Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Beachin’ Taught Me About Teachin’

Our family just got back from a seven-day beach vacation to Florida. We went with four other families, for a total of 21 people…ten adults and eleven kiddos. We stayed in a darling beach house super-close to the water. We ate delicious food, played games, rode boogie boards, shopped, ate delicious food, had races in the pool, jumped in the waves, sat and talked, watched movies, and ate delicious food.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few (tiny) reservations about traveling half-way across the country with a group this large. What if it’s too many people, what if my kids act like jerks, what if we run out of delicious food…(Clearly, food is a priority of mine on vacation. Also, on Tuesdays. Whatever. Food is delicious.)
As I walked the beach alone early one morning, I started thinking about the impending work that was waiting for me. Setting up my classroom, organizing furniture and files, working at school late at night…and I got kind of sad. Not sad to go back to work, but sad that I can’t hold class here.
The more I started thinking about it, however, the more it became clear that this vacation was just what I needed to start my school year off right. Our family doesn’t travel often. My world is very small. This was actually the first time my children had even been out of Texas. This was an experience that we will always remember and it even taught me a few things about what I want for myself and my new class…
#1 Life is Better With Music-I created a playlist for everybody filled with songs about the beach, vacation, friends, summer, and fun. My kids helped me choose songs that (hopefully) everybody would enjoy. Some songs were serious, some were silly, and some were just plain ridiculous… “Mandy” by Barry Manilow just HAD to be on the list, right?! I was reminded just how important music is and how much I enjoy playing it in my classroom. I’ve even started playlists on Spotify for different activities this year.
#2 Shared Experiences Create Community-Any time a group of people experience something together, a sense of community is born. Hence, the 576 group texts that the moms used to keep tabs on meals, supplies, kids, routes, and pictures. Our children watched Matilda 786 times in a row. On VHS. They called it an, “old fashioned movie,” I suppose meaning it wasn’t a DVD or downloaded onto a device. It became a running joke that our kids had crossed over state lines to watch a movie on a nine inch VCR. Whatever. They loved it and are still talking about the fun they had with their friends. In much the same way, shared experiences make a classroom a true community. Sharing in read alouds, participating in math discussions, playing games, even pulling on a rope at field day all provide our students with a bond that they will always remember- if priority is placed on building the community in the first place.
#3 It Takes a Village- Let’s be honest…I’m over this saying, but I’ve never seen it in practice more clearly than on a seven day trip with twenty one people in the same house. We fed each other’s kids and washed each other’s laundry. We shared chores, towels, medicine, clothes, and snacks. If somebody was in the pool, somebody else was wiping down the countertops. The dads took the kids to a baseball game and the moms went to the beach. The dads played golf and the moms took the kids to the boardwalk. It was a seamless dance where everybody could do what they wanted to do and each person contributed to make it a great trip for everyone else. It reminded me so much of school. I even said, “Twenty one people in one house is nothing! This is how many people are in my classroom every day, only we don’t get to spread out into six bedrooms!” When everybody in a school pulls his/her own weight, pitches in to help when it’s needed, and works to make it pleasant for everybody, let’s face it…Stuff gets done. I’m so thankful I work at a school where this happens.
#4 Life is Better With a Book- I love that my friends are readers like I am. I always take their recommendations and am thankful that the important people in my life model the practice of reading to my children, even though it’s not a conscious decision. On our trip, books were everywhere…with authors ranging from Chelsea Handler to Lee Child to Bernhard Schlink. Luckily, the owners of the beach house left some romance novels, too…just in case we finished what we brought! I believe books are the common thread that bring together a classroom of diverse learners. Sharing books builds confidence, community, and character. I am already planning the ever-so-important first read alouds for my new class this fall…
#5 The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends- I thought of this one somewhere along the 11 hour road trip home. It seemed we would never be back to our own house, sleeping in our own beds and using our own bathrooms (ugh- gas stations). However, the memories our family made on this trip, the fun we had with precious friends, the hours we played in the ocean, and the delicious food we had…everything was worth it. The hard work that teachers put into their classrooms, the hours they labor over lessons and children, the trips up and down a step-ladder to get that word wall exactly even…it’s all worth it.
I was back in my classroom today, arranging furniture and organizing books. I stood in the middle of the room, overwhelmed with the enormity of it all, but then I remembered that just like the past sixteen years, it always gets done. And then I’m back where I’m supposed to be and there are twenty one new housemates to make it all worthwhile.
Even though I may still be dreaming about the beach.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Writing Camp Saved My Life

