Standing in front of the rocking chair, one of my favorite places to sit and read to my students, I tape a piece of paper: "Store for Sokolowski- Room 215". When will I get to sit in my rocking chair again, in front of a group of students, holding a beloved book? The rocking chair, flexible seating couch, fun ottomans, round table....they all have to go. I don't think too much about it- just tape my signs on each one.
When my third grade team member arrives, we begin to tackle the storage closet which has become somewhat of a dumping ground. With each of us needing space to store items from our classroom that need to be removed, this was a necessary yet exhausting task. We wore our masks, to honor the rules of health and safety. It was 90 degrees and we were working hard. My face was slick with sweat- a preview of what's to come when I begin teaching in a mask in the hot days of early September.
I click the link and see that many parents are already in the meeting. My children's principal begins talking, giving a quick presentation about how school will look and feel before taking the myriad of questions we have. Yes, masks are worn by everyone at all times- except for short mask breaks. Students will sit behind plastic guards at their desk. Specials are in the classroom. Lunch is in the classroom. Recess might involve masks. She will check about air purifying systems. Yes, social and emotional needs will be addressed. I think of my children who have loved school and how school will be different in every way. Will this new way of doing school become "normal" at some point?
The air today was thick and hot, but tonight, at the ball field, there is a lovely breeze as the summer sun slowly sinks in the sky. My nephew is playing his last regular game of the summer series- the one that decides if his team goes to the playoffs. My children are with me and my mom, too, as we sit with my sister. It's early in the game, and my nephew's team is losing by 4 runs. She says it will be a lesson in losing gracefully. We talk about the changes with school and my sister says, the secret in life is to be able to adapt, to roll with the punches. And then, suddenly, they are not losing anymore- gracefully or not. My nephew's team wins the game, 23-6. Celebration is in the air, along with uncertainty.
It's Summer 2020.
I am the thinker....I can choose my thoughts.
I've been reading Chasing Cupcakes by Elizabeth Benton and also listening to her podcast, Primal Potential. Elizabeth talks about real change coming when you change your thoughts about your situation. It is an idea that resonates with me as we prepare for a most unusual 20-21 school year.
I live on Long Island, New York. We are awaiting Governor Cuomo's decision about the plans the schools developed for reopening. The district where I live and the district where I teach (two separate districts) have both set forth a plan where elementary students come to school every day. I know there are many feelings about reopening and many educators are pushing for remote learning. I think it is a complicated issue, for sure. I also think that a community's level of outbreak should determine if schools reopen. Where I am, we are close to 1% infected. My own children really struggled with remote learning and desperately missed school. As a teacher, I felt we lost many students with remote learning. The truth is, I am glad that we are going to have the opportunity to be back in the building in September.
However....school will be unrecognizable in so many ways. Every simple routine and structure has to be rethought. Nothing will be as it was. Students will be spread out, socially distanced. They will not share supplies. They will not be able to physically sit near each other to collaborate on assignments or games. I won't be able to sit close to students. I won't be able to sit with my colleagues at lunch or in meetings. I am really not sure how all of this will work.
I heard a quote once that said something like ,"Just because you've been given a cactus doesn't mean you have sit on it." 2020 is certainly a great big cactus. There are so many stressful aspects of school reopening in the building.... with health and safety being the top priority. As the thinker of thoughts, I have the choices as to how I see this situation. Do I bemoan how awful it is for students to sit apart from each other and not share materials? Do I focus on all that is lost and different and not how I think kids learn best?
Or, if I do believe that kids need the structure of school....AND if the precautions and new rules and routines keep kids and teachers safe while at school, can I reframe my thoughts to see the possibilities? Can I think of ways to make school still feel fun for my students? Can I plan ways to help us feel like a community? Can I focus my time and energy on what I can do to make teaching and learning the best it can be in the current reality?
I am the thinker of thoughts and I think I will not be sitting on the cactus.
Before Alex was born, we worked on transforming the empty room in our house into our baby boy's room. My sister-in-law helped us design our bear theme- she painted bear faces and paw prints in an alternating pattern around the middle of his room. At my baby shower, I was gifted a hand-painted bookshelf with bear decals on it. A chocolate brown chair that reclined was where I sat, reading to Alex before he was born, from the books we'd been given. I sat there and talked to him and planned and dreamed.
After he was born, the chocolate brown chair in the teddy bear room was a favorite place to hold him, cuddle him, sing to him, be together. I can close my eyes now, and picture his soft head cuddled into my neck. As he grew, and the crib got traded for a bed, the chair remained. It was my place to sit to read to him at night, to hold his hand, to talk through the events of the day. I would stay until his breathing was rhythmic and I knew he was asleep.
As Alex nears ten years old, we knew his room needed to change. Teddy bear faces were not as appropriate now for our soccer-loving boy. The teddy bears and paw prints were painted over as we upgraded his room. The chocolate brown chair was removed. The place I sat for years, before Alex was born and through his babyhood, toddler years till now..... gone. More than even the bear faces and paw prints, I miss that chair.
In the space where it sat, we will get Alex a desk. He is growing up. Keeping the bears and the chair would not change that time is moving on, each day older, each day more independent.
Now, when I read to him at night, I perch on his bed. I don't linger anymore- he used to want me to sit in his chair for a while after reading to him. He liked the company. But no chair, so now I go and he adjusts to going to sleep all on his own. And I kiss him goodnight, turn off his light, and walk out the door.
Isn't being a parent learning how to do this, over and over again? Learning how to let go when you want to hold on? Dreaming them into existence, then watching as they create their own way, dreaming their own separate dreams?
At doctor's I am off charts
Mother told that I'm too heavy
My sister needs to gain weight
I am given low-fat shakes
She is given high calorie ones
Elastic on my sleeves is snipped
My arms are too fat, apparently
"Pretty Plus" jeans are not cute.
13-14 years old:
"New You" program makes new me
125 pounds looks good on me.
Weight starts to come back again
Nutritionist says cut all the carbs
Lose 30 pounds in 3 months
I can't resist carbs forever though
New teacher/ in my 20's
I am stressed- I will eat
Everyone is paired off but me
Bridesmaid's dress in size 20: horrified
Weight Watchers helped me lose it
Feeling more confident- met my husband
Honeymoon breakfast buffet piles on pounds
Friend thinks I'm pregnant- I'm not
Trying to get pregnant- not easy
Flat Belly Diet- lost some weight
Joyfully pregnant- eat whatever I want
215 pounds when I deliver baby
New nutritionist- time to lose again
Starting to lose then pregnant again!
Lose, gain, gain, gain, lose, gain
My Fitness Pal tells me truth
I am eating too many calories
1200 a day brings on loss
1200 a day is freaking hard
I deserve to reach my goals
2 steps forward, 3 steps back
Progress not perfection, little by little
Not a sprint, but a marathon
Must believe I can do this
Feeling the failure of the past
Does not serve me well today
Keep going, keep going, keep going.
We are from face masks
From hand sanitizer and plastic gloves
We are from the silent streets
Learning behind iPads, and chrome books and laptops.
We are from car parades
With streamers and signs
Honking horns and waving to send our love.
We are from daily press conferences
“New York Tough” as we burrow in our homes
From Zoom meetings and Google Meets
Sweatpants and pajama bottoms
Lagging wifi and Zoom fatigue.
We are from “quarantine hair don’t care”
We are from haircuts from home
Dark roots and feet desperate for pedicures.
We are from the last paper towel roll on a shelf
Like hitting the Mega-Million in the lottery.
We are from temperature checks
From standing six feet apart
We are from plastic shields and fear.
From “Don’t touch your face” and “Wash your hands.”
We are from depressing news reports
Maps lit up in red and numbers climbing
We are from conflicting information, anger and grief
Of all that we’ve lost
On the way to where we are.
This week, I am taking part in the Long Island Writing Project's Mini Summer Institute, via Zoom. I LOVE the Long Island Writing Project and always feel home there. Not only do I feel deeply valued and respected, I always learn new things and meet the most passionate and interesting educators through these workshops.
One of our "assignments" this week was to create a Flipgrid video where we introduce ourself and share 3 different artifacts that tell about who we are. This is brilliant and I have learned so much about the different participants by watching their videos. I've been trying to make connections when I reply to each person- to let them know who else in the group also has a dog, or loves nature or has twins. It's been so interesting to see the themes of what is shared and to get to know people in a new way.
In my third grade classroom, I often started the year with students bringing in a bag of items that represent themselves. If we are in a hybrid model or remote, I will absolutely plan to have students share their items via Flipgrid. This activity allows each student to think about himself/herself and tap into identity. By sharing his/her identity with the group, we can build community around shared interests and also establish who is an "expert" in some areas.
Connections are so important. As I think of the next school year and the challenges we will face, ideas that allow students to share pieces of themselves and get to know each other are so worthwhile.
How might you help your students share their identity and build community if we are in a hybrid model or home for remote learning?
Now that the 2019-2020 school year is officially done (as in, "stick a fork in me"), it's time to start reflecting. And here's the thing: Before we left the classroom in March, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we really weren't okay.
I've been a teacher since 2001. Aside from the one year I took for maternity leave when I had my son(and the 4 months maternity I took for my daughter), I have been IN IT. I've taught 6th grade, special education, kindergarten and third grade. I deeply care about teaching and growing in my professional skills. I value education and work hard. And....I was utterly drowning.
