Battle of the Bulge

It’s the post-vacation bulge. My backpack, not my jeans.

Today is the last day of school vacation. The snowstorm killed our return last Thursday, so it’s come twice. It’s the day the bell tolls, the alarm clocks get set, and teens everywhere shake the crumbs off their crumpled hoodies preparing for the death march back to school.

It’s the day that teachers scrutinize the list of inspiration, planning, and work we aspired to bang out over break. We realize it’s not done. Not even close. No little elf has assisted. Sure, there are some enviable people out there who tweet all they accomplished. I feel like a capital “L” loser.  In truth, I call “foul.” I demand an audit. No one can be that productive when staring in the face of a holiday. Cheesecake, or work?

I wanted to plan out the next seven years of teaching, make Prezis that would make Rembrandt cry, and have the grade book polished a week ago. Alas, there’s not a single Prezi to be found.

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 6.27.39 AM“Open me!” A voice hisses from the corner. It’s the backpack. The one that comes with a bottle opener in case of emergency. Every compartment’s stuffed with things to do–papers to correct, books I wanted to read, things that would have gotten me pretty far ahead in the stratosphere of preparation.

Alas, procrastination is an art form that must be fine-tuned. I consider it often. I have a book about it, “Overcoming Procrastination.” I’ve had it for two decades, never read it. They say, “never do something today that can be put off till tomorrow.”  And since “tomorrow never comes,” it’s fair to say that the hissing, bubbling, grumbling backpack can remain closed…perhaps indefinitely…

Today is the tomorrow that came. The one that slipped by the guards and snuck in without permission.

“Open me…” cajoles the backpack. “It’s okay. You want to open me…”  A lesson in life. Never answer the call of the sirens. Temptation is deadly. Always ends badly. The hero always opens the closet in a horror movie…Don’t open the closet! For me it’s, “Don’t open the backpack. It’s certain doom!”

I approach the zipper. I put my thumb and finger on it. I begin to tug. The papers rustle around. I hear a maniacal laugh.

It has to be done. I rip open the compartment, reach in, and yank out the stack. Not so bad as I remembered. Seems they procreated only in my dreams. Just a couple sections of a test I didn’t finish correcting, and a half-paper scratched up with ideas. Now I remember where I left off. The ideas begin to flow.

I smile, even without a Prezi. No pile of oppression here. Just a few things to do, some reminders that I miss my students…and a dead candy cane.

I guess I’ll be okay to return.



My Mailbox

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.04.11 AMThe Teacher’s Mailroom. It’s a relic from the past. Boxes that serve as a repositories for things better ignored via email. Every once in a while the cluttered box proves its worth. I get a special treat from someone like a thank you note or a card with a candy bar attached. It keeps me checking my box. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Not today. No candy with a note. No thank you card. No good news. I strike out. Just a bunch of dead trees I’ll probably toss on my desk and forget to read when the first student starts to discuss the day.

There’s a lot of reasons to fill up teachers’ mailboxes…schedules, mandates, notices, rules. I grab them and go. I intend to I read them on the way up the stairs, filing them into three mental piles…”do this,” “consider this,” and “you seriously killed a tree for this?” I mean to read every last word, but the truth is I lose focus. I’d rather talk to students about the game or their bad fashion.

Even email’s tough now…now that I’ve been properly dog-trained to send short ones and get to the point. The constant stream of “reply to all” violations and epic novels so prevalent in education…the daily updates about programs and events…it’s all bad karma beating me down for the email diatribes I produced in my former lives.

And that is why I want someone smarter than me to invent a something useful irradiate this problem. Maybe a chip or sensor I can embed into my coffee cup or implant in my arm. It’ll use some kind of electrical impulse to read my latent neurological response to email, highlighting the ones it knows will interest me, just like Amazon and Facebook know what kind of adverting will get me to respond. Hardly seems like advertising anymore.

It’ll recognize excessively long, boring emails that contain information critical to my day. It’ll distill them  into a single tweet providing me with an executive summary of everything I really need to know to survive and act intelligent.

I have a friend who doesn’t read.

“What do you mean you don’t read?” I asked him.

“I don’t read. When you finish your book I probably won’t read it.”

How can you be so successful and read so little?”

“Easy,” he replied. “I bullshit.”

This is the essence of what I want to invent. On a good day, I’ll feel briefed like the President of the United States. On a bad day, I’ll at least be able to throw down the bullshit card. I’ll sound intelligent. I had a friend in a prior career that used to carry papers around all day. That’s all he did. I asked him how he got promotions when people like me did all his work.

