Sing It, Alice Cooper!

Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer"In the inimitable words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer!” The end of the school year is a glorious thing for students. The countdown begins somewhere mid-4th quarter. Teachers are ready, too, and many post the countdown on their white boards, both as encouragement for their students to hang in there and finish strong, as well as to join in the excitement. However, as any teacher will tell you, the end of the school year is not an easy coast to the finish line. It means making, proctoring, and grading final exams. It means preparing report cards. It means collecting textbooks and class novels. It means completing book orders, class lists for next year, maintenance request orders, and classroom inventories. It means cleaning out and organizing nine months of files and materials. It means packing up what was once a bright, vibrant, and engaging classroom and stripping it down to a dull and boring room with naked bulletin boards, upturned desks, and stacked chairs.

My classroom, end of school year

My classroom, end of school year

I love teaching. I just finished my eighth year of teaching (second career) and I can still unabashedly say I love teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could do this job if they didn’t love it. It is a lot of work, and I am pretty sure the entire world knows that the pay is not great. I work 7:30 to 7:30 most days, and I spend five to ten hours each weekend on school work. But, there is something about that exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge, the unpredictable nature of each day; that I completely love.

For me, teaching literature is like doing a one-man show each and every day in front of a full house, albeit, a captive audience. When that bell rings and my students file in, I close my door, and six times a day it’s show time! Whether it is starting new material, reviewing for a test or quiz, learning new vocabulary, unlocking the vagaries of the comma, doing group work, or rotating through stations for peer teaching, it is all exciting to me and each school day flies by.

7B Literature, "fishing" for vocab words about medieval times

7B Literature, “fishing” for vocab words about medieval times

So you can see that I never look forward to this process of undoing my classroom at the end of the year. Once the last bell rings and the kids are gone for the summer the school changes. It is quiet, too quiet. It is almost as though there has been a death in the family. Hallways are empty and barren. Teachers are on permanent dress-down, coming in to clean and sort in what my mother would have called “car-washing clothes”, which meant any outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. Without the spirit and energy of the students, a school building is just a building, nothing more.

It’s hard for me to get motivated for these tasks as I don’t feel any sense of urgency. Some teachers fly through this work in a day or less, anxious to get started on their summer vacation. The really diligent ones don’t stop to chat or linger in the hallways. They don’t go out for an extended lunch at a neighborhood eatery. They hole themselves up in their rooms and get the work done as quickly as possible. I am not one of those.

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

As classroom doors close one by one and final goodbyes are shouted by those who have officially signed out, I find myself getting less productive and more distracted. I decide to clean out a desk drawer and find things in it that need to be filed so I open my file cabinet, and once in there, I find things in the file drawer to sort and organize. An hour later, the desk drawer is still agape, with no progress being made there whatsoever, and not much progress has been made in the file drawer either. The busier I am, the more I get done. But, when I am not busy or under some sort of deadline, I can procrastinate with the best of them.

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

Packing everything away–posters, bulletin board strips, knickknacks, religious items from my classroom prayer center, my computers and other tech equipment–always reminds me of putting away leftovers after Thanksgiving dinner. All of that food came out of the refrigerator before it was cooked. Once cooked and half-eaten, it seems as though it just isn’t going to go back in there. Without emptying the closets and reorganizing everything, it seems impossible to stick all of the tech equipment and classroom decorations back in there. But, emptying two closets and starting over takes forever, and soon distraction creeps in and a project that should have taken a few hours expands to fill the whole day. Near the end of the second day, you can guess what happens…pushing and shoving things in wherever they will fit just to get it done and over with. “I’ll sort and organize it in the fall when we come back,” is the inevitable thought process here.

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait for the end of the school year. As much as anyone else, I look forward to a break from the endless grading required of the middle school language arts teacher. There’s also turning off the alarm clock, a particular favorite of mine. There’s the freedom of deciding at lunchtime what to eat, not having to eat whatever it is that you brought to school with you that day. There’s the luxury of reading for pleasure, not reading educational articles or new novels you are contemplating adding to your curriculum.

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

Being home for summer break means finally getting to clean and organize at home. You teachers know what I mean. There’s that spot where everything gets dumped week after week as you are just barely finishing your lesson plans and grading before falling into bed on Sunday night, and when you spot that area, you think, “Once school ends, I will take care of that.” There are also doctors’ appointments to catch up on and household repairs to schedule. Even if I don’t have big vacation plans for the summer, I still enjoy having lunch out with friends from the corporate world, friends from my past work life that I haven’t seen in a while. I also love spending the day in my kitchen trying out some new recipes. I frequent my local public library and spend hours browsing the stacks, indulging in “beach reads” as well as catching up on the classics. Last summer I taught myself to decoupage and successfully completed several projects. This summer I want to do some sewing and also try my hand at mosaics, an art form that has always fascinated me.

Of course, there will be time for writing, continuing my journey on becoming a writer. This essay on school being out fulfills this week’s requirement in my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. So far, so good. This is week 24 of the year 2015, and counting this one, I’ve published 26 essays. I am also going to redouble my efforts on a novel that I have been working on intermittently for several years, and I will continue my efforts to get something published.

