New School Year, New Reality: Start Slow, with Strengths, Place, Meaning

Here we go! Starting the school year back up again. But this year, things are different. We have faced one of the greatest upheavals in society. Ever. 

While most schools might LOOK like normal, with no mask mandates and few restrictions, let’s be clear, we are all changed from experiencing the last three years. Many students have lost something: a loved one, a rite of passage (likely many), social interactions, experiences, hours of schooling, and special events. They’ve been faced with a society that is fractured, confusing, and contradictory, and a host of persistent global problems. A 24 hours news cycle tells them constantly about crisis after crisis. Many of them have been under stress: some have done hours of summer homework that was assigned (!!!), or worked three jobs, or did not get enough food over the summer, or have faced countless other pressures. 

This is who we are welcoming back to school. Things are not normal, things are forever changed. Students face more mental health challenges than ever before and are having to learn and relearn social, collaborative, and problem solving skills. How can we react to this moment and not get bogged down by all the news (falling standardized test scores, increasing mental health problems, rising acts of hate in our country)?

Student Strengths. One way we can start is to give more moments of connection and humanity. What are your students’ strengths? What did you learn about yourself this summer, or last year? What lights you up? Starting with strengths centers the class community on assets. What we have. Who we are now?  It’s not looking for deficits, or assuming non-compliance. It’s building a community based on strengths, especially ones that students might not have ever considered until they were asked. 

Focus on Place. Strengths do not stop at the individual. What are the assets, the strengths, of this place? Begin grounded in these. Is the campus surrounded by trees? Is there a river nearby? What businesses or historical features are close to school? Let students find a sit spot to reflect, read, draw, and be, or design an experience on school grounds, one that connects them to this place they are about to spend so much time in and around. 

Starting academic study and teambuilding  rooted in place also builds community. How can you use your local place to teach your social and academic objectives? Almost everything teachers teach can connect to a school campus. 

Slow it Down. Think about pacing. Too much of the time in schools there is a frenzied state of rushing. Line up here! Go there! Stop this, start that! This is a lot for overwhelmed nervous systems. Try putting some space into the schedule and systems, allowing immersion, some rest, and moments of connection. Every single second doesn’t have to be productive. This model is outdated and based on a factory model of education. 

Purpose and Meaning. No busywork, disposable work. Link to wider purpose and meaning. Students need context, to understand the why, of everything they do. It matters. Pedagogies like project-based learning, service learning, and connecting to current issues facing students roots students in the WHY, often led by their own choices, passions, and interests.

I’ve got a new post over at We Are Teachers with more ideas on how to start the year to focus on student mental health.

Best wishes for the new school year. Take good care of yourselves.

June 2022

I look back at my last post, featuring a temp of -17, while sitting on my porch. The green surrounding me is radiating, ringing with bird songs. It is hard to believe, each season, that this miraculous, drastic change occurs, yet it does. Vermonters pour into the streets when spring finally comes. We say hi to everyone. We wear shorts when it is far too cold still. We buy flowers for the garden. We feel like me might just be okay. And our spring was long and cold and wet so it felt especially incredible (almost too hot, even) when we were graced with warmer temperatures.

And then we had another wave of Covid, but this time, whatever! Nobody cared. No mask mandates, policies where you don’t have to be negative to come to school, you can still come with symptoms. All the big events, unmasked. Anyone who hadn’t gotten sick did. So much for that spring feeling. It seems that living right now is the constant flow between joy, beauty, and illness, worry.

Then ongoing terror and horror and violence and the loss of sweet babies. The school shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. This news took my legs out from me, it gutted and enraged me. It could be any of us, any of our kids. And these kids are OUR kids. There are no other people’s children. We cannot continue like this. We need to organize.

Join Moms Demand Action.

Call your representatives.

Demand action.

I have done all of these things and it is not enough.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Ask my friends in New Zealand and Australia, and most recently, Canada. I can’t say much more than this. I don’t have the words. I have a lot of thoughts about what society has asked of teachers during the Covid pandemic, and in the unending wake of gun violence. But right now, my thoughts are not yet organized. They will be.

For now, I am going to make it through the last week of school, celebrate my scholars and how far they have come. I’m going to keep looking at the leaves and the hummingbirds, keep my perch on the porch when I can.

Sending love and abundant June sunshine your way.

The 10 Year Long January and New Posts

All my thinking and writing has been on a slower program, as we slog through the cold and the phases of this pandemic. Coming back from break and into the new year, at the peak of the Omicron virus was.. something. I finally found the words and wrote about it for Edweek.

The responses to my original tweet that led to that post were heartbreaking and illuminating. I wanted to reach out and hug every single educator who responded, every parent who showed solidarity and support, and all of the health care workers who have dealing with impossible conditions for far too long. I wrote about the emerging themes for We Are Teachers.

Lastly, I read at a fever pitch this deftly reported book on climate change education by Katie Worth. Sometimes it takes a journalist shining a bright light on an issue, going way back, making connections and showing evidence over time, to give us a clear eye on how we got here. I encourage all parents, educators, and concerned citizens (and well, everyone!) to read it too, and think about how we can do better.

But mostly, I hope you are taking care of yourself. Resting. Getting out in nature when you can. Finding pockets of joy and love.