“Oh, I look busy all the time. I carry a file around and pretend to copy things. You should try it sometime.” Indeed I should.

I think the upgrade to this chip could be some kind of sensor that could work in people, predicting conversations I didn’t want to have.

I’m not sure how to make this, and I don’t have the skill or energy for this endeavor, but I’d pay money if it existed. I hope someday it does.

And the rainforests would sure be glad.

The Final Countdown

We are at T-Minus One Week and counting. Summer’s ending, schools elsewhere have begun. I received my schedule this week. I’ve had my first dream. My mind’s planning. It…has…begun.

The Keurig corner gets set up first. I budget for this under "happiness."

The Keurig corner gets set up first. I budget for this under “happiness.”

My teacher friends post room pix that look like they have professional decorators. I stand in the middle of my room. I’m inferior. No professional decorator here. I do a 360. We’re in design shape. I unpack items. First thing’s first, I set up the Keurig corner. Tons of caffeine. I’m not sure if that pot, for which I have a deep, unhealthy love, is my spiritual confidante or a street-corner drug dealer.

Cups in place, not a drizzle of tar-pit of agave spilled by colleagues rushing to return to packed classrooms. The refrigerator hums a quiet greeting. The “food and beverage corner” is complete. I can live in this room.

“Dead Guy Display” has fallen, warped. I’ve no double-sided sticky tape. The fallen men of history must remain so until I hit the store for adhesive. Under them, the bulletin board–black stretch felt punctuated with a million staples, corners of papers clinging for dear life. Every once in a while a student with OCD removes staples as an extracurricular activity.

I used to decorate in themes–cultures from around the world.  I look around now.  The room’s now an amalgamation of things I liked best–relics from stained glass hobby days hung in windows, waiting to catch afternoon light.  World flags, favorites long missing due to student appropriation. They’ve been rearranged by one astute scholar who put all the bitter enemies side by side in a fit of political humor.  Helicopter hanging over my desk, secured with fishing line, a gift from a colleague who’s moved on in life. Hung securely–until someone jumps up and whacks it…”Look, Miss, it’s flying!” One day it’ll crash to the earth. I should probably take it down.

Not done setting up. This is the opposite of the pictures my perfect teacher friends have. I want to win a contest where they redo my room.

Not done setting up. This is the opposite of the pictures my perfect teacher friends have. I want to win a contest where they redo my room.

I clean my fish tank, filling the five-gallon buckets with a half-summer of sludge. One cichlid remains. I wheel the sludge to the science lab, only to remember–it’s gone. It moved to another part of the universe. I didn’t realize they were taking their sink with them. I fill up the five-gallon bucket yogurt container by yogurt container in the student bathroom sink.  I reflect upon the Asian saying that you really do fill a bucket one drop at a time. I thought they were talking about wisdom, not standing in front of a bathroom sink for all eternity.

I go back to my room. I unpack “cultural items.” Chinese and Tibetan Buddha, teapots, ink wells. “No, we don’t refer to the Buddha as ‘the fat guy’ and ‘the skinny guy,'” I say at least once a year when we get to that part. The japanese tetsubin start conversations which result in me preparing tea, The inkwells are empty–calligraphy relics–but are pretty enough to stand tall in the display.

A beautiful cherrywood collage has fallen to the ground. I thought it would stay forever, I secured it so well. Images of students who passed through these doors long ago. It will stay down. I am making room for the new.

I realize this looks like my room got attacked by Woodstock. You can't see the beads to the left.

I realize this looks like my room got attacked by Woodstock. You can’t see the beads to the left.

I remove thumbtacks from the neon floral board I painted. It’s near the hippie door beads kids love to touch when they enter the room. I look up. Haight-Ashbury gone very badly. I contemplate removing the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. This room looks like it’s all over the place–no theme–very much like the contents of my mind.

Perhaps that’s good. I try to connect seemingly unrelated things.  The Occupational Therapist suggested, “Get rid of some of this. It might help you and your students.” She wanted me to get rid of furniture. No teacher in their right mind gives up a filing cabinet, though, so I conceded to hide the lava lamps. They’re coming back out now.

They’re back in style. I had them out when they weren’t.

I stand in the middle of the room. I’m not going to finish today. I throw out a bunch of stuff–simplifying is my theme this year–allowing myself “one box of crap” that I will pack away and sort later. I fill the box. I finish my coffee. I walk through door, touching the beads, just like my students. They jingle. I pause in the doorway. Perfect or not, this room will soon be filled with a couple-hundred faces staring at me, hoping I’m not going to waste their time. I won’t. How can anyone with a lava lamp waste your time?

