Encouraging Change, Seeing Hope

Year: 2

In class, my students are currently reading a book about workers’ rights and the history of protest. Honestly, a big part of why we are reading this book is due to the pressure in education right now to read nonfiction, informational text (I have very strong opinions on why only English teachers are feeling that pressure but that’s a different conversation for a different day). The really cool aspect of this book are the conversations I get to have with students, and I saw that today in a surprising way.

This morning, I began grading assignments that my students had completed while reading part of the book; it was the section that explained the origin of this particular workers’ strike. One question I put on the handout, due more to personal curiosity than anything else, was the following: “What do you feel strongly about in the ‘real world’ that you want to change or support? How would you go about making that change, or making it stronger?”

The answers were incredible.

Now, there were a few silly ones. It is middle school, after all, and middle school is an odd place. One such answer said “I would make a strike that unicorns be real and I’d glue horns to horses.” (I still don’t know if that’s genuine or not.)

Most answers, though, were so powerful and heartwarming. Students wrote about fighting animal testing, finding a cure for cancer, lowering costs of healthy food for impoverished families, fighting climate change, lowering pollution, gun control regulation, teacher pay, deportation policies, government shut downs, tax laws (!!!), and more. These kids are seventh graders.

It should not surprise me that my students are capable of this type of answer. I see their curiosity and awareness in our class discussions. More than anything else, I found it incredibly heartwarming and endearing to read these answers. These kids care about the world around them. They are aware – with the internet, more aware, perhaps, than we were at their age – of the issues our society has, and they are concerned.

I need more conversations like this with my students. I want to encourage their curiosity, but I also find it filled with so much hope to see my students this focused on making the world a better place.

Oracle State Park

As I see it, there are few ways to spend a Sunday morning that are better than being outdoors with coffee and good friends. Although I’d spent the day before hiking on my own, I knew that I wanted another morning outdoors before going into this week, so a friend and I ventured out to Oracle State Park in the morning, coffees in hand.

Oracle State Park is about 45 minutes north of Tucson, but well worth the drive. After the trip, I felt both disappointed in myself for not going sooner and deeply thankful that I spent the morning checking it out.

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We took the Granite Loop Trail, which is an easy path across 1.6 miles of loping hills and desert grass swaying in the early morning breeze. We did take a bit of a detour on a different path (photo above) before turning around to finish Granite Loop.

I imagine this would be a wonderful park to trail run, or to mountain bike, because the trails were fairly smooth and the hills were – for the most part – none too demanding.  This is an area that is easily accessible for people of all activity levels; even if all you want is a slow walk with a breeze and some good views, this is the park you should be visiting.

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I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Oracle State Park so much is that it is one of those wonderful areas that makes you feel truly far from society. Despite the one or two houses that occasionally showed in the distance, the vast openness of the park made me feel as if I could just continue on forever.

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Romero Canyon Trail

The longer I teach, the more it becomes clear to me how much I need the outdoors. If I find myself without regular time outdoors, I can feel anxiety and stress creep in far more easily. “Nature’s medicine” is not exactly a joke to me; I use hiking and time outside pretty seriously now. Today, after my “funky” two-day week of teaching, I loaded my Jeep with gear and headed to an absolute favorite trailhead, Romero Canyon Trail.

Basic information about Romero for fellow hikers: sitting in Catalina State Park, this trail is about 5.5 miles roundtrip, an out-and-back trail, and has approximately 1,322 feet of elevation gain. Almost all of the tough stuff is within the first 30 minutes or so of the hike.

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Romero Canyon Trail, which leads to Romero Pools, was the first hike I ever completed in Tucson and remains one of my favorites. The path leading up to the trail is quite long (a little less than one mile) and flat. My love for this trail is not diminished by this, although I typically gravitate towards hiking trails that are very close to the trailhead.

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The trail was shockingly green compared to what I’ve seen before today. Romero Pools, much like almost any trail in Tucson, changes drastically depending on how much water it’s seen recently. We’ve had some significantly heavy winter rains, and I saw that as I saw mountains, usually dotted with saguaros and cholla and not much else, covered in a shallow blanket of green. The pools were filled when I reached the end, but were far too cold for me to hop in.

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Much of the trail looks like this: very exposed. However, there is enough shade from the mountains dotting the trail if you start early enough in the day. I’ve hiked this trail so many times, in so many ways, and I still love it. I’ve done this trail in August (start early early early morning to avoid heat); I’ve hiked this trail at nighttime, guided solely by the moon’s light; I’ve done it with and without water falling from the top. It’s fantastic any way you find it.

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Something that I truly love about this hike is how accessible it is, and how easy it is for solo hiking. I am not yet at a point where I feel comfortable trying new hikes alone (I’m not sure I will ever reach that point, truthfully), so I choose my favorite trails for solo hikes.

