Savoring the Holes as Well as the Cheese

swiss_cheese (1)By Peggy Wuenstel — A common modern malady, both in the classroom and out of it is “Too much to do and not enough time to do it”.

Modern technology keeps us plugged in, in touch, and on call. Time and labor saving devices enable us to do more in less time. We can meet up without even being there. These things are wonderful, unless they take over, and every year about this time, my crowded calendar, my lofty aspirations, my inflated sense of what I can accomplish in the time allotted catches up with me. My gentle husband always reminds me that this is a pattern I seem destined to repeat.  Part of the fault is definitely my own, in my unwillingness to move on, part ways, or let it go.

As a speech/language pathologist, many of my reinforcement activities are seasonal related. I am constantly amazed that students, who cannot remember anything we drill for an upcoming quiz, can remember exactly which version of the Thanksgiving turkey we constructed last year at the appropriate time. I have my favorite projects, stories, and methods of teaching, and it can be difficult to try something new. Unlike my fellow blogger Claudia Felske, technology does not come easily for me, and although I admire those who have these skills, my integration of these valuable tools is far exceeded by my desire to understand and use them.

Evidence based instruction and best practices are important initiatives, and working smarter as well as harder is truly important in the competitive educational world that we are immersed in. We adopt new curricula that align with Common Core Standards and will better prepare students to perform well on the Smarter Balanced Assessment System that is coming soon to classrooms near us. But we can’t seem to give up the old school spelling list, the dinosaur unit, the ways we’ve always done things. There may be valid reasons to continue, but not if it is unexamined, or a result of static rather than dynamic approaches to determining what our students need. Most of us have, buried at the bottom of a drawer, the yellowed lesson plans and their modern equivalents, the referenced links that no longer connect to any viable websites. And it is hard to admit we don’t need all of that any more.

Interior decorators speak of visual space for the eye, a place to rest between the aesthetic elements in a beautifully designed space.  Where I was once attracted to country clutter, I am now feeling drawn to a sleeker aesthetic. I have long been intrigued by the practice of Feng shui, but I’ve never been able to put it into personal practice because it must begin by clearing away, letting go, weeding out.  Maybe I should start with some of the several volumes I have purchased on the subject. In music we even call it a rest, a space between the notes to let us savor the melody, appreciate the harmony, close our eyes and feel the rhythms.

Our neurology understands the need for this down time. Our brains move information to long term memory storage during sleep, when our internal file clerk is on duty and our active minds are at rest. Students who need help gleaning information for tests often are aided by strategies such as spaces between text, double spacing and two column notes that isolate and emphasize key terms. As we age, we are challenged by keeping all of the things we have accumulated in order, prioritized, and at the ready. I have always needed an editor and as I enter the age of senior discounts  (Where is that coupon, again?) I am learning that being organized is no substitute for being willing to let go.

This can also mean realigning relationships, with people, with lessons, with ways of doing things. Common Core standards and the curriculum alignment that goes with it mean that the butterfly or dinosaur units may have to go, or become the province of a colleague. While we may have to say goodbye to a treasured teaching tradition, what a wonderful opportunity to share with others. Just like the problems we encounter when the menu is too extensive, choosing one from column A and one from column B might just be too much to process. Comparison and contrast is an extraordinarily effective instructional practice that we tend to ignore in our daily lives.

There is a simplicity movement that seeks to live life with just 100 things. I have adapted this each year to find 100 things every year before the first day of spring that I can live without. Political discussions have led us to talk of austerity, but I am talking about editing, not austerity. It is easier to give things up when we know where they are going, such as to worthy programs like Dress for Success.

I still didn’t really like that tweed suit, but I did value how professional I felt wearing it to those first interviews.  Prom dresses for girls whose family budgets don’t allow for those kinds of dream dates, Half-Price Books’ half pint library, our local transitional housing charity Bethel House, which helps families get on their feet and into stable housing are all wonderful places for my stuff to get a new chance to make someone’s life easier. My deleted computer files, extraneous thoughts, and unplanned stops on the itinerary are also valued holes in the Swiss cheese that is this teacher’s life. And in the interest of leaving some space, I’ll close this post, and my eyes, for a little down time.


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