The School Year Ends

Dar Williams sings,

The summer ends and we wonder where we are 
And there you go, my friends, with your boxes in your car 
And you both look so young 
And last night was hard, you said 
You packed up every room 
And then you cried and went to bed 
But today you closed the door and said 
“We have to get a move on. 
It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, 
We push ourselves ahead.”

“The End of Summer”

Every year when summer really does end, those words float back into my head, and they make sense then – but they also make sense now, because the end of the school year feels much the same.

It’s that sense of wistfulness in the face of impending change, which I also catch glimpses of when TS Eliot reminds me that

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  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, 

“The Waste Land”

For teachers, summer is mostly a hopeful thing – a time of rest, if we’re smart, or exploration, if we’re lucky. It’s a moment to catch our breaths and step out on hiatus from the school building and the classroom and experience our lives in different ways. We bring our heads up from the papers we’ve spent all year marking and our students say good-bye (if we’re fortunate, not forever, but just for now), and we say hello to the million little things we’ve waited months to do. It’s that time to just be us.

Did I mention that sounds easier than it really is? At least for me, and I’m hoping I’m not alone in that.

In my world, we ease into summer, which teases us for weeks in advance – so long in advance, in fact, that you stop believing summer will ever really come. I don’t mean this as a bad thing, although it can be a puzzling experience. Let me explain:

We finished our classes on the Friday before Memorial Day (5/24). Faculty came back for three days of meetings after Memorial Day (5/28-5/30). We ostensibly say our farewells at a “final” luncheon on that last day of meetings, but three days later we’re back at it again for a conference that’s become the signature event to see the school year out.

For the past few years, this has meant that I finished my grading and other obligations, then turned around to prep a session presentation at the Summit for Transformative Learning in St. Louis – better known as STL in STL.

(See why I say it becomes hard to know when summer really begins?)

The conference began five years ago, and from its inception, it was understood that our faculty would be in attendance. (That’s why we get the Friday beforehand off!) There’s an optional day of pre-conference sessions on Sunday (June 2 this year), but the heart of the conference is the first Monday and Tuesday in June – if you’re keeping track at home, that’s right now, today and tomorrow.

In the first two years, I grumbled a lot about this – to be fair, I grumbled in the first year and didn’t actually attend, since I was chaperoning a trip to DC. The second year, I grumbled something about it being a lot of science-y presentations. The third year – 2017 – something shifted. Maybe it was my mindset. Maybe it was that I decided to take an active role in getting involved, proposing a session on teaching research. Whatever it was, STL in STL became my thing. I don’t run it, I don’t really do much for it aside from show up, but I’m a big fan.

Now, STL in STL has become this thing that both represents the end of the school year, reminding me of my own personal inability to ease into the summer gracefully – and this amazing event that jumpstarts my thinking for next year’s classes and inspires me to do better next year.

In 2017, a full-day of workshops with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst on reading (specifically, Reading Nonfiction) absolutely shifted how I approached reading in my history class.

Last year, Alexis Wiggins’ workshop on Spider Web Discussions was instrumental in helping me rethink how I approached my classes this year, and I had both amazing successes (hello, accelerated US history) and failures (9th grade history, I have a lot to work on!). (In retrospect, I was less successful at continuing what I learned from Kylene and Bob, but I’ll be back at those strategies this fall.) Through my experiences this year, the training I got from Alexis, and touching base with other people on how to use things like Equity Maps effectively, I’m heading into the 2019-2020 school year with a plethora of new ideas of how to support my students’ learning better.

This year has been all about John Meehan’s approach to gamification. If you don’t know who John is, (a) go follow him on Twitter right now, and (b) you’ll probably know of him soon enough. John teaches American Literature at a Catholic high school in the DC area, and he spent this past year gamifying his course (not to mention his school’s approach to faculty PD, since he’s also their instructional coach). I got connected with John last September and have spent ALL YEAR stalking him on Twitter and forcing him to answer my many, many questions about how to do what he’s doing.

um, no, I’ve spent all year following him on Twitter and very kindly asking for advice and feedback and clarification? We’ll let him be the judge.

Seriously, the best part about the conference so far is that John agreed to come do a full day of workshops AND he came to my pre-conference workshop yesterday, so my brain is currently still processing all the things he taught me. Since I’ve followed him all year, I had a sense of what he’s doing and I’ve borrowed from his (eagerly shared!) materials and made them my own, but working with him yesterday and today was even better.

Right now, I think a lot of history teachers are hearing things like “simulation” and “gamification” and worry about things turning into this, bad classroom situations that try to replicate slavery and the holocaust.

That’s not what John’s up to, but the best way to see that for yourself is to follow, watch, and read as he shares things. Right now, I’m just beginning this journey and that means I’m not good at explaining it. I can tell you that I’m going to try to do something like he’s done, only with my 20th century world history class this year.

What I can also tell you is that it feels good to be inspired right now. I always love the changing seasons (actual seasons, plus those human-created things, like the end-of-school season), but I get wistful about missing the fabulous humans I ordinarily spend so much time with. Being excited about the school year ahead, having concrete ideas for how to re-imagine teaching – these are the things that will set my summer on fire.

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For me, being a teacher is all about figuring out how to be better – how to help my students become better, more authentic learners, how to help them engage successfully, and for all of us to have fun in the process. I love history. I’m a history GEEK. The best moments this year were the ones when students drove the inquiry and the discussion – they asked questions and discovered things I never would have imagined if I were the one setting every piece of the agenda. Starting my summer with STL in STL has become one of the most important resources I have to help me be better, and I’m fortunate to have that experience each year.

What are you inspired by right now as we head into this new summer season?

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