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

So, tomorrow officially begins my summer break from school. Well, almost. I am taking an online class that I need for renewing my certification so I will be doing school work, but it is only from June 22 to July 2. The rest of July and part of August stretch before me like an endless stream of possibilities. Most importantly, it will be a time to recharge my batteries so I can return to school in the fall full of energy, new ideas, and excitement to begin my ninth year of teaching! School’s out for summer!

Grace on the Field

As many of you know, I teach middle school language arts in a Catholic school located in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. Yes, I spend all day with pre-teens and teens, awash in adolescent hormones, Axe body spray, egg-shaped lip gloss containers, and poor grammar brought on by texting and IM’ing.  Six periods a day, a surfeit of shuffling Sperry-wearing seventh and eighth graders file in and out of my classroom for forty minutes of literature, vocabulary, writing, grammar, and a fair dose of my unbridled enthusiasm for reading.

I love teaching language arts; that is, I love everything that happens “inside the bells”. I love the energy of the kids as they come in and settle in to their desks. I love telling them about my favorite books and my favorite authors. I love teaching vocabulary and unlocking the vagaries of the semi-colon. I love connecting the literature we read to major world events and historical eras. I particularly love the Victorian era, complete with its formality, rigid social class system, and of course, great pieces of literature like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Importance of Being Earnest, both of which I teach to 8th grade.

After the final bell of the day rings, however, well, let’s just say that the next three or four hours are not exactly what keeps me in this grossly underpaid and overworked occupation. As much as I love teaching English and literature, the expectation is that the students demonstrate their new-found knowledge of literary devices, story triangles, figures of speech, and the like, in a never-ending stream of assessments such as compare/contrast essays, tests and quizzes, personal narratives and research papers. These things take forever to grade. My husband (not a teacher) keeps telling me to make my assessments more objective so they will be easier and faster to grade, but in order to prepare them for high school they must learn how to write a decent essay and that can’t be accomplished with multiple choice or true/false questions.

As dismal as this nightly ritual of endless grading may seem, there are other things “outside of the bells” that I dislike much more. Je déteste le recess duty! Recess duty (one day every other week…I know, quit complaining) consists of standing outside, swatting gnats or freezing, walking up and down an asphalt driveway overlooking the school’s artificial turf soccer field, while watching 140 middle school students for thirty excruciatingly painful minutes.

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet...no outdoor recess this day!

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet…no outdoor recess this day!

Winter months, especially the winter we just experienced here on the East Coast, brings respite in the form of “indoor recess”, with the field barren and empty, often blanketed in a carpet of white velvety snow. When the weather is good, however, out we go. Occasionally I will strike up a conversation with a group of sixth grade girls who are sitting on the school steps, but it is really their time away from teachers and school work, so eventually I move on. If there was a bench, I could tolerate it. If there was a bench and a book, I would be ecstatic. If there was a bench and a book and a cup of tea, well, I would be in heaven.

But, alas, no bench, so instead I walk the driveway and survey the soccer field littered with various balls, nets, and dozens of pairs of Sperry slip-ons, kicked off to make running and kicking easier. Some days I focus on one particular group and watch them play. A few years ago, a group of 8th grade boys regularly gathered to play touch football, and one bright and sunny spring day I watched them intently for about fifteen minutes. I knew those boys well, having taught them for two years. Half of them were in my home room, the other half just two doors down in the science room for home room. As with any class, some of them were good students with the academic skills to do well, some were decent students who worked incredibly hard, and some were students who struggled daily with reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and of course, with maintaining any sort of interest level in the literature they were assigned to read.

Of the latter group, on that bright and sunny spring day, I watched one particular 8th grade boy catch the football and run like the wind the entire length of the field. He ran with long easy strides, perfect posture, ball tucked securely in the crook of his left arm, head tilted back, in a style reminiscent of “the flying Scotsman” eric liddell quoteEric Liddell, born in China to missionary parents from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was brought to fame via the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. With his unorthodox running style, Liddell captured Olympic gold for the track team of Great Britain at the 1924 games in Paris. He did it in his own way, however, refusing to run in a heat for his “favored distance”, the 100 metre, which was to be held on a Sunday, being the Lord’s day of rest. So, instead, he ran the 400 metres, which had never been his best race. The qualifying heats for the 400 metres were held on Thursday and Friday, and while not the fastest he qualified. In the final event, with the crowd cheering him on, however, he threw back his head, lowered his arms, and finished the race in first place.

In his school uniform of navy Bermuda shorts and a navy sweatshirt, his white athletic crew socks sharply contrasted against the bright green artificial turf, my student was the very epitome of grace in action, relaxed and happy. No one could catch him, in fact, after half a length of the field, they all but quit trying. When he reached the end, he turned in a semi-pirouette, and started back, running in the same graceful style, back to his group of friends he had left coolly behind. He was all smiles, very different from his gloomy look in my classroom.

