Hamlet and the Class of 2022

Appearance vs. Reality. Anxiety. Mistrust.

The themes of Hamlet could be taken from today’s headlines. Or maybe from our students’ social media posts. When we asked Honors English 12 classes to find elements of the play that are valuable and relevant for today’s young people, many chose to make a personal connection to Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind. Who can blame them? The mental health crisis among teens today is well documented and serious.

Like Hamlet, this year’s seniors have experienced plenty of disruptions in their lives: school shootings, toxic political discourse, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and two years of pandemic schooling. Hamlet spends half of the play depressed and brooding. Then in a moment of rage he lashes out at the man behind the curtain, killing Polonius instead of his evil uncle, the king.

Fortunately, student fights in the hallways don’t usually end in murder. Most school districts saw a huge uptick in violence as students returned to school buildings in the fall of 2021. School police officers had been removed in response to the BLM movement and administrative teams were overwhelmed. Something was definitely rotten in the state (of Denmark), and our leaders were very slow to recognize it.

In the classroom, however, we see almost the opposite effect: lethargy. Here we are, two months from graduation, and it’s almost like the entire class of 2022 presents with Ophelia syndrome: they’re going through the motions of writing an essay, but waiting for authority figures to tell them what to think. I don’t truly believe that, but wonder how much their social-emotional development was stunted by 18 months spent going to school from a corner in their bedrooms? Is that why they identify so much with Hamlet?

Teachers continually try to find ways of connecting Hamlet to the real world. Here and here are some of the best ways that is being done this year.

Polonius counsels his son Laertes before he heads back to university. “To thine own self be true,” he tells him.  What does that even mean for the Class of 2022?

The weight is over

The weight of the past two years begins to lift. The Maryland State Board of Education has pulled the mask mandate for public schools. WiDA Access testing is almost over. The green shoots of crocuses poke up from the cold ground. And spring rowing is about to begin. 

Like the naked trees outside my window, my emotions have been stripped to nothing. In the fall, I shed every pretense of being in control of my life. I endured the freezing rains of winter, sobbing alone in my room while imagining friends and colleagues nestled with loved ones in their own cozy retreats.

I spent my childhood outdoors and have always had a visceral connection to the changing seasons. After a dormant period, I feel a glimmer of hope as the sun grows stronger and buds play peek-a-boo. We feel these changes in a school as well.

Teachers waited for the vaccine, we waited for covid testing kits, we postponed weddings and family reunions, we waited to travel, we waited for omicron to pass. Now we’re waiting for our local Board of Education to decide what the Montgomery County Public Schools district masking policy will be.

The weight is almost gone.

Come with me into the woods where spring is 
advancing, as it does, no matter what, 
not being singular or particular, but one 
of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

~ Mary Oliver

Cherry Blossoms and Spring Break

The famous cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC reached the peduncle elongation stage last week, then burst into peak bloom several days before expected. The high temperatures and warm sun have brought on the full glory of a DC spring – just in time for local school children to enjoy Spring Break.

Like thousands of blossom watchers, teachers keep their eyes on Board of Education meetings, trying to anticipate when a vote might suddenly change everything. It’s happened so many times during this pandemic year, that almost nothing has been a total surprise for educators who read the signs. However, when Governor Hogan announced suddenly that schools needed to reopen March 1st instead of March 15th, school districts scrambled, loud-mouths bloviated, and unvaccinated teachers panicked. It was the equivalent of rushing from the Green Bud phase to the Fluffy Blossom phase without anything in between and way before the cameras were ready.

With the possible exception of air-traffic controllers, teachers are probably the best multi-taskers in the world. You want us to teach online and in-person at the same time? Sure, no problem! You want us to work on social-emotional health while mitigating “learning loss” with just two hours a week of contact time? Sure! Asynchronous lessons using a new platform and grading program? Got it! Student Learning Objectives posted? Check. Opportunities for one-to-one time and reteaching? Of course! Just come to our “office hours.” Oh, it’s my evaluation year? I can do the dog-and-pony show, too!

Hybrid teaching? No problem!
Doing it all

In my district, 60% of students have opted to remain virtual, but parents and politicians have been pushing hard – very hard – to reopen school buildings before it’s Covid safe. Schools with the most number of parents opting for the return to in-person instruction happen to be in the wealthiest communities. Ironically, they are the ones to argue that it’s for the poor kids, the English Language Learners, and the black and brown students. But the data and my experience says something else.

