My 2021 in writing

Writing has fueled me for many years. During the pandemic, I’ve found this to be even more true. While struggling to navigate the blurring existence of teacherhood, writing has allowed me to slow things down. It’s given me the opportunity to think and feel.

That said, 2021 was a busy year for my writing. I was processing a lot, and with practically all of my writing is housed here on my blog, its seemed like lazyocho.com was perpetually open in my browser. Hitting “Publish” was my way of heading for the hills, bottling up who I am as a teacher, and holding myself accountable. WordPress reports that I wrote 47,739 words in 64 published posts in 2021. This is by far the most I’ve written in the 7 years I’ve maintained this blog. As I usher in 2022, here’s a look back.

Series
A good chunk of my writing came in the form of serial posts. I started doing these a few years ago and they’ve done wonders for my writing. They give me something big to focus on while adding continuity.

  • My Two Cents was my attempt to document last school year using two sentences every day. I ended it in July by identifying some standouts from the series.
  • Meditations on a Cogen is my ongoing effort to process the cogenerative dialogues (or cogens) I’m having with my students. In the coming year, I want to make an effort for these posts to be more succinct. They’re a lot.
  • I added two posts to my Student Letter series, one in January and one in October. These letters are personal and always run close to my heart.

Books
I love to read books, but don’t often write about them. This year, I did. Three times.

Remote Learning
Remote learning has been the name of the game for the last couple of years. So much of what I wrote this year was influenced by it. Here are a few posts that capture some of what I experienced in 2021 and how I grappled with it.

In person learning
The resurgence of in-person in the fall came with a lot of noticings and wondering.

  • Sunrise was a burst of joy that I had to let out. Being back in person meant that I was a teacher again. I was reborn.
  • Unexpectedly, I arrived at school every day with a heightened awareness of self, including my physical appearance. The post Teacher aesthetic was my reaction to these feelings.
  • I wrote Reliving last school year, with joy after being reunited with my remote learning students in an actual classroom.
  • Deprioritizing relationship building was a reminder that, despite challenging circumstances, I couldn’t settle into my new reality and downplay relationship building in the name of closing skill gaps that resulted from remote learning.

Odds and Ends
These are mainly random things that entered my heart and mind at some point during 2021.

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My 2021 in books

While still trapped in a pandemic this year, I was able to mentally and emotionally escape it with some wonderful books. I began 2021 on a reading tear, way ahead of my goal of 33 books, but my pace slowed in the fall as I found myself producing more writing than I was consuming through books. I finished the year with 35. Here’s my attempt to look back on and capture my journey through books.

Book clubs and rereading
I owe gratitude to two book clubs that I joined in 2021. The first, the “Continuing the Conversation” group at my school, was a socially-minded book club of 10-ish staff members at my school who gathered on Zoom to discuss books, podcasts, and thought-provoking articles. In the spring we discussed two juggernauts: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. Both were amazing and the perfect books to discuss in the company of other educators. I found myself referencing The Autobiography of Malcolm X many times after reading it. It even moved my colleagues and me to visit Malcolm’s gravesite to pay homage to him on his birthday. As a white teacher, Mis-Education got me questioning all sorts of things — including the appropriateness of a bunch of white folks reading it in the presence of a Black person. Both books moved me to learn more about Malcolm and Woodson, so I read Black Minded by Michael Sawyer and Fugitive Pedagogy by Jarvis R. Givens.

The other book club that I was a part of was organized by two teachers at MƒA and focused on Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 2020, but found most of it so dense that I needed to reread it this year to better understand Freire’s message. Let’s just say I think I need another reading! I’m slow.

Speaking of rereading, I reread four other books this year: The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I loved each of these books the first time I read them on paper, but this year elected to listen to them as audiobooks. Appealing to my growing love for the spoken word, this was a refreshing experience and offered me new takeaways.

Education
I don’t often read books about education — like pedagogy — mainly because they can feel textbook-y and make me feel like I’m back in college. That said, I was pulled to read these five: Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl, Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman, Ratchetdemic by Christopher Emdin, Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen, and Teaching Math with Examples by my friend Michael Pershan. I’m grateful that I picked them up because they were all great. In their own unique way, each got me rethinking my practice and experimenting with what I do every day. Emdin and Gillen were more big picture — more theoretical — nudging me to reevaluate some of my assumptions. Liljedahl, Pershan, and Feldman piled on the research, but were more practical. Liljedahl and Pershan even compelled me to write blog posts about their books (here and here).

Recommendations
In an interesting twist, two books found me by way of recommendation. The first was All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum, which was gifted to me in June by a history teacher at my school. The book was more endearing than I expected and filled my heart. If I’m ever in need of a good pick-me-up, I’m reaching for it.

