Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.

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Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!

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Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

Science, Art, and the Myth of the “Discipline”

oENpvxkI’m always delighted to read about college teachers who are are taking unusual approaches to pedagogy.   Jailson Farias de Lima is one such teacher.  In an article published on ProfWeb yesterday, he describes an innovative project he has designed for his chemistry students, challenging them to express their understanding of scientific concepts through art-making.  Science teachers may be particularly interested in this article, but I think anyone who is a little skeptical of the divisions between what we call “disciplines” will appreciate the efforts Lima is making to integrate skills and knowledge from various arenas.

What do you think?  Does Lima’s project appeal to you?  Do you make efforts to make links between your course content and other subjects, or do you have memories of teachers who did so?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

Image by Dez Pain

Blog Hop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently a “blog hop” is a thing.  I’ve been invited to participate in this one by my friend Anita Lahey, whose fascinating blog Henrietta & Me is all about the books she’s reading and the people in them.  Anita is a poet, essayist and journalist; her poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton was an indelible reading experience for me (I will never look at a clothesline the same way again), and her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, is on my to-read-as-soon-as-my-end-of-term-grading-is-done list.

I’ve chosen to answer these questions wearing my education-writer hat and not my fiction-writer hat, as education writing is what I do on this blog.

What am I working on?

My M.Ed. thesis: an investigation into tools teachers can use to encourage/nurture lifelong reading habits in college students.  As a first step, I’m working on a literature review addressing the question “Is reading for fun really all that important?” (The upshot so far: probably.) I hope to produce a thesis that is of interest to a general audience, or at least to teachers in general, and not just to post-secondary academics and researchers.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

In this blog, I reflect on my own teaching practice.  I do this because I believe that almost any experience will be of interest to someone else if it is examined with attention and expressed carefully.  (I guess this is one of the basic principles that drives people to write things.)  The title Classroom as Microcosm is a good indication of what I want the blog to be about: I’m writing about school, but school is a great metaphor for a lot of other stuff.  I hope my attempt to link the little world of school, and in particular MY little college-teaching world, with the greater scheme of things makes this blog unique.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing Classroom as Microcosm because I was ready to quit my job.  My resentment of my college students and their bad behaviours, my uncertainty in my role as an authority figure, and my disillusionment with the teaching profession and the education system as a whole were making me miserable.  I was also floundering as a fiction writer.  One summer day in 2007, as I poured these troubles out to a friend over coffee, she said, “I think you need to start keeping a blog.  It will be a place to write without the isolation.  Maybe you should start blogging about teaching.”  So I did, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this blog saved my career.

I’m a less productive blogger these days in part because I have come to a much more solid and self-confident place as a teacher.  That said, there are other things I want to explore here now, so this summer, I hope to start posting more about reading, literature and the place of books – especially narratives – in our textually fragmented world.

How does my writing process work?

In my most productive years, I posted twice a week during the school semester: a new post on Monday and a reprise of a popular past post on Thursday.  These days, I post only when I’m powerfully inspired, but I’d like to return to that more diligent schedule.  I try to view writing of any kind as a professional obligation: churn it out, edit it meticulously to make it as good as you can, and then just get it out there without thinking it to death.  Blog writing is an excellent platform for this approach.  I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for thirteen years because I have become mired in self-doubt; this blog is an excellent reminder that the real goal of writing is to communicate with people.  You have to let your writing travel out into the world.  If a particular piece doesn’t speak to anyone, write the next thing.

Next week on the blog hop:

My friend and colleague Stacey DeWolfe, who, in addition to being an inspiring teacher, blogs on teaching, food, music, books, dogs, and lots of other important things.

My high school and college crony Rebecca Coleman, who knows everything there is to know about social media, but also keeps a terrific blog on things she likes to cook.

 Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Prompt #3: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Who Taught You?

mq5ICKyWelcome to the third installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last two rounds.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, or to Prompt #2, please do!  If you’d like to just start fresh with this round, that’s great too.