As I watched him, I realized I was envious of his obvious and natural athletic abilities. I never played a sport, other than a few miserable weeks one summer when my mother attempted to “make” me play softball. In high school I lifeguarded at the pool in my hometown, but that was more people-watching than sport. Sure, I jumped in to save the odd child, over-confident and under-skilled, slipping beneath the surface, head bobbing up and down, but I was a strong swimmer so it didn’t require much effort, and hardly a display of athleticism. Another summer, as an adult, I traded English lessons for tennis lessons with a wealthy Iranian exchange student whose family had fled when the Shah’s regime fell. The tennis was just a bit more successful than the softball, but neither was as enjoyable as watching Wimbledon or the French Open from the comfort of my living room.

No, my natural talents are for letters and words, not rackets and balls. I love reading and writing, and I find vocabulary truly fascinating. The graceful athlete down on the field would rather be anywhere other than a language arts classroom. I wonder where he will end up as an adult. He is in high school now and I wonder if he is finding success as a high school athlete. Will he go on to play college sports? Will he figure out a way to be successful in the language arts classroom as well, so as to keep his grades up to stay on the team?

Watching him run that day, I truly hope that he finds a way to work it all out. I hope he ends up with a career in sports, coaching or commentating. I hope he spends many, many hours running the length of a field, deftly weaving in and out of contact with the opposing team, his long, graceful strides the envy of all watching, especially his middle school English teacher.

In Other News This Week…

It’s been a busy week for the international news media. A series of Saudi-led strikes pounded rebel targets in Yemen. Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard, and as of now, it appears to have been brought down at the hands of the co-pilot. American Amanda Knox’s second trial for the murder of her roommate in Italy is declared closed by Italy’s supreme court, March Madness continues with many surprises and upsets as college basketball teams battle it out for a place in the “Sweet Sixteen” and then on to the “Elite Eight”. And, today, March 27, 2015, the Duchess of Cambridge made her last public appearance before the impending birth of her second child.

In other news this wbean plant on haireek, however, three 7th grade boys grew a bean plant in a Styrofoam cup filled with … hair. Along with springtime temperatures and March Madness, this time of year also brings that rite of passage for every middle school student: the science fair.

The K-8 Catholic school where I teach is no different. This week was the culmination of a three-month process where students in grades 6-8 selected a topic, researched it, created the traditional three-panel corrugated board, and brought their projects in for the school assembly and judging. Each year, a lot of bean plants are grown demonstrating various scientific theories from which beans grow the fastest, which light source encourages growth, and what to best feed a bean plant. This year, the three 7th grade boys initially wanted to try growing bean plants in a hydroponic system but the topic had already been reserved by one of their classmates. So, they pressed on, deciding to grow bean plants in just about everything other than water, to see what medium worked best. They “planted” beans in soil, on hay, on pebbles, and yes, on hair.hair science fair board

When I first approached the table, I looked at their board for the topic. It said, “Grow with the Flow”. I looked down at the tray of cups on the table and pointed to the one in the bottom right hand corner, “What is that in that cup?”

All three in unison, “Hair”.

“What?”

“Yep, we grew a bean plant in a cup of hair,” one of the boys said beaming from ear to ear.

Being a teacher and being quite used to outlandish stories, I asked if they had planted the bean in soil, waited for it to sprout and then transferred it to the cup of hair. No, they assured me, they just put the bean in the cup of hair, watered it, and left it in the sun to grow.

My next question was simple, “Whose hair is it?” One of the boys said, “We got it from Spiro’s Barber Shop. And, you know what, Mrs. Ardillo, he didn’t even ask why we wanted a bag full of hair. He just reached down onto the floor, picked up a handful of hair, and dropped it into the bag we had brought with us. HE WASN’T EVEN WEARING GLOVES!” (Emphasis added to indicate the increased volume level of said 7th grade boy when shouting this last sentence to me.)

Naturally, I was ready with another question. “Why would you think he should be wearing gloves?”

“Because he picked up the hair off the floor!” one of them excitedly replied.

“Boys, does the barber wear gloves when he cuts your hair?”

“Uh, no, that would be silly.”

“Well, didn’t he just cut tha t hair off of someone’s head, without wearing gloves?”

“Uh, yeah, but it wasn’t on the floor!”

This is classic middle school logic. They will focus on something that a grown-up would never ever think of, and trying to move them off of it is like trying to take a bone away from a hungry dog.

We then discussed how much larger the bean plant growing on the hair was than the ones in the other cups. They surmised it was because the cup of hair, with all of its cracks and crevices, allowed for sunlight and water to more efficiently make its way to the bean plant and its root system.

One question kept bubbling around in my mind, so I asked it. “So, if the hair came from a person who was very sick with a very contagious disease, and you grew a bean plant on that hair until you could harvest beans to eat, would the beans make you sick?”

One boy immediately said, “Probably.” Another boy nodded in affirmation. But boy #3, the most gregarious of the group, shook his head and said, “Probably not, but it would be conditioner-flavored!”

And there, my friends, in a nutshell, is the working mind of a 7th grade boy!