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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Take Time for Yourself—and for Learning

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Here are six not-to-miss opportunities to reinvigorate both your personal and your teacher selves.

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I'm no longer in the classroom, yet I still have to remember to take my time eating lunch. Too often, I race through it, thinking I have to pick up students from the cafeteria, return parent phone calls, review test data, and quickly cue up three interactive whiteboard activities for this afternoon's lesson on oxidation. As I concentrate today on having a more leisurely lunch, I slowly chew my food and think relaxed thoughts.
As we move into summer vacation this year, let's pause for a moment and imagine the possibilities for recharging our personal and professional batteries. Many of us have family duties each summer: We must find suitable summer activities for our children, paint the house, pull out the tree stump in the front yard, move older children into college dorms, serve as head timer at summer swim meets, or attend to aging parents.
In the midst of all that, however, might there be opportunities to reinvigorate our personal and teacher selves? Let's explore the options.

OPPORTUNITY 1: Reflect and make connections.

Responding to myriad constituencies, including our own high expectations for teaching, is stressful. Most of us are conscientious, wanting to do right by our students, so we tend to take on a lot of guilt when we can't teach something effectively because of lack of time or resources, space constraints, or politics, even though many of these are beyond our control.
Finding moments to think about how our efforts fit into the larger picture of educating the next generation can create the perspective we need to carry on. We can also examine how we are different today from the way we were five years ago. It doesn't feel like we're spinning wheels in loose mud when we see our growth over time.
Connecting with our true selves in the midst of high-pressure semi-chaos—that is, modern teaching—keeps us on solid footing and, even better, provides a clear compass heading. We see farther, find meaning, and renew. It's easier to reflect and make connections when we spend time in different contexts; engage in soothing, repetitive tasks; and use specific tools to sort our thinking.
This summer, try some of the following strategies:
  • Write a letter to one of your favorite former teachers, not only to reconnect, but also to reflect on your teaching practice.
  • Update your résumé.
  • Write in your journal twice a week or more.
  • Hike a mountain or canoe a river with a friend or family member.
  • Do repetitive, automatic activities like mowing the lawn, walking, and crocheting, which allow your subconscious to rise to the surface and ignite your thinking.
  • Spend time in a quiet bed and breakfast that's off the main street.
  • Spend at least one evening telling stories with friends or family around a campfire away from city lights. If possible, get a couple of guitar players to join the group.
  • Clean out the basement or garage.
  • Hike a forest in the rain.
  • Mentor a new teacher preparing for a first or second year of teaching. It helps you reflect on your own practices.
  • Get on a large body of water for an extended period of time: Water ski, float, swim, sail, fish. Just get on water. It's that healing and connecting.

OPPORTUNITY 2: Take care of your physical self.

We can't teach well if we're not physically present and in good health. If we're in constant survival mode, we can't extend personal energy to other people or programs. We don't enjoy creative endeavors, and we drag our feet with building initiatives. In times like that, some of us may declare to students, "Children, come to me at my desk today; I'm just too tired to come to you at your desks." We don't get the necessary supplies from the storage room located across the campus, and we can't generate the emotional energy to listen honestly to others' concerns.
When we don't feel well, it's hard to pay attention to anything else. Discomfort can change our personalities in negative ways. In addition, when we're not physically active, we lower the amount of oxygen going to the brain as well as the production of endorphins that offer a sense of well-being. We can't relax as readily and completely. Particularly troublesome, it's hard to make good decisions and be creative without the benefits of physical activity.
But when we're in good physical health, we're like the football players on Friday Night Lights: We have clear eyes, full hearts, and can't lose.
This summer, fix what's broken and tune up your body:
  • Work with a personal trainer, and develop a doable exercise program that will last through the teaching year.
  • Migrate to a heart-healthy diet.
  • Hydrate a lot more.
  • Buy more comfortable shoes, particularly the shoes you exercise in. Also, losing weight can alleviate plantar fasciitis.
  • Get an eye exam.
  • Get dental work done.
  • Get a colonoscopy.
  • Change your mattress if your current one prevents a good night's rest.
  • Make extended movement activities, such as walking, swimming, stretching, yoga, vacuuming, and bicycling, into twice-a-day—not once-a-day—activities.
  • Get a dog. It will increase your physical activity.
  • Become certified or recertified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

OPPORTUNITY 3: Cultivate your mind, interests, and growth.

