Friday, April 22, 2016

You're Not Alone, Teacher

Come closer. I want to tell you a secret. Something I don’t share with many people. Something I really only mention casually to a few.

I have depression. Not the pseudo-drama or sadness when people quip, “I’m so depressed.” No, I have clinical depression. An imbalance in my brain.

I know—many people do. Who cares if I do? I think what makes this important is I am a teacher. We are supposed to be superheroes; however, it is imperative we begin talking about our private demons so we can further support each other as a community.

You are not alone.

Yes, that sounds trite, but too many times in my life, I have felt alone in dealing with my depression (or my auto-immune diseases). Logically, I know I’m not: I have family and have learned to trust a few friends with this. However, mental illnesses do not deal in logic.

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know I enjoy writing. I don’t really journal, but in 2003 I began writing poetry. I have no illusions (delusions?) I’m a “poet,” but sometimes crafting a poem distracts my brain and gives me solace. These are two of the first poems I wrote about my depression:

Depression rolls in
like the tide
Pulling me into its grip

I sink down
feeling the water
close over my head
Blocking out the
sights and sounds
of life
Blotting out the
light of the sun
Bringing only
isolation and darkness
to my drowning soul

I don’t fight to rise
but close my eyes
and let the
current carry
me away

I don’t have the
energy to care
if I swim
or drown
I’m too weary to fight
So, with a gulp
I become one with the water
And welcome the peace
of nothingness

Trapped in
the middle of a
vast space
Treading water
Fighting to keep
my head above
the waves

I go under for a moment
but break the surface,
gasping and desperate
for air

I’m under again
Long enough to
begin assessing the
new world waiting
to welcome me
My eyes search for
something to
keep me from
going back up
My lungs ache and
reality jerks me
to the top
Wheezing and panting
I drag breath deep into
my soul

I remain on the surface
Searching for life,
for something to rescue me
Tired, I doggedly
cling to the bright water
Fighting for every stroke,
every moment
Knowing my demise is nigh,
I hold tenaciously
to the remaining seconds

The sparkling water
and dancing sun recede
Dark murkiness
covers my head
Shadows pull me
Further from salvation
Wrapping me in

I bid good-bye
to the world I knew,
Release the last
breath trapped
in my lungs,
and rest on
the spongy bottom

I close my eyes,
breath sharply in,
and welcome
the sleep of

I’ve read some of what other people have written about depression. I keep seeing the drowning metaphor. That’s the closest analogy I have found to help someone who’s never found themselves in the grips of the D-word. Well, maybe it’s more like drowning in slime, thick goo. You feel weighted down, achy, unable too move—or even care about moving. Every breath is a truly heroic act. Simple tasks like showering and dressing become monumental. You have spells where would sell your soul to get some sleep. Lying awake while black little ghouls pluck at your brain, planting bizarre thoughts in your painfully awake mind. Sometimes you sleep with a light on just so you feel like someone is there with you. Then, you don’t want to do anything but sleep; and some days you lie in bed, digging into your depths to find one miniscule reason to even get up. Your spouse and child are not enough. On the most hideous days, you tell yourself they would be better off without you as an albatross around their necks. They love you too much to be honest, but you know their lives would be better without you dragging them down.

So, you do contemplate gulping in that water, releasing that last sweet breath, and finally finding some peace.

Yeah, that’s pretty close. It’s easy to capture this because I’ve been fighting it off and on this school year. Personally, my family is dealing with many issues. Professionally, I’m having the hardest year of my career. I’m ripe for the monster to claim me. But wait, “monster” isn’t quite right. It’s not a loud, snarling beast—something I can easily see, hear, and avoid. No, depression is stealthy. Maybe like a movie serial killer: slips in, tortures you mercilessly and gleefully, makes you beg for mercy before you finally succumb to the gentle kiss of his knife.

In hindsight, I’ve had depression most of my life. According to my grandmother, I was born an adult, and I have carried a lot of my family’s burdens on my shoulders. I had to be strong for everyone. Hell, I still feel that way. At an early age I learned to mask my feelings. I am not placing any blame on anyone (truly I feel no anger anymore), but for most of my life I was taught emotions like anger and sadness were from the devil. Things to be prayed away. If you continued to feel those, your faith must not be strong enough. Rather than ask for help or healthily deal with my pain, I learned to push it down or hide it or question what I was doing wrong. It was all my fault. So, I had insomnia and nightmares and couldn’t figure out why the darkness called to me so often. Why that silky siren’s song refused to leave my brain.