It’s going to be a good year. I can feel it.

[This post is dedicated to Hari, who has an amazing classroom. You certainly won’t get decorating tips from me!]


If Ecclesiastes Saw My Car or Freezer…

“To everything, there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” This is one of the most famous of all Biblical quotes, where the book of Ecclesiastes smacks us down and tells us to be patient. It also calls procrastinators to the carpet.

“Come on, it’s the season,” it means to say. “Get off your ass and (in the words of Larry the Cable Guy) ‘Get r done!'”

There are several arduous tasks that fall into this category, such as cleaning the freezer and car. There used to be systems for these things–a car was something that couldn’t go undetailed for very long, and a freezer got cleaned seasonally. Sometimes, I find as I get older and I wake up wondering where the time went, there are tasks that get away from me for years at a time.

I make my doctor’s appointments at the beginning of the summer. I am a teacher–there are two schools of thought on this. First is “Sick day!” where you make the appointment strategically so as to blow off a day of work and enjoy the rest of the day. I never do that. I make them at the beginning of the summer. That enables me to remember to make them once a year.

I dialed the phone. “I think it’s that time to see you again,” I say, smiling. You can always hear a smile on the other end of the phone.

“It’s been three years.” I didn’t hear a smile.

It got me thinking. What else has missed its season? I walked around the house and yard looking for things that had missed their season. The car was definitely one–the greatest offender. I am sure I haven’t detailed it since we moved–nearly a year, and before that since we did the build out to sell the last house. There was wood and doors and hardware from Home Depot in that car a mile high. There might’ve been an employee in the back still loading stuff stuck behind the recyclable bags.

BC (before children) all cars got detailed on a regular basis, from the 89 Toyota to the VWs to the cult-classic-for-about-as-long-as-Boy-George Saturns. Going longer than a month or two is the human equivalent of the kid in college who never takes a shower. I have never once paid a person to detail my car. I do it perfectly–only I omit the spray that makes me gag, and if anyone ever comes near me with a car tree, I’ll hate them for life. My cars were pristine. No procrastination involved.

“Um, but it’s an 89 Camry…” I know. A classic!

See how many household food items you can identify.

See how many household food items you can identify.

After Children, many layers of sludge appear in a car, such that you have to shovel out the seat to give rides. Forester Gump still had hay in it from garden-planting farm-rading mulching season. Not good. A job that had surely seen its season pass once or twice. But the freezer was worse–I actually remember when I picked the blackberries and made that chocolate-blackberry ganache–a few years ago. I haven’t bought a frozen vegetable since I can remember, yet the blocks and frozen-hard bags sat there waiting for a prize-fighter with a black eye, because I certainly can’t remember if that meat in a freezer bag, unlabeled and unloved was, at one time, a steak.

“Everything must go.” It’s garbage night, and out it went. Now, there will be room for my once-a-month-style cooking for the beginning of the school year. You make a ton of stuff, freeze it in Foodsaver bags in lunch-sized portions, and chuck it in the lunch bag at 6AM mid-run out the door. Lasagna and casserole for a year. Or until you forget it and have to clean out the freezer again.

declan vaccuums carI detailed the Subaru with my step-daughter. Car owner and soon-to-be-car-owner bonding. She manned the vacuum. I taught that cars are a pain in the ass. Soon, the residue of Home Depot, the farm hay and the six-year old’s sludge were properly extrapolated. It felt like a new car, except for lack of new car smell. It smells like bike tires and hay. There’s no changing that.

So, now Forester Gump is clean and I know that Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t hide any dinner in my freezer. The season for these tasks is complete.

Now’s the season to enjoy the last few days of not having to keep a proper schedule, pretending I’ll still accomplish The List this summer. After that, it’s game on, off to the races to meet new and old students. Before I know it, I’ll be writing about the holidays, the end of the year, and next summer will be upon us, a new List of Things I Mean to Accomplish (but won’t because I’ll relax instead) freshly minted,  calling for me to obey each item in its season.

Sloooowwww Down! And Do Not Delete

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 6.14.27 AM“No!!” I said as I watched my finger click “Don’t save.”

I was multitasking–talking, thinking, and typing, laptop balanced on my knee. My finger headed for the wrong square. Microsoft Word gave me the a courtesy reminder.

“Are you SURE you want to push the left-hand button, you absolute idiot, given the fact that you’ve transcribed each conversation, pre-written three articles, and put down all your ideas in this one Word document which you haven’t named or saved all day? ARE YOU QUITE CERTAIN YOU WANT TO DELETE ‘DOCUMENT 1’?”

