Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.
The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.
The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.
Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)
This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.
Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.
Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.
With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.
This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup, Poets.org, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)
Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.
I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.
Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.
Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.
The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.
“Here,” she said, holding out her hand, “quick, before they start to melt.” I pinched a handful of the small opalescent orbs from my girlfriend’s outstretched hand and flicked them into my mouth. Within seconds the Dexedrine disintegrated underneath my tongue, providing my nervous system with its first taste of amphetamine. For the next four hours we sat rooted to the bench in the middle of one of the parks in my neighborhood. We had freshly lit new cigarettes in our mouths before the ones we were smoking had a chance to burn out. The amphetamines she boosted from her older brother gave every cigarette a candy-like sheen. We smoked and talked and smoked all afternoon until the rush-hour commuters began to clog the highway bordering the park.
I didn’t touch my dinner that night. Not only can stimulants repress your appetite, they can make the tiniest scrap of food hit your stomach with the weight of a Thanksgiving meal. I fidgeted, tapped my feet, and dismissed myself as quickly as possible. That night I couldn’t sleep; the aftershock of the chemicals wouldn’t wear off for another 12 hours. I spent the next day in a neurotransmitter hangover, lurching from class to class as my swollen synapses struggled to function without its regular ration of dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine.
I was immediately hooked. Amphetamines made everything exhilarating. It didn’t matter if I had to complete math problems, vacuum the rug, or play the guitar; a few doses of Ritalin allowed me to take part in and enjoy the grist of life in a profoundly enjoyable manner. At least, it did for the first few hours. The brain-on-fire high was always followed with a painful period of self-enclosure. I wouldn’t want to move or participate in anything. Even talking hurt. It also was instrumental in reviving my academic career. My SAT scores shot up 400 points and, for the first time, I was able to meet deadlines. I needed it, but I was unable to control myself around it.
When my girlfriend broke things off with me a few days later, I knew I had to find more. My own brother, then about to graduate, had been taking Ritalin for many years. Never before would I have considered sneaking into his room and taking anything, much less medication. Yet that afternoon I rummaged through his things with feral intensity. I burned through my brother’s monthly allotment in days. I just assumed it was an endless resource he could refill at a moment’s notice, not realizing that I had just screwed him for the rest of the month. I began to steal Ritalin from my best friends, digging through their backpacks whenever they went to the bathroom.
Within a week or two of finding my brother’s medication, my parents called a family meeting. I kept my eyes glued to the empty pill bottle sitting on the dining room table, nodding along as my mother explained about insurance, controlled substances, and how the former restricted access to the latter. It was decided that I should talk to a psychiatrist. My mom had been thinking about having me checked out for ADHD for years. She was concerned because I would test into the ‘advanced’ classes only to drop out of them when my classwork failed to measure up. Teachers told her that I was ready for the harder material, I just made too many simple mistakes.
After I was in the system I was hooked. My grades went up and my academic self-efficacy grew. But I couldn’t out-think my growing addiction to them. I would gulp down a month’s supply in days, requiring me to make up stories to my psychiatrist about how I wanted to try out different types of medication. Ritalin didn’t last long enough. Adderall lasted too long. Each new prescription I scored bought me another week’s worth of uppers. By the time I cycled through enough medications, the month had passed and I was able to go back to Ritalin. It took only a few days before I’d memorized the correct sequence of directional commands to navigate the complex phone tree at my local pharmacy. Welcome to the CVS Pharmacy. Press Zero for the pharmacy. Press 4 to check to see if your refill is ready. Please enter your social security number and press pound. Please enter your medical ID number and press pound. Please enter the prescription ID number and press pound. Your prescription is now ready.
This lasted until college when my mom had to drive to my dorm (I went to a local school) once a week in order to drop off the week’s supply. We would meet in the parking lot and exchange plastic bottles. It was the only way I could manage. But by my senior year I was back. I would implore girlfriends to hide my pill bottles only to wait for them to fall asleep before I tip-toed around their apartments. I learned where to find things (bottom of purses, sock drawers in closets) and how to hunt for something at a moment’s notice (an impromptu phone call, someone at the door).The abuse continued until I was taping eyeballs closed at night, placing the tape horizontally, of course, and gulping gin in order to fall asleep.
Over time I somehow developed the ability to manage my addiction to stimulants. There was no single rock bottom, just a slow ascent out of the heart-rending static of methylphenidate addiction. When I quit drinking I knew I had to cut down on the Ritalin. As I matured and entered into the work force, the rhythms of adult life required me to maintain a consistent and dependable sleep schedule. While I still relish the rush of the day’s first dose, I’m able to keep my addiction in control. My daily allotment (30mg) would have been an appetizer ten years ago. Luckily my body never developed much of a tolerance.