That title may seem strongly worded. Please indulge me, as I have just come off of nine days working with young writers. Also, I like hyperbole. Also, I wanted to get your attention.

I suppose I wasn't really dying before, but it is hard to deny that strange sense of loss that teachers go through when school is out. Don't misunderstand...I LOVE SUMMER. I enjoy taking these yahoos bowling.
I enjoy the pool and the lazy mornings and the visits with friends and the summer techno music and the reading of books...but I would be a big, fat liar if I said I didn't miss teaching. I am a teacher. It's who I am. It's what I do. It's a huge part of my identity and a lot of my purpose as a human being on planet Earth is as, "Mrs. Taylor." It's the hugs at the door in the morning and sharing books with reluctant readers. It is trying to make lessons fun and engaging, it's finding the balance of teaching standards, spelling words, character, and multiplication strategies. I'm a big dork, but I love summer for about three to four weeks, and then I feel that weird pull...the tug of setting up my classroom, choosing just-right books that I think my students will enjoy, and the constant hope that this upcoming year...I'll finally get it right.

However...teaching is hard. Not just the oh-I'm-so-overworked-and-underpaid-and-my-raise-doesn't-even-cover-the-increase-in-health-insurance-kind-of-hard, but the real kind of hard. The kind of hard that makes me wonder if there is something more out there for me. Something bigger, something more productive, something more financially rewarding. They keep changing the game, changing the standards, changing the resources, changing the levels of support, and I find myself getting tired. So.Very.Tired. Just let me teach! Just let me do what I was born to do! Just...wait-I'm in public education...

Enter writing camp. I was approached this spring about teaching a writing camp at our local university and my first inclination was to giggle. Writing camp? Is that a joke? Who would pay money to send their child to write for three hours a day? In the SUMMER?  Apparently, several people.

"What's the curriculum?" I asked...
"Whatever you want it to be," I was told.

Wait. One. Second. I get to be the boss of how we spend the time? I can read fun, engaging stories and roll with the kids and their ideas? Yes, yes you do...

Holy Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils.
Oh, and you get paid.

Writing camp saved my life. OK, maybe not my real, actual life, but it saved my summer. It saved me from that weird, unfulfilled feeling I sometimes feel in early July. I was put back together each day as kiddos that ranged in age from 5-10 years old worked in the same classroom and did the hard work of writing and sharing their thoughts and feelings. It re-energized me to hear the older kids support the younger writers with encouraging words and precious little "love notes."

 It reminded me of true collaboration as I met Laura at Starbucks and we shared ideas and we worked together and we already signed up to teach again next year because it was just so stinking fun. It reminded me of who I am at my very core and why I do what I do and how I can trust myself to go with my instincts and find new, engaging ways to bring the fun of writing camp into my own classroom in the fall. It made me want to write more. Even if nobody reads what I write. It made me have to reset the password on this blog that I started in 2011 and then never did anything else with...

It also gave me the rare opportunity to have my very own child in my class. I asked both of my kids if they wanted to come to camp with me. My seven year old was like, "Um, go to writing class or play at Nanny's house? You can just tell me what it's like." Parker, though, was excited about coming with me because he needed to work on his novel. Um, what?

"I've got this idea, mom. I just don't have much time to work on it."

Punkin. What fun to see him as a student and a writer and a leader. He even got to touch the sword from the Percy Jackson movie on our trip to the Texas State library. Boom. Major cool points for mom.

Writing camp. An unlikely source of salvation. But, an opportunity for which I will be forever grateful.