The best teachers remain dynamic. They revise their thinking in light of new evidence, and they actively seek alternative perspectives. Some of us, however, teach the same thing year after year, rarely deviating from what has become more ritual than meaningful engagement. Absent mental catalysts, creativity atrophies and teaching suffers.
When we pay attention to our intellectual lives, on the other hand, we make connections, spark insights, and remain mindful of the student's journey and our role in it. We're excited to greet the day, and problems are solvable. We model the lifelong learning we're trying to sell to our students, and really, actions speak louder than words.
Let's take it to the next level intellectually this summer:
  • Take a course in a subject unrelated to your teaching discipline.
  • Learn to play a musical instrument.
  • Watch all the videos from a free online course, or take a massive open online course (MOOC).
  • Change your scenery; it stimulates thinking. Mountain? Beach? New York City? The Southwest? Europe?
  • Write to local, state, and provincial legislators about educational policies of interest.
  • Watch all of HBO's John Adams series.
  • Work at a residential summer camp that's surrounded by beautiful mountains, a stream, and a lake. You'll come back clear-headed and energized for humanity.
  • Physically attend a national education conference, not a virtual one.
  • Tour local museums.
  • Write an education article or book for publication.
  • Attend at least one outdoor music concert by a favorite group or singer.
  • Read anything by Roland Barth or William Zinsser.
  • Cultivate personal creativity through puzzles, readings on creativity, artwork, writing, and exploring the impossible.
  • Learn to cook a specific cuisine or a variety of breads.
  • Consider applying for National Board certification.
  • Read escapist, beach-reading novels for fun.
  • Participate in a live hourlong Twitter chat, or start one on a compelling topic.
  • Go on a religious retreat.
  • Participate in a small study group with colleagues.
  • Take a historical or wine-tasting tour.

OPPORTUNITY 4: Prepare for the new school year.

This is finally the time to do justice to those lesson plans! We can build those armatures for the graphic design class, order the new music for chorus, contact a NASA scientist to set up a partnership with our school, and run through all the modules on the iCivics website so we know how to use them in the new school year. We won't be rushed. We can think clearly and dream big.
Let summer give you its greatest gift—time to think without feeling stressed or exhausted. Try some of these:
  • Watch all those <LINK URL="http://www.ted.com/talks">TED talks</LINK> related to education that you've been meaning to watch. You might find something you can use.
  • Participate in "behind the scenes" programs for teachers at local museums. These present fascinating information about all the work that goes into a museum's programs and exhibits.
  • Unpack the standards you have to teach in terms of the evidence you'll accept for mastery of each one.
  • Read through old lesson plan books to rediscover wonderful ideas you can use with your new students.
  • Write a personal grading philosophy statement that lists all your grading policies and a rationale for each one. It will really transform your thinking.
  • Survey electronic grade books online to see which one best supports your philosophy.
  • Learn to use at least five technologies that are new for you. These may include Twitter, virtual tours, QR codes, apps, online tutorials, Google Docs, Google Eyes, MOOCs, MIT OpenCourseWare, screencasts, VoiceThread, Moodle, Prezi, iMovie, Edmodo, or interactive whiteboards.
  • Design new projects for your curriculum that demonstrate increasing complexity in students' interactions with content.
  • Build your own channel of instructional videos on YouTube to supplement your lectures or use as part of a flipped classroom experience.
  • Design and produce comic strips of your subject's content. Invite new and former students to help you.
  • Obtain an animal—or three—for the classroom. Set up the classroom to care for them. Even in middle and high school non-science classrooms, animals are cool. If animals are too much, start with a variety of plants. Plants and animals significantly improve the tenor of a classroom.
  • Organize your computer files more efficiently.
  • Reconsider unit sequences. You might teach a later unit earlier on. Or instead of doing several disconnected units on different topics, you might move through all those topics historically: What did we know about cells, plants, animals, and the microscope in the 1920s? In the 1940s? In the 1960s? Now, in the 21st century?
  • Design 20 new techniques to help students do their own descriptive feedback on their assessments. For example, students could compare their products to the exemplar provided, writing a letter to the teacher that explains where their effort matches the exemplar and where it differs, how they'll close any gaps noted, or—if their version is better than the exemplar—why it's of higher quality.
  • During the four weeks before the official start of school, teach last year's struggling students in an "early back" program for three hours each day. This will get students' brains up and running and ready to learn on the first day of school.
  • Ask national and international colleagues and experts for advice on troublesome issues in your classroom or school.
  • Study how to motivate today's students in greater depth.
  • Start a garden or environmental study area on the school grounds—urban, rural, suburban, it doesn't matter. For practical books to get you started, check out Herbert Broda's Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse, 2011) and Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning (Stenhouse, 2007).