I teach high school seniors and, even though they’ve been 100% virtual for the past year, less than half are coming back to the building after spring break. My district has had meeting after meeting after meeting about getting kids back into the building – but few resources have been directed to the majority of students who opt to remain at home through the end of the year. It’s a highly emotional issue that’s pitted parents against teachers. The rhetoric has been exhausting.

Spring Break is supposed to be a time of rest and renewal. So far, I’m feeling the pleasure of elongated days, even though I’m spending part of them grading all the late student essays that need feedback. The beautiful DC weather and spectacular cherry blossoms, tulip trees, flowering pears, forsythia, and daffodils make me smile. This weekend, fully vaccinated, I will be able to hug my elderly mother for the first time in more than a year.

The Fourth P of 2020

Others are writing more profoundly about the meaning of 2020: Politics, Pandemic, and Protests. I can only write about the 4th P: the Personal. The Personal includes my family, my community, and my experience teaching public high school during the most disruptive year of my professional career. 

I miss my students. People keep asking me how they’re doing. My answer: I don’t know. Most of them attend my Zoom classes most of the time. Most of them turn in assignments most of the time. I don’t see them or hear them. Cameras are off and their microphones are on mute. I teach to little black boxes with names written in white. I teach like I’m a radio dee jay in a sound booth.

It’s the students who don’t attend class and don’t turn in work who worry me. I spend a lot of time reaching out students who have disappeared. I contribute money for PTSA gift cards and support the MCPS Foundation. I post links to food distribution sites and help students navigate the Pandemic-EBT card requirements. I call parents, and I email counselors. I chat with co-teachers and document every outreach effort in our new Synergy system. My ESOL department chair says that we’ve “lost” 11 students so far this year, students who have been withdrawn from school. I’m really worried about what this means going forward. 

I miss my hard drive. In July I spilled a glass of water on my laptop, losing more than two years of creative writing and work. I thought everything was backed up in iCloud, but only my photos were saved (and I am very grateful for that). I lost all of my writing from my year living in Laos. This spring, I was at my most prolific and am publishing my first short story based on this writing. I am devastated by the loss of personal documents. 

I miss my family. Like the rest of the country, I’m in mourning about what we’ve lost this year: 340,000 people to Covid-19, dozens of black lives that matter, countless graduations, proms, weddings, funerals, and homecomings. I haven’t hugged my mother in 10 months. I haven’t seen my son since last Christmas.

My relatives are divided by politics. Those who remain in the Deep South supported the Vulgarian in the White House for a second term. I could not fathom what qualities in him they admired. Then I figured it out. My respect for them has diminished. My siblings are divided by decisions about my mother’s health care and estate management. I am grieving for the togetherness we have lost. 

A crisis does not build character; it reveals character. 2020 has shown who we are as a country. It has shown who my family really is. I still love them. I still love my country. A new year always brings hope. 

2020

Lost and Found

So many people are mourning their losses this spring and summer. A killer virus lurks around every corner – or every person not wearing a face mask – and we have lost the ability to do almost anything normal. We can no longer go to work, gather in large crowds, sit indoors at restaurants, or attend parties. Virtual cocktail hours have replaced the real thing. Political divisions and raw emotion have replaced civil discourse. When I most need a friendly hug or a collegial conversation, the best I get now is an elbow bump or Zoom. I miss my colleagues, my students, and my friends. I miss my mother.

With almost at 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US, I think about Mum sitting alone in her assisted living apartment, safe from the pandemic for now. She is recovering from hip surgery and will probably never walk again, due to her advanced dementia and the fact that no physical therapists are allowed into the facility. She can barely hear, so a phone call is frustrating. I feel like I’m losing my mother bit by bit. However, I know that she is still here physically, and am thankful for that small grace, when others have not been so lucky.

Yesterday I found a little moment of happiness when I went to visit her. I expected to sit outside her window and communicate through the glass. Instead, the Activities Director wheeled her out to the front porch, all bundled up in a blanket, and allowed us a precious 30-minute visit. Just hearing her voice was a salve to my heart. She reminisced about her life as an Army nurse during World War II, about how they gave her so much responsibility, even though she was very young. I wanted desperately to hug her and warm her hands in mine.

