Living · Teaching · Writing

The List of Lists

Summer for a teacher is a weird thing.

My Writing Journal, Italian Journal, Creative Journal, Bullet Journal, and Bird-Watching Journal. Or, Summer on a Shelf.

On the one hand, we need to rest; teaching is exhausting both intellectually and emotionally (in addition to physically). On the other hand, as a group, we’re not particularly good at it.

There are conferences to attend, research to pursue, classes to update, texts to consider, lessons to plan, and administrative work that does not end when the students go home.

See? I have already started. Summer, for me, is about lists.

I have begun. I have made the List of Lists for this summer. It is inclusive, if not exhaustive, of all the things I want to do in the next two months.

For work, I will write an article, choose and prepare lessons for a new book, meet with Teaching Assistants to orient them for their first semester, and prep a class I haven’t taught in a while. This class needs to be updated for semesters, which includes finding a couple of additional books and planning lessons for them and shifting the entire syllabus, since my school’s switching from a Quarter system to a Semester system changes… everything. And then there’s the more intangible “work” I don’t get paid for, which include writing this blog and pursuing that dream of being a novelist–by finding an agent for the first book and getting past chapter three on the next one.

So much for the myth that teachers have summers off.

All those items are handily subdivided in my bullet journal in tangible, “actionable,” bite-size pieces.

After work, of course, there will be other lists. I’m still working on learning Italian, but my conversation partner is in Russia for the summer, so there are lists of movies to watch, verbs to study, books to read with a dictionary close to hand, and levels of language apps to power through.

What is that? Is that work? It will help me teach Dante. Is it Self-Care? I’m staving off dementia, you know. Is it relaxing time? Sure. But also no. Whatever. There’s a list for it.

Summer is also time for home. We have some Home Improvement-type projects going, including fixing the infamous Bee Pillar for real. It is functional (read: it keeps bees out) at present, but it is not pretty. So the first item on the list is Prettifying the Bee Pillar. In fact, if we kept the list just to Finishing Projects We Started Ill-Advisedly Before Summer And Had to Abort, we would fill our summer. But we’re optimists, and we have an idle-ish pair of teens, so we’re overstuffing that list as well.

I also do a Summer Purge, where I go through a room at a time and find stuff to donate and “share” with friends and fellow teachers (mostly books for understocked classrooms). There are lists for that, and officially, the whole purge is just one item on the Master List.

And we really should do some of that stuff they call Self-Care. In fact, it probably should be first. Things that refuel me at the end of the year include sleeping well past 6 am, staring numbly at the wall—preferably while holding a cat, reading pulp fiction and Other Books I Never Intend to Teach, and doing Crafty Sorts of Things.

I should also have a list for Health. So I do. I have every good intention of improving my diet (that’s worth a whole page in my bullet journal), maintaining my water intake when there’s no built-in measure of “a bottle per class,” upping my normal routine of dog-walkies to include elliptical training, and stretching my stupid Achilles tendon ten bloody times a day to combat my tendonitis. Yes, some of my lists are written for me.

It’s ok, though. Every time I generate a list, I relieve a little anxiety. Right now, with my summer neatly organized in a series of headers with cascading columns of items to check off, I am cool as a cucumber.

Bring on the heat, So-Cal. I’m ready.

Living · Teaching

Memory, the Mother of the Arts

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She is the mother of the Muses. So memory gives us the arts.

The Muses are the goddesses of inspiration who bless mortals with the gifts of song, dance, and contemplation. There are muses of epic poetry (Calliope), of lyric poetry (Euterpe), of love songs (Erