Sunday, January 21, 2018

Six Word Memoirs

I recently attended a reading by Larry Smith, he of the “Six Word Memoir” phenomenon, and I’ve been thinking in sixes ever since. 

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it started with the idea of a piece of sudden fiction.  Like this “novel,” told in just six words:

For sale:  Baby shoes.  Never worn.

Ernest Hemingway is often credited with this particularly powerful story, though it has not been verified that he actually wrote it.  Doesn’t matter, to my heart and mind; I’ve thought of this teeny-tiny story hundreds of times, and each time I do, my eyes get fizzy and my insides twist.  I imagine the face of the person selling the shoes; I go through all the events and feels that led up to the decision and the sale.

The six word memoir project grew from Smith’s commitment to it, starting with his first compilation titled Not Quite What I was Planning.  He has published several books since, each one filled with the six word memoirs of other people.  Two of my favorites are I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, six-word memoirs written by teens, and Fresh Off the Boat:  Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America.   These books need digested slowly, carefully, sometimes just one or two at a time, because they force a depth of thought and imagination, and, more notably, oftentimes the text-to-self connections require a few minutes to breathe. 

Smith and his people have developed a delightful website, too, that highlights stories, contests, and profiles of the memoirists who found significant value in using their six words.  Be careful, though:  It is easy to sink deeply into the website and not come back up for a long time.  I know, because these things grab me by the throat and I get good and lost in reading them.

I love writing them, too, for the chapters of my so-far life.

The ones that flow easily are the sad ones, which is interesting to me, because I tend to slide old sadnesses into containers—with lids—because I know they would imprison me if I let them.  But those sadnesses come out easily in six-word increments.

Such as:

I never talk about the miscarriages.

My sister’s anger holds us hostage.

I’m habitually hamstrung by self-doubt.

My grandfather’s suicide lives beside me.

There are happy ones, too, the love letters to my life:

Sometimes I feel childhood joy, untethered.

This husband:  my wise, wise choice. 

Obliged to this precise, perfect life.

All is as it should be.

These children.  Smells, smiles, tears, triumphs.

The coexistence of these six-word stories in my one single life is a miracle of sorts.  How can struggle and angst live simultaneously with satisfaction and joy?  I don't know—but it does.

Okay.  So.  Connection to teaching and learning—?  Ah, yes. 

Mannnnnnnny teachers have incorporated the six-word memoir idea into their classroom.  It’s a natural and effective teaching tool, and heaps of teachers have used it, with good reason:  Having only six words forces you to tear away all the gobblygook that comes with writing, all the unnecessary phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that might gum up the message behind the essential words. 

It also forces careful consideration of punctuation.  No matter how hard we try, sometimes our six words don’t float along without help; they need some starts and stops and pauses to work correctly.  Suddenly, the power of a comma or semicolon takes on new meaning, because it enhances the connotation and significance of every.single.word.

Teachers can take a look at this site for a whole bunch of ideas, inspiration, and advice about making this project part of your teaching. 

What chapters of your life might beget a six-word summary? Are there ways students in your class might be able to study this concept? 

Because, after all... 

There is joy in writing well.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Languishing Teacher, Part Two

If you skimmed my last blog post, you know that I wrote about all the reasons a teacher might get really tired of... well, of being a teacher.  I wrote about the risk for the weariness to turn into frustration and bitterness—which, in the world of education, is a crappy ending for everyone and everything.  Today, I'm writing about ways to avoid that slump. 

It starts with one thing:  Changing things up.  Somehow, and in some way, scattering the chards of predictability is the best way to renew the excitement and enthusiasm we felt when we first started teaching.  Remember that?  It was nice, right?

Let it be said that I know how difficult it is.  Change hurts.  Change is scary, in a grumpy, childish I don’t wanna way.   It’s like being the new kid in someone else’s well-established routine; no one wants that, right?  We want to be comfortable and confident and stay put.  That’s our instinct, no?

Truth:  For some of us, sometimes, change is exactly what we need.  And if it’s time for a change, there are lots of ways to find it.  Here are a few ideas.

Try a new grade level.
Many, many times, I’ve seen a teacher move to a different grade level and re-discover passion for teaching.  A friend of mine taught fourth graders for twelve years before plunging into a seventh grade role.  Shoulda done this 5 yrs ago, his text read after the first day in his new role.  LOVE IT.   Moving out of a comforting job and into a new one never feels good, there at the start—but I've found it almost always ends well.  

Look to instructional coaching. 
Many districts have coaching roles in place, and though the jobs are not always easy to get, they can be a fabulous change.  Instructional coaching moves a teacher to a place to consider pedagogy, practice, and purpose.   Which is so fun… and brings lift to a languishing career. 

