Back in December when I first started musing over this idea of trying new activities and experiences, I had no idea how essential this goal would be. Just a few months later, I find myself embarking on a new skill or new experience daily as I try to teach from my dining room table. By creating a mindset at the start of 2020 to embrace the new, I feel that I am really living into this goal in real-time.
It’s another Saturday in February. I’ve been presenting out of state this week, the flu has hit our household, and we are all desperate to get outside to do something. Yet, we easily slide into our typical Saturday routine of laundry, groceries, and cleaning the house.
These are the days when darkness envelops us until late in the morning and again beginning early in the afternoon, the days when coldness lingers on the tips of our toes and the ends of our noses. These are the days that allow us to pause, think, and reflect on what the past year brought and what the new year will bring.
As an educator, I savor these short days of winter, the days we spend cozied up in our home and somehow more free to contemplate, plan, and rejuvenate. This is my first year teaching fifth grade after several years of teaching older students. In my school, fifth grade is the first year of middle school. Fifth graders are in a time of change; their friendships shift and take on a new level of importance; expectations in school are more demanding; and after-school activities ramp up as well.
I love the energy of fifth-graders: their keenness to participate in everything, their sense of righteousness, and the way that they sense and know that they are on the brink of a new chapter. With their eagerness comes a willingness to challenge themselves.
Every day, I ask my students to try something new, a new skill that will help them think about a text differently or improve their grammar. I ask them to approach reading in a new way, or to try a new form of note-making that will take them out of their comfort zone. Before we transitioned to virtual learning, our librarian and I were talking about middle-grade books, and we challenged our fifth-graders to try something different. We wanted to make sure that they were not missing the wide selection of fantastic middle-grade literature. This challenge, even as small as trying a different style of book, is a demanding “ask”— and our students (for the most part) willingly do it.
As an adult, I rarely ask myself to do the same. Sure, there is the disgruntled parent, the project to turn upside down and rethink, a new unit to tackle. But as an adult, I often fall into the monotonous rhythm of doing what I have always done, just slightly different. The familiar is comfortable (and easy). As we embark on a new bend of literary essays, I realize that unknowingly I’m using my same model of a literary essay that I have used for the past two years. It is completed, it serves its purpose, and it is good writing. However, I am not asking myself to do what I’ve asked my students to do: to try something new.
Embracing the Unknown
Several months ago, a new rock gym opened in our neighborhood. Rock climbing was something I have never considered, attempted, or had any interest in exploring. And yet, I was drawn to the new experience. I rented the gear and watched with fear as my children who are eight- and nine-years-old easily scrambled up the perilously high walls and successfully conquered each new path.
“Come on, Mama,” they urged, their pride and confidence contagious. As I lumbered to put one foot on the lowest hold, I felt them cheering me on and did my best to get up the wall. It was less than graceful: slow, and cumbersome, but I did it, and then I did it again. Something inside me resonated; it was a feeling I hadn’t had in a while — the conflicting fear of failing and the excitement of trying something new, of putting myself out there and practicing to get better — what I ask my students to do every single day.
I am no stranger to failure, and as frustrating as it can be, I know that failure provides us all with the opportunities for the most growth and personal introspection. I am new to teaching fifth grade and was comfortable teaching sixth grade for years. Changing grades has kept me busy and kept my mind racing; while this has not been a failure, I have had to push myself to be satisfied with less. My lessons are not as fluid or as engaging as I would like. At times, I find myself expecting more from my fifth-graders than, perhaps, I should. This feeling of being inadequate, of not being as good as everyone else, and of having to really grapple with a new skill is incredibly humbling. I am allowing myself to linger in the discomfort this year.
In a time of continuing challenge and change, I continue to think about how I can deepen the practice of trying new things and getting better at them. I have made 2020 a time to challenge myself widely, to embrace the times that I stumble, and to grow. As spring turns to summer, take time to accept the many new challenges we are all facing, explore new skills, or try that activity you have been avoiding because it is too new or too challenging. Take a risk for yourself — and for your students.