Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Power of Altering a Single Word

"I have to go back to work tomorrow. Ugh."

If you follow other teachers on social media, I'm sure you scrolled past similar derivations of this statement as July ended and the freedom of summer break drew to a close. Perhaps you even penned a similar post yourself.

Teaching is hard, and breaks are a beautiful and much-needed reprieve. Believe me, I get it. 

But, the nuances of how we phrase our thoughts and words can be life-changing. A blog post I read last year on the topic catalyzed a paradigm shift in the way I speak to myself and others. 

It's simple: turn phrases that begin with "I have to" into "I get to."

Do you believe you make a difference in the lives of children? Is being an educator meaningful to you and the future of our world? 


You get to go to back to work tomorrow.

Imagine how that simple change in self-talk frames your experiences and how others perceive your attitude.

This doesn't just apply at school, rather, it has pervaded all areas of my life. 

I have to give Charlie a bath.
I get to watch Charlie giggle in the bathtub.

I have to stop and get gas.
I get to refuel the vehicle that takes me where I want to go.

I have to grade these papers.
I get to provide feedback for the work my students completed.

I have to go to the gym.
I get to exercise my body so I can stay healthy.

I have to go to bus duty.
I get to be the smiling face that sends students home.

I have to go to the grocery store.
I get to visit a miraculous repository of items and purchase what I need.

I have to do the laundry.
I get to toss my clothes into a machine that cleans them.

Okay, maybe I am still struggling with that last one... 

Alas, the buzzer on the dryer has just beckoned me, so I will take my own advice.

I get to go put the masses of clothes I own in the closets that store them. 

But before I end, let's be honest with each other- our have-to's usually involve privileges that most of the world will never experience. 

Can you imagine the excitement from someone in a developing country if they were to switch lives with you for a day? Cars, homes, schools, and stores... what luxuries! 

Fortunately, you're the one that gets to be in your shoes. So, I pray that your next steps find you in a new mindset. 

As I have since 2015, I would like to dedicate this school year to my sister, Brittany, who never got to be a educator. While working on her undergrad with aspirations of becoming an elementary teacher, she passed away after an asthma attack. 

Brittany (top left) with her last Pre-K class. Her passion was truly #teachergoals

Every year, I get to walk into my classroom and live her dream. 

Happy school year, teacher friends.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

Are You Stuck on the High Dive of Life?

Please allow me to introduce you to my new friend, Bev.

We met two weeks ago at Breathe For Change in San Fransisco, a mindfulness and yoga training programs designed especially for educators. In one of our first workshop sessions we discussed mindful listening, made partners, and shared with one another "what holds you back?"

The picture she had journaled resonated with me, and I was captivated by the accompanying story.

The ladder of the familiar, a "Pool of Dreams" and jumping in the unknown.

When Bev was 8 years old, she took swimming lessons at the local YMCA. Even though a few decades have passed, she still vividly remembers the day she climbed the ladder to the high dive, became paralyzed with fear, and couldn't bring herself to jump. Later she found the courage, but not in that moment. Instead, she chose to descend the stairs back to the safety rather than facing the foreboding water.

She realized that the pattern of rising to new heights with the support of family, friends and self-discipline can result in getting stuck on a high dive in life; our "pool of dreams" awaits below, but we would rather find our way back down to the comforting concrete of what we've grown accustomed to instead of finding ourselves in unknown waters.

As she spoke, my heart sank like a diver gracefully plunging toward the bottom of that pool. I immediately felt a connection to her story, and her wisdom washed over me as I held back the tears welling in my eyes waiting to wash down my face. 

You see, the day before I flew across the country to Breathe for Change, I had just taken my dream job, a truly once-in-a-lifetime position- increased diversity, smaller classes, a wellness program, graduate school assistance, more instructional time- you name it. After a decade of teaching, I was finally prioritizing self-care and finding a better work/home balance. I was ready for a change.

Practicing diver's pose with a beautiful group of teachers who are ready to change the world!

Before accepting the job, I now realize I had become stuck on a diving board in my career. I whole-heartedly fought my way up the same professional ladder many teachers face: I kept long hours and struggled for resources, and in spite of obstacles my students exceeded. 

