Spring Break

Friday night, Spring Break!

Time to eat pizza and have

A fun floor picnic.

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So what does an online teacher do anyway?

When I left my classroom teaching job, my son was a year and a half old, my 70 mile round trip commute was taking upwards of two hours a day, I had gone down to half-time teaching (every other day), and a looming state financial crisis meant that my pay was going to be slashed so far that it did not seem worth it. In addition, my husband had been working from home every other day when I was teaching, and while it was pretty easy to work around a six month old’s schedule, it was getting difficult to work around the schedule and needs of an extremely active, extremely talkative toddler, and his boss was getting impatient with my husband’s unpredictable presence in the office. But, we, like many people, did not have the financial means to live on one income. I was lucky enough to luck onto an online teaching position before my final salary ran out, and it provided me much needed flexibility and my son, my presence.

However, I really felt that I had betrayed my profession, and for the first two years, I did not tell people what I did, because I did not (and still really do not) feel like a real teacher. I did not have to stand in front of a room full of fidgety kids, get interrupted by fire drills, announcements, or random drop-ins from the principal (or, in my old school, tours of other principals who came to see “how we did it.”). I did not have to fill out discipline paperwork or send anyone to the office or fight with the copy machine. I don’t write lessons or curriculum, which I love doing. I felt like I was a paper scorer, and not much else. Certainly, some of the adult staff in the programs I was teaching treated me that way. (Memorably, one mentor refused to tell me what accommodations I was required to meet for a student on an IEP, because “IEPs are confidential; for the teachers only.”)

What I do, however – and this took me a while to figure out – is actually teach.

I teach students who are in the hospital, being treated for serious diseases.

I teach students whose health is so fragile that they cannot be in a room full of people, and because they some days cannot physically get out of bed.

I teach students who are in lockdown rehab or mental health treatment centers.

I teach students in prison.

I teach students who want to travel, and need flexibility in their schedules to do so.

I teach students who split their time between two continents.

I teach students who suffer from crippling anxiety or depression.

I teach teenage girls who are pregnant, or who cannot attend school while caring for their infants.

I teach students who are internationally ranked in their sport of choice.

I teach students who are escaping bullying.

I teach students who live far, far from town.

I teach students in small districts whose schools cannot offer Advanced Placement classes.

I teach students for whom online learning is the last ditch opportunity to earn the credits needed for graduation.

I teach students who work full time and take classes at night.

I teach students who travel from place to place with their herds.

I teach students from many nationalities, language groups, religions, and income brackets, and all levels of skill, from IEP students to Advanced Placement students who are planning to graduate a year or two early.

I teach language learners and language experts.

I teach students whose families need to move a lot, but who do not have to keep changing schools.

In short, I teach a well rounded mix of kids, just like in any classroom. Except my students are often the empty seats in a regular classroom. The names we call, but with faces that we can barely recall. The ones who we roll our eyes about, or who (to every teacher’s secret shame) we are partly glad are absent, because everything is just so unmanageable when they drop in, once every few weeks, like clockwork, to avoid being dropped altogether.

And what I do for these kids is much the same, except in a different format. I help them with assignments. We email back and forth, and I send explanations and resources to show them how to do – or improve – their work. I make them custom videos and recorded explanations and send those. We can meet in our virtual classroom, where we can be looking at the same screen and working together, for example – editing an essay – while hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Picture sitting down with a student after school, and helping him or her with assignments. This is the same thing. Each of my students gets my attention, for virtual one-on-one teaching.

I do grade papers. And while I do not get to decide what those papers will be about, I do get to see students progress and make strides in learning, and hear about their burgeoning pride in themselves and their skills. You know what else? I do get to know my students! While I am always faintly confused by not knowing what anyone looks like, and tend to fill in those mental gaps with any student from my past who shares a name or an attitude or a set of specific skills or problems, I still know a ton about them. I ask how the swim meet went. I ask when the next skiing competition will be. I ask about the weather in Alaska, how their family vacation went, or whether or not their choir group is going to state again this year. I make notes. I think about my students. I spend a lot of time on email.

