I am drowning. Drowning in writings I haven't responded to in my usual timely manner. Drowning in Cross Country season obligations. Drowning in TLC meetings, PD days, professional conferences, presentations, and 504 meetings. It is one month into the school year, and I am adrift in an ocean of responsibility, barely treading water.
I cried alone in my car yesterday on my way home from hearing Diane Sweeney during our teacher work day. Cried. Alone.
I'm not writing this for pity, or to complain. Almost everything that is on my current list of stressors is something I actively chose to do. I am the person choosing to respond to student writing on a weekly basis; I'm the person setting (and sometimes breaking) my own deadlines for that. I wanted the Cross Country coaching gig. I applied for TLC positions, wanted an active role in planning PD with my administrator, and sought out opportunities to present at the ICTE Fall Conference.
This is not because I have a problem saying no. I say "no" all the time. I am the best at saying "no" to people. I want to do all of these things, and that's part of the reason I feel so overwhelmed. My desire to do as much as possible with the highest level of quality is making me feel like I'm not doing any of it particularly well.
Oh, yeah. And I'm trying to have a life, too.
After the crying yesterday in my car, and the XC meet that meant I didn't get home until nine (meaning no time to catch up on papers), I had low expectations for today. Tuesday is my duty day. That means I have even less time to be productive during the school day because I have to guard the morning entrance for 20 minutes, and go out for recess duty for half of my lunch. The mere thought of Tuesday felt like weights around my ankles in the middle of the ocean of my own creation.
Why do I forget that my school life is full of safety rafts? I'm so stubborn that I forget to ask for them. Thankfully, today people threw them to me.
The Monday duty teachers wrote a card for my duty partner and me. They wanted to cover recess for us since the PD day yesterday and Labor Day earlier in the month gave them two Mondays off. I couldn't stop from hugging both of them as I carried my laptop around, commenting on papers while walking the hallways for morning duty. My principal had to mark the occasion of my affection with a photo since I am notoriously not the hugging type at school. The smile you see is pure, genuine relief. Within ten minutes of arriving at work, I was drifting closer to solid ground.
Minutes later, I went back to my classroom for my planning period. A visitor was sitting in my chair.
A third grade Harry Potter fan (younger sibling to former students; son to the teacher next door) passes my room every day on his way to the elementary school. His older sister told him that I love Harry Potter, too. He decided to start sending me messages by clipping them to Hedwig's feet and throwing the owl at me as he walks by my room. If I'm not there, he gently sets Hedwig on my chair.
Sometimes Hedwig shares unfortunate news or pictures from the most recent chapters the young fan has read. Sometimes Hedwig just knows that I'm addicted to chewing gum and could use a fun flavor.
If you have never received a message by Owl Post, you might not realize how life-saving mail delivery can be.
I caught up on my comments tonight after practice. I am slowly responding to emails. I am starting to breathe again. I can see the shore. Next time, I'll try not to let myself float so far out before asking for a life raft. They're all around me, if I take the time to notice.
When my 8th graders are brainstorming personal narrative topics after a few days of sharing my own narratives and topic ideas, I conference with them over which ideas from their life have the strongest "So What" (In the Middle, Nanci Atwell). The "so what" is the biggest significance or impact. They often don't know what the most significant topic from their lives might be. So I ask one question: What topic are you avoiding? What topic makes you uncomfortable? For me, the sign that I'm avoiding something because it makes me uncomfortable usually means that it's the topic I most need to confront. This is true for my writing. This is also true for my teaching.
The topic I most want to avoid in my teaching is analyzing data. It's a topic I can't avoid anymore.
The first part of why I probably avoid data analysis as much as possible is juvenile: it's math. I'm bad at math so I have an instant negative reaction when faced with doing math beyond figuring grades and paying bills. But analyzing data also makes me uncomfortable because it turns writing into something measurable, something numeric, something that writing simply isn't, at least not to me. Analyzing data on student writing and language skills feels cold to me. It's tampering with the magic. I remember sitting in an ICTE session on SBG one year with Allison, and she turned to me and said, "This conversation reminds me of the poem I just sent you." The poem? "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman (Poetry Foundation):
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Allison hit it right on the head for me with that one. Breaking writing down into data points felt too much like destroying the natural beauty of it. At my core, I don't believe that writing should be graded, ever. I realize that's not how school works and that part of my job is to attach a grade to writing, but at least 75% of the writing done in my classroom is never graded. I don't even read a lot of the non-graded stuff that my students write in their notebooks. It's practice. It's making them better. I know it is because I can see the monumental strides they make from the time they enter as seventh graders and leave as eighth graders.
But I don't have proof. I don't have the data to back that up aside from my readings of kids' writings.
So I need to confront the part of this I'm avoiding. I need to look at writing from a different perspective. I need to find out how I'm going to analyze the standards in their writings without destroying the magic of what writing means in my classroom.