But, once I had gotten to the highest rung, there was nowhere else to go.  Sure, the view was nice and safe, but when the possibility of a new position in a more supportive environment was made available to me, I knew I had to jump. If I didn't, I might find myself retreating with a descent of indifference, burn-out, and bitterness. 

The retreat to the comfort of the ground below is all too common with current teacher attrition rates in the United States.

That would not be my destiny. 

I held my nose, closed my eyes and leaped the platform that had held me up, but also held me stagnant. 

Even though I am still in a mid-air free fall until school starts in August, I cannot wait to make a splash and explore my own pool of dreams in a school full of diversity and means for sustaining my continued growth as an educator. 

Breathe for Change has reawakened the awareness of keeping my growth a priority. Not only did I get my Yoga Alliance 200-hour certification and attain skills for maintaining mindfulness and social justice in my classroom, I made lifelong friends. 

Breathe for Change Community Circle Yoga Poses Session. It's amazing what you can do with support!

Many conversations during the last 16 days, including the life-changing one with Bev, have helped me to more fully celebrate the diversity of others while giving me courage and a renewed hope for the future of education. 

Whatever diving board you find yourself on- whether it be the need to find a new teaching position, start graduate school, move into an administrative role, or beginning the journey of putting your needs first- I invite you to close your eyes and jump rather than withdraw back to the familiar.

Who knows what awaits in your pool of dreams?

Cheers and Namaste,

Special thanks to the Svadhyaya sisters - my small mentorship group during the Breathe for Change training and it's leader, Robin (in front).

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The 5 Best (and Worst) Things About Teaching Science

As we approach summer and leave our classrooms behind for a couple months, I realize that teaching science is an awesome gig, but it also has some pitfalls I've experienced firsthand this year. Indulge me while I reflect...

The Five Worst Things About Teaching Science

1. You may have to teach 30 students how to light a Bunsen burner incendiary device before they are old enough to drive a car.

2. The out-of-pocket costs for hands-on activities can get a little extreme, and you can catch some serious shade from the grocery store clerk for buying 32 bags of M&M's at the same time, even though you tell her they aren't all for you. 

3. Politics and opinions can inhibit your ability to objectively teach climate change, evolution, and deep time. 

"Mrs. Freeman, do you believe that dinosaurs actually existed?" 

Um, YES! 

4. The time required for prepping and cleaning up labs can rack up some serious overtime hours.

I wish it were as easy as adding food dye to flasks! SMH.

5. There's always one or two (or seven)
 kids that would rather walk across hot coals than wear safety goggles. 

Say it with me now, "PUT YOUR GOGGLES BACK ON!" 
Ah, a phrase I shall not utter again until August...

The Five Best Things about Teaching Science

1. You can say things like "I need more alcohol for my lesson" and not get fired. 
2. You get to boggle kids' minds like a magician, but *bonus* you get to have the pleasure of explaining your tricks.

3. You get to wear a spiffy lab coat and goggles. Who else gets to look this cool at work?

4. Your lessons get to involve food! Whether it's making ice cream for a colligative properties lab, using goldfish in your data collection lesson, or popping corn to teach mass percent; other subjects may have class parties, but you you've got snacks with a purpose. 

5. You get paid to blow things up. Enough said.

Regardless of it's ups and downs, we all know science teachers have the best job. Happy summer, fellow science teachers!


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

3 Assignments to Keep Students (and Yourself) Engaged at the End of the Year

Even Willy Wonka is not a fan of lesson plans!:

Across the nation, K-12 academic school years end sometime between the mid-May and mid-June. Toward the end of school, students take a variety of state and/or nationally standardized tests. Some are required (such as the end of course assessments required in 27 states) impacting both students’ grades and, in some cases, their potential for graduation, while others are optional, don’t return results for several months, and have the potential to earn students college credit (and, in the case of a recent national exam, an opportunity to roast certain politicians).

Unfortunately for teachers and students, these tests do not signify the true end to a class, and students can languish for two weeks to a month after their administration, wondering why they have to be at school, and especially why they have to do WORK, when the end-all, be-all, FINAL test (or tests) have past. Teachers, too, feel this crunch, as assistant principals, principals, superintendents, etc. admonish that students MUST continue to attend and LEARN. This edict leaves teachers feeling like:

Blank Lesson Plan Meme.jpg

To combat this feeling, here is my end-of-year advice: turn off the lights and watch movies.
But truly, do consider capturing the students’ affinity for technology and, especially, social media with these three fun (and, sometimes, funny) activities.