Small moments of success like this take on new meaning during a global pandemic. My mother is a fighter, and she has passed down that optimism to me. In spite of the mounting losses in the world, I can feel grateful for this brief human connection.

 

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

In spite of the beautiful spring flowers, we have endured one of the most anxiety-filled weeks I can remember. It started with Daylight Savings Time taking away the morning light. Most high school teachers know the effects of asking teens to wake up an hour earlier. First period was zombie land for three days.

On top of that, it was a full moon. Students are usually agitated just before a full moon, but this was not just any full moon; it was a bright supermoon that shined like a glowworm through the eyes of every miscreant. S is not usually the most focused student, but when she called me a bad name in Spanish, I pretended not to understand. I had to remind J & K not to fake chokehold each other while I was presenting literary elements.

By Thursday, the anxiety over corona virus had spread to my classroom. On Thursday, I had to stop instruction 15 minutes early to talk about it. Teachers were instructed not to “ad lib” so we went to the district and the CDC website and looked at information there. Mostly I just let students vent. My students are all from foreign countries. One student has a mother in Wuhan, China and his worry is already two months old.

On Thursday evening, the governor of Maryland announced that all schools will close for two weeks. Friday was a scramble of trying to finish work, clear out the refrigerator and make sure students could get on to Google Classroom for any information. We are NOT allowed to create new assignments for a grade or to continue instruction. I told students that I will check email every day and post optional assignments so that they can keep up their English language proficiency.

Now I’m heading outside to enjoy the spring weather. I hear that sunshine is a natural antibiotic. I plan to get a lot of it in the next two weeks.

September glory

September was always my favorite month as a child. Now it flies by so fast that every attempt I make at capturing its beauty in writing fails. The gorgeous late days of September deserve poetry better than any I could write. The orange-yellow-pink sunrise over the Potomac River last weekend is etched in my mind and on my Facebook feed forever. The early morning air dehumidifies and greets us like an old friend. For the first time in months, outside feels better than inside. Too bad that September is one of the busiest months for teachers, and we have less time than ever to truly enjoy the changing seasons.

That’s what made my weekend trip to Maine so special.  Up north, it seems people cherish the good weather more than we do in the DC area. Maybe because Mainers live “the way life should be.” Maybe because the winters are so harsh, they enjoy the last heated rays of the sun that linger over lakes, coves, and bays. We took a motorboat into one of the many coastal waterways and saw a seal, some osprey, a kingfisher or two, and several bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s late September but my son and my husband went swimming in the Kennebec River with an old friend. I swam in a lake that I had just canoed across. Later, while I was bundled in several layers, hovering near a bonfire, true Mainers were wearing shorts and sandals, reluctant to acknowledge that summer was really over.

We spent part of the long weekend at a farm, where more than a dozen of my husband’s former Woodsmen’s Team classmates gathered. We had a tour of a self-sustaining farm, where they grow all the vegetables they eat throughout the year, and raise and butcher their own livestock. They have solar panels that make enough energy to sell back to Maine Power Company. They produce aged goat cheese and bake their own bread. They have engineered their own wheat threshers, made a fire pit out of an old tire rim, and grow peppers inside a greenhouse all winter. The farm couple clearly loved having the reunion at their place, but they never stopped working the entire time we were there. If that’s the way life should be, it is an exhausting way of life.

I think of the Great Outdoors especially fondly at this time of year as I commute 30 minutes to a climate-controlled school building where the only light I see all day is man-made. Teaching is like farm work in many ways – it’s just as unrelenting, it’s seasonal, with a schedule determined by some cycle that’s not quite in my control. The work is intrinsically rewarding, like farming, with its own harsh realities. It’s the life I chose, even though it keeps me away from the natural world that soothes me.

