We started the last trimester in school this week, and spring is starting to show up. Even though there’s still a lot of snow on the ground, I hear birds singing their spring songs every morning when I go to school. This is always my favorite time of year; the hope of new life and a fresh new world of green is on the way. All those things bring to the forefront of my mind that the end of the school year is just weeks away, and it has motivated me to put more energy into cleaning out and sorting through the years and years of stuff that has accumulated in my very large classroom.
I definitely don’t want to have to sort through everything in June, when my room can be unbearably hot, and I’ll be stressed and emotional enough then, so this is a job that has to be done now. Over Christmas vacation I spent a day and jettisoned a lot of paper; my two filing cabinets are lean and clean. Next: the binders!
One of the things I love the best about my job is having the total creative freedom to build instructional units at my own discretion. As a teacher of reading and writing, I can build lessons around an endless variety of content themes, and I appreciate that autonomy every day. State curriculum frameworks must be met, and as long as my students continue to learn and improve on all the assessments, I can do whatever I want. There are no required textbooks and no required units or lessons.
Of course that freedom can also be a burden; it’s a huge responsibility that I have taken very seriously over the years, and I have learned much through trial and error. I’ve created some units that didn’t work, either because students didn’t learn what I wanted them to learn, or I wasn’t able to be passionate and motivating as I taught the material.
And that brings me back to the binders.
Each unit includes state curriculum frameworks, content information, reading lists, handouts, rubrics, and links to good content sources. There are project description handouts, handouts with important content information, assignment handouts, and sometimes examples of good student work. While I don’t use a textbook, I do use a lot of paper. I don’t print everything, but I do print the material I will need as I teach the unit. Those printed pages are assembled in a unit binder. And of course, each year I change things to improve my work. I can never seem to throw away early versions of materials, so I tend to add new content while saving the old. I also add examples of excellent student work. The binders get fatter and fatter.
Sometimes a binder will have so much material that I have to add a second binder, so a unit may have two or three binders in order to contain all the stuff.
This week I emptied out approximately a dozen binders, saving some things and filling a few large bags for paper recycling. Gone are the binders on units about Censorship, Journeys, Research Papers, Fantasy Writing, Debate, Author Study, and Making Web Pages — all units that are no longer relevant. I did save units that my successor may choose to utilize, but I sorted through them to make the materials more useful: units about the books Freak the Mighty, The Outsiders, and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, as well as Reading Workshop, Writing Workshop, and a few more.
It was quite a process, but not a sad one. Through writing this blog all year, I have been able to find my balance and it’s getting easier to maintain a good perspective. The process of cleaning out now actually feels good.
And then I found a treasure. A box of photographs, which date back at least ten years, before everything went digital. A box of great memories: Washington, DC photos, “Be Your Hero” costume parties (the culminating celebration of my Heroes and Virtues unit), various students doing various classroom activities, and the best prize of all: a pack of photos, given to me a few years ago by a colleague. In that bright yellow Kodak folder were photos of the morning rehearsal for our 2001 eighth grade graduation. There was hardly a dry eye in the gym when Charlie played Let It Be on the piano and the whole class spontaneously gathered around to join in the singing. It was a great moment that those of us who were there will never forget, and serves to remind me that while the papers and the binders will be discarded, the really important stuff will stay with me always.