Open: A Vision for 2017

Open. adjective. Allowing a view through an empty space; not closed or blocked up.

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My 2016 Top 9. Learned: fall, my sister, and the boyfriend are photogenic.

Last year, 2016, was a mixed bag.

(2017 will be, too.)

With this new year has come the realization that, despite the Instagram photos cheering the fresh start, new years are petrifying. This is especially true post-college. What will happen this year? runs through my mind, with all its subquestions: Move? Stay? Read? Write? Succeed? Fail? Grieve? Celebrate? Engaged? Married? None of the above?

I began last year in a similar state. I had just graduated and had one month of student teaching remaining on my calendar. The rest of the year, my future, was entirely and annoyingly blank.

The year filled out, as they always do. I got a job. The situation was serendipitous. And even so, the stretch from February to June was hard. Painfully so. I was in a school I knew, with teachers I trusted, in a grade level I liked. It should have been ideal and wonderful and fulfilling. But mostly, it was not. Mostly, it was hard.

Then came summer. I didn’t get a job. I was mad. And bored. My abundance of free time pushed me into tutoring, into taking field trips around the city with beautiful people of all different nationalities, into joining book groups, into workout classes, into making good from the unexpected. It was exactly what I needed. God knew. I didn’t.

And now, this school year.

There was some magic in this new beginning. My kids are weird and chatty and sweet. They read silently when they are supposed to. They ask bazillions of questions. They make me like teaching, most days. Even when it leaves me tired and frowny, when kids don’t always listen, when grading piles up, when I get stressed by the never-ending cycle of prep. That hope, that the pros might outweigh the cons, is a gift.

There was hope, too, when the boyfriend moved back to Minnesota. I am still giddy over this. It feels like a gift, even now, past the infatuation stage. We disagree, and disappoint, and resolve, and keep working, and his presence remains a delight. And I can see now, too, that being long distance for a season was not a tragedy. It shaped us and strengthened us, (when it wasn’t making me angsty).

Ordinary lessons string all these seasons together. I learned to budget. (This may be the most miraculous thing of all.) A Tale of Two Cities, and the songs of The Chainsmokers and Clemency, and the awesomeness of Hamilton moved up on my Favorites lists. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of monthly review posts and bought official teacher shoes. The Twin Cities overflowed with opportunities, and I took some of them.

I sit and weed through these mixed blessings, hoping for clarity. My journal fills with scrawled words. What did I learn? How did I grow? What do I carry forward, into the great and wild unknown? What does my same old soul need in a fresher, newer season?

One idea rises: openness.

This year, I have grown good (very good) at creating rhythms, establishing systems, charting courses, and setting goals. I have completed tasks (check, check, check) and capitalized on what I know and what I do well.

It is comforting and sometimes confining.

I stick to what I believe. After all, it is best and true and right and easy. Venturing out of my control, in schedule and ideas and habits and everything, feels risky. So does listening. So does soul-searching. It might shake my solid world and theology; their cores might be hollow.

This sort of living gives me the illusion of control, but it’s a lie. When I sense its power waning, I become defensive, fearful, closed. In sum, not the adjectives I envisioned. Self-preservation is rarely pretty. So, in this new year: I want my spirit to be open.

Open handed, in generosity and sacrifice of self.

Open minded, to new ideas that might (gasp) be better than mine.

Open hearted, to where the Lord might lead as he walks beside me, in both ordinary and extraordinary.

I don’t know all that 2017 holds. (I won’t, until it’s happened.) I do know that the year will fill up, with some good and some bad and much in between. It always does. In these days to come, I want to open my heart, trusting the One who surprises and delights and knows much better than I.

Here’s to 2017, whatever this bright and unknown and unpredictable and open year may bring.

 

 

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Learned

Learned. verb. To have aquired knowledge or skill through instruction or experience.
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Dear Ms. Christenson,

Two weeks ago, you finished your first half a year as a teacher. You are still breathing. Congratulations.