As I became a teen, I grappled with faith because what I’d been taught sure as hell was not working. I began finding solace in self-harm. I rarely ever cut myself because I had a nosey mother (thank you, Mom). I refused to add any more issues to my family. So I flirted with harm but rarely broke the skin. Physical pain is so much simpler than mental pain. Causing myself pain helped me focus on something I could control. There was beauty and release as the nerve endings communicated the exquisite sting to my brain. My mind gratefully latched onto that single breathless moment. For those sweet seconds, I was free.

Yes, it sounds incredibly screwed up, doesn’t it? Again, the mind is not logical when a mental illness takes hold. I’ve even written a poem or two about it:

I drag my nails
across my skin
Just to see the
red welts rise
God, the pain feels good
Releasing something dark inside
Feeding some insatiable beast
Lodged in my breast

He looms in my mind
At times quietly watching
At times ravishing my mind
and soul
At times I control him
At times he has full control

My words seem to come from
another mouth
My tears stream down
another face
My silent screams tear through
another brain
My nails rip down
another body

My life seems surreal
I watch another woman
become a terrified child
hunched in a fetal stance
Eyes closed, blocking out the
overwhelming world
Someone else tries to control
the pain inflicted by careless others
by inflicting pain on herself

Good little girl…
Focus on the beauty
of the physical pain

Sweet little girl…
Forget the emotional pain
ravaging your soul

Innocent little girl…
Pretend you have everything
under control

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering if this is a ploy for attention or sympathy. Isn’t that why anyone posts on the Internet? Truly it’s not. When I share about my mental or physical illnesses, I state info matter-of-factly. I even feel bad when people express sympathy. Yes, I appreciate that kindness, but I know so many others are worse than I. Most days I KNOW I am truly blessed.

So, I’m sharing this lengthy post to make connections, especially with teachers.

I want you to know it’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not grade papers or write lessons or answer parent emails in the evenings or on weekends. It’s okay to take time for yourself. Go take a bath or read a book or go on a hike or watch a movie or simply take a damn nap. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Go find someone right this minute, look that person in the eye, and say, “I need help,” or “Will you listen.” Talk to that person.

Admitting your limitations is not a sign of weakness. Knowing, accepting, and working with those weaknesses is actually a sign of strength. To be able to look yourself, or someone else, in the eye and say, “I am not perfect. I need to lean on someone right now,” shows astonishing strength.

Teaching can feel amazingly solitary. Sure you work with other people, but once that door closes, it’s you and 30-something students in that room. Each of those students needs you to be your best. You have a moral and ethical obligation to be en pointe and educate as many of them as you humanly (or superhumanly) can. I know. I have the same imperative.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a human, with all your strengths and weakness, with all your beauty and ugliness.

So, when you find yourself in those moments—when you’re floundering or drowning or slogging through or trying to find a reason to get out of bed—I hope you remember you are NOT alone.

It is okay to be you…and not THE teacher.

Everyone will understand—and we’ll still love and support you. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Intro to Genius Hour

So, my sweet friend Meghan Loyd (@meghanloyd, beat me to blogging about Genius Hour. If it were anyone but her, I might need to beat her up.  Sometimes I’m so competitive. J

Even though it’s old news (thanks, Meghan—that was said with a tone, of course. HAHA!), I want to blog since I’m tackling this with my AP Lang. and Comp. students.

Pre-Genius Hour: I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about Genius Hour. Recently, I was talking to another teacher about this. He had heard about it at a GAFE Summit. I’ve taught GAFE classes, but not attended a Summit. Oh well, I do know it was around last summer. I began teaching at a new school; and as ill prepared as my students were for an AP ELA class, my plate was more than full first semester. Over Winter Break, I spent some time planning my second semester. I was desperately looking for ideas for my sophomores (sigh…) and remembered Genius Hour. Thus began my journey.

I googled “Genius Hour” and found the Genius Hour website ( and A.J. Juliani’s series of brief videos. The website includes many resources to get started with Genius Hour. I spent much of the break watching videos, reading articles, researching what other teachers had done, and writing my “instructions.”

Day One: (I should be including some links here--I contacted the owners for permission to include their work in my blog.)

I shortened some of the info since my students are older, and I’m diligently training them to be more independent. This is my plan for “Intro Day”:
  1. Has anyone heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time? Each Friday for the next several weeks, we will engage in Genius Hour. I am hoping to put part of your education back into your hands
  2.  Give students about 5 minutes to Google “genius hour” or “20% time.” Discuss what they found.
  3. Go over instructions
  4. Let students brainstorm for rest of hour
  5. At some point early on, discuss how to backwards plan (I ended up not doing this, but I’ve discussed this with some students individually)
  6. Set up blogs/journals (I set a deadline for this—helped as needed on their first “official” day) 
I explained I would take a lot of their time with AP test prep; therefore, I wanted to give them something to eagerly anticipate at the end of each week. Yes, we’ve been prepping all year, but after Spring Break, I start intense training sessions: three essays over three days. We do this for several weeks. It’s exhausting, but gets them ready for the test—and improves their writing…if they take it seriously.