OPPORTUNITY 5: Volunteer.

It's healthy to participate in thriving communities. In community volunteer roles, we serve a purpose and can make a real difference. We don't always experience this in the brief moments we spend with students each day, and everyone needs to feel that they matter. The connections we build through volunteerism often lead to new experiences and new levels of support.
To be a part of something larger than ourselves is meaningful. Daniel Pink reminds us in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2011) that doing something without financial reward often fosters the most dedicated and creative efforts. For all these reasons, recharge your batteries this summer by volunteering:
  • Get involved in a community theater production or summer youth sports program. Play or sing in a local musical performance.
  • Read short stories and novels aloud at homeless shelters. Do sessions for both children and adults. You can also read aloud in nursing homes and at local libraries.
  • Work the volunteer desk at local airports, festivals, and hospitals.
  • Mentor a new or struggling teacher over the summer.
  • Be a docent at a local museum.
  • Check on elderly neighbors, friends, and family.

OPPORTUNITY 6: Do wilder activities that really aren't that wild.

There's an adventurer in all of us, and letting him or her run wild for a bit breathes life into everyday existence. With risk, we stand tall, beaming in the knowledge that we took a chance and blazed a new trail—and that trail can lead to other new trails. With hearts and minds pumping, we're energized, and we have fun: Oh, yeah, we remember, life has joy!
When we return to the classroom in the fall, we will grin more easily. Students will marvel at our new vigor and maybe even get a little suspicious about what our new energized selves have in store for them. And with that, we will grin even more.
This summer, go wild:
  • Go on a road trip across the United States, or at least half of it.
  • Play paintball with family and friends. It's more fun than you think!
  • Apply to teach in an overseas, international school.
  • Design and market a new game or app related to your content area.
  • Learn to play bridge. Take a minimum of 10 lessons to start. Contact the American Contract Bridge League for instructors.
  • Turn an extra room of your house into an office just for you.
  • Start a book or philosophy discussion group.
  • Try your hand at stand-up comedy at a local club.
  • Go rappelling down a cliff face on ropes with a local climbing club. It's easier than climbing up, and it's absolutely thrilling.
  • Participate in a group ropes course with colleagues and friends.
  • Go on a bike tour. Bike tourism, even for noncompetitive, occasional bicyclists, is dramatically up in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Join a bike tour of wineries, historical sites, river rides, scenic nature, and more. Segway tours of cities are also a wonderful experience.
  • Write your first short story or novel.
  • Get the Google Sky app on your smartphone, and use it to marvel at the night sky with friends or family at least five nights during the summer. It's your personal planetarium, and it's free!
  • Volunteer to be part of the crew for scientific expeditions. Track and count animals in the Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi in southeast Africa. Observe butterflies and bees in the Indian Himalayas. For other great adventures to sign up for, check out <LINK URL="http://www.earthwatch.org">Earthwatch expeditions</LINK>.

GO FOR IT!

Summer's here! Peel away the school-year stresses, and explore those things that renew your energy, make you feel whole, and maybe even push you in wonderful, unexplored directions. Take unfettered time to contemplate teaching, family relationships, or the way a river carves its shoreline. Whatever you do, enjoy each day's lunch—and make the most of it.

Rick Wormeli, one of the first National Board–certified teachers in America, brings innovation, energy, validity, and high standards to both his presentations and his instructional practice, which includes 38 years of teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and of coaching teachers and principals.

Wormeli's work has been reported in numerous media, including ABC's Good Morning America, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris MatthewsNational Geographic and Good Housekeeping magazines, What Matters Most: Teaching for the 21st Century, and The Washington Post. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. His classroom practice is one of the showcases for ASCD's best-selling series, "At Work in the Differentiated Classroom."

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