The weeks since you started passed in a haze. You barely remember the last week of school, much less the past few months. (It’s possible that you’ve blocked it out.) But try to imagine yourself back in the public library at the end of February, itching to start. You had just karate kicked around your kitchen when you found out you got the job. You are planning bell ringers and finding clever classroom rules memes. Your anticipation is bubbling over.You currently believe that:

  • You are remarkably prepared. For everything.
  • Your ability to pay attention in your college education courses and create a lesson plan from which kids might maybe learn something means you will automatically be fine
  • All those people who say that the first year is painful aren’t trying quite enough/don’t have good work-life balance/missed crucial chapters in college textbooks/don’t get enough sleep
  • In terms of classroom management, you are a strong, likeable pillar of consistency
  • Your engaging lessons and winning personality and organizational abilities will cause all memory of the teacher whose class you are taking over to be erased from kids’ minds.
  • You will not cry about school.
  • Or take grading home.
  • Or yell at your class.
  • Or have a student who flips desks over on the last day (literally) because his friend is not present.

You will be wrong. About everything. Mostly.

This adventure will not be what you expect. It will be hard. You dread Monday mornings. Wonder if being unemployed is really so bad after all. Cry. Count the days until summer break.

But you will also learn.

You will learn what works for you as a teacher. Playing music when challenging classes enter the room makes everyone – or at least you – feel slightly less vicious. Planning lessons around what you enjoy, like that lesson comparing a Hamilton song with the historical event it describes, will make you enjoy your work more. Posting directions that kids should begin as soon as they enter the room will (theoretically) result in less wasted time. Reading alongside students during silent reading makes them cooperate more. Your instructional style is still developing, but it’s gaining clarity with every class.

You will learn that your job is not to be liked or to entertain. It is to teach. Your students are in your class to learn. Some days the kids might find it boring. Some days the 90 minutes you share with them might drag. Some days they might never want to read another nonfiction article ever again. But when you don’t let them off easily, when you teach them to push through, when you make them work a little harder, they grow.

You will learn (again) the importance of relationships. Your students want to know more about you than why you think grammar is important. They will ask about your boyfriend. They will wonder if you go to church. They will suspect that you are a liberal because you have never praised Donald Trump. They will Internet stalk you and attempt to follow you on Instagram. Once they know you, they may not hate you. A surprising kid will say, as you nearly force him out the door on the last day, that really, you weren’t that bad. One of the bright eighth graders with her head screwed on straight will thank you for being a great teacher.

You will learn that you are not alone. The kids who have gone bonkers in your class are going bonkers for other teachers, too. Friends who are in similar teaching situations are experiencing the same spells of frustration/disillusionment/insanity. People who love you will text you encouragement and let you cry on the phone and tell you that you’re doing fine and give you advice and make you laugh and talk about things other than school with you. You need these people.

You will learn more about who you are and how you work. Having two prep times in one day does not increase your productivity. When your emotions are beginning to rage in the evenings, going for a run or making a new recipe reduces them to a simmer. Writing down bright spots in your day forces you to remember that your life and job are not hopeless.

You will learn that you can do this. Even when teaching is hard and stressful and frustrating, you can still show up and do the work. After a summer of breathing deeply, maybe you can even do it again.

First-Year Teacher

First-year teacher. noun. A title given to teachers who are brand spanking new and who are acutely feeling their lack of experience. They run on caffeine and enthusiasm. See also: Anna. Or, ahem, Ms. Christenson.

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As some of you may know, I recently started the adventure of my first teaching job. I’ve survived my first week (!!!) of being in the middle school ELA classroom, and it’s been…something. A mostly good, occasionally overwhelming something. My situation is a bit unique, as I’m stepping into a classroom in the middle of the school year. Regardless, I’m sharing my experiences in the hopes other new teachers can find solidarity and encouragement.

No one warns you about the terrifying time between getting hired for a new job and actually starting said job. In the days between getting the yay-new-job phone call and my first day, I desperately wanted to just start. There was only so much I could plan and prepare and anticipate before I got to know the kids and saw them in action. Now that I’ve had 5 days with them, here’s what I’ve learned and what I’m working on.

