Teaching (and Learning) When We’re Tired

Susan Barber teaches AP® English Literature at Midtown High School in Atlanta, Georgia, and serves as the College Board Advisor for AP® Literature and on the NCTE Secondary Steering Committee. She, however, is most proud of the work she does on a daily basis in E216 and never tires of the beauty and chaos of the classroom, which are chronicled on MuchAdoAboutTeaching.com.

Let’s face it: the past couple of years have been difficult for teachers and students. Virtual learning, hybrid teaching, continuously shifting plans, and the weight of the ongoing pandemic have only added more stress and heaviness to teachers who even in “normal” circumstances feel the weight of the school year during this point of the semester. We are all tired yet still have half of the year remaining. How can we have a meaningful year when we are struggling to make it through the day? When I am tired and stressed, that energy carries over to teaching and my classroom. As a result, I’ve begun each day asking myself how I can bring more joy to the routines of a school day.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year. I went looking for ideas and resources to ease my load, but I realized that bringing energy back to myself and my students is less about finding the latest and greatest lesson and more about my mindset and approach in general. Much like the “Believe” sign that Ted Lasso hung in the AFC Richmond locker room, the intentional choice to focus on joy doesn’t take away from the work that has to be done—or necessarily even the stress that comes with it. Still, this mindset has helped me take control of my classroom culture in a world where I seem to have little control. Here are three practices I rely on when I am tired that bring joy to my teaching, classroom, and—most importantly—my students.

Reading for Pleasure

Image Credit: Susan Barber

The AP Literature Course and Exam Description calls for students to read considering “the ways writers use language to provide both meaning and pleasure.” (p 14), and while I’m taking my cue from an AP Lit description, reading for pleasure should happen in all grades with all levels of students. So often, however, we never give students the opportunity to read for pleasure. I promise my students at the beginning of each year that we will carve out some time in class to read for pleasure. This happens as we set aside time to read on either a daily or weekly basis “just for fun.” A few weeks ago I looked up and saw a student reading in class and was enthralled by how engrossed she was in a book, which led me to tweet a picture of a student engrossed in a book. I tweeted: “I gave this student a copy of Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) on Monday. She finished it today. No front loading. No skills taught. No assessment. Just good old-fashioned reading. I often wonder how we got so far away from what education should be.”      

This idea clearly resonated with teachers, as the tweet had over 2,000 likes and several comments. We all want our students to enjoy reading, but sadly school has taken the joy out of it. A major goal for me is to foster a love for literature in my students, which requires space in class for choice reading and reading for pleasure. The majority of my students will not be English majors, but I do hope they will be lifelong readers. We often assume that students have the time and space for reading outside of school, but many do not, and giving them time in class to read in class is a win for all.

How does this work practically? Often, we read for pleasure as we transition from one unit to the next with a text that is thematically connected to our last unit; students take turns bringing in a poem to begin the class on Friday; and sometimes we declare reading days when the stress is paralyzing. The point is to step back from a skill or a targeted lesson and just read for enjoyment. And most importantly, I read alongside my students because it’s important for them to see me reading. We have a saying in our class that “reading days are the best days” because they nurture our souls.

Student Choice

Image Credit: Susan Barber

Choice is another way to bring energy to a tired classroom. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that teachers and students alike feel the loss of control in our lives, especially at school. Education in general—whether public, private, elementary, secondary, or college—is bigger than what happens in just our classrooms. We’re often told to take certain tests, have so many assignments completed each week, include things on our syllabus and lesson plans, and cover specific skills. Choice, however, can counter all of the mandates and give students autonomy and a say in how they want to learn. Putting students in a position to make decisions about their own learning activities almost always increases student engagement. Choice can be offered in many ways: choice in texts, working independently or in groups, or activities. At the beginning of the year, students speed date books to build a “To Be Read” list, which they can return to throughout the year as they choose books for our reading days. Speed dating is just like it sounds: spend 4-5 minutes with a book, jot down your initial impressions (this is the form I use), and decide if you want to spend more time with the book.

Sometimes I will offer suggestions, as seen here for summer reading or here for dystopian texts, and students will even put together their own recommendations to help classmates choose. Choice boards are another good tool. Choice boards include a variety of activities based on a central theme, novel, or lesson where students self-direct what they want to explore that day.  I used this Fences choice board as an extension activity when we finished reading the play. Students were eager to explore different topics in their areas of interest and issues that we didn’t get to spend time on in class.

Choice boards are a great way to introduce texts or themes, provide remediation or extension activities, or conclude units. We use choice boards so much that I created a final choice activity for my seniors last year and let them choose how they wanted to end their last English class. Students were able to choose from designing their own senior English class, a high school photo essay, a black-out poem from their college admission essay, or an advice poem, and the students really enjoyed this final project.

Get Creative

Image Credit: Susan Barber

Reading, writing, and discussion are the staples of my classroom; some days we just need to roll up our sleeves and work. However, I try to balance these days with activities that are outside of the traditional norm. Creative lessons and activities are typically associated with younger grades, while older students are more often found sitting in their seats quietly learning. But having fun in the classroom shouldn’t stop as students get older. I knew I was onto something after I changed an assignment right before class last year, then received the message below later in the day.

Instead of having students analyze poems thematically, I asked them to choose three poems (notice the choice element again) from a collection we recently read and connect each to a song. Students then wrote a short explanation of how they connected. The real magic happened when students shared their songs with the classmates who guessed the connecting poem. Students were engaged, laughing, and making so many connections in ways that I have never considered. Some of our best thinking occurs when we break out of the norm and start having fun; students are more relaxed and thinking often comes more easily for them.      

Other activities we’ve done that raise the energy level in the classroom are poetry construction, where I give them poems cut into lines for them to put together; body mapping of characters as a warm up for writing; black-out poetry; and artistic interpretations of passages. The goal is to be purposeful in the play.

Reading for pleasure, providing choice, and getting creative are three strategies for bringing joy back to the classroom and thus energy to me and my students. The key, as with most things in life, is to seek balance. Build in reading days or plan lighter activities when exhaustion is setting in and push a little harder when everyone is feeling good. Determine what brings you and your students joy and be intentional about building those things into your class time.

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