I look at data. Nowadays, there is no such thing as education without tests and reports, right? Although mine tend to be less about reading levels, and more about who has logged in and who has not, who is turning in assignments, who is working erratically, who is struggling with assignments and who is doing a fantastic job, I still need to process the information and respond to it. I can, and do, use this information to customize my approach to each student. It is not easy- this year, I am teaching 25 different courses, and as of today, I have 177 students. I am teaching every 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English student in Oregon, at every curriculum level, and all of the 9-12 grade English honors students and Advanced Placement students. I have to know a lot of material, and a lot of assignments and different grading expectations, and I have to communicate with a lot of different students, with very different needs and requirements. As I said, there is a lot of email. A lot of specialized help. A lot of support and encouragement. I have even found a way to include my sense of humor and my penchant for bright colors and silly pictures.

I teach my colleagues some of my techniques and short cuts. I argue for emphasizing support and recognition of accomplishment more than using data to punish students who are already struggling and need help. I present information in staff meetings, because those will never go away. Probably when the world is obliterated and only cockroaches are left, they will get together once a week for a staff meeting. In the meantime, I have to go to them, but, like my students, I am virtual, so I can knit and roll my eyes as much as I feel necessary.

I have also been promoted in this job, so I do lead five hours of live English lessons every week, broadcast out, live and via recording, to online high school English students across the country. For this, I do write lessons, have become a master at Power Point, and have developed the ability to sound exceptionally engaged and interesting for a recording, even on days when no one is able to attend a lesson live. (My secret is the teddy bears. My son gave me two of his special animals- ones he would go nowhere without for his first three years- in case I get lonely while I am teaching. If I don’t have a student to talk to directly, I look at the bears and imagine that they are my audience. They are now the best educated teddy bears in town, and I get regular praise from my boss for sessions that are so interactive and dynamic, even when I am working in an empty virtual classroom.)

You know what? I think I may still be a real teacher after all.

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s events in linked haiku form

Shriek at 4:30-
Fifth nosebleed this week. Then, kiss husband before trip.

“Worried about you.
Will you be okay alone?”
“Fine. I’m a grown-up.”

Errands to run. Slip
And hurt injured knee, ankle.
Going well so far.

Exhausted, sleep while
Grading papers. Oh no, time
To pick up my son.

Playground, blow off steam.
Then a trip to library.
Too many books? No way!

Stagger under load.
Phone rings, toss keys on table.
Time to go again.

Hurry! Zoo class time!
Car won’t start without my keys.
Oh- sinking feeling.

Yes, we are locked out.
Long distance panic. How do
I get the screens out?

Who cares? Mangle screen,
Heave child over head through window.
Put kitten back in.

Child at door with keys.
Triumph! Zoo class saved! Only
Alone eleven hours.

Romantic tribulations of my 6 year old (Wait- what?!)

A couple of months ago, my husband was flummoxed when our son asked,”Dad, where do you go to get a girlfriend?” out of the blue at bath time. He was not prepared to answer this. Hard questions were my department, as they were usually raised in the car or at bedtime, both areas that are squarely within my domain. (“How exactly does the special hug that you do to get a baby work? Will you teach me, Mom, so I can do it with my friends?” was a particularly memorable conversation. Not to mention, wrong on so many levels.) Anyway, here is my poor husband, not knowing what the heck was going on, but he managed to blurt out, “Well, you don’t go somewhere to find them like shopping at a store.”

“How do you get a girlfriend then?”

“Usually, you find someone you like and see if they like you and if she likes you, then you ask her if she wants to do something together.”

I am hiding in the other room, listening and stifling my hysterical laughter. I love my husband, but he is not an expert on girlfriends. He did not have very many, and I have watched women hit on him without him noticing in the slightest that they are interested in him. (While this is quite endearing and reassuring to a wife, it is singularly unhelpful in providing guidance to someone trying to find a girlfriend.)