Kids want someone who is in control.

One of my favorite ways to get to know students better is an activity I call Question Stations. I post questions around the room like “What’s something you could teach me?” and “What causes you the most stress?”, and students have a few minutes to circulate and write their answers. One of the questions I ask is “What makes a good teacher?” Normally I get responses like “Someone who gives food” and “Fun” or “Doesn’t give homework.” In one of my classes, I got a response that surprised me. At least 6 kids said “Control over the classroom.” After being in their class for a week, I get it. This is a class with a few highly disruptive kids. The other 90% of the students are respectful and want to learn. They get just as irritated as I do when their class is continually disrupted, when the teacher has to spend more energy on crowd control than on instruction. What my students need right now is a classroom that is well managed with clear boundaries, expectations, and consequences, NOT a chill teacher who is well liked. Continuing to build my skills here is my top priority for the second week.

 Relationships are what makes the classroom go ‘round.

I’m discovering that don’t have fun teaching until I start to know my students. I love my content area, but knowing the kids and their personalities makes everything tick. Establishing relationships also makes all of the classroom management things I’ve been working on seem firm, but not inhuman. To that end, I regret none of the time that I’ve spent on getting to know you activities (even though we could have used more review time for district assessments). I am also sooooo thankful for my ability to learn names with relative speed. This impresses/scares kids (She knows my name!? Am I in trouble?) and helps students feel like I actually care about them individually.

Be confident.

One of the weirdest parts of the transition from student teaching to real teaching is that I have zero feedback on how I’m doing. While student teaching, I had a supervisor popping in once a week and a cooperating teacher who was still an integral part of the classroom. Now I’m all by myself. (Cue dramatic music.) I still have a wonderful team who helps keep me on track with big-picture plans and lesson ideas. But there’s no one watching to tell me that I’m doing exactly what I need to do or to chime in with ideas for helping the more challenging students. Independence is forcing me to grow and trust my own judgment. But it’s also sort of terrifying to know that I’m on my own. I’m trying to fake it in front of my kids. (Though I’m pretty sure my Advanced 8th graders have figured it out…)

 Your brain will begin to lose pieces of very important information.

This week, I have lived off to-do lists and emails to myself late at night and reminders on my phone. If it’s not written down somewhere it swirls around and makes it hard for me to fall asleep and then evaporates by the time I wake up. I cannot remember anything anymore. Is this normal?

Wear a Wonder Woman shirt on Friday.

I mean this literally. I wore a shirt with Wonder Woman’s face on it for casual Friday. But you could wear your own equivalent (Super Girl? Power suit? You do you). I looked back at the week and saw that, hey, I survived. That’s neat. But I also saw 758 things that I would have done differently, or better, or not at all. I saw all the things I still wanted to fix and that weren’t done yet and that whispered that maybe I was sort of a crappy teacher. It took some kind words from my boyfriend to remind me that it’s only week 1. There’s still time, and no one expects my classroom to be a well-oiled machine yet. (With 7th graders, it probably never will be.) So I’m trying to celebrate any and all progress made. I’ve made it through 5 days. I am officially a teacher. Or superhero. Same thing.

 

Stay tuned for more teacherly updates! We’ve got one week down, a whole lot more to go. Here’s to Mondays and tea and forward progress and SSR time.

 

ESL

ESL. acronym for English as a Second Language. My classroom of residence for the past 10 weeks; also home to the cutest kids on the planet.

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My term as an elementary ESL student teacher comes to an end this week. I’ve been camping out in the ESL room for 10 weeks now, working with kiddos in grades K-5. These are the stories that shine as I ponder this experience.