Do something extra-curricular. 
You know what’s fun?  Leading a club.  Directing a play.  Organizing a school-wide program, assembly or activity.  Coaching a team.  In my career, I've coached track, cross country, and basketball—it was great fun and it made me a much better teacher.  

I know, I know, I know—mid-career, there are children and after-school real-life commitments beyond the school day.  But if you can swing it, adding something to your responsibilities— in a way that lifts your school, or lifts up some kids who need a great experience— can feel really, really good.  It can remind you why you went into teaching in the first place.

Get involved in your bargaining unit.  I was a building and district union representative for several years before I moved into administration, and let me tell you something:  It was a gift to spend so much time with people who were out there defending the work of teachers.  I’d never been surrounded by such passion and purpose as when I attended NEA events.  I’d never had my beliefs about teaching so clearly articulated and defended.  I’ll go to the grave defending public education because of the time I spent doing union work. 

Go back to school.  Sometimes career rejuvenation requires a different degree.  But that’s fun, right?  It starts with setting the goal of landing a particular supporting role and then finding the appropriate program to help you get it done.  Counselor.  Administrator.  Reading teacher.  ELL teacher.  Special Education Supervisor.   The caveat here—or, more accurately, the truth—is that there are limited positions that come available.  For every school, there is only one counselor, one or two administrators, and one or two coaches.  But if it’s something you’d like to do, you can start working toward this goal by establishing yourself as someone who knows a little something about being a whatever-you-want-to-be.  With the right degree and the right frontloading, you’ll find yourself with a whole new career.

Fire up the professional networking.  I swear I’ve found a renewed energy and enthusiasm just by participating in a simple Twitter chat.  Really.  One hour, on the couch with a cup of coffee and a snack, reading the rapid-fire responses of other professionals—that’s all it takes for me to feel a burst of renewed focus.  And there are hundreds of ways to connect with other professionals—social media, professional organizations, curricular study groups, book studies, committee work, and advocacy work.  Throw yourself out there and watch your professional network grow, grow, grow.

Attend a national conference.  It ain’t cheap, I know.  But it doesn’t cost as much as years spent dragging out of bed to go to a job you hate.  So start saving your pennies, book the plane ticket to somewhere new and different, and listen to presentations by people who have passion seeping from their pores.  It'll be awesome, I tell you. 

Present your expertise to others.  Presenting your knowledge can be as simple as sharing an idea with your department—or as complicated as filling out a presentation proposal and being a speaker at a big conference.  There’s a unique excitement to standing in front of colleagues with the opportunity to share what you know.  It’s a confidence builder and, paradoxically, simultaneously, a humbler.  It will spur you to dig deeper into yourself and be fabulous.

Consume.  Read, read, read the work of other people.  Consume their words and seek more.  Absorb it all and think about what it means for you.

Produce materials.  If your ideas are good and you feel confident, think about ways you can create something to share with other teachers.  Maybe a blog with some your best teaching ideas?  A new method or experiment you can load up on Pintrest for others to use?  An article for a publisher?  Or maybe, to start, just a tweet to advocate for you and your teaching bretheren.  Doesn’t have to be much—but it will help you feel like you’re giving back. 

And then, if none of these ideas seem to be a good idea, there is always this:

Be the very best at what you are already doing.  Seek to be fantastic.  Using some of the other ideas listed here—improving social networking, trying new instructional practices and classroom management tricks, or becoming a master of content—you can find yourself being one of the most masterful teachers in your building.  The reputation will build on excellence, and with a bit of time, you’ll be known as an expert to others. 

Okay—I’m going to stop here, though I could go on and on.  As I said last week, I feel like this is an important conversation to have—why should the energy and dreams of teachers ever wilt away?  I love encouraging teachers to think about other things they can do to keep themselves sharp, and talking with them about staying committed to excellence—no matter where, when, and how they end up doing what they do.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Languishing Teacher, Part One

*This is the first in a two-part post.  This week we'll talk about staying fresh and energized over the course of a teaching career, and next week I'll share some ideas on how to actually do it.

Some months ago, I had a lunch meeting with my editor at ASCD to pitch an idea to her.  I wanted to know what she thought about a book that considered different paths teachers might take when they are beginning to feel restless and unfulfilled.

“The worst thing—for everyone—is a teacher who is bored, or frustrated, or hating their job,” I told her, recounting a few examples of times I’ve tried to rejuvenate a teacher who has stopped loving the work.  “It’s impossible,” I lamented.  “Once someone begins to hate teaching, there is no repairing it.  I’d like to write a book chock-full of ideas for teachers to avoid falling in that trap.  To help them keep things fresh and stay professionally fulfilled.”

“What would you call it?”  