And yet my finger could not change course. It was a little like watching a horror movie, where I know the killer’s in the closet but can’t warn the hero. Click. Fear washed over my body. The document was gone.

“Why didn’t you write it in Google Docs?” said Helpful Friend. The network isn’t reliable at school, usually frozen while Google “searches for the network.” I’ve been programmed to use other things. But thank you for the tip–maybe next time suggest that I save my docs every four days or so.

I’d have issued the “sucks to be you” look if this had been a student.

I was at EdCamp Boston. That’s what EdCamps do–generate eighty ideas at a time. EdCamps are “unconferences.” People get together and share ideas. They present what they want, they move around, when things interest them, and they fall into a million conversations at once–this is just the type of thing a multitasking-probably ADHD-individual loves. I did my thing–I started a discussion about blogging in the classroom, showed how I use Learnist, Twitter and my blog to engage students, but really what I went to do was steal ideas.  “So, does anyone else out there do this? What do you suggest?” It’s a beautiful thing.

I took all my ideas, and typed them neatly into a million-paged document, entitled “Document 1.”

I met some great educators. I went to my favorite presentation of the day, “How to be a badass teacher” which discussed how to maintain a positive outlook in the face of educational challenges, how to give oneself permission to move on to bigger and better things, and how to take back the climate and culture of a school. The discussion was crammed with innovative teachers in a small space in the Microsoft facilities second floor lounge–teachers sprawled on chairs, carpets, corners… all taking notes. “Document 1” was filling rapidly.

“What do I do? I think differently and every time I come up with an innovation, I get put down,” said one teacher.

“We can’t seem to make any changes at my school,” said another.

“All the teachers at my school are old and cranky. And they hang out in the teacher’s lounge.” Everyone nodded.

“How do we create good mentoring situations so new teachers don’t get assaulted by well-meaning but cranky teachers?”  That question got a great answer. I typed it into Document 1.

“Let’s consider that these teachers have a lot of experience,” person suggested. “Maybe they’ve become tired. Been beaten down by the system. Really want to help you not experience the same thing,” he continued, “How do we get these nuggets of information from these experienced educators? Reinvigorate them? Approach them correctly to recognize their experience?” This was a critical comment for me.  I’ll admit I get frustrated–by the roadblocks–testing, standardization, data, data, data…

It’s important to have these conversations. To laugh. To brainstorm. To connect.

I learned so much. I typed away, I quoted, I reflected, introduced, exchanged business cards, ate a sandwich, made a Learnist board, wrote article outlines.

Then pressed delete.

Time to slow down. Pause. Think. Reflect. Consider. Do…not…delete.

All is not lost. The ideas sunk in. And maybe I shouldn’t have been typing all day in Document 1 anyway. It’s important, sometimes, to savor the experience of creating. “Experiences are everything,” says my good friend constantly.  Like when I used to do a lot of photography and spent more time hiding behind the lens than living. It’s like that.

Slow down. Breathe. Consider. Don’t push the button too fast. You’ll miss the essence of what’s behind it all. Life will pass you by.

Pulling Weeds

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.47.58 AMI’m pulling weeds in the garden and planting new flowers.  The garden is full. It’s huge. Truth be told, it could have been a little bigger–I’d have filled it. A million things poke through the soil–some in rows, more in random places where I stuffed them when I ran out of room–overzealousness. I can’t wait for things to grow–I plant more daily.

I am installing marigolds along the fence, one by one, a million of them–the best defense against rabbits, I’m told. I dig holes, and stuff flowers in holes. Dig more, shove more in the ground. A line is forming.  Shovel and flower hovering, next flower ready… Two leaves rise up from the back of the hole.

“Hey!” they say, “What’s the big idea?”

“Sorry. Just planting the marigolds. Didn’t mean to disturb.”

“Well, watch yourself! You just planted here last week. I’m trying to grow. Do you MIND?”

“True,” I tell the zinnia seedling, and pat the dirt back around her.  “I forgot. I’ll try to remember.” I stuff the marigold row an inch forward and leave the zinnia be.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.48.31 AMI get so excited watching new life pop up and grow, that I don’t wait for things to take root. I plant on top of plants, I accidentally rip things up, mistake things for weeds…never really knowing if the first plant was growing the way it should.  Sort of reminds me of school.

We have all these measures, initiatives, and changes–some are necessary, but others  never really get a chance to take root, because there’s always another thing to plant, hole to dig, things to disturb. Sometimes, we just need to wait–if we do, beautiful seedlings will emerge. If we encourage them, remain steadfast and patient, and allow them to be nurtured by the sun, they will flower. It is magic.