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I think the gene for teaching the very small ones skips a generation. My mom is a rocking kindergarten teacher, and I spent Thursday evenings throughout high school watching her work with little guys at ECFE. And then my turn came. I sat at the tiny table with the tiny kinders, the ones who hold hands when they walk out of the classroom and tell me sometimes, “Miss C, you look beautiful today.” And I realized that I had no idea what I’m doing. How is teaching the alphabet, numbers 1 through 6, the question “What do you do with your family?” so hard? I planned lessons I thought were fine and showed up to have my squirrely group distracted and my timing off and my teacher reminding me to pick one focus and to keep them moving and teach behavior over content and do the whole thing differently. So I sighed a lot and kept trying and asked for feedback and wondered why on earth the simplest concepts in school were so dang complicated to teach.

And one day, lightbulb. We were working on numbers, and I was stressed. Math has caused me more angst than any other school subject, and the trend was continuing. But I tried. I found a worthwhile new game on the miraculous Internet. I thought through my plans. We moved through the activities “boom boom boom boom,” as my teacher says in her rapid-fire Chinese accent, and I saw that they had just enough knowledge to be successful but still struggle productively, and they were engaged in making independent choices the entire time, and they didn’t go bananas when I handed out materials. I overheard my cooperating teacher tell another teacher that I looked like a veteran, and I wanted to cry.

She did not say that every day after that. Some lessons, we spend more time practicing not kicking the table and keeping eyes on the book and not talking when it is not our turn than learning vocabulary. Some lessons, I still got reminders from my teacher to pick just one focus, and I wanted to say, “I’m trying! I promise! I am actually thinking about this! Why is that not clear?” But there were shining little moments, where I asked the right questions and had good pacing during drawing time and used helpful visuals, and I saw a glimmer that I was doing some tiny thing right. I saw my mistakes, stopped agonizing over them, and did better the next time. Try and fix and try and fix and try and fix. That is all I could do. That is all I needed to do.

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The 2nd graders caught the giggles a few weeks from the end. The entire time I was videotaping lessons for assessments, they were golden. They were engaged and curious and only occasionally distracted. Classroom management? Why would I struggle with classroom management? said the prideful one before the fall. Because then the honeymoon ended. And they caught the giggles. A sentence about a character named Eric and his parrot triggered laughter. A little dude’s deep, throaty impression of The Voice of the Mountain caused explosions. One girl’s slouching so low she nearly fell of her chair provoked giggles. And I’m all for laughter, but not when it does not stop. In my last week, we had serious talks in my teacher voice about what it looks like to be active listeners. The skills were practiced and modeled, the reminders were given, the countdown to quiet was attempted, the consequence of taking a break in the hall (horror of horrors) was in place. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I was making some headway. And then I told the kids it was my last day of teaching them, one of my dear distracted dudes said, “Aw, now we can’t be weird anymore!” And I realized that they knew. My newbie status had been found out. I wanted to laugh and cry and possibly send the kid back to Vietnam. (I kid, I kid.)

I realized that maybe I’d screwed up. Maybe I’d been a little too chill. Maybe I’d let the consequences go unenforced for too long. Maybe my teacher would take over and wonder what in the heck I’d been doing for eight weeks. And it would be okay. The world would not end. The kids had still learned something. I could smile. I could fix it next time.

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I started stepping away from classes this week, to observe how a rockstar 1st grade teacher manages her classroom and what upper-grade Language Arts teachers do for context as I step into 7th grade English. On bus duty, telling kids to “Walk down the stairs, no, you come back and try that again, that is not how we walk to the bus,” my cutie-pie kids waved at me. They missed me. They asked why I wasn’t in class and if I would come back and teach them tomorrow. My 3rd graders, the ones who always ask “Can I tell you just one thing?” which is never just one thing, check every day now when I’m leaving. One of them made sad faces at me when I watched my cooperating teacher teach their class and hugged me when I walked by in the hallway.