“I’d call it The Restless Teacher:  What to Do to Bring Spark and Sass Back to your Classroom.” 

“Who is your target audience?”

“Teachers,” I said.

“Not just teachers,” she lifted an eyebrow and took a sip of her iced tea.  “Languishing teachers.”  And then, “Are those the types that buy books about teaching?”

She’s a good editor.  She always asks the right questions.  And she had a point, there.

In the end, we dropped the idea as a book topic, but I’ve never really let it go.  I feel strongly—super-duper strongly—about this.  I hate seeing a teacher’s enthusiasm and zeal fade away.  But it can happen, far too easily; a teacher grows jaded and tired, doesn’t see a way to change anything, and is then trapped in a career that lasts for many miserable years.

Most teachers are aware of this trap, and know how easy it is to fall in and be unable to get out.  That's why many of them get to a pivotal point in their careers and begin to look around, as if by instinct, and begin to wonder what else they can do with themselves.  They undoubtedly still love teaching—or, at least, still believe in it—but they sense themselves languishing with an off-kilter kind of restlessness.  They hear a itty-bitty little question bubbling up inside of themselves:  What can I do next?

Why does this question come up?  There are a lot of reasons.
Teaching is wearisome.  Being a teacher can be a long, slow energy suck, what with all the scrutiny and lambasting and relentless criticism.  It’s a lot like that analogy about the frogs in the boiling water.  It’s only gotten worse over time, as entire communities can be connected to social media posts spreading anger and venom about public schools and implying blame toward teachers.  And when one teacher does something heinous—most notably, violating a student somehow—the rest of us seem to get lumped into their actions and, inevitably, become defensive and over-compensatory as we go about our daily work.   Teaching has grown into a customer-service job in a lot of ways, and that’s not what most of us thought we’d be doing when we signed up for this gig.  We thought we’d be teaching, not teaching and then defending ourselves for doing so.


Teachers are optimistic and, therefore, vulnerable.
By nature, teachers approach things from a positive place.  They invest their time with an eye to the future, which means their lives are invested in hope.  They dream with and for their students.  They think in trajectories.

Which is why I hate it when a teacher’s optimism starts to wilt and die.  The smile fades.  They begin calling off sick ten, twenty times in a year.  They count days (until the next break) and they count years (until they can retire).  I hate seeing this because I don't want teachers to ever feel a sense of dread about their work.  I want them to always stay optimistic and hopeful.  


A teaching career is long, long, loooooonng.  It offers so many twists and uneven bits along the way.  And along with it comes the stuff of life—marriage and babies and divorce and death.  To assume one will spend almost four decades doing the same thing, in the same way, in the same place—?  Well, that would be crazy.  And, too, it would be irresponsible.  Because in the length of a teaching career, so many things change—things that shift the whole spirit and system of teaching.  Like, say, iPhones and clouds and online learning management systems.  No one could have ever imagined the changes we’d see in the last decade, not to mention a whole career.


Teachers can’t quit.  Really, they can’t.  I’ve heard it said that in some careers, you can get sick of your job and, just like that, update a resume on LinkedIn and move along to something else.  Teaching is trickier; after a few years, we are so invested—financially and emotionally—we would lose too much if we walked away.  So by the time we get good enough at teaching to hunger for something else, it’s too late.  By then we’ve got a couple kids to put through college, a mortgage to pay, and retirement to consider.

And anyway...

We don't want to quit.  Teaching is a calling.  We are where we’re supposed to be.  We’re stuck.  So… we need to be happy-stuck instead of miserable-stuck.


There are options.   Quitting may not be an option, but it’s okay—there are other options.  Teachers can avoid seeping over to the side of negativity and make career shifts that will keep--and maybe even increase— their professional joy, excitement, and satisfaction.  There’s union work, and leadership, and counseling, and support teaching.  And lots more.

One day in my seventh year of teaching, I was standing at the whiteboard with a blue Expo, working through conjugation of verbs.  I looked out at my class—all those students, those loving, lovable, loved students—and I thought, This is still wonderful.  But, I thought.  But. I  I thought, I don’t want to start hating this.  And that’s when I knew it was time to move on and try something new.   

I’m glad I did, because I still get up every single day and I’m grateful I get to go do what I do.  It’s worlds away from what I started doing—but it happened because I knew not to let myself sink into staleness.  I want others to feel that same fortune.    

This weekend, I'm going to take it one step further with Part 2 of this blog post— I won’t just write about being restless; I’ll write about avoiding restlessness.  It will include some specific ideas for the languishing teacher.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Shorts Thing (Or, Battles I Won't Pick)

It's cooooolllllllld here in Ohio, where it will stay—give or take twenty more degrees—for the next few months.  Ohio is all things during this time of year—mild and cloudy, wet and cloudy, or bone-cold and cloudy.  Sometimes all in the same day.