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: Who have you learned from?  What did he/she teach you?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • We learn from our parents, and our teachers.  But who else?  Can you think of someone outside your home or your classrooms who influenced you?
  • Of course, if a teacher or caregiver or sibling is the first person who comes to mind, feel free to go with that.  Or to write about many people!
  • Totally optional: if this person is still alive, you might want to consider sending him/her what you write.  HOWEVER: VERY IMPORTANT: do not decide whether to do this until you’ve finished writing (ie. until all danger of writer’s block has passed).

Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Photonut

Prompt #1: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Learning About School

nkuVRWeWelcome to the Writing on Learning Exchange!  Every week or two I will publish a prompt that is meant to get us thinking and writing about some aspect of our learning and/or teaching experience.  Whether you are a teacher, a learner, a parent or just a citizen who cares about the growth and development of other citizens, I hope you will find some inspiration here.

Some guidelines:

  • Respond to the prompt in whatever way you wish.  It is meant to be a springboard, not a cage.  If the question or topic makes you think about something that seems totally unrelated, follow that thought and see where it takes you.  No wrong answers.
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will have time to read and comment on some of the responses of others. However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

So here’s the first prompt: What are your first memories of going to school? 

Some details to consider (or ignore, as you see fit):

  • Where and when did you begin school?  How old were you?
  • Do you remember having any preconceptions about school before you began? Were there people around you (older siblings, older friends, adults…) who gave you information about school that shaped your impression of it before  you started?
  • What happened on your first day? What do you remember about the physical surroundings, the teachers, the other students, the activities?
  • If you don’t remember the very first days of school, do you remember any particular school experiences from your very early school years?

Just grab your first thoughts and impressions and go – don’t overthink!  And please share if you feel you can.  I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.

Thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl, whose creative writing club for gardeners, the Grow Write Guild, inspired the Writing on Learning Exchange.

Image by John Boyer

The Writing on Learning Exchange: A Project to Get us All Writing

It’s clear that I’m in over my head this semester.  I continually wish I had time to come over here to Classroom as Microcosm, ruminate at length about something going on in my classroom, and chat with all of you.  Instead, when I’m not teaching or planning or grading, I want to think about something else entirely.

Mostly, I’ve been in the basement tending my seedlings.

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Tomatoes!

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Onions!

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Poblanos!

When I read these days, I read about gardening.  My favourite gardening books are written by Gayla Trail, who also keeps the excellent gardening blog YouGrowGirl.  Last week, she introduced a new project: the Grow Write Guild, an online creative writing club for gardeners.  The guidelines for the Grow Write Guild are as follows:

Every two weeks I will post a writing prompt…You can choose to follow along and write a response that is made public on your own blog or kept completely private. Should you choose to make it public, come back to this site and share it in the comments by posting a link to the work. Even if you don’t make it public, I’d love it if you came back to share how the prompt worked out for you.

In response to Gayla’s first prompt – “What was your first plant?” - I had a lot of fun writing a meandering personal essay on garden vs. wilderness, violas vs. wild strawberries, and childhood adventuring vs. adult home ownership.  (I published this post on my homemaking blog, if you’d like to read it.)  I’ve also had a lot of fun reading and  commenting on the posts that other writer-gardeners have produced in answer to this prompt.

And then I thought, “Hey, this is a great idea.”

So it occurred to me that this might be a fun thing to do here on CaM; to share writings in response to specific prompts around teaching and learning.  This would be a way to get juices flowing and to reflect more personally on why certain issues are important to us, whether we are teachers, learners, parents or just citizens who care about the growth and development of other citizens.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Every week or two between now and the end of May, I will publish a question or set of questions, about teaching and learning, meant to inspire a personal response.  (“What was your first plant?” is the sort of question I’m thinking of, although the questions will clearly be less planty.)
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will do your best to read and comment on the responses of others – this has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the exercise for me.  However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a clever name for such an undertaking (“Grow Write Guild” is awesome, but I don’t want to be too derivative.)  I’ve been muddling around with words like “fellowship,” “tutelage,” “league” and “microcosm.”  For now, I’m going with “The Writing on Learning Exchange.”  If anyone has any better ideas…

Let me know what you think of this project, either by leaving a comment below or contacting me directly.  If even a few people show an interest, I will post up a prompt later this week.

New Adventures in Social Media

Dear readers:

I’m trying to expand my social media horizons because, well, I live in the 21st century, and all that jazz.  So I’m polishing up some old accounts and experimenting with some new ones, and it’s turning out to be a lot of fun, so I just might keep it up, especially if you encourage me.

1. Twitter:

I created a Twitter account long ago and have mostly used it as a default distributor for blog posts.  Last week I signed in and updated my account for the first time in ages, and have since found myself a bit obsessed with reading, replying, re-tweeting, and linking.  I have made a new commitment to tweeting lots of cool stuff I find around the web, whether education-related or not.  I would love it if you followed me there: @siobhancurious

2. Tumblr:

Here on Classroom as Microcosm, I write about teaching and its relatives (books, work, self-preservation…).  I’ve been thinking of keeping a more personal blog that focuses largely on my new home and my domestic pursuits therein.  I’ve finally done it.  The blog is called “Who’s She When She’s At Home?” (one of my favourite Irish turns of phrase) and it will be a grab-bag of posts, links, photos and re-blogs concerning my life outside the classroom (although the classroom will of course never entirely disappear).  I know a lot of smart and interesting people who post about a lot of smart and interesting stuff, so I think it’s going to be cool.  If you have a Tumblr blog, you know what to do; if you don’t, you can always follow through your feed reader or through my Twitter stream.

3. Alltop:

My blog has been added to the Education directory on Alltop.com.  You can go to yesterday’s post for more info.

4. Facebook:

As always, you can like my page on Facebook, and I hope you will.  Tweets and Tumblr posts will sometimes stream there (I’m still trying to optimize that, and am experimenting with selective streaming – would love your feedback on whether the Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook mix is annoying).  Posts from right here on CAM will always appear on my Facebook page.

I hope you’ll also continue share CAM posts you like on your own social networks, because I love watching the interesting discussions that blossom when more and more people are dropping by and adding their thoughts.  What’s more, I hope you’ll give me some recommendations.  Where do you love to hang out online to read, chat, link and think?  Why should I go hang out there too?

I feel lucky to have you all following me – thank you for your continued readership!

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 7: Write a Blog

ImageThis is the final post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

In the summer of 2007, my burnout reached its peak.  I’d taken some steps to deal with it (and you can check out the links below to read about some of them) but I’d also spent the summer recovering from my most stressful teaching year yet, and I was dreading returning to the classroom.  I knew I needed to do something more.

In addition, I’d been working on a novel for eight years, and it was going nowhere.  I’d once again spent the summer trying to find a structure for it, and was becoming more and more frustrated.  I was no longer sure that I wanted to continue writing fiction.  It wasn’t making me any money, and no one but me really cared if I finished this manuscript.  Why was I doing it?

One day that August, I had coffee with my friend Vila H., who writes the delightful blog The Smoking Section.  She said, not for the first time, “I’m telling you, you need to start blogging.”

As it turned out, she was right.

My blog began as a place to publish some of the work I was doing for my M.Ed. courses (the first post was an early version of my teaching philosophy statement.)  As time went on, however, the blog evolved into an online diary, including ruminations on my classroom experiences and commentary on other education blogs.  It became the place I turned to immediately when things went wrong or when I was struggling to choose a course of action with a student.  It became a hub for my discussions with teachers all over the world.

It also fulfilled a need I didn’t know I had.  My writing life and teaching life had been strictly compartmentalized – I taught during the semester and wrote fiction during my holidays.  Now, my life felt more unified.  My teaching was material for my writing, and my writing made me a more effective teacher.

I’d recommend blogging to all teachers who want to make sense of their teaching experiences.  A blog can be public or private.  Even if you write only for yourself, or allow access only to close friends, it provides perspective, much like a diary does: writing about a problem makes it more manageable.  If you make your blog public, it can also provide help: if you put some effort into reading others’ blogs and responding to their posts, they will do the same for you.

If you do decide to write a public blog, there are a couple of potential issues to keep in mind.

1.  Protecting the privacy of your students and colleagues. 

I blog under a pseudonym, I never reveal the name of my school, and I change the names of any students or teachers I mention.  Some of my colleagues know that I’m the blog author, but our college is a large one and it’s unlikely they’d recognize any of the students I write about, even if they have those students in their classes.  I take special pains not to expose my blog to my students, because I don’t want them recognizing one another in its pages.  They’re not likely to be terribly interested in a blog about education, but if they Google my real name and my blog comes up, this could lead to problems.  I avoid leaving online clues connecting my real name to the blog.