I look back, at the moment on the video recording of one lesson when all of the students leaned in close over a simple experiment, curiosity piqued. At the time when the brand-new kid used the words “my brother” for the first time in conversation. At the look on the 4th grader’s face when he found out we were writing letters to the principal, and that she would actually read them. At the quiet embarrassment of the kiddo translating his own strengths and challenges into Spanish for his mom at conferences. At the questions of the 1st grader, who requested, after some stubborn prying into my personal life, “Can’t you bring your boyfriend here, so I can meet him?” And I tuck those snapshots away. In the middle of this placement, I got restless, so ready to move beyond ABC and 123 and truck-car-train. In my hustle, I forgot that this time has held sweetness.

Sure, it’s been complicated too. I have been challenged and passionate and bored and confident in the same morning. I am sad to leave the cute little faces and the setting that’s become familiar, class by class, but I am ready to move on. I want to make a big dramatic stink over this, but this messy ball of feelings, the way things move on before you’re ready and after you’ve been ready for forever, is life. And life involves beginnings and endings, changes and transitions, hellos and goodbyes. All I can do is name the good and the hard, and let them quietly change my heart.

So adios, kiddos. May you always be adorable, and may your vocabularies always be increasing. Thanks for teaching me more than I taught you.

July

July. proper noun. The seventh month of the year, named after Julius Caesar.

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July in a photo: sunset gorgeousness, windblown ponytails, family fun, zero makeup

(This post would be otherwise titled as What I Learned in July. But I didn’t want to break the theme, you know.)

Today, I’m being techy and linking up with Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky. (P.S. You should read her blog. And her book Grace for the Good Girl. They’re rather fabulous.) Every month she does a summary of what she’s learned during the month. So behold, here is my very random list of stuff that I learned in July.

1. Spit unfogs swimming goggles. I tried it in desperation one day when all I could see through my goggles was vague blue fuzz, and it actually worked. I now have non-foggy goggles and a way to gain coolness points with little boys who love gross stuff.

2. If a little cutie tells me that she wants to be a swimming lessons teacher when she grows up and gives me flowers on her last day of lessons, I will love her forever.

3. When you go to Despicable Me 2 on your twentieth birthday, the theater will have far more teenagers than small children. (Lesson 3 ½: That movie is hilarious and I want a minion.) At least I’m not the only one with the maturity of a ten year old.

4. Les Miserables should be read as an abriged version. The plotline is fine, even good at some parts, but the actual plot only takes up half of the book. The rest is long, rather irrelevant and confusing, description. It is finishable (I actually did it!), but you might want to swear or throw the book across the room or quit and read something that’s actually engaging. Sorry, classic literature fans.

5. When you read a book as fabulous as The Fault in Our Stars (by John Green) after finishing Les Miserables, you will find yourself physically unable to put it down and you will read until 2 in the morning. Seriously. Snarky narrator, crush-worthy love interest, quotable lines, unexpected storyline – it’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this summer.

6. I really, really, really enjoy glue guns. And sewing machines. And scissors. And other potentially dangerous craft supplies. They’re like the female equivalent of power tools. (And this month I used them a lot. July’s project totals: 1 t-shirt quilt, 2 pennant banners, 1 yarn-covered letter banner, 1 book page-covered storage container. Pinterest rocks, people.)

7. Getting your wisdom teeth out can cause permanent nerve damage or be fatal. Thank you, scary pre-surgery video.

8. Having a new car that you paid for all by yourself is super duper exciting. Driving three hours by yourself after picking up said car is not. You may stab the seek button on the radio a lot of times and begin talking to yourself. However, getting the spiffy Nimbus 2000 (otherwise known as the Oldsmobile Alero with a Harry Potter-inspired name) is most certainly worth it.

9. The TV show Numbers makes me nervous. I should expect this, since everything with intensity and/or guns makes me want to pace around my living room or hide my face in a magazine. I feel slightly ashamed that even a TV show about math has this effect on me.

10. Hassock is a word. It means a padded footstool. And I have a retro avocado-colored one pilfered from my grandma’s attic.  At least it has more character than anything I’d find at Target.

11. I kinda like this “what I learned” business. And I might continue it. Check back next month (and weekly in between then, too)!