And it’s the time of year that the “shorts thing” gets talked about.

“I fight with my son every.single.morning about shorts,” a mother told me last week, her jaw clenched. “I tell him he needs to wear pants, a sweatshirt, hat and gloves and a winter coat… and he wants to wear shorts and a T-shirt.”

“Stop fighting with him,” I told her.  “It’s not worth it.”

“But he’ll get cold and sick,” she sputtered.  "It's... like.... zero degrees out there." 

“He may get cold, but being cold won’t make him sick.”  I mentioned how that whole getting-sick thing works.

“I know, I know,” she said.  “But…” I felt her truth bubbling up.  “What will other parents say?  They’ll judge me for letting him go outside dressed like that.”

Ahhh, I thought.  There it is.

“Let them judge,” I scoffed.

“So I should just let him wear shorts?”

“Yes,” I said.  “If he gets cold enough, he’ll wear long pants and his coat.”

*Important caveat:  When a child doesn’t have appropriate clothing for cold weather, that’s a different story.  If he doesn’t have a choice, I’ll find a solution.  I’ll go out and buy a full closet full of warm clothing before I’ll let a kid be cold.  Seriously.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.*

This conversation is about a child choosing not to wear warm clothing.

Not a battle worth picking, people.  Here’s why.

They can dress themselves correctly.  When kids are toddlers, they need help figuring out how to dress. But the older they get, the more equipped they are to make their own decisions about clothing.  Older kids can make good choices for themselves.  And they can handle the consequences of a bullheaded or poor clothing choice.

Decision-making is a skill to practice.  Kids need to be able to make decisions about their clothing.  It’s practice for making decisions about other stuff—bigger stuff.  When my children are getting ready for the day, they’ll ask, “How cold is it outside?”  I try to answer with a predicated degree range (“It’s supposed to be in the thirties today”) but I also recommend, “Go outside and see how it feels.  Then decide what kind of clothing to wear.”  Then I back off.  If they get it completely wrong, I’ll advise a change—otherwise, I let them go.  It is all part of letting kids take ownership and responsibility for themselves—and becoming independent problem solvers. 

Kids feel temperature differently.  No, really.  They do.  If I had a dime for every time I stand next to a 10-year-old who’s happy wearing shorts and a T-shirt, while I shiver in my 4-layer outfit and my ankle-length “recess coat,” I’d have my lake house by now.  Kids don’t get as cold.  It’s baffling and inexplicable—I know!  They’re little and teeny-tiny!—but super-true.   Just yesterday, I stood on the playground huddled against the wind and a fourth grader went whizzing by me, dribbling a soccer ball and bouncing like Tigger.  “Aren’t you cold?” I asked him when he came back around.  He scrunched up his eyebrows.  “I’m hot!” he said.  Sweat dripped down his temple.

Who am I to question a parent’s clothing decision?
I know a principal in another state who is fastidious about students wearing coats if it is under forty degrees, and she requires teachers to pull students from recess if they don’t follow that rule.  Um…. No. Besides the whole singling-out-a-student thing, I never want to trump protocol (or “house rules”) of another parent.  If parents are busy trying to teach their child self-sufficiency and decision-making, I’m not going to get in the way of it.  And on the other side of the coin, if a parent micromanages a child’s clothing choices and sends them off with a particular clothing plan, again, it’s not my place to second-guess.
Who am I to question a student’s clothing decision?  I don’t want to get in a battle of wills with a student over something as inconsequential as warm clothing.  Because, you know… there are…

Natural consequences.  You know what happens when I don’t wear a coat on a particularly cold day?  I’m cold.  And you know whose fault it is?  Mine. 
Same with kids.  If they choose not to dress warmly—?  Well, then.  They’ll be cold. 
They’ll either begin to prioritize… or not. 

And… gotta pick the right battles.  I’m thinking about student behaviors, their reading and writing strengths, their family dynamics, how to get sixteen buses in and out of a loop in less than five minutes.  Those things.  I can’t micromanage things at the coat-and-zipper level.  So.  I don’t. 

Not long ago, my family traipsed into the grocery store on a particularly brisk winter day.  My husband and I were dressed with our coats, hats, and gloves.  My son wore shorts.  We passed a friend in the produce aisle; he greeted us, then commented on the cold weather, then looked at my son.  “Where’s your coat, young man?”  My son shrugged, and our friend looked up at us.  My husband didn’t miss a beat.  I’m not cold,” he shrugged.  “And he’ll wear his coat when he feels he should.”  Done.  End of conversation.

We’d asked our son to put on his coat, and he chose not to.  We didn’t fight it.  He went out into the world half-dressed… and we let him deal with it.

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...