1. Literature-related Playlist (AKA The Soundtrack)

Present this activity (requirements here*) as a legitimate opportunity to sit in class and watch YouTube. Students must first read a plot-driven text. Novels and longer plays take more prep time than short stories – which is perfect even before the test in the event you need to differentiate for that student who has opted out of any optional testing. Have the student select a theme or map the plot structure. Then, the student logs into and creates a playlist on YouTube of songs reflecting the theme or a soundtrack following the plot structure. Have them email you a link to the playlist. Here is an example from The Great Gatsby.

This activity can be accompanied by written rationales for their choices, complete with quotes from the text. If you want to grade fewer assignments (AND DON’T WE ALL), make it a group activity. Want to grade during class time? Have students present. Bring refreshments (i.e. have a “food day”) and your students will be as engaged as this cat:


Music. Food. Essentially, your last days have just become a party!

2. Character-based Social Media

An alternative (requirements here*) to the soundtrack assignment also suitable for fiction involves using students’ favorite time-waster: social media. Specifically,this example uses Instagram, but similar ideas for Facebook and MySpace exist. Figuring out how to use the SnapChat story function for this assignment is in the works - but requires quick turnaround on grading since the story disappears within 24 hours.

Whatever the platform, the essence of this project is images and captioning. A student chooses a character from some work of prose or drama (though a historical figure or author has potential too) and creates a social media profile as that character. Then, the student posts images related to that character’s development through time accompanied by captions and/or #hashtags as the platform requires. With more time, assigning characters from the same novel to grouped students could allow them to comment on one another’s profiles!

Written rationales for the images and the hashtags can provide evidence of depth of understanding. Once again, to reduce grading, make the assignment grouped and presented.

3. Memes

Meme cat.jpgA final, and very popular assignment this year, is evident throughout this and many of the true Sustainable Teacher’s blog posts: creating memes! Memes are the 21st century’s bumper sticker. Students spend hours upon hours sharing and talking about memes that strike their fancy. Why not put this love (and their sense of humor) to use?

I require my students to use aphorisms (popular sayings of known authorship for those who aren’t rhetorically nerdy like myself); however, the same effect can be obtained with proverbs or quotes from any of the literary genres. If the students pair the right quotes and the right picture, the results can have hilarious effects:


This particular meme gave me the giggles when it was turned in. The authorship of the previous quote is none other than Ben Franklin. As an added bonus, all of these assignments also give student the opportunity to showcase their ability to cite resources and provide a platform for copyright infringement discussions.

Good luck, fellow teachers. May you keep your sanity and have a little fun as the year races to its close.


Guest blog written by Tiffany Post, AP Language and Composition Teacher at Woodland High School in Cartersville, GA.
*Adapted from the classroom of Tammy Queen

Friday, May 5, 2017

An "Alternative" Teacher Appreciation Week for Non-Educators

Some people just don't get it. 
Tuesday, May 9 is National Teacher Appreciation Day in the United States. While many schools celebrate their staff all week, from an informal survey I conducted, it would appear that a larger number of educators receive no special recognition or gifts, whatsoever. 

As a high school teacher, gifts from students are sparse, but my school does a commendable job celebrating us.
As my principal says on a regular basis, "you will never be fully appreciated for the work you do." 

But, I think we could help the general public to understand what it is like to be a teacher in 2017 through an "alternative" Teacher Appreciation Week for non-educators. It would look something like this:


Go to Target with your own children to buy school supplies. Put what they need in the upper compartment of the cart and then fill the lower portion with necessities for 30-150 children who don't live with you. 

As you throw in markers, pencils, paper, etc., take the time to explain to a stranger who is buying supplies for their child that a spiral notebook is not the same as a composition book. Then, chase down your own toddler who escaped while you were counting out 32 blue 3-prong folders. 
Even though you'll spend about $500, keep your receipts because the same Congressman whose starting salaries are $174,000 (while yours is $36,000) generously allow you to deduct half of that on your taxes.

Bummer, you've come down with a stomach bug. Email your boss and let them know you'll be out, and then go back to bed.

Between "runs" to the bathroom, call 27 strangers until you find one that is available to come and do your job for the day.
In detail, use the last bit of your strength to explain to them the ins-and-outs of your schedule and what they need to do to be a substitute for you. 

Come back to work the next day with a ton of paperwork to sort through, a few vague notes on what happened, and a foreboding email from your boss stating that you need to come and speak with them.


Do all states do this,
or just Georgia?
You just found out that the branch of the retail company you work for isn't performing as well as those stores that are in more affluent areas. 
Remember, it's your fault that the amount of disposable income in your town is low and the tax base is lacking.
Even though you've been doing an average of 13 hours of overtime a week (for free!), your work place is put on a PUBLIC list of "chronically failing" locations. 

That'll be sure to boost your morale, increase productivity, and reassure customers. Bet you can't wait to go to work tomorrow!


This morning's meeting is a tough one. You just found out that one of the employees you manage lost their mom. Along with another employee who has a chronic illness, your end-of-quarter performance reports are going to be down if you don't start drilling the basics of sales into their heads over and over and over. 

The data for their performance is what matters most- not what they are struggling with as people! 
If they don't perform, you could lose your job. Make sure they know that and are aware they won't get promoted if they don't meet those subjective benchmarks. 
The stress is sure to make them feel valued and comfortable while being assessed, and they'll do their best.


Today is a big day: you just found out the board of directors is voting on a new CEO of the corporation. 

How exciting! 

I am sure they will have your best interest at heart when they appoint someone. To your dismay, however, you find out who they hired has never worked for your company and has NO experience in your field. 
You and the 3.1 million other employees at your company- EVERY SINGLE ONE of you- is more qualified than her. 
No worries, though. Her family gave huge charitable donations to fund some additions to the corporate office, so she must be alright. Right? 


While I know that no one could understand our station in life in a week's time, I can dream... 

The Future Educators Association at my
school allows students to purchase
dress-down days for staff. 

Wishing you all a happy Teacher Appreciation Week full of blue jeans, crayon art, and free meals at fast food locations.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Teachers are Waterfalls

After an 8-hour weekend review session for AP exams yesterday, I left my classroom thankful for students who are willing to work hard. 

Unfortunately, I am also saddened that some of them will not earn a score high enough to get college credit for their efforts, even though they have undergone a commendable amount of exertion. 

I wrote this poem in hopes that my students and other teachers know that our strife and efforts can never be fully illustrated by the results from a single standardized test.

Photo courtesy of fellow waterfall, Rob. F,
chemistry teacher

Teachers are Waterfalls
I am waterfall where streams of knowledge merge and flow 
over the ledge of my presence to the surface below.

Beneath, beautiful pebbles, my pupils, get smoothed 
and through my passionate plans ignorance is removed.

Each unique rock, coming from its own time and place receives 
the same energy, care, and perseverance from me.

But, some are softer- easier to round, polish, and grow 
while others have become brittle and hardened by past sorrow.

Picture courtesy of fellow waterfall,
Tammy Q., high school literature teacher 
Test scores create data and graphs, but data doesn't show half
of the stress on my beautiful pebbles at this point in their path.

I increase my pressure in hopes that if more water pounds down
success will come to all, but too many struggle and drown.

Their faces, full of wonder and curiosity, are reduced
to numbers for appeasing demanding politicians who are sadly aloof.

As baseless performance demands continue to rain down from above
turbulent currents crash on young minds without patience or love.

Photo courtesy of fellow waterfall,
Stephanie K., preschool teacher

When my year closes and my efforts approach their pinnacle
novice pebbles being judged by shaded circles makes me so cynical.

How is that mere letters- A, B, C, D, and E- can suffice
to demonstrate a real understanding of what is important in life?

What they learned while rolling and tumbling through my course
being reduced to a single test causes me unfathomable remorse.

Still, I remain hopeful as summer approaches and my movement slows;
my pebbles depart for the next waterfall to which they're bestowed.

Photo courtesy of fellow waterfall,
 Lori K., healthcare teacher

Thank you, fellow waterfalls, for the smiles, hugs, treats, and hard work you have given to your students during testing. 

You have the power to bring humanity and tenderness when so many of our babies struggle to prove themselves. But always remember: you can't pour from an empty cup. 

Photo courtesy of Dondra W.