The second recommendation was from a student. Last year — as miserable as it was — I often used class time to discuss all sorts of things with my kids. One day, a student and I got to discussing books and I asked her if she had a favorite. Without hesitation, she introduced me to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Based on her enthusiasm, I vowed to read it and eventually did two months later. It was a superb book that made me angry, made me laugh, and made me want to cry all on the same page. In a unique turn of events, she invited me and two colleagues (who also read the book upon her recommendation) to a Zoom chat to discuss the book over spring break. Our unforgettable talk lasted an hour and was one of a few bright moments during what was a somber school year.

Fiction
My growing appreciation for storytelling permitted five works of fiction to meander their way onto my reading list this year. Three of them, in particular, were excellent: The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and The Underground Railroad also by Colson Whitehead. I was inspired to read The Queens Gambit and The Underground Railroad partly because I wanted to watch the novels play out on TV while I read them (each has its own series on Netflix and Amazon, respectively). I would read a few chapters and then watch an episode or two of the series and continue doing this until it was finished. It was captivating to have an image of a book in my mind and then see it recreated on TV a few days later. This experience reinforced the story and its message and I found myself more invested in it than I would have been otherwise.

History
At some point this year I realized that I was reading a lot of history. First, there was the audiobook of Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, which was lively and highly engaging. Then there was The World’s Fastest Man by Michael Kranish, a stellar biography of cyclist Major Taylor which I read while watching this year’s Tour de France. After a trip to the Schomburg Center in early summer, I was encouraged to learn more about the Mississippi Freedom Schools from 1964, so I read The Freedom Schools by Jon N. Hale, which I loved. Another was The Strike That Changed New York by Jerald Podair, which struck close to home and revealed an important side of New York City and the UFT that I didn’t know about. It also compelled me to listen to the School Colors podcast, which was outstanding.

Honorable Mentions
There are four books that I read that don’t fall into any of the above categories, but deserve to be highlighted. The first is Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis. I’ve seen this book on so many reading lists through the years, how have I avoided it for this long? Stirring and unafraid, Davis speaks truth to power. She makes plain how our struggles in the US around justice are necessarily situated in the global struggle for freedom. The next is The Devil You Know by Charles M. Blow. Astute and persuasive as hell, this one was hard to put down. In addition to jibing with his call to action for Black folks living in America, I really appreciated Blow’s writing. He packed a punch with style.

The third honorable mention is The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova, which was utterly fascinating. Having never played poker before, she vividly shares her grassroots training and attempt to conquer the World Series of Poker. She took me into the game from a psychologists’ perspective and on the way showed me how poker is a perfect model for the messiness of life. I’m not a poker player in the least bit but fell hard for her book. The last book I have to lift up is Conpassionomics by physicians Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli. Although centered on the important role compassion has in the medical field, this book had a significant impact on my pedagogy and how I think about my students. Not only that, but it galvanized colleagues at my school to reflect on how and why compassion shows up in our practice. The experience was so uplifting that it led me to facilitate a one-hour workshop on compassion at MfA’s Summer Think conference in July.

Here’s to another of reading — and escaping.

bp

Last year remote learning broke me, what will happen this time?

The text arrived yesterday at 7pm. It was from my department chair. He was informing the math department that school was closed for the next ten days. The “Situation Room” at the New York City Department of Education decided that their Covid threshold had been met and we needed to shut our doors. Remote learning was back.

Initially — within the first few minutes of reading his message — my reaction was indifferent. Closing our school was inevitable. Covid was spreading like wildfire and this was a necessary step for everyone’s safety. What had to be done had to be done.

Over the next half hour, there was a frenzy of emails and texts asking teachers to create Zoom links, notify their students, and jump headfirst back into a harsh world that caused me so much harm. As my phone rattled and binged displaying texts from colleagues wishing each other well, dread swept over me. I was hesitant, but decided to open my laptop. As I did, an unsightly number of emails filled the screen. After 10 minutes of gazing at an unwanted reality, my body felt heavy. The heartache from last year was resurfacing. I grew somber. My eyes watered.

Naively, when the year began, I figured I was done with remote learning. Years from now I saw myself looking back at the 2020-21 school year with terror, grateful that I never had to experience anything like it again. I see now that I was wrong.

Despite knowing our return to remote learning was inevitable, I couldn’t bring myself to reply to my department chair’s text message. Nor could I gather the courage to reply to any of the emails from school leadership about prepping Zoom links. I left them all unanswered. If I did respond, I knew I would be complicit in accepting our return to remote learning. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I ignored every message and request.

Feeling that remote learning was dragging me back to its dark lair, I spent the next hour reading some of my recent blogposts about the experience (here, here, and here). Though satisfying, I think this made my mental state worse because the posts find me relishing the freedoms that in-person learning has granted to me this year. It’s like what happens when you guilt eat a bunch of chocolate after a breakup. It feels great in the moment, but afterward you feel horrible. After I gorge on my posts, I look at the clock. It’s 8:30. I go to bed.

This morning, still unable to fully accept that remote learning has made a comeback, I wait until the last minute to create Zoom links for my classes. Deep inside, something in me believed that all of this would just go away if I refused to acknowledge it. I know this is foolish, but I couldn’t help it. Ten minutes before the start of 1st period, I create the damned links and add them to our school’s shared spreadsheet. Doing it felt like an out-of-body experience.