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Simple rewards: sitting on a rock, eating an orange, watching water stream through a desert landscape. Romero Pools, I love you, and I will always come back.

Weekly Review

Year: 2

This week was funky.

I’d been gone for about half of the week (family wedding! yay!), so I only taught two days today. Yesterday was… bumpy. My students did not do any of the work that I’d assigned them while I’d be away, so I basically threw out the lesson I’d planned and made them redo assignments. That’s never fun; it’s boring for students, but it’s mainly a punishment for teachers, honestly. Not a great time. Today, I gave my students the choice between working on the reading individually (silent, calm, largely put together) or partner reading (see: absolute chaos), and most chose partner reading. In multiple classes, I had a “I’m Disappointed in You Mom Tone” discussion about discipline and good work habits.

Some of my kids were pretty bratty: defiant, mean, or lazy. Probably because I’d been gone long enough they somehow forgot that they have an English teacher with high expectations for them? One of my colleagues, who teaches eighth grade, walked out of class in tears because she realized a kid was actively bullying another kid in her class – and absolutely nobody would tell her who was the bully.

There were a few shining highlights, however. Students are put on an improvement plan if they failed the previous quarter, and several of my students on that plan chose me as their ‘trusted teacher’ for helping them succeed. One of my students came running up to me during lunch, tried to teach me a handshake, then patted me on the head before running away. (So middle school.) Another student dance/hopped/snake-charmer-impressioned? away from me after class today, and, while doing so, told me that he would teach me his smooth moves next week. Another student told me that it felt like “a gift from god” that I was back and she no longer had to deal with substitute teachers.

My first impression is that it felt like a funky week, but really, it wasn’t so funky. Basically, this was just another week of teaching. High moments and low moments, with my choice on what to focus on. I’m going to focus on the weird dancing and handshakes – it’s far more fun that way.

Weekly Review

Monday: A former student stopped by my class today at the end of the day to show me something he’d drawn. The middle school way of saying hello, welcome back from winter break.

Tuesday: During a class discussion, a student mentioned something he learned in social studies. He paused during this, saying about halfway through, “in social studies… uh, shout out to Mr. R, in social studies we learned….”

Wednesday: One student finished his work early and, instead of reading a library book as I ask, was sitting and doing nothing. I asked him if he needed to borrow a book and he said no, smiling, and reached into the world’s messiest backpack. I asked him again after a minute of him fishing around his backpack, and he said no again. After a few more seconds of moving around stuff in his backpack, he slowly looked up and asked me, “…. Could I borrow a book?” Such a middle school move.

Thursday: One of my classes got in a heated argument about whether a sloth or a panda would win in a fight.

Friday: Every Friday, I ask my students what was the best part of their week. One student sweetly said that it was my class. Another student said it was getting in a 4-wheeler accident where he flew off the 4-wheeler and it flipped over him. (He neglected to say he’s okay until I asked him. He’s okay.)

Kicking Off the Quarter

I try to create routines in my classroom. Although not every day can or should be the same, I think it is helpful for most students know what to expect – or, at least, have a few parts of the class they can grow to expect. One of these routines are my students’ quarterly goals.

The assignment is simple: write down two sentences. One sentence should be your goal to reach by the end of the quarter, and one sentence should be how you will reach that goal.

A wall in the back of my classroom is decorated with these goals. I want them displayed so that my students see them when they walk into class every day. To prep for this activity beforehand, I make sure to create paper cutouts before the quarter begins. Sometimes I make these paper slips in the shape of a book or an apple, but oftentimes, it’s just a circle another easy shape. I hand these out during bell work on one of the first days of school, and give them until the end of their bell work to have their goal written down.

This is a simple way to begin the discussion of forming goals with my students, how those goals need structure, and how we can work to get there. (Also, it looks super cool at the back of my classroom.)

The Return

Year: 2

Two days back from winter break!

We are starting the year off running; after a short review, my students are already reading informational texts and writing about them in order to prep for our class text, Flesh & Blood So Cheap, for quarter three. This is really the only way to start the year again, I think. Had I a more sluggish start to the week, I think I’d still be feeling sluggish today.

Before returning to school, I’d fallen into a bit of a mental trap of thinking that I would return to teaching with the same exhaustion I felt leaving it. I’d felt that last year, but that had been my first year teaching, so I can’t exactly trust that as reliable. As the last few days of winter break closed in on quarter three, I felt a bit of nerves that this year would repeat last year.

And although I felt a bit rusty yesterday, but today felt good. My management was smooth, the kids were engaged in discussions, and I had few disciplinary issues. Now, it is teaching – so is tomorrow, the next day, and the rest of the week going to feel sparkly and flawless? Probably not. But I’m feeling motivated and optimistic about this quarter (or, at least, this week).