26 students. Every subject. Differentiating instruction and small groups to plan. One prep a day that could be eaten by a teacher arriving late to pick up her students, a phone call to return, a grade level meeting, a broken photocopy machine (more often than not). Lunch was often wolfed down in the first 10-15 minutes, then back to trying to get the afternoon planned. Bus duty, meetings, tutoring. Then having to dash out of work to get home to take my children to soccer, or acting class, or religion. Homework for them, dinner for everyone, showers, bedtime. Exhaustion. What time was there to look at one of the 26 students' work? What time was there to reflect on the day's teaching to make more thoughtful choices for the next day?
There was none. It was go, go, go and do the best you can. And don't complain that you don't have time to get the work done because, hey- summers off, right? You get to leave at 3:15 each day. The one time I told an administrator I was getting up in the middle of the night to do work, it was kind of like "Yeah- I am up early too."
We are expecting our teachers to be able to thoughtfully and skillfully teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, technology skills, and character education. We are expecting them to build relationships and deeply know 26 or more students at a time. We are expecting them to to plan and teach multiple small groups a day. We are expecting them to do this with very little planning time.
I know every job has its challenges, but the thing about teaching is the time I am at work I am with children or doing other professional duties almost the entire time. The planning it takes to be prepared for my teaching day is all done on my own time. The grading, the reflecting- it is all done after hours. This was hard when I was a single teacher in my 20's but the truth is it is impossible as a mom to two children in my 40's. I simply don't have the hours to give unless I stop sleeping.
Can we talk about this? Can we talk about the impossible expectations put on teachers? Can we talk about why so many have left the profession to become life coaches who want to help teachers deal with burnout? While we are envisioning a new and better system of education, can we consider that we are expecting the impossible from our teachers and their mental/emotional health is suffering? Every teacher I know (who is tenured and allowed to admit it) has sacrificed physical health, emotional health, family time and more trying to keep up with ever-changing, yet always impossible expectations.
Can we get our teachers off the hamster wheel?
"Here I'm singin' happy birthday
Better think about the about the wish I make
This year gone by ain't been a piece of cake
Everyday's a revolution
Pull it together and it comes undone
Just one more candle and a trip around the sun"
Last year, I turned 40. It was momentous, with a weekend trip with my husband to Boston, wineries with my sister and sisters in law, spa time with a dear friend. 40 was a big milestone and I am now very grateful it came last year when the world was a different place.
41, in times of Covid-19, was a quieter celebration. Dinner out for the first time since early March. Dining in the parking lot which is the makeshift outdoor seating. I was grateful for a family celebration which was impossible a few months before.
I am grateful for birthday greetings from family members, friends past and present, colleagues and even friends I've never met in person but follow online. I am grateful for summer weather and new patio furniture to enjoy. I am grateful for my health. I am grateful for the possibility of days to come.
My head felt so much lighter, and looking at the hair on the floor surrounding my chair, there was good reason. My first hair cut in 4 months felt glorious, but not as glorious as the color that came next! Roots were made lighter and highlights were happily put back into hair that had missed them. No longer black roots with reddish blonde ends. A cut and color made me feel lighter.
Each evening after dinner, I lace up my students and walk around my neighborhood. My goal is to hit 10,000 steps a day and this quarantine lifestyle doesn't make it easy. An extra walk is required to hit that target. I listen to my friends on Voxer or I learn from podcasts. Slowly, every so slowly, the quarantine pounds are starting to shed. My body feels lighter.
The sun goes down later now. It is lighter, pushing bedtime for my children off to after 9. Sometimes 10. Nowhere to rush to usually so an early bedtime is not necessary. I sit in my screened-in porch, next to the sky blue hydrangeas that are on the other side of the screen, and read what I want to read. My workload is lighter.
We are starting to see friends and family. Father's Day was not all alone like Easter and Mother's Day. It feels happy and right to be around people. There is social distancing. There are no hugs. Yet my soul is lighter with these moments of togetherness.
The world is full of light and dark, joyful and painful times. For so long, it felt so bleak, so isolating, so scary. We are not through the woods, but I see a clearing. As the expression goes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We've been in a tunnel for a long time.
I look to the light. I look for the light. I look to be the light.
I am lighter today.
Last Day of School 2020 Nonet
We wear masks
Students wave, cheer
Teachers cry, blow kiss
Strangest last day of school
Covid-19 changed it all
Presents passed through open windows
Uncertainty in the summer air
This poem was inspired by Irene Latham's book Nine: A Book of Nonet Poems. I am sharing a #classroombookaday each day this summer for books that I would like to read with my third graders. You can follow my reading this summer on my website
or on Instagram @mrssokolowski.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski