Light a Candle in the Window

Teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no long lists of self-care or resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.
It’s a candle for your window.

By Adrin Fisher

Let me be honest: I’m getting a little tired of living through history. Pandemic teaching. Insurrection. Racism. COVID variants. A magical quick-change school map. The supreme elevation of opinion over truth. Fear and violence and doubling down on hate. 2021 is shaping up to be a lot.

To add insult to injury, just as back in the before-time, there are the losses that come with living on this circling planet. Just before Christmas, my high school art teacher, Russ Neptune, passed away. Mr. Neptune taught for close to forty years in a huge room with fifteen-foot windows, radiators on the brick walls, and big zinc sinks stained with years of paint splatter. My favorite memory of his class is how he would build an incredible hodgepodge structure out of found objects: old bicycles, rocking chairs, chandeliers, terra cotta pots and bricks, American flags and antique mirrors. He put it up on tables in the middle of the room, and we would sit all around it, scouting out sections for our still-life projects—line drawing, colored pencils, water colors.

But that’s not all we did. He taught us things I’d never heard of, like batik, linoleum printing, and etching zinc plates with acid. I paid tribute to artist Andrew Wyeth. I water-colored the doors of our local mansion, built by a coal baron when the Titanic was new. I mashed up my parents’ 1960s album covers. I drew my Converse sneakers. I took Mr. Neptune’s class for three years, and many years later, when I returned home, I became his colleague.

When he passed in the plague time, his family asked that former students post pictures of their artwork with the tag #UncleRuss. It took me almost fifteen minutes to find my work. Fifteen minutes to locate a garbage bag full of art I made almost 30 years ago—after four moves across two states. Fifteen minutes.

Why have I carried my bag of art all these years? It’s because, like any great teacher, Mr. Neptune taught his art students more than techniques or terms. He taught us to trust our eye, to think outside the box, to experiment. He gave us freedom and autonomy and a chance at self-expression.

He made me feel like an ARTIST.

In past times, people would put a candle in their windows. Maybe it was a sign of good news. Maybe it was a beacon to a family member journeying home. Maybe it was a sign of a friendly welcome for a traveler. In all cases, it was a sign of hope. It reminds me of a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival (from one of my parents’ old albums): “But I won’t, won’t / Be losing my way, no, no / Long as I can see the light.”

So, teacher-friend, here is my New Year’s offering to you. I’ve got no lists of self-care ideas or teacher resolutions or easy technology tricks. I just have one thing.

It’s a candle for your window. Make it your goal to make your students feel like a—

Well, whatever it is you’re teaching this year.

I want my students to feel like WRITERS.

I want them to feel like READERS.

Maybe you want your students to feel like ATHELETES or MATHLETES or LINGUISTS or SINGERS.

I want them to feel welcomed and competent and confident. I want to point the direction and then set them free. I want them to find their voices and their motivation. I want to remind them to hope.

This is a hard time for an educator. It’s tough for students and parents, too.

Basically, it’s a challenging time to be a human.

But, in the words of Mikey in the 1985 film The Goonies, “This is our time.”

So, instead of giving up or hunkering down or shutting off, I challenge you to light the candles in your windows. Cultivate the good and open your heart to hope. Remember that your passion and your effort (especially in the plague year) are not lost. Remember that some day, even if it’s thirty years down the road, some former student will remember you fondly—for how you made them feel—for what you taught them they could be.

Take it seriously, because it’s a serious charge.

As my parting gift this month, I invite you to share in the hope offered by British indie-rocker Frank Turner in “The Next Storm.”

“So open the shutters, raise up the mast.
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed!
Cast off the crutches, cut off the cast,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed,
Rejoice, rebuild, the storm has passed…

“I’m gonna step out, and face the next storm.”

Now, go light some candles in your windows. Courage, dear-heart!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and hope on your journey. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

An Open Letter to the Beleaguered

Teaching in 2020 is nothing less than surreal. Consider seven imperatives to prevent yourself from being swallowed up by this school year.

by Adrin Fisher

Dear Teacher-Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about my situation, teaching high school English in a plague year. I’ve polished up a little sentence to describe it.

My boss made a promise that I can’t keep.

I’m fond of that sentence. It feels to me like a short, pithy Sherman Alexie sentence in the story I read to my College English classes last week. Zinger, I called it. A gut punch, I said. A sentence that perfectly encapsulates a situation.

Teachers have been told to get on with it. Assess students—both blended and distance learners simultaneously—meet them in the gap, and then work your miracle-worker magic.

But, that’s not what we had planned for. Or, more accurately, that’s not what was planned for us. The promised technology has not yet arrived. Our provided training was “a lick and a promise”—the lick part being the shock of being exposed to a dozen new programs in nine hours in September. Broadband is spotty and rain interrupts satellite internet and kids are sharing devices, so also send home packets and books. And also benchmark…and also do this test training…and also create videos…and also receive meaningful contact…and also join these Teams meetings…and also…

Before you internalize the chorus of armchair experts singing, “Teachers always rise to the challenge!” and “Mr. Rogers taught virtually!” let me pause to address those claims. As anyone with any longevity in a field that chews up and spits out 50% of new teachers within the first five years can tell you: what we’re being asked to do now? It’s not the same.

Magical thinking only works magic in the realm of thought.

Mr. Rogers didn’t assess anyone, didn’t teach more than one thirty-minute lesson per day, didn’t manage IEPs or 504s, didn’t field parent calls, didn’t connect with more than one hundred separate personalities with one hundred separate (sometimes fluid) identities, backstories, and sets of conflicts, issues, and emotions. And that’s what teachers do in a regular school year. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to spend precious lunch minutes to discern whether the person really has never grasped the concept of “downloading” or whether the student (and/or parent/grandparent) considers distance learning in the fall of 2020 a Get-Out-of-School-Free card. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to teach himself a learning management platform in public or thoughtfully respond to electronic messages on four different platforms. Hourly.

Mr. Rogers was a saint, to be sure.

But try to explain to me that this has all been done before? Tell me that if I can’t do it, it’s a personal failing? Spare me.

To stop myself—and possibly you—from spiraling into the recitation of woes—none of which we caused and none of which we can eliminate—I will share with you my second sentence, my second zinger.

This could be the year that school swallows me up.

I know that doesn’t sound particularly cheerful. But stay with me.

Every year of my career I have sacrificed many, many hours outside my contract. I work hard. I feel weird saying that out loud, but it’s true. I correct essays, design lessons, prepare, make photocopies, read, write recommendations—I do all things we all do. In fact, I’ll do it again this weekend. Sometimes I feel really guilty, choosing between time with my family and time with my job. Sometimes I wonder what ELSE I am if my life is consumed by my job.

But now, I pour my energy into this monumental task: to be all things to all students in both 84 minutes per week and no minutes per week, on three different schedules and with precious little time or training. I’ve taught myself to be proficient in a program I’d only heard of before July. I’m planning and creating content on Sunday afternoon for Monday morning. I haven’t found time to grade much yet—even though a stack of essays and summer work and paragraphs and mission statements are traveling back and forth to school with me every day while their brothers and cousins quietly wait in virtual classrooms.

However, guilt and misery make no kind of life.

Therefore, I am choosing to adjust my expectations for myself. I’m deciding what I own and what I don’t.

So, because I can’t offer you time or money, teacher-friend, I offer you seven imperatives.

Be intentional.  

In these fluid times with these unrealistic demands, the only way forward is with intention.  When my sons were younger and stopped by the dining room table to tell me about a Pokémon evolution or a YouTube video while my pink pen hovered over an essay, I had to train myself to listen. I clasped my hands and looked into their eyes and forced myself to stop. I still do it, actually. That’s my model. I will intentionally not get swallowed up. I choose to stop, fold my hands, and listen.

Stop comparing.  

Even though we try to educate our students about how fake social media is, sometimes it’s hard for us to remember: not everything praiseworthy is Pinterest-worthy. Value function over form.

Less is good. 

Let’s move toward sustainability. This is not a normal year, not for curriculum, not for the SATs, not for special education referrals, not for anyone or anything. You are not a continuous miner or a perpetual motion machine. Choose the essential. Save the rest.

Be organized.  

Although I am not yet to the point where I can anticipate unit time-tables or plan for more than the following week, I have made it a priority to plan those five days. On Monday (or Thursday, depending on the cohort), I release the plans in the form of a slide, which I project at the beginning of each class, every day. I set it up as Day 1, Day 2, rather than Monday, Tuesday, so that I can use one slide for all schedules. I learned from a social media page how to “publish to the web” which allows me to make changes on the original and have those changes pushed out to all locations. I allow myself to correct typos, clarify, or add resources, but NOT to add assignments after that initial rollout—I realized last Monday afternoon that I’d forgotten to leave time to talk about a story I’d assigned in AP Lit last Day 3. That discussion will still be valid next week.

In a webinar in July, I learned a visual trick to help students organize. I have a different emoji for each topic (my utilitarian topics are Week 1, Week 2, etc.) and each assignment or resource for that week has the matching emoji. Students thank me for these two tricks.

Practice empathy. 

Students are stressed. They’re oddly quiet underneath their masks, but their eyes reveal a constant low-grade panic. Good students who’ve succeeded in past years are being tested—because as it turns out, they’ve relied on memory instead of a planner. But now? That won’t work. They’ve mostly never had to manage their unsupervised time at home. They must choose to close Tik-Tok and pick up school. We have to have lines, late points, rules, assignments—of course, teacher-friend.  But we should also have empathy.

Take refuge. 

Take refuge in nature. It’s beautiful out there.

Take refuge from social media. News flash: the “us” against “them” fighting is going to continue, whether you observe it or not.

Take refuge in texts. Billy Collins, one of my favorites, has done a Poetry Broadcast every weekday night since April. Maybe you have sacred texts. Maybe you will carry around a poem in your pocket through these long days (here’s what I’m asking my AP kids to do next week). Maybe you have an old standby, some delightful novel or biography that you loved once. Pull it out again.

Finally, remember who you are.

You are a teacher. But that’s not all. You win, not this school year. Don’t let yourself be swallowed up. Courage, dear heart.

Sincerely,
A Multi-Faceted Person Doing Her Best to Teach Through a Pandemic

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What imperative would you add to the list? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She is currently teaching College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Pushing Forward through the Year of Fear

As we know, 2020 has been the Year of Fear. Let’s move beyond the fear to knowledge, and beyond the knowledge to wisdom. Join me in setting goals for the summer that will impact yourself, your students and your society.

Adrin Fisher

It occurs to me that in 2020, our society has moved from one fear to another, each seeming to outpace and eclipse the previous one. 

The US was on course for war with Iran in January. By the end of February, we were nervously watching the DOW slide and wondering when this flu running through Asia and Seattle would make it to West Virginia. In March, COVID-19 arrived in full force and the country effectively shut down. People lost jobs and security and all sense of normalcy. April consoled with handwashing and mask-making. In May we learned of a vicious February murder in Georgia, a woman who weaponized a bird-watcher’s skin color in Central Park, an innocent Louisville woman shot in her own bed, and then we watched as a Minnesota man died slowly on the street under the knee of a police officer. Peaceful protests were hijacked by anarchists and troublemakers, and soldiers in riot gear were mobilized.

So, to sum up, fear follows fear follows fear follows fear.

And it’s only June. When people post memes about the thunderstorm actually being Godzilla or the murder hornets carrying machetes, they’re not really joking. Fear is the currency of the day.

As I looked forward into summer three months ago, I planned to work on how grade writing more effectively and more efficiently. 

Two months ago, I found out that I will be teaching AP Literature next year, so I planned to wrap my head around that intimidating yet exciting prep.

And now, finally finished with the official school year, I recognize that I need to take more action in my own self and my own classroom. Although I don’t tolerate racism in the halls or in the room, although I host a Black History Month Read-In every spring, although I work very hard to build and maintain a positive rapport with all my students, although, although, although…it’s not enough. 

It seems to me that all of my goals are worthy, and all of them are necessary. I firmly believe that the way to push through fear is to learn. Once you have knowledge, you can gain wisdom. And for me, wisdom is the ultimate goal.

A partial reading list for the summer of 2020…fight fear with knowledge!

So, in the interest of developing wisdom and pushing through the Year of Fear, I’ll share some quick, powerful ideas and tools.

I would first encourage you to take a look at your implicit biases. Here’s a link to an ongoing project at Harvard for you peek at what’s underneath your assumptions. 

Here’s a short YouTube video that may shine a light on privilege.

Next, I would ask around (the internet or colleagues) for ideas about books to read.  Try any or all of these on Twitter: @ProjectLITComm @NCTE #antiracism #blm

Here’s a reading list about anti-racism.

This article, “Educators Must Realize That There Is No Neutral Position on Issues of Racial Justice,” lists some actionable steps and is part of a larger series. 

Finally, I would encourage you to consider crafting your own mission statement for your classroom.  I use a mission statement as a way for seniors to begin their final year of high school, but it need not be relegated to a student-only activity. As an example, I will point to the powerful words of a former student of mine, who I’m proud to say is now a colleague in my English department.  Marissa Pulice writes, in part:

1. I don’t want to avoid the hard talks about race anymore. I shy from conflict and that is not productive at best and its own sort of mental brutality towards my students at worst. Racism will not end if we do not give our kids a space to talk about it and work through faulty or fallacious thinking.…

2. I will diversify what I teach. My kids deserve to read works by and about people from a variety of backgrounds, and I need to do a better job of seeking those things out. If you read something you wish you’d read in high school because it broadens your perspective, send it to me…

3. This is not a moment or a one-time thing. It’s not a unit plan. It’s something that needs repeatedly revisited with historical context about how power can and has corrupted in so many arenas of American history…

Does this fix everything? Absolutely not. Does it do something? Hopefully. Will I strive to be better for my students and my own eventual children? Always.

This work will be hard. 

But you’re used to that.  You just taught through a global pandemic.

This work will take effort.

But you’re used to that, too.  You’ve worked and studied to get where you are today.

This work will be valuable.

You’re used to that, too.  You have (in my opinion) one of the most important jobs in the world.  Yes, #BlackLivesMatter  And, more so, they are valued and beloved.

