatal flu for Thing1. Now, as I stare at the ceiling, trying not to be wide awake, that winters like that never really melt from your soul.

for the past three weeks, pneumonia rather than the mandated school shut downs have kept me from teaching. Our school, as treatment facility, is still open, and I have been ashamed to admit that I have been grateful for the pain in my rib cage don’t keep me from having to show any courage.

When I made the jump to teaching, I knew that it could be dangerous. It is possible to be assaulted by students, particularly working with children who Have severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The news, of course, as shown as how it’s all too possible for teachers to be shot. this latest danger, however, adds a new dimension to the job description.

Both the Big Guy and Thing1 are in high-risk categories. As my doctor reminded me, my history of chronic pneumonia puts me in a high-risk category. but “my kids“ are also in the high-risk category. They count on their teachers to be there.

Tonight as I’m counting the number of hours of productive sleep still available, I am also wondering if I will be able to be there for them. I know my first, unquestionable priority is to be there for Thing1 and Thing2– to not needlessly expose them to any dangers. As the number of cases in our county increase, surpassing statistics in much larger Vermont towns, the question is becoming what is the best way to navigate the months ahead?

Before my husband fell asleep, we both remarked on what a strange time it was to be alive — even with all of the uncertainty in our lives. We are aware of how lucky we are to live in a remote area with neighbors who are working together to slow the spread and limit the impact. We are aware that millions of people experienced a far worse pandemic 100 years ago because little was known about preventing the spread.

But I’m also aware of what it feels like to see a child gasping for breath and not knowing if it might be his last.

I don’t know if if that memory, in the coming months, will make me brave or smart. A few weeks ago I thought, I hoped, it was possible to be both. Right now, I’m not so sure.

Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

Feline Friday

My classroom is just across the hall from the science teacher’s. We’ve become good friends because we have similar senses of humor, and I have found her to be a fountain of good ideas to make learning fun.

One of my and the kids’ favorites is Fun Fact Friday which is just what it sounds like. Of course, I can’t let those kids get all jazzed up with a bunch of new fun facts and then come to my class without something equally fun to do so I started First Chapter Friday.

Our kids don’t get to do many library visits because we’re a residential school so I’ve started hitting the local book warehouse and stocking up my classroom library with new used books each Friday. once they are all caught up with any outstanding work, we can dig through the shelves and check out the new books. If they like the first chapter, they have to write me a quick summary and then they can keep reading and take the book back to the dorm with them. If they don’t, they just keep digging and reading until the bell rings. Either way, they end up reading for most of the class, and we all win.

Right now I’m stuck at home waiting for the group to clear from my lungs, so there’s no Friday classroom routine. I can’t let a Friday go by without a good routine, however, so today officially became the first Feline Fun Friday on Picking My Battles (I swear, this is not becoming a crazy cat lady’s blog — even though i have the cats and the crazy part — no, no. Not a crazy cat lady blog. It just happens to have a lot of pictures of cats taken by a crazy lady on it).

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

We lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night. I couldn’t fall asleep until after midnight on Sunday night, and I had to be up by 4:30 on Monday to drive to a teachers’ workshop in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

I was excited, but, for once, I wasn’t nervous.

When I worked in IT, I had a few professional development opportunities that sent me to fun locales, but the courses were usually more competitive than collaborative. There was always an unspoken challenge to prove you were the smartest person in the room (I am rarely smartest person in the room — Except when Jim Bob the orange tabby is here. Then I am the smartest person in the room).

Today was different. I’d done my homework. I had just finished a course at University of Wisconsin on today’s exact subject, and I knew it would be fun and useful.

I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button once. Then I remembered what day it was and snapped right out of bed, hobbled in and out of the shower and donned my favorite scarf, a Maria Wulf creation that had been waiting for a perfect occasion on a perfect spring day. I was out the door and over the mountains before the sun was fully up.

When I got to the workshop/conference, the room was filled with a few dozen other Special Educators who hooking up their WiFi’s and getting acquainted. The news on the way up had told me I should be terrified to be in a crowd this size, but as we shared jokes about the rhymes we are all using this week to get our students to wash their hands better, I decided this day was worth any risk.

We talked about programs. We talked about helping kids with trauma and disability. We talked about our kids and our “kids,” and I suddenly got a feeling I’d never had at any professional conference before.

