Balancing Act

“Ms. L, are you on your feet all day long?  I swear, I’ve never seen you sit down.  Do you even know how to use a chair?” asked one of my students as they did their self-assessments– a written reflection of their participation, preparedness, and how they felt in class.  I wondered how he would respond if he learned that I often snuck away or a mile-long walk during my prep period.

His perceptive question led me to my own self-assessment. I was on my feet all day long– walking, running, pacing that follows the staccato rhythm of go go go. Sit down?  Who sits down?  My participation last week was one of a grouchy teacher; my preparedness was defined by the seat my pants; and how did I feel? Tired, emotional, worn-out.  Granted, I had a busy week that began with an upsetting real-life episode of The Twilight Zone right in my classroom.  But I knew it wasn’t just the busy week; it was also the two busy weekend before grading essays and doing other work; it was the lack of time to prepare; it was my new biological clock that decided to pare down my hours of sleep every night to six; it was me not having the motivation to eat prepared healthy meals, but eat Twix instead.  But I also know that every week is going to be busy– there will be the same amount of students, classes, and clubs, and I am the same, too. I am the one who, like many others, struggles to balance the rigors of work with the rigors of having a life.  Last week I was resentful because I didn’t have any of my own time, but it is ultimately my own fault because I didn’t make any time for me. My students deserve better than to have a grouchy teacher, and I deserve better than to feel that at any moment my emotional dam will burst.

My goal this weekend was to do the things I enjoy, plan for next week to avoid the mad scramble, and reflect on everything that went well.  So I read, baked a cake (a Thai inspired Pineapple Upside-Down Cake that uses coconut milk), made three small appetizers, had dinner with friends, spent time with my hubs watching our new favorite show The Newsroom, practiced yoga and kick-boxing, and went for my morning walks.  Right now I am blogging.

One of the books I read is Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature.  Jago asserts why it is so important to teach the “classics” to our students and how we need creative ways to get them “into” those stories.  Her methods of teaching, dislike of objective tests, and reasons for unconventional assessment reaffirmed my teaching values and gave me the impetus to teach Othello the way that I want.  My current curriculum involves analysis of plot, character traits and motivation, theme, blah, blah, blah. This knowledge is important, but my students have spent the last 11 years of their school career identifying and analyzing the literary elements.  None of my seniors are planning on majoring in English in college (at least none have publicly admitted to it).  I chose Othello because it connects to their lives: cultural conflicts, bi-racial relationships, haters, rumors, jealousy, loyalty.  If this doesn’t connect to high schoolers, then I don’t know what does.  So why, then, if I want them to connect to this wonderfully juicy and tragic story, do I implement lessons that strategically disconnect them from it?

My students will still discuss and analyze plot, characters, and theme, but this time much of their knowledge will be shown through creative writing (a process that is rarely touched on in school).  For example, borrowing an exercise from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, my students will write “What’s Behind the Door of Room 101?”.  This prompt will make them think about what’s behind the door, which is the thing that a character most fears, but they cannot write about the fear in abstract terms.  They have to write a scene in which the character watches his/her worst fear acted out and how he/she responds to it.  This requires a detailed understanding of the characters in the play, their motivations, and the themes.  My students can be creative and apply their understanding, and I can have (hopefully) entertaining student work to read.  It will be very easy to see who gets Othello and who does not– plus it prevents the cheating often found on worksheets.  My students will also have a compilation of creative stories that are a reflection of themselves.

My point– before I went all “teacher” on you– is that I gave myself time to explore my interests, and now I am energized to begin the next unit with my seniors.  Just so you do not think that I lie on my couch reading trade books, I am also reading Natsume Soseki’s turn-of-the-century novel, Kusamakura, a story of a nameless narrator on the romantic quest to find beauty and simplicity in nature and rise above the “vulgarity” of the common world.  Dense and quietly funny, it’s definitely a book to read with a pencil in hand.

Ultimately, the trick is how do I make sure that every weekend allows me the time to do this?  Right now, it’s a mandate: have fun or go nuts.  How do I make balance a habit?

Readers: What do you do to maintain balance in your life?