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Energizing for the Long Haul

By Molly Leahy

            “We’re closed” I announced in rapid-fire snow chain speak. My student teacher’s disbelief and disappointment rang clearly over the phone. “Again? Ok,” she sighed, reminding me of someone I used to be.

            I felt like saying, “Oh you have a lot to learn about snow days.” After teaching for twenty years, I love a good snow day to catch up on bills, sleep, and some cross-country skiing.  There are closets to clean, tax papers to organize, and books to read. Sometimes a snowcation energizes me by restoring work-life balance. Other times, the snow day provides additional hours to respond to students’ writing. This feeling of accomplishment or just balance allows us to return to our very demanding profession with renewed vigor.

            But what happens when snow days pile up, blocking the flow and rhythm of teacher and student energy alike? With nine snow days already, people might think teachers have spent enough time re-charging their batteries to re-enter the classroom wound-up like Energizer bunnies. Unfortunately, the second semester does not bring the same crispness of September’s fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils. If routines and environments seem a little stale, how can we freshen-up activity when we’re not in a groove of regular attendance?

            Without the rhythmic flow of lessons, ideas become blocked after so many snow days and no chance to experience success. Can technology re-establish patterns of normalcy and communication? I wish I had insisted that my students set up their current writing pieces in Google docs so that their writing teams could still meet virtually. Tweets or webpage updates help remind students of revised calendars for deadlines with expectations that they should expend a little academic energy while snowbound. Back in the classroom between storms, my 9th graders benefitted from rubrics and checklists to help them remember what work remains in our artist research project. After missing nine instructional days, I wonder if my AP students can convert hibernating tendencies into a power surge to make up for lost time before the exam. I challenged them on the next snow day to just spend the 55 minutes we would have shared in class to log onto our library’s databases for practice AP exams, hoping that my sense of urgency would energize them.

            We must remember, however, that technology alone cannot power us through winter as a recent ice storm just proved. In a classic man versus nature conflict, families in our district suffered power loss for up to five days. When school re-opened, students had a need to express their own horror stories and reflect. Here, those reliable and renewable sources of writing workshop energy: choice, writer’s notebooks, and teacher-as-writer combined for a powerful return. The snow days left me with some verses rattling around in my brain, so I posted my poem for students to use these verses as sentence starters for their own writing. Time to write and talk invigorated the room, as if students had been waiting for this chance to power up and keep our classroom humming along.

            Soon my AP students will trade in Ethan Frome and the frigid Starkfield landscape for Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Huck explaining “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”   My 9th graders will leave Speak’s Melinda in her snowy Syracuse for the Mediterranean waters of The Odyssey, and my student-teacher will learn how to navigate these unchartered waterways. Until then, I hope to spend the remaining cold nights, blanketed on my couch reading about your successes and suggestions for beating winter weariness in your classroom.

Molly Leahy profileMolly Leahy, whose writing process this winter is shovel, revise, repeat, teaches at William Tennent High School in Bucks County. She is a 2000 Writing Institute Fellow.

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