I spent most of the afternoon yesterday in the Iowa Writing Project Curriculum Workshop talking to Kirstey about my next steps in doing this. How am I going to assess standards in a meaningful way? How am I going to keep low-stakes writing low-stakes while also using it to collect data about my students' progress on standards? How do I sort them according to need? What is mastery of writing? I don't think writing is ever mastered by anyone. I don't think it's possible. How do I decide they've mastered a writing or language skill when I don't even believe that mastery of language exists for anyone?
This won't be something that's as easy or natural for me as other areas of teaching, and that's a big part of why I have to do it. If I only stick with what's comfortable when assessing writing, I'm doing a disservice to myself and my students. Breaking the standards down and finding the actual evidence of progress in my students' writing will enable me to be a more reflective teacher in the long run, which is what I'm always striving for anyway. I spend hours reflecting on my teaching practice. Now I need the numbers to help guide me.
On Tuesday, August 30th, 2016, history was made in the state of Iowa. Possibly the most important victory for female equality since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. On the grassy field of the Webster City Links Golf Course, women earned the right to wear mustaches during cross country races.
The obsession with mustaches started last year at our first meet of the season. The young man from SE Valley who won the first meet did so sporting the finest mustache anyone had ever seen on a high school boy. Myriam, Maya, and I became obsessed. Who was this Mustache Man? What unearthly powers did he possess? As we saw him throughout the season, his legend only grew (along with his facial hair).
We could barely contain our excitement when we saw him at the first meet this season. Myriam’s obsession had grown into full-blown teenage crush territory. We had no idea that a plan was forming in her mind.
The team bus ride to Webster City was the same as always: everyone talking excitedly about their day, using nervous energy to keep the conversation flowing, and helping each other with homework. Toward the end of the ride, I turned to tell Myriam something. When I did, I died laughing. She had discretely placed a hairy, black mustache above her upper lip. She looked like Super Mario.
She then offered mustaches to Maya and me, each with their own style and personality. Myriam’s was “The Shady,” Maya’s looked like a Dandy, and I was “The Outlaw.” We stepped off the bus and marched across the course with our thick, luxurious ‘staches.
Every head turned as we passed by. Giggles erupted. Pointing and laughing ensued. I have never felt as self-conscious in my life as I did for the few hours I wore that mustache. But I couldn’t let my girls down. If they were brave enough to wear their mustaches in public, then I had to be brave, too.
Myriam asked if she could run her race while wearing her mustache. I knew cross country officials were notoriously picky about dress code violations. One of the main ways to get DQ’d from a cross country race is to have a uniform violation. But I didn’t think there was anything specifically against girls wearing mustaches, probably because it’s never happened before. I told the girls that they might get disqualified, but as their coach, I would support their personal decision. They could wear the ‘staches if they wanted to, even if it resulted in punishment. People might be furious with me for allowing it, but one of my core beliefs is that teens have a right to freely express themselves without judgement from adults.
Myriam started her JV race, mustache in place. As soon as the race started, the officials noticed. They drove their golf cart to the side of the course, and made a phone call. Our bus driver came over to warn me: they were making a call to the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (the governing body for female sports) in Des Moines to see if mustaches were legal.
Fifteen minutes passed with my heart thumping. Maya stood next to me, waiting for her race, waiting to hear the ruling. The officials drove over, my heart pounding. As they pulled up to me, they broke into smiles.
“We called Des Moines. They couldn’t find anything specifically against girls wearing mustaches in the rules. They said it was up to our discretion if we found it insulting to the sport. We can’t see that it’s doing any harm to anyone here. Congratulations, Coach.”
I couldn’t contain myself. I high-fived both of them and ran across the course to my rightful place on the sidelines cheering as my runners passed. It was a victory. A victory that might not have mattered to anyone other than a crazy coach and two of her athletes, but still a personal victory for the kind of team environment we like to create.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who might have been disgusted. They might think I’m an immature coach, or someone who doesn’t take my job seriously enough. They might even think that I disrespected the sport by allowing my girls to run (and risk disqualification) with mustaches. I disagree.
We put a lot of pressure on our high school students in academics and in athletics. We expect them to be mature and responsible to prepare them for the “real world.” (Please show me all the mature and responsible adults who always get all work done on time, perfectly, and never complain. But I digress.) We have turned even their sports, their games, into high pressure situations where anything less than their absolute best at all times is unforgivable.
I’m not that kind of coach.
I love to run. I want my athletes to love it, too. Sometimes that means having fun trumps taking things seriously. I guarantee those girls will remember Mustache Equality Day long after they’ve forgotten most other things about high school athletics.
Knowing I did my small part to make those positive memories makes taking the rule-breaking risk worthwhile.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.