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  • Jan Flynn

Jan Flynn’s Blog: Switching Focus (More Lessons From Middle School)

At the moment I’m awash in projects, all in some insistent stage of becoming: the novel that needs one more pass before I start querying agents; the collection of

short stories I’m prepping to publish as an e-book this winter; the middle-grade chapter book that has been complete for nearly two years but has languished on my hard drive awaiting my time and attention. Also I’m incubating a new novel, to be drafted in a breathless sprint during November as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

Meanwhile, life goes on. As I try to sip from the firehose I’ve aimed at myself, all the other elements of life seem to intensify at this time of year: friends, family, teaching, events to benefit Sunrise Horse Rescue plus caring for the herd, not to mention things like presidential elections and the world at large. And, oh yes, the holidays that will be upon us in, what, ten minutes?

OK, sometimes it’s little much. A bit overwhelming. Which is when I remind myself that 99% of the stuff I have to do is because I choose to do it. You want to see real pressure? Real overwhelm? Hang out with a class of seventh graders confronted with end-of-the-trimester projects, looming grades, and fall sports, all competing for attention with the intense drama, shifting allegiances, and hormonal chaos that is middle school.

Think about a 12-year-old kid’s working day: it amounts to a seven-hour series of mandatory meetings lasting anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, depending on

whether or not your school has adopted block schedule for all or part of the week. Each meeting focuses on a different topic, each requires preparation and organization, and each has action items that have to be completed before the next such meeting. Each is presided over by a supervisor who is assessing your performance at all times. You get three minutes between meetings and maybe 40 minutes for lunch. Your computer use is heavily monitored. You can’t take phone

calls and you need a hall pass to go to the restroom. Some of the meetings are literal workouts and require you to change clothes before and afterwards.

At the end of the day, you face hours of practice and homework. Forget about cocktail hour; that’s years in the future. And if your home life includes anything like family dysfunction or economic disadvantage, all of this gets much, much harder.

It’s impressive how many of the students I work with seem able to handle the load with grace and good will. But there are kids for whom all or part of the day seems to be an especially grueling struggle. I’m not referring here to students who have genuine learning disabilities or other limitations: by middle school, those have generally been identified and in a district with good resources like (thank God) ours, they’re being addressed with some level of support.

The kids that have the toughest time are those who just can’t seem to get their

heads in the game. Who haven’t developed the self-reliance, the resourcefulness, or the perspective that enables their peers to tackle each task as it comes at them,  understanding that some will be easy, some actually enjoyable, and others must simply be gotten through. The ones who see themselves as  hopelessly overburdened and who would like to just give up.

My heart goes out to these students, even as I deploy every tool in my kit to get them to engage. I coach, I check for understanding, I remove distractions (usually that means moving the kid to a separate desk), I praise or otherwise reinforce every forward step, no matter how feeble. I doubt they would believe that I know exactly how they feel.

Two or three class periods roll by before, based on the schedule of whoever I’m standing in for, I have a free period, meant as prep time for the regular teacher. If I’m not needed to cover anything else, I hoist out my laptop and use the time to write.

At least, I intend to. I stare at the screen, my mind resisting transition into another working mode. I dawdle. Things in the room catch my attention. Maybe I

need to rearrange the desks? Sharpen some pencils? No, wait; the kids all have their own pencils. The desks are where they’re supposed to be. Voices from the field drift in through the windows. The big clock on the wall ticks away, my free period eroding with surprising speed. I’m grateful I can’t get on the school wifi, otherwise I’d be checking email and FaceBook.

I think of what I told the kid in my last class, the one who knew how to do the assignment but just couldn’t countenance the enormity of it. The one who kept putting his head down on his desk, hoping both I and the task would somehow disappear. In no uncertain terms I point out to myself, just as I did to that student, that neither is going to happen.

And just like that kid, once I finally get underway, once words begin to blossom

in the previously arid white space before me, I feel better. It’s not so hard after all. Before long I’m completely focused on articulating the idea I have under development. I’m approaching the state of flow.

And then the bell rings. Three minutes to transition back into a schoolmarm. Just like the kids are expected to, I drag myself out of one absorbing task and get my head ready for a completely different one.

At minute three, I’m standing at the open classroom door, greeting my next class and announcing my expectations: they’re to go to their assigned seats, get out their materials, and get started on the work listed on the board by the time the bell rings.

And by and large, most of them do exactly that, even though it’s the third or fourth such major shift they’ve confronted that day. They can’t guess the depth of my admiration.

Do you find it a challenging to switch from one high-demand task to another? Or have you figured out how to do it seamlessly and efficiently? Please comment and share!

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