I sell art at art shows and craft fairs in the summer, but I always feel like an imposter, secretly certain that everyone can see how much better all the other artists are (I rarely worry much about writing since I need to do it badly enough that I don’t care if it’s bad or good). I was in IT in one role or another for over 20 years and, even when I knew I knew my job, I never felt like I really belonged.

Today was like being a ballplayer who had been moved up from the minor league to the “show.” Talking with people who care passionately about helping children and who were as nerdily excited as I was about the best techniques amplified the feeling.

It was a club, but, instead of competing with each other to be the smartest in the room, the members were sharing ideas about how we could help each other to our common goal.

I realized I felt like a real teacher today — like a professional. And, for the first time in any career, I felt like I belonged there.

And it’s a good club.

Rest for the Working

During the first week of my recovery I wrote constantly. When the second, unexpected week of incarceration began, I still wrote more than usual, but, after teaching for almost a year now, I discovered I suddenly missed being around people. Ten years of working at home once had me trained to prefer solitude, but last week I went searching for social interaction in the worst possible place — social media.

At first it was a quick check of the latest news from friends and family. Then it was looking for silly memes. And then it deteriorated into watching videos about all that’s wrong with the world and how to be afraid of it making me wonder if it’s just an accident that S&M and Social Media ended up with the same initials.

After a day or two, despite the exhaustion of living with the pain in my recovering foot, I began having trouble sleeping. Then I started getting antsy when I opened my laptop to write. I started kvetching over homework assignments from my online class and all the things that we should be fixing in the world.

Monday I got back to work — to my girls. There were the initial hugs and greetings, and then it was back to the usual, constant redirecting and behavior management that goes with working with students with emotional disturbances. For the first time in two weeks there was drama and tears, occasional profanity and impromptu after-school meetings. There was still homework online and more comforting of teenagers.

There was suddenly far less time to peruse the feed telling me what’s wrong with the world — or at least I stopped worrying about trying to control the things I can’t. There’s still a daily dose of S&M (or is it SM?), but, like backing off of percosets after surgery, I’ve stepped down. And, diving back into work, putting my effort into the things I can control, or at least influence, is suddenly enough good vibes to start putting me right to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

Tell Me a Story

Word Art

I’m a geek for historical literature.

I don’t always love the language — some 19th century authors seem to go out of their way to use 25 words where 2 might suffice — but I love seeing day-to-day lifestyles through the eyes of people who lived them. I’ll happily wade through six hundred pages of Vanity Fair because it’s a window into what the author actually thought about the early 1800s in 1847. Ditto for Tolstoy and Chekov.

The stories that give me the best time-travel value, though, are the ones written by women. So few history books describe the lives of women (not too many led armies or signed treaties), and, until recently, few women authored history books. Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, however, gave us windows into their daily lives. How did they manage a household? What rules of the day did they follow in spirit or to the letter? What did they actually think about the business of marriage?

What did they think?

It’s a question that popped up for me earlier this month as I was gathering readings for Black History Month. A number of retailers were already sending marketing emails with book suggestions, but they were often books by white writers telling the history of African Americans, books that had been ‘redecorated’ for Black History Month, or, the perennial classroom favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I love Harper Lee, and she will have a place in class sometime this year, but the initial idea offerings seemed uninspiring.

The first week was drawing closer, and I stumbled on an anthology of Langston Hughes’s writings. His poem, “Let America be America Again” has been enjoying renewed popularity on the internet in the last few months. I thumbed through the volume, marveling at the breadth of work he had generated in a relatively short life, thinking how he had set a great example of how varied a writing career could be.

And then it hit me (you can say it, that took a while).

I’d been looking for a way for my predominately white students to learn what African Americans thought and think about the American experience.  I, obviously, can’t speak about that experience as anything other a sympthetic observer. The kids are also quick to point out that English class is for English not History, but behind the grammar and the literary devices, English class is about learning to understand stories. 

It’s about understanding who’s telling the stories and why.

And for me, teaching literature is also about showing the kids where to find the windows into other people’s ideas and lives — and, then, why they should.

To do that this month (and beyond), I decided to lean on the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a great excuse to introduce favorite writers and poets  and artists from that era, connecting the kids to them through poets and rappers from this era. And, in the end, deciding to shut up and let the authors and artists who lived and still live Black History do as much of the storytelling as possible may have been the easiest and best way to get the kids to hear it.

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