2.  Dealing with negative responses. 

For the first couple of years, comments on my blog were usually constructive and respectful.  As my blog gained more exposure, however, a couple of posts attracted a lot of attention, and some of this attention was, let us say, impolite.

One post, written in a moment of hair-tearing essay-marking frustration, was entitled “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment.”  It went moderately viral on StumbleUpon, and the vitriol began pouring in.  About a year later, I wrote a guest post for the education blog at Change.org.  This post, about how to control the use of cell phones in the classroom, made some people very, very angry, and their comments were pretty aggressive.

In both these cases, I came away from the discussions with new things to think about (for example, I no longer ban the use of cellphones in my classes, given some interesting arguments that were raised in response to the latter post.)  Nevertheless, both posts gave me a string of sleepless nights, and I now find myself hesitating to hit “Publish” whenever a post veers into provocative territory.

Password-protecting your blog, so that you choose your readers, is one solution.  The cost is that you lose out on connections you can make with educators all over the globe.  I wasn’t ready to give up those connections, so I accepted that writing for the online public requires a thick skin.  I also avoided arguing with rude commenters, while taking pains to identify anything valuable in their perspectives.  If things got really out of hand, I deleted comments or shut down the comments section altogether.

The advantages of keeping a blog about teaching far outweigh the costs.  When I feel overwhelmed by a teaching dilemma, I write about it.  This gives me some distance, and often leads to helpful feedback.  In my darkest classroom moments, I remind myself, “This is all material.”  And it’s not just material for writing.  Through the blog, I both document and create my own learning.  And when I need to be reminded of what I’ve learned, the blog is always there, like a good set of classroom notes.

If you’re interested in keeping a blog, you might want to visit a host site like WordPress.com or Blogger.com to check out how it all works.

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Do you keep a blog?  If so, how does it help you?  If not, would you consider doing so?

Thanks so much for following this series!  Please tell me what you’ve thought.  Has anything in these posts been helpful?  Would you take issue with any of my actions or conclusions?  I’d love to know your reactions.

 Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

Bloggers Anonymous

As is usual this time of year, I’m dealing with a trying student.  Yesterday, as a cathartic measure, I prepared a post in which I collated our email exchange since the beginning of the semester.  If you are not me, this exchange is no doubt extremely entertaining.  (If you are me, you spent most of yesterday meditating because it’s the only thing that prevented you from wrecking stuff and cursing constantly.)

However, this morning, I’m finding myself reluctant to publish it.

When this blog was being read by only a handful of friends and colleagues and the occasional visitor, I felt fine about posting stories about students, including almost word-for-word dialogue and emails.  I was taking plenty of steps to protect my students’ privacy, including the following:

  • My real name doesn’t appear anywhere on this blog, and I’ve taken strict measures to prevent my real name and my blogonym from being connected to each other anywhere on the internet.
  • I never mention the name of my college.
  • I change all names and identifying features of any students I mention.
  • Although plenty of my friends and colleagues know that I’m the blog’s author, it’s highly unlikely that they would recognize students in any of my stories.  My college is large – even if we’re teaching the same person at the same time, there’s usually no way for a teacher to know that this person is the one I’m referring to in a post.
  • The only people who are likely to recognize a student in a post are a) the student him/herself, or b) other students in the class, if the post describes an event that happens in the classroom.  For this reason, I’ve tried very  hard not to let my students know that I keep this blog, and so far, I think I’ve been successful.  There have been times that it would have been valuable for me to share it with them, but I never have.

Given all of the above, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Is it okay for a teacher to tell true, detailed stories about interactions with students if no one is likely to ever know who the students are?  What about publishing emails from students – are these confidential?  (I believe the law concerning letters is that the recipient is the owner.  Is this true for emails?)  Is there a difference between reproducing a brief email and a long exchange?

As this blog gains more exposure, I’ve been trying to be more prudent.  But telling true stories is helpful to me, and seems to be helpful to readers as well.  I miss it.

What’s a teacher blogger to do?

Image by Richard Dudley

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

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