So, teacher friend, I implore you to fill your cup this summer. Take some time and rest every week. Do life with family and friends. Shake off your school-end malaise and get to work. Clean out your cabinets. Donate. Live more simply and more intentionally.
And study. Read. Discuss. Make investments in yourself, your students, in your school climate, and in your society. 
Courage, dear heart.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What texts or ideas do you have for combating social injustice? What can you offer about teaching AP Lit?  Or assessing writing?  I want to hear it all! Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher who just finished the weirdest school-year on record and is starting to prep for the new year already. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

An Elegy for a School Year in Three Parts

An elegy moves from grief to praise of the idealized dead to solace. This elegy for 2019-2020 reminds us that school is about teaching younger humans to be better humans, and in the process, becoming better humans ourselves. Here’s a call to look for what can lead you forward.

Adrin Fisher

I. Lament

“Don’t know what you got till it’s gone

Don’t know what it is I did so wrong

Now I know what I got

It’s just this song

And it ain’t easy to get back

Takes so long…”

These lyrics from Cinderella’s 1988 power ballad are on repeat in the tape deck of my mind.  They ring true on so many levels. 

In emails from students and parents:

Maddie: “Mrs. Fisher, I never thought I’d say this, but I miss school.”

Isaac: “When are we going back to school? All this online stuff is stressful and confusing and it’s so much better at school.”

Garrett’s mom: “We just now got a computer up and running as of April 5. I see he has a lot to catch up on.”

In sadness:

I asked my twelve-year-old son to sort some school papers for recycling or the memory book. He said, “I want to throw it all away because it reminds me of school.  I never want to remember this year.” His English assignment is to create a time capsule of COVID-19; he works on it against his will.

In broken promises: 

Spring sports, prom, Senior Picnic, graduation, deadlines, expectations.

In hard feelings balanced with grace:

Fact:  Only 6% of my seniors returned work last week.

Fact: 58% of my honors kids watched my most recent YouTube tutorial.

Conclusion: I have been spitting into the wind, but that’s ok too.

Getting back, as Cinderella lamented, takes so long.  And apparently it involves hard feelings, suspicious glances, blasts of judgment, and fear.

II. In Praise of the Idealized Dead

It speaks volumes, our grief.

We hope to return to imperfect schools—the thermostats unpredictable, the hot water in the staffroom not quite hot—in order to work with imperfect people—who sometimes choose to “reply all” instead of “reply” and sometimes leave the copier jammed—and to fill our classrooms with smaller (or at least younger) imperfect humans who love their phones unconditionally and sass back and sometimes want to sleep in class.

Those 2019-2020 days were the good times:

Not because every lesson was great or every discussion was exciting;

Not because there was never any pushback or argument;

Not because every administrative decision was lauded;

Not because every student was engaged;

Not because we met every need or always maintained the productive struggle;

But because we were there. 

Together. 

We were doing our best, teacher friends. 

We were doing all the things humans do in community: laughing, working, trying, failing, getting frustrated, learning, and teaching. 

We saw the bigger picture every day.  Back then, we knew that school is more than subjects and letter grades.  We knew that school is about teaching younger humans to be better humans, and in the process, becoming better humans ourselves.

This is hard, this loss. Those are my kids, warts and all. I am their teacher, no matter what. And I want to be back with them.  I am doing all the work and having none of the fun. No one is laughing at my jokes, even though I am pretty darn funny. Also, back then, I told more jokes.  

And as time passes, as it is wont to do, the edges will soften and we will look back—maybe not fondly, but more judiciously—and the camaraderie and the work to come will taste sweeter.

So here’s to the 2019-2020 school year, improved with a backward glance.

Salut!

III. Solace

I am experiencing a turning back, a turning forward, a change in energy. Maybe you are too, teacher-friend.

The email messages are decreasing in proportion to the increasing length of daylight. 

There is a little burrow of baby bunnies in my backyard. I wrote a little story for a micro-fiction contest. I tried my hand at macaroons and made jelly out of violets. The rain will be good for my garden. The peonies will bloom soon. I’m still plugging away at the complete works of Shakespeare.

I plan to inventory my classroom library. I plan to do some professional reading, some non-professional reading, and some writing. I plan to lay out a new prep for the new school year, and figure out how not to spend so much time grading writing. I plan to get fresh air and exercise every day. I plan to hang out with my children, while I have them here with me. I plan to hug my parents. I plan to work toward goals in a focused way, but still be open to change.

We will go back into our classrooms again, one day, and we will continue to do the important and meaningful work of valuing all of our students, face-to-face and behind the screens.

May you pause to create a list of hopes and plans, a mixture of work and life, that will lead you forward.

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

W.H.Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

Courage, dear heart.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher in the middle of a global crisis and doing her best with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin