Why I dread the end of summer

I am absolutely passionate about teaching. I love September, once it hits. I thrive on the energy that comes from students and colleagues. And in the inevitable tough times that follow September occurring at regular intervals during the school year, I ask myself if I would change any of the major choices of my life if I could – my job, my marriage, my children – and the answer is an easy “no.”

So, I have been reflecting on why I dread the end of summer, if I enjoy my job so much. I realize it is about addition, subtraction, and balance. With the addition of teaching, lesson planning, grading, and meetings to the professional reading I continue throughout the summer, I will have to subtract some things to fit my life into the constraints of a 24 hour day. There is no simple answer about what gets cut. In fact, the decisions happen on a weekly, if not daily, even hourly basis. It is an ongoing process. Will I sacrifice sleep to grade a set of papers? Will I need to skip running because of a meeting scheduled too close to soccer practice? Will I choose to play a game with my children rather than refine a lesson plan? Will I get up early to peruse my news and information sites for the articles I love to read? Will I fall asleep before I read more than a few pages of my book at night? Will I order carryout again because I can’t stand the thought of the two hour commitment that the family dinner entails (from cook prep through clean up)?

The answer to each of those questions sets a balance in my life, if only at that moment. Sometimes choices that tip the scale too far away from work, need to be compensated by ones that prioritize it. I start each year thinking that this will be the year I figure out how to balance everything well, how to juggle effectively without dropping any balls. I know I cannot have it all, but I hope I can keep most of the best of every aspect of my life. I do the same this year, although I realize that realistically, it is a battle I will not win.

Lots of people face this 50 weeks a year, without time to realize what a slower, more reflective pace looks like. I think that may be one of the reasons that teachers feel this challenge so acutely. We spend most of the year trying to squeeze blood out of a stone as we look for ways to do our work better and still have time for our families. Then, we get the gift of summer – the chance to squander an hour, a day, or longer without the guilt, the regret, the loss that we feel during the school year sometimes. Now, it is time to go get breakfast for my son, who just apologized for interrupting my work.

Blurry Lines: What’s work and what’s not?

Having crawled to the finish line in June with nothing left in the tank, I have been reading a lot of articles this summer about the need to take breaks from work and the diminishing returns involved in clocking too many hours. Many articles provide a numerical formula for work minutes and break time. My thought was that I could work less and get more done, if I was deliberate about my time, a very appealing idea and a simple one at its core.

In fact, it is too simple. I have been unable to decide what is work and what is not. There are obvious tasks at both ends of the spectrum – grading papers is work, watching an Orioles game is not. The problem is that much of my time is spent on things that defy easy categorization. Is reading a book about Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane considered work? I am enjoying it but inevitably also thinking about teaching it. Is reading an article about the US role in the Middle East work since I teach about US foreign policy? Am I working right now, as I process my thoughts on this issue? On the other end, cleaning the house is not part of my job but it feels more like work than many aspects of my job. Where does house work and life maintenance fit into this whole equation? Teachers wrestle with this in the summer, especially, I think. I never quite know how to respond to someone who notes how nice it would be to have summers off. I cannot disagree, but at the same time, without sounding defensive, try to point out that I am not in school, but not entirely “off” either.

As I have been thinking about this, a related issue surfaced when a friend posted a general inquiry of her Facebook friends about kids and screen time. A variety of answers were posted, but one recurring theme is how hard it is getting to create set rules, as the lines between games and work blur for kids, too. They do much of their homework via electronic device now. In talking to my children, I can see that building in Minecraft is fostering many skills and mindsets I want them to have, but building in Minecraft takes time. In fact, it has done more to foster patience and delayed gratification than any of their other toys or games.

I am still working through this question of life balance for me and my children. I know that I should not be so exhausted in June, and I need to pay a little more attention to the early warning signs of overwork. I may need to watch a few more Oriole games in April and May, for example. I also know that my kids should turn the gadgets off and go play outdoors, which they thankfully do. But drawing the line implies that there is a clear line between work and play. I don’t think that it is that simple. For all of the productivity studies and warnings about screen time, I think I am just going to have to rely on my instincts and improvise.

The Appeal of Microhistory

I have been thinking about Microhistory a lot this week, since it was the subject of the #sschat I moderated on Monday night. In preparation for that chat, I dug up some definitions of Microhistory and began reading the classic example, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. This week, I have also started reading a more recent work, Jill Lepore’s Book of AgesĀ about Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin’s sister. This morning, after reading an article about how our kids brains are becoming less trained to think deeply in the digital culture they inhabit, I realized why Microhistory appeals to me so much right now. It asks us to do something we rarely do these days – think deeply and slowly about the details of the life of an ordinary person in the past or a lesser known or contained event.

In many ways, this is countercultural. We are pressed to cover more in our required survey courses, so the only way students can get true depth is in electives, which many students may not take. Many of us think we are achieving depth by taking some time to look at a case study for a class or maybe two. I am not sure that is enough for true depth. We often use stories to engage students’ interest, but we move away fairly quickly before they lose interest. We fight an attention span in the classroom that tends to want to jump from topic to topic. Indeed, fast-paced classes often feel more successful – we never quite know what is going on when students are quiet. Social media encourages the “mile wide, inch deep” mentality. Our kids know a little about a lot of things.

The promise of Microhistory is that by focusing on one subject, learning as much as possible about that subject, placing it in the context of the times and thinking about what if any generalizations can be made from the case, we can exercise our deep thinking muscles, preventing atrophy. We can also model for students how to think about doing history – what the evidence tells us, what we think it means, and what we cannot know for sure. The challenge, other than time, is that students may well resist it. It is hard, sometimes mundane and means delayed gratification.

I am not sure how I will incorporate Microhistory in the curriculum. It may not be possible to do well in a survey course, but I will continue to think about and seek opportunities to incorporate this method of doing history.