We also talked about America’s lip service about creativity and innovation, but public schools do their best to drain that from students. I told them they needed a reason to get out of bed, other than compulsory attendance. We discussed that sometimes you are lucky enough to enjoy your job, but sometimes a job is a paycheck—they need something to feed their souls. This is where Genius Hour can help: maybe they will find their passion.

Week Before Spring Break: I won’t criticize how the week before Spring Break is handled in my school. Suffice it to say, between the activities all week and the break, I went two weeks without seeing students. That’s not a hyperbole. I did assign work because that’s a lot of time to give up, especially in the spring. Plus, right after the break, I did not see my morning classes for three days due to an ACT cram session. Okay, enough prefacing.

I used that time to help students brainstorm, “sign” their contracts, plan their upcoming Genius time, submit preliminary info through a Google Form, and work on their proposals. I was not able to sacrifice class time for students to present their proposals to their classmates, but they’re already talking to each other and their parents.

Through the early stages, my one restriction has been can their idea be sustained until May? I’ve also brainstormed with students on how to do their weekly updates, how to measure their successes/failures, and how to do a final “project.”

Some are in love.

Some are terrified of the freedom, but with a little handholding, they’re opening up.

Some, definitely the minority, are not taking this seriously. But, they’re the students who should not have been in AP English because they hate to read and write. They’ve spent the year doing the bare minimum. Maybe this will eventually excite them to life’s possibilities. Maybe not. Students reach an age where the more you push, the more they resist; therefore, I’m picking my battles.

The Night Before: I received this tweet

First Work Day: Last Friday, April 1, was our first workday. I spent much of the time encouraging, checking up on, setting up blogs, discussing how to submit weekly updates, acting as a sounding board, and simply listening to my students express joy and excitement. I shan’t update every week, but after school is out, I will have a link to my class website with a page dedicated to some of the projects. In the meantime, let me share the myriad of ideas pouring from my crazy children:
  1. A “Crash Course” (like John Green’s videos) on bees.
  2. Several students learning to code for different reasons (make a video game, to make a program that deals with books/reading, etc.)
  3. Learn Russian
  4. Learn Mandarin Chinese
  5. Improve their Spanish
  6. Tackle a different hobby each week to find one the student actually likes
  7. Try out Pinterest projects and record success/failures
  8. creating a list that will provide students who are about to start college or a new chapter of their lives with activities, routines, or ways to help them relieve any fears they may have about moving forward”
  9. A student is trying techniques to conquer her shyness
  10. Several students are trying to become better photographers
  11. Two are working on a mural
  12. A few are working on their art
  13. One is foraying into a psychological experiment
  14. One is trying to make biofuel at home
  15. One is trying to recreate a smaller version of a (moving) Lego car engine
  16. A few are working with their chemistry teacher to do some more risky experiments (yes, I will need to do something nice for any mentors)
  17. One will be trying family recipes and compiling them, with pictures, into a cookbook
  18. One is testing the how relaxing coloring actually is (legitimate after a week of AP practice!)
  19. A couple are working on conquering levels of video games and tracking their progress
  20. Two are working together to work out and keep scientific track of their progress
  21. One is working on improving his dancing skills
  22. One is working on sewing her own prom dress and making other clothes
  23. One is creating her own travel brochures with hacks she’s picked up
  24. One is working on learning more about forensics
  25. A couple are exploring the world of reality TV by making their own videos (should be hilarious)
  26. One is a future teacher and will be working on lesson plans for her 2nd graders (so adorable)
  27. One is planning his “old folks home” that does NOT look like or feel like a prison (there’s a library named after me—don’t be jealous)
  28. One is planning a park for children with disabilities so they can feel included and safe
  29. One is working on a website to record people’s personal stories. It’s called the Heart Museum.
  30.  One is working on a first-person perspective video on what it’s like to be bullied. She thinks that will have more impact on students. I’m inclined to agree.
Folks, this is only a taste. When given a chance, students can and will again tap into their innate creativity. They’re already discussing continuing this over the summer and want class time again next year. If I’m blessed enough to get at least one section of 12th AP, they will have that chance. Some of these projects are simply stress relievers or ways to relax; some of these could become lifetime passions; some of these could be their life’s work.

I am simply thankful for “discovering” this idea and for the chance (and autonomy) to take this journey with my students.