And how did today go? It was a struggle. The kids were all over the place. I had no significant plans and spent each period meekly checking in with students, asking about the transition back to Zoom and what they’re hoping for during our shut down. Some students joined sick and from quarantine, receiving their essentials like food and water from family members in isolation. Others were in an empty home, bored out of their minds. Many were angry that we were once again resorting to Zoom links and communicating through a chatbox. Just like me, the flashbacks to last year came without warning for these students. In 3rd period, a girl cried pleaded, “I feel robbed. When are we ever going to get to have a normal school year?” A few hours into remote and worry had already taken hold. And this was from the students that were actually present today. There were so many I didn’t even see. I’m concerned even more for them.

As for me? How did I hold up? My morning classes — which I teach alone — were a nightmare. Feeding off last night’s energy, I had little motivation. I was fully present, but empty. My students sensed my dreariness and this made things worse. It was evident to them and me that my light — which radiated during the last four months — dimed and went out today. Behind a turned-off camera, I teared up during 3rd period. I was afraid.

As the day progressed, I tried to fully own and understand the shadowy figure that remote learning turned me into this morning by finding myself in the stories my students shared during class. My co-teacher in 5th period helped as she joked and lifted up silly moments that I failed to notice because I was trapped by my own feelings. In my other classes, I worked to show appreciation for the students who unmuted themselves. One student in 7th period had her camera on for the entire period and another in 9th showed her baby sister on camera, whom we talk about often. I showered both with public gratitude.

A year ago today I wrote, “My crusade for student engagement resulted in many minutes of silence today in both 1st and 9th periods. I get frustrated as hell, but, right now, who can blame them for wanting to hide…” The symmetry between then and now is absolute.

In my students’ reflections in class today, I was reminded several times that remote learning is temporary this time around. Ten days, that’s it. We’re scheduled to be back January 3. This is supposed to console me, to give me solace, but hasn’t. When I see cases spiking, nothing communicates that remote learning is going anywhere. Ten days can easily turn into 20 which can quickly turn into 30. This concerns me because, well, like all teachers, I’ve felt the grip of remote learning. It’s strong, unrelenting, and unsustainable. Last year it broke me. What will happen this time?


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Reliving last school year, with joy

As I rested on my feet in front of them, my heart swelled with excitement. I could barely contain myself. I stood erect, scanned the room, and took a deep breath, relishing every pair of eyes that found mine. I spent all of last year chasing this moment and now it was finally mine.

For the students, I’m not sure how they met the moment. I saw some squinted eyes and pinched dimples, which made me think they were smiling beneath their masks, but I wasn’t sure. I was their teacher last year by name and nothing else. There were so many variables in our virtual classroom that I can hardly take credit for anything productive or meaningful that may have happened.

Yet there we were. Together in a classroom with me as their teacher. The moment was created by my colleague Mr. S, our school’s hardworking Precalculus teacher. He was standing in the doorway when I walked by his classroom earlier today. The students were having a hard time solving trigonometric equations. He casually asked if I wanted to step in for some impromptu direct instruction to help them remember how to factor. Nearly burning myself with the hot tea I was holding, I skipped into the room before he could rescind his invitation. At the right place at the right time, I had just won the lottery. Mr. S was clueless as to what he just unleashed.

I went on to teach them how to factor trinomials for an unbelievable five minutes. It was fun and spirited and full of heart. I’d like to believe that I firmly held their attention and left them in a better place than I found them. I paused several times for some lively call-and-responses, which sent echoes around the room of the call-and-response virtual handshakes we made last year. I singled out specific students by name with an “I see you!” and “Let’s go!” My dry erase marker mirrored the synergy of the room, sliding rhythmically across the whiteboard in a way I haven’t felt all year. It danced in my hand, full of life. The excitement and anticipation grew with every line of work. After the final step, the room erupted in applause. I put the lid back on the marker. Sadly, there had to be an end.

I see many of these kids around school all the time and have even stepped into this particular class before, but those five minutes were something different. I wasn’t just showing my face, I was their teacher again. But this time we shared space. There were nods to reciprocate and daps to give. When I skipped into the room and was given the steering wheel, I relived an entire school in five minutes. This time, however, it was filled with joy. I finally know what it’s like to teach these students.

As I exited the room, I was euphoric and unusually satisfied. I felt many of the cold, dark memories from last year rush back only to be confronted with this brighter, warmer memory that was just created. The endless Zoom links, the silence of breakout rooms, and my empty calls for participation in the chat all flashed before me as I picked up my tea and headed to my classroom to prep for the rest of my day. I remembered the heartache of last year, but smiled because I had today. The pent-up love that was forged during remote learning has now been dispensed to its rightful owners.

Later in the day, I found Mr. S and thanked him several times over for his openness and spontaneity. I don’t think he knows how much it means to me.

bp