So now, I want to capture every beautiful outdoor moment. Because everything changes in late September, and not just the back-to-school busy-ness that takes over. The enjoyment of nature will soon become a luxury, and I’ll be happy to have an indoor job. Fortunately I have the ability to travel and see how other people live, and I have the weekends to reconnect with who I am during the good weather.

farmhouse in Maine

sheep are cool

Memorial Day

May 28, 2019

Memorial Day has come and gone. I’ve read the stories of soldiers who fought and died for freedom, watched the parades, and listened to the commentators praise our military service members. I’ve stood facing the flag with my hand over my heart five days a week and said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a room full of immigrants and recited the words, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But I’m not feeling it this year. I understand that my perspective may be in the minority and it might make me unpopular; I’ll say it anyway. I’m a little bit angry about all the praise for war.

Don’t get me wrong. My father, my mother, and my uncles fought in World War II. My cousin served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His name is engraved on the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve taken my students there and pointed out Peter M. Sullivan on Panel 15E, Line 10. They were impressed when the docent climbed a ladder to create a rubbing for me. It made the experience a little more real for them. My students from Vietnam were silent. Even though we’d read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, later they told me, “Miss, I thought we were going to see something about my culture!” They understood that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not about them. They helped me see it in a new light.

I have cousins in the Army today, and I’m sure they are making a sacrifice to serve in the military. I am not against giving people respect for the jobs they do. But why aren’t we giving the same respect to people actively promoting peace? to students who lose their lives to gun violence in schools? According to Education Week , and the Washington Post more American students died from mass shootings than died during active-duty combat while serving their country in the U.S. military. There have been 13 school shootings so far this year in the USA. Wikipedia says that there have been 48 school-shooting deaths since January 2018. I have had to conduct active-shooter drills in my classroom. There’s no honor in preparing for some crazy person with a gun who wields more power than I do. His rights are firmly protected by the Constitution and the NRA. What about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t want to put down the work of our military; they have an important role. But when the focus is so strongly on the heroism of death, why aren’t we honoring the teachers and students who face a lunatic gunman and come out alive? Instead we get Parkland students mocked and threatened for daring to speak out after surviving a school shooting where 17 children were gunned down. They were followed around by badass NRA-provoked warriors in tank-like vehicles. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? *

Why aren’t we honoring people who bring peace to our communities? The Martin Luther Kings of the future? The activists and leaders who speak out against killing and preventable gun violence? In 1961 President Kennedy founded the U.S. Peace Corps. My ESOL 5 students started a unit about it this week. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I served this country. I raised my right hand and swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. More than 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. We’ve never gotten an entire holiday dedicated to our service.  What about all the Foreign Service workers and diplomats? The ones who do the actual work of promoting the interests of the United States? I served again as an English Language Fellow helping promote American ideals overseas. Why is peaceful service not being honored?

All the flag waving feels hollow to me. I don’t want to glorify death via military service or any other way. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? Next Memorial Day, I will honor the peacemakers.

* Hot off the press! Parkland school journalists win Pulitzer Prize!

 

Boxed In – Help!

During the holidays, I ordered a lot of items to be delivered directly to my house. I’m not an Amazon person – except for books – but I have been a Catalogue Queen for two decades. Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Garnet Hill, and DHC are among my favorites. Each item comes in a box that is sometimes so beautiful that I don’t want to throw it away!

Lands End used to have a holiday themed coloring outline on the inside of its boxes. When the kids were little, we used to cut open each one carefully and spend hours on the floor with crayons and markers. It was a surprisingly fun holiday activity when we lived overseas. Now I have no such excuse to keep the boxes, but they are filling up my basement and cluttering up my life.

To make matters worse, my son seems to have inherited this disturbing habit. Just when I start to clean them out, he orders another Japanese robot collectible. Each comes mindfully packaged in high-quality cardboard. Like me, he thinks, “That box would be a perfect container for something.” I brought some to work when we were cleaning out the book room, and those things proved to be quite sturdy. He must have noticed the same properties because, when I got home, they were filled with my books. And his Japanese transformers now cover the bookshelves. Where is Marie Kondo when I need her? These changes do NOT spark joy!

While I was living in Laos last year, my sister sent a message. “What do you want from the house?” They were clearing out my mother’s home of almost 50 years, and I wasn’t ready to stake a claim. “I don’t want anything,” I replied. It was an honest reply. Until she sent photos of each room: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the TV room, the bedrooms. “Some things will go to the new house, some will go to family members, and the rest will be donated,” she wrote. I suddenly wanted some mementos. Antique family treasures now form the foundation of the Basement Box Room.

Help! I’m looking for inspiration to overhaul my house. And maybe my life. Please don’t tell me to kick out my son. That will come in due time. But what do I do with these things?!

 

Boxed sets – empty

It’s a Good School

A few years ago, the Superintendent of schools added a controversial Gallup poll to our district’s annual staff climate survey. Teachers had a good laugh about one question: Do you have a best friend at work? Based on their answers, an elementary school received public recognition, and named one teacher Most Hopeful teacher of the year. It came with a $2,000 cash award. By the time the staff survey rolled around a year later, we all decided to find a best friend at work and to be a bit more hopeful on the survey.

School climate is a reliable indicator of student success, but it’s rarely something that gets media attention. People tend to measure a school by word-of-mouth or personal connections. It’s no coincidence that most parents like their child’s school, no matter how negative the “ratings” are. But the happiness of teachers is one of the most important factors for student success. It takes a school leadership team that is both supportive and strong to keep teachers happy. I am proud to work in a district where this is the norm.

When people ask where I’m working this year, the predictable response is, “Oh, that’s a good school.” The first few times it happened, I felt validated, pumped, that I had landed in a school worthy of the praise of my friends and acquaintances. But then I started to get bothered by it. Why do they think it’s a good school? It’s not really different from my old school, except that it’s bigger and – oh yeah – it has an application-only, competitive-admissions magnet program attached to it. I do not teach in that program.

I thought my previous school was a good school. I had supportive colleagues and a principal who let me teach in two different departments – exactly what I wanted. My commute was 12 minutes each way. Recently in the news, however, there was a story about a former student who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. I remember seeing him in the hallways. Does his conviction make my old school a bad school? People’s impressions of a school are often based on stories like this, but teaching and learning continue despite the sensational headlines.

Nowadays high schools are huge, diverse, sprawling institutions with 1,000+ students. Being a “good school” is just an illusion. Every high school in my district is simultaneously a “good school” and “bad school,” depending on where you look.

At my old school, students revered the principal, especially the top athletes. The coaches loved him too. He attended all the football and basketball games, and created a special mentorship program for struggling athletes. He was always visible in the hallways between classes, during lunch, and after school. He helped improve school spirit dramatically. At graduation each year, some students would talk about him as if he were a beloved coach. Except that my ESOL students never saw that side of him. And some teachers I spoke with confidentially in the hallways thought he focused too much on certain programs at the expense of others.

From my perspective as a transfer teacher, I can see how the leadership team sets the tone of a school, and determines its priorities. Sure, we have good AP test scores, a percentage of National Merit Scholars every year, even a few Siemens-Westinghouse STEM awards to post in the main hall. But the expectations for teachers of all students are high, and systems are in place to keep academic achievement front and center.

It’s exhausting.

The end of the first marking period approaches, and I’ve barely managed to keep my head above water. The work load is intense – and I don’t just mean coming up with what to teach five times a day, then delivering perfectly-tailored lessons with clear objectives and differentiation, then scoring all students’ work in a timely manner. I think I have a handle on what happens inside the classroom. In fact, the principal, my department chair, and a Central Office guy all came to observe me teaching during my first month on the job and gave me high marks. They told me they lucked out getting me as a transfer teacher. I replied, “No, I’m the lucky one!” Really, I am.

This school takes the accountability systems seriously, and I’m constantly out of breath trying to keep up. At my old school, I begged the principal to visit my classroom. Nobody questioned my lesson plans. It’s a little stressful this year trying to keep up with colleagues who don’t have the same learning curve. They smile indulgently at me, while I struggle to learn the school culture. The leadership team here actually checks the Gradebooks, Student Learning Objectives, our Professional Learning Community logs, and the School Improvement Plan focus groups. I feel an intense pressure to do my part well.

I’ve been meaning to enlist the support of my colleagues, who have been amazingly helpful, but I’ve barely had time to step out of the classroom. It figures that the leadership team has already anticipated the need of new teachers to learn from their peers. They’ve developed a protocol and a timeline for informal observations so that we can improve by watching each other teach. I feel very hopeful and supported, and have added this to my To-Do list. It’s great being at a good school.

Now if I can just find a best friend at work…