Last week, I submitted my rough draft of (tentatively titled) Teaching Toward Everest: A Non-Freaked Out Approach to Literacy and Mastery Across the School Day. Now, the book goes out to a handful of reviewers around the country who my publisher believes can provide me with the kind of targeted feedback I need to make the book better. Like we’ve all experienced in the classroom, I’m at that point with the book where I know it needs to be better, but I’m so close to the work that I can’t see how to do that.
In other words, I need distance from this writing project just like I need regular distance from a given school year’s teaching projects. There’s a time for grinding something out, even when the going is hard, and then there is a time for getting away from something, completely resting from it. One nonnegotiable constraint for the flourishing teacher is the constraint of rest — we ought to build fixed schedules that include time for rest, even when we’ve got The Craziest Teaching Load Ever.
There’s actually a bit of science to the wisdom of stepping away from a problem — a troubling class, a tricky unit, a clunky chapter in this book — in order to solve it. In A Mind for Numbers,* Dr. Barbara Oakley discusses two modes of thinking — the focused mode, where we are intently focused on the problem at hand, and the diffuse mode, where we allow our mind to wander or move to a different task or issue. When we first work hard at a big problem — e.g., right now I have a persistently disengaged student who is really puzzling me, even after a couple of one-on-one, frank conversations — and then step away from it, we allow our brain to go into the diffuse mode where it can make connections or uncover different approaches that we’re unlikely to discover in focused mode. Oakley likens it to a flashlight set to have a focused, bright beam versus one set to have a broader, dimmer one.
Summary: There’s some science behind the idea of quitting at quitting time, of leaving school without work and heading home to garden or exercise or read C. S. Lewis or wrestle with your kids or discuss current events with your spouse or whatever it is that your hobby is.
In other words, I’m really happy to put the book aside, completely, for a week, and to put my work time for teachers to other ends. This weekend I’ll be keynoting at the Colorado Language Arts Society’s annual conference in Denver, and the topic is (gloriously) a new and improved keynote on “teaching in the balance” (the conference theme). I’m excited to do this work because it’s bigger picture than the Everest Framework and it’ll get me way out of book mode.
And then next week, I’m back to the book, but in a different way: I’ll be speaking through it. On Tuesday, I’m scheduled to be at Schaumburg High School in Illinois, facilitating a workshop on the Everest Framework with 100+ high school English teachers. Traveling to speak has always been a mixed blessing for me. On the upside, I get to meet great teachers, see new school systems, and work out the ideas I write about with real-life people who’ve never met me — it’s a lot of fun, and it sharpens me. On the downside, I’m an introverted husband, dad, and teacher who likes to lead a simple, local, private life in a small Michigan town. Like my colleague Eddie Johns once told me, my relationship to traveling is a bit like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s was, as described in Mary Oliver’s Upstream:
Thus [Emerson] wrote and lectured, often in Boston and New York but also as far west as Missouri and beyond. He did not especially like travel, or being away from home, but needed the money and trusted the lecturing process as a way for him to develop and polish his essays for eventual publication.
Speaking through the book project (or more accurately, the Everest Framework that undergirds it) is one way I’m working to make it as good as I can for you when it’s done.
Have a good week. I’ll be teaching right alongside you.
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