“Do you have to kiss a girlfriend?”

“You don’t have to, no, but sometimes you might.”

“Henry says that you have to kiss a girlfriend, or it doesn’t count.”

“Who’s Henry?” (Wrong question, I think, still trying not to giggle.)

Eventually, the right question dawns on my gobsmacked husband. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Well, I think I do. But I surely don’t want to kiss her!” (Yes, our six year old talks that way. He loves to interject “certainly” and “surely” wherever possible.)

It transpired that he was carrying on a torrid affair with a girl in his class. Of course, since they are six, this involved playing games at recess and occasionally throwing grass at each other. Girls being the way they are, it was unclear to me whether he was appointed to this position or had been allowed any say in the matter. She lives directly behind us, and is one of two people in his first grade class who is smaller than he is. I don’t know if this was a factor in his attraction to her or not, but it seems like it would be less intimidating if your first girlfriend (who you definitely do not want to kiss) did not loom over you.

A week or so later, I ventured to broach the subject. “So, I hear you have a girlfriend?” I inquired tentatively.

His reply? “Oh, I did, but I got thrown out of that relationship,” he said with a big smile. Obviously, the heartbreak was not overwhelming. I’ll admit to a great deal of relief that he and the girl had returned to being “just friends”.

Don’t grow up too fast, sweetie.

Lament of the Disorganized and Chronically Underslept

The presentation is ready for tomorrow.

Wait!

Where are my slides?

This is a only a saved template!

Where did all my work go?

Ah, it is saved into a different version.

Relief-

But not long lasting.

Which presentation is supposed to have this week’s new technique?

THIS ONE??!!!

Dinner is cooking (hope it’s not burning)

son is pulling on me –

please mail this index card letter to my best friend –

and

I have to start over.

All this

in the service

of the perfect lesson

on

Logic 101.

 

Books, Books, Books!

Books are my favorite things. While actually reading books is my very favorite thing, looking at, exploring, running my fingers along, and dipping into books is a very close second. I have bookcases in every room in the house (bathroom excepted, because it is too damp in there) and in our finished basement, we have a long wall that is pretty much all bookcases. This is my go to stress-relieving spot. I just take a few minutes to look at all the titles, the pretty covers, touch them and handle them and feel the sense of endless possibilities, and I feel better. Of course, now that my husband has started his own business and has his office in the basement, I have to walk through his invisible walls and around his chair to get to my haven, and sometimes he is being businesslike on the phone when I need my momentary escape, but still, the books wait for me there, and they always lift my spirits. So this week, I have been really enjoying all the people writing about books and experiences with books and reading, and especially the book spine poems. Saturday afternoon seemed like a good time to peruse the shelves and play with the titles in pursuit of poems. I have just under 2000 books, so I had plenty of titles with which to play. I had a happy time, scattering books all over the house with the help of my pint-sized assistant and creating arrangements in the hope of finding something profound, or at least mildly intriguing. Here are my two best attempts. (So far. I suspect there will be more in the future.) I did have to retitle one book, as our copy of one I really, really needed has disappeared somewhere in the whirling black hole of books, stuffed cats, LEGO pieces and paper airplanes that is my son’s room. Enjoy!

Book spine poem 1
Book Spine Poem 1
Book spine poem 2
Book Spine Poem 2

Woohoo! It’s Friday! Oh wait, I’m a mom.

Going out to dinner on a Friday night used to be a celebration. Now it is just giving up. After juggling work, and kid, and home stuff in a largely ineffectual way all week, no adult in the house has the energy to cook, or the time machine to go back in time to last night to actually take something out of the freezer to thaw either. We tried to convince the six year old to cook dinner, but he insists that he is not tall enough to reach all the ingredients and he is not allowed to use the stove by himself. Whatever, you slacker. So we all pile into the car and off we go. In theory, this could be great. Portland is a good foodie town. Top flight chefs, innovative cuisine, a plethora of food carts…yum…yum…yum… Oh yeah, I’m a mom. That means we can go to one Mexican restaurant, where our son likes the rice and they make cheese quesadillas in an acceptable fashion, two places that make cheeseburgers in an acceptable fashion, three acceptable pizza places, or the one the makes the best Mac and cheese, provided Mommy picks out the bacon and onions first. I may long for fusion food, or high end locavore food, or fish, but… I will have Mexican food.

Still, it is not all bad. Our six year old has written out the orders, with laborious and hilarious spelling, to take the onus of saying “cheese enchiladas” off of me. My favorite bookstore is just down the street, and we might squeeze in a quick visit before hitting the “I am up past my bedtime” backlash.

And maybe they will have piña coladas.

My Life as a Plate Spinner

Life.

Everything balanced-

Not in perfect proportion,

But not precariously every day.

 

I keep those plates spinning,

Swiftly shifting attention and energy,

A little quiver here,

A little shimmy there,

But they wobble on, all the same.

 

Until

One little thing goes wrong,

An emergency,

Or a tiny inconvenience

Magnified into ridiculousness

by the paltry forces holding everything together,

Moving in motion together,

Orbiting me, the gravitational center.

 

Until one little thing goes wrong,

and everything

Comes

Crashing

Down.

 

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“Chinese acrobats perform for holiday in Manila.” ChinaDaily. 29 Dec. 2010. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/photo/2010-12/29/content_11769482.htm. Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

Recklessness, bruises, gray hairs, and insurance forms, Or, a normal day in the life of a boy

When I was in college, I read a newspaper column in which a mom was advised that “if you raise boys, expect to spend time with the principal, the sheriff, and the ER.” I found this extremely funny. I was barely an adult myself, had no brothers, and was a long time away from ever being a mom. While I was aware that my boyfriend (now husband) had many checkered adventures in his past that probably skirted the “time with the sheriff” category, he had never been in serious trouble, and nor had any of our male friends. Foolish trouble, yes. Dangerous trouble? Yeah. But not serious-trouble trouble.

When I found out I was having a boy, my first, unthinking, gut reaction was, “Oh, no.” My husband said, “We are doomed.” Not a promising sign from the only person in the room who actually knew what boys were like. Not a promising sign at all. We had been picturing raising a girl. Of course, we love our son to pieces and would not trade him for anything, but at that moment, girls seemed a lot…easier.

Our son is kind, and generous, and caring, and even thoughtful sometimes. He is also six, in elementary school, surrounded by boys his same age, and apparently completely incapable of ever sitting still, following a direction, listening, or acting in any sort of sensible way at any time. (In addition, he is prone to shouting “Bang!,” playing robbers, and thinking that the words “butt” and “fart” are the most hilarious words ever invented, but that should probably be the subject of another post altogether.) What is the upshot of all of this? Our kind, caring, generous, thoughtful young child has turned into a part-time hellion, and we are learning the truth contained in that old newspaper column. In the space of one last week, our son was in trouble twice with his after-school extracurricular teachers, first for being a pain and a disruption in class, and second for doing something thoughtlessly (throwing a ball through a crowded gym) and responding obstinately and badly when he was told that he cannot do dangerous things like that. He has ended up in the principal’s office (and not even for the first time this year); this time because it seemed like a good idea for he and his friends to liberally paper the bathroom walls and ceilings with wet paper towels that they were flinging around. He was in trouble with his teacher three times for being uncooperative, disrespectful, and stubborn in class. He had to have lunch in the office. He had to do his reading work during recess. The calls and meetings went on and on and on. The punishments at home got increasingly complex, until we all kind of lost track of which punishment was for which infraction and my son just sadly remarked, “Oh, yeah. I am busted,” whenever he wanted to do something that was off the table for the duration. (I never, ever, ever thought I would say the words, “You are so grounded” to a six year old. I mean, he never goes anywhere without me. What the heck could I ground him from?) So, yeah, we have been spending time with the principal. He’s a nice guy. He looks pained when we look pained. But I never want to see him again in my life.