In management and business, it takes time to assess the effectiveness of change. There are mathematical equations for this. I’ve worked for corporations that made major change upon major change, putting the organization in chaos, never really knowing which initiative drove business. In education, it often feels the same way. Sometimes we demand effectiveness immediately–it’s important. We behave as if there’s a pedagogical magic wand putting us back at the top of the mountain for all the world to see. “If we just do this…we’ll be number one. In every category. Again.” That causes chaos. It pulls the zinnias out by the roots. They never get their chance to flower.

Change takes time. Assessing change requires patience. Growth cannot be rushed. It’s science. Nature. Cyclical. To expect anything other than what is truth in nature to be true in education would be absurd.

Wait for the growth.

Wait for the growth.

Sorry, little zinnia. Thank you for the reminder. I won’t disturb you with a big flashy marigold just because it has a big orange swirly flower right now. Honestly, marigolds smell terrible. They’re a bit ostentatious. I’ll wait for you to bloom–it’ll be spectacular. Even if it does take a little bit longer.



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How Much Manure is in Your Job?

The snow has melted. There is a really loud bird singing outside the window. Crocuses poke through the dirt, and the Yankees just got clobbered by the Red Sox–it’s spring.

Time for growing stuff.  This weekend, we constructed the garden. At the old house, I built a ton of raised beds built when my husband wasn’t looking. It was a suburbanish-urban area right under the flight path of the airport. Our yard was first thing important people and foreign dignitaries saw upon approaching the runway. Our urban homestead had the potential to make everyone smile.  I waved as planes approached the runway, hovering three feet over my treeline. The guy in the third seat behind the wing tipped his glass, waved back, mouthing the words, “Nice garden.”

“Thanks,” I mouthed back, “Enjoy your stay.”

My husband didn’t feel the same way about my homesteading. “It looks like you barfed vegetables all over this yard, like someone with ADHD invaded!” He wanted rows. I wanted production. I stuck vegetables in every pot, raised bed, and crack in the sidewalk I could. Production.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 6.01.39 AMWe’ve relocated to the forest and fenced in space for an epic garden–the kind that’ll feed a small nation through the winter. It required more than the usual couple bags of manure–it was time to get real, so I visited the family farm down the road. Ironic that I grew up in a rural area–we all laughed about chickens, tractors and cows, and now I want to be a pseudo-farmer.  I respect them. They work hard on behalf of the nation for very few accolades–kind of like teachers. We share a common affinity.

“Oh, we have manure,” said the farmer, leading me to the bags. Point to note, you must request  “aged manure,” or “composted manure.” It makes a difference. You can’t just let the cow poop on your carrots; that’s a health hazard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 6.01.23 AM“Why can’t I just poop in the garden?” my son asked looking to cut out the middleman and be naked in public.

“Can’t I use the cat’s litter box?” another friend wondered.

No. It must be aged manure.  I handed over the measurements, and faster than I could say “Jimmy Cracked Corn,”  three cubic yards of manure appeared in the middle of my freshly tilled land.

Three cubic yards of manure is a lot of shit. We’ve been telling poop jokes all weekend.

The size of the pile made me wonder–if I could measure all the nonsense I’ve put up with in my careers in a tangible manner, what would it look like sitting next to this pile? And whose job would have the biggest pile?

Would a lean startup have less than a corporation, because they are so quick to measure and move, whereas corporations would let the pile sit, waiting for stockholder approval? Would police and emergency personnel have a larger pile because are paid to put up with it, or would they have zero because they have authority to do something about it? Would teachers have insurmountable piles because we can’t pick up a shovel without three layers of approval, filled out in triplicate after a national test, and by the time we get the ok, three more cubic yards would have been dumped on top?

Martha's vegetable garden. Not mine. Someday.

Martha’s vegetable garden. Not mine. Someday.

Would government officials have big piles, or would theirs be kept to reasonable levels because they have can donate parts of their piles to the rest of us? Would theirs be compounded by the manure added by opportunists, lobbyists, and extremists?

Who’d have the largest pile?

I started to think it wasn’t the size of the pile that would matter, but what happened to it. Would we smile, pick up our shovel, and use the manure to make things grow or would we let it fester into a pile that grew ever deeper… How do we make a difference in whatever we do, enjoy going to work, and grow a beautiful garden of results?

One shovel at a time, I think. Never look at the pile in front of you, just take a shovelful, rake it around, and then plant some seeds. You’ll be eating carrots, radishes, and tomatoes in no time. Everyone else will be standing around looking at their piles while you feast.

[Images:, and]