Socks, Sandals, and Tapping into the Archives

Do you have readily accessible writing from years past?  Journals, old MS Word files, e-mail archives? 
How often you do sift through old material that has either gathered cobwebs or digital dust bunnies? 

During my first three to four years of teaching–I’m about to start my ninth–I enjoyed sharing my experiences with friends and family via narrative mass e-mails.  It was my way of journaling, practicing the writing craft, and telling stories.  I’ve never been fond of sharing tiny snippets of my life via social media.  Context matters.  

Below is an unedited mass e-mail to friends and family from 2007.  I taught middle school language arts at the time, and I can see my confidence as a teacher coming to fruition.  I can see a different style and tone than what I usually write for Mindful Stew, but I know I’ve clung on to the belief that weaving personal experience and anecdotes into writing is crucial to me, despite my recent penchant to produce arguments and musings on more intellectual topics.


Letter to Family and Friends, September 2007    

Hope all is well wherever this message finds you.  My interactions with students this year have been uber-positive, to the extent that I haven’t had a single student talk back or written a single discipline referral.  Knock on wood.  There are plenty of things I can improve on as a teacher, but positive classroom management/student engagement is a strong suit. While during my horrific fist year I might have engaged the students in learning for 25% of a class period (on a good day), I can run close to 100% this year if I so desire.  I’ll offer up the following nuggets in an attempt to explain the wonderful start to the year…

  1. On any given day, I might challenge them to a Spicy Cheetos Eating contest, lead Simon Says games (if they seem to be lacking energy), or play funk anthems and threaten to break dance.  The power of humor cannot be overstated when creating a vibrant, positive learning climate.

  2. I’ve looped up to 8th grade this year, meaning I have many of the same students I taught as 7th graders.  The advantage of having prior interaction with about half my students is paying dividends.  It shocks me that many coworkers are opposed to this idea of looping. 

  3. We’ve got access to wireless laptops at Shelby East Middle School.  Bringing the laptops into the classroom is instant student engagement. I have to ask them to be off-task when you pop that fancy piece of plastic in front of them.

  4. Instead of telling the kids what I don’t want them to do, I’ve made my most concerted to date in teaching them what I want them to do.  For instance, when a certain song plays at the end of class—right now it’s “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—the students know it’s time to clean up, pass in papers, and stand behind their assigned seats. As I write this, I realize I have no posted rules in the classroom. 

  5. I deemphasize the heck out of grades, and emphasize the heck out of effort, cooperation, engagement, and self-reflection.  It is sad that grades remain a primary motivational tool for most teachers, because grades and authentic learning are, unfortunately, not necessarily correlated in a good way.

  6. I’ve been consistent in treatment/discipline of students.  As teachers we hear, time and time again, how crucial consistency is, but sometimes it’s hard to treat the apathetic skater-punk the same as the Talented and Gifted, straight-A-receiving daughter of a coworker.  But I began to get pretty good at the consistency game last year.  Students appreciate this and find no reason to talk back or get frustrated if they don’t see their teacher playing favorites.

So there it is, the Paul Barnwell Guide to Teaching…what’s not on the list is mention of the inherent danger of having irrational interactions with middle grades students.  Please read below.

          A couple weeks ago, I found myself at our middle school football game.  Our school is not known as an academic powerhouse, but neither are we renowned for being an athletic juggernaut.  Nonetheless, I wanted to make an appearance, knowing that students usually get a kick out of seeing their teachers out of the classroom setting. 

            I arrived and moved towards the bleachers but was promptly cut off by one of my students and her friend Julie.  Before I could take a breath …”Hi, I’m Julie I had Mr. Franzen last year he probably told you about me taping a cheeseburger to his globe that was so funny would you think that would be like so funny if you were the teacher did you know that he only has one shirt?  It’s a blue one with a big collar oh my god are you wearing socks with your sandals you need help with fashion too!”

            “I choose to spend my money on things besides clothes,” I replied.

            “Mr. Barnwell wears Hawaiian shirts all the time,” Katie added.  I noticed Julie take a deep breath before unleashing more verbal diarrhea.

            “Well that’s nice but I still think you should do something about those socks oh my gosh don’t you have any fashion sense plus it’s hot out so there’s no reason to wear socks aren’t you going to say anything?  Hannah is my best friend is she doing well in your class?  I bet she is we go back a long long long way and oh my gosh did you see that play? You’re boring I’m leaving now Nice to meet you Mr. Barnwell don’t get Hannah in trouble this year ok?

            “Enjoy the rest of the game Julie.”

            I moved up to a vacant spot in the East bleachers—right on the 50-yard line— and battled the glare from the setting sun, watching the Missiles lose a 24-14 contest that was much more lopsided than the score indicated.  I took off my socks and put them in my pocket.  Maybe it was too hot to wear socks, but I felt grateful that motormouth wasn’t on any of my class rosters…




  1. Ivon,
    Thanks for commenting! That’s great–I don’t think I would be able to access any poetry I wrote back in the day, but I’d probably be able to get my hands on some prose if I rummaged through some old boxes.
    I usually enjoy sharing my writing with students–in fact, many of them didn’t know how a blog could be such an engaging writing activity. I’d rather see students become bloggers than Facebookers and Tweeters, but I suppose there is room for all of it.

  2. Paul, I occasionally run through some older writing and I find it interesting how I have evolved. I am glad to hear I am not the only one who hordes past writings, scribblings, and journal entries.

    Last year,during our poetry unit, several students asked if I had ever written poetry in junior high. I said yes and they asked if I would bring it to class and share it. After cleaning it up (language and teenage angst) I did. I was quite amazed how it motivated students to write poetry.

    Thank you for sharing.


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