Even though my Ritalin use is under control, I am still addicted. They are crucial to my success. I have no idea what life without Ritalin feels like. I’m just too scared. While I’m sure my brain would eventually adjust after a rocky period of chemical imbalance, I’m not willing to risk it. I don’t see a need to. I have no guilt about using medication to improve the quality of my life, and I function at acceptable levels of adult capitalist productivity.
Stimulants have become a necessary component to managing my life with severe ADHD. When they wear off it’s almost impossible to concentrate. Everything I access through my senses seems important and worthy of examination. Every object, aberration, corporeal figure, audio cue, etc., screams at me, beating down my senses with the incessant demand to be noticed and accounted for. My working memory is non-existent. I move through life in an impenetrable fog, able to experience only what’s directly in front of me. And I can’t stop talking. The words just spill out. I used to have a hand-written sign taped above the television that read ‘STOP TALKING’ as a reminder to try and spare my wife from my endless commentary.
I originally wanted this piece to move into what it’s like teaching with ADHD, but I’ll leave that for another post. I wanted to explore a part of my life that has helped me survive while providing me with so many opportunities to fall.
The Golden Age of Routine
Every single thing in my life requires automation. My alarm goes off every morning at 5:00 AM EST. I’m always up a few minutes before that, however, sitting up over the covers and watching the clock. My brain needs those five minutes to boot up and compile a list of the day’s events. By 4:59 my hand hovers an inch above the ALRM – ON/OFF button, waiting to tamp it down as soon as the clock’s morning ululation hits my auditory nerve. The alternative requires me to remember turning the actual alarm itself off and back on every night, which, let’s be honest here, just isn’t going to cut it. From that point on, my morning practically runs itself. I pad quietly out of the bedroom and make a beeline towards the kitchen. Every action seamlessly flows into the next. Open the cabinet to pull out the coffee with the right hand while reaching for the skillet in the left. Scoop coffee grounds while pivoting to apply non-stick coating to the skillet. Ideally, I could do this blindfolded. My wife, however, tends to throw up a few roadblocks to my perfect routinized synchronicity. Being a relatively normal human being, she puts items back in their generalized location. Her taxonomy of locations stratifies something like this: Kitchen Cabinet -> R/L Side -> 1st/2nd/3rd Shelf. Mine, on the other hand, reaches a level of anality best left to the imagination. My shower routine is equally methodical. The confined space of the bathroom, however, mandates a level of balletic grace unrequired during breakfast preparation. I floss while pirouetting into opening the shower curtains and etc. You get the point.
My severe ADHD makes this level of routine necessary. My brain struggles to pick out what’s important from my perceptual field of awareness. It’s not that I can’t pay attention; it’s that I pay attention to everything. For instance, when most people peruse the aisles in a grocery store, their brains adequately filter out what’s needed and what’s not. Looking for a particular brand of spaghetti sauce? No problem! Simply head to the proper section of the store and grab the Ragu from where it always sits. Even if the grocery gods have cruelly temporarily relocated their entire Ragu stock to a random end-cap, the non-ADHD brain quickly adapts. For people with attention problems, however, a trip to the supermarket is more akin to a Virgil-less stroll through the underworld. No matter how many times I’ve been to that particular store, every trip feels like the first time. Objects and people of every size, shape, and color of the ROYGBIV spectrum coalesce into a deafening synaptic overload. So I do what I can to make food shopping as painless as possible. This is where routine comes in. Routine cleaves out a safe space for my attention to stretch its legs.
So every week I go to the same store. I buy the same amount of the same items. After a while, people start to notice. Comments ranging from the innocuous, “Hey, got enough baked ziti?” to the slightly more suspect, “Man, you gotta try something new.” Occasionally things pop up. For instance, last Sunday brought an unexpected trip to the dog park. As a result, I wasn’t able to keep my weekly appointment with Trader Joes. Upon entering the store a few hours late, I was immediately greeted with exaggerated cries of holes in the space-time continuum and Chicken Little-esque portents of doom.
I’ve always been this way. Andrea loves to tell the story of our first official date. After wining and dining her with the winning combination of food court Mexican food and an abysmal movie, we headed back to my place. The way she tells it, as soon as the clock hit 10:00 PM, I detached myself from her face, stood up, and told her it was bedtime and she had to go. We were both in various stages of undress when I delivered the coitus interruptus, leading to a pretty uncomfortable next few minutes. My mind had already ventured a full sixty minutes beyond its historically immutable 9:00 PM bedtime, I told her. She should feel privileged!, I said. I must have overpowered her doubts, as she head-scratchingly agreed to a second date