Then, there are the injuries. The fact that my young son is always covered by a variety of mysterious bruises does not worry me. (Are the mom police going to come for me for admitting that publicly?) I was the same way as a child, and I still more often than not have some random bruises lurking around somewhere at any given time. My family has never splashed too deeply in the coordination gene pool. I get that. Even the occasional cut  or scrape, while resulting in a series of dramatic screams, moans, and Oscar-worthy sobs, varying in pitch and intensity solely as a result of the closeness of my proximity and how attentive and/or worried I look, can be dealt with. I carry Band-Aids in my purse at all times. (I am the go-to playground Mom for all children who want Band-Aids, and really, who doesn’t want to dress up a perfectly innocent scratch with that little paper wrapped badge of battle?) I can deal with blood. If I can cope with a gushing, sheet-soaking nosebleed at 2am, I can deal with the playground injuries. And I have a magic Mommy only skill, which is to miraculously heal all wounds and dry all tears with a small washcloth and three ice cubes. Yes, it has to be three, or the magic does not work. Don’t argue; it’s my magic.

Yesterday, though, we entered new territory. The ER. Our son was happily playing on top of his desk chair, flinging his parachute guy as high as he could and watching him float down. In retrospect, this is obviously a bad idea. Obviously. No sane person lets a child who cannot hold still stand on top of a chair. This is a recipe for disaster. But at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. The chair was level and he was climbing on and off carefully. In my defense, I have not slept more than a couple of hours in a row all week and I am a bit on the hazy side. But still, as I said, everyone knows you don’t climb on furniture. For heaven’s sake, my own mom yelled that at me approximately 35,000 times a year.

And now I know why.

Chairs slip, and however much they believe differently, small boys are NOT immune to gravity. Your life flashes by you when you are in a bad accident, and your child’s life flashes by when you watch him fall in slow motion, unable to catch him because there is a sofa and a table between the two of you and you cannot move fast enough.

The crack of his head hitting the tile floor was sickening. The screams slightly after were too.

After much parental fussing from Mom and Dad, extra ice for the head injuries, and a rapidly improvised concussion test devised with a flashlight, the screaming stopped and we went to the hospital. Of course, being a boy, he rallied by the time we got to the parking lot, skipped in through the entrance, and happily regaled the nurses with his tale of injuries and woe, complete with dramatic arm gestures and many story-telling flourishes. If we had given him a bit more time to explain, I fully expect that he would have added some interpretive dance and possibly a song. We felt a bit silly, but still wanted to make sure that everything was okay. There had been that sickening crack, and the screams.

The doctor and the nurses were very kind and did not laugh at us. We are very fortunate to have a renowned children’s hospital nearby and it has its own ER, so we got to deal with pediatric specialists who are used to weird children’s injuries and worried parents. After a while, I even stopped worrying that some scary men with clipboards and cheap suits were going to appear and take me away for letting him stand on that darn chair in the first place. The doctors checked him over thoroughly and determined that he had a mild head injury with no concussion, and not even any subtle signs of serious head trauma. He has bruising over his right kidney, but no signs of internal bleeding, kidney damage, or other internal damage. (And yes, he did go around school this morning telling people “There was no blood in my pee, so that was good.”) Everything was okay, expect for possibly my nerves, and we all went home again. Bedtime was missed by a couple of hours, but otherwise, no harm done. Apparently, for medical professionals, a small boy flying off a chair backwards is not a particularly unusual occurrence. So now I know the ins and outs of the pediatric ER, for future reference. Two out of three of the predictions have come true.

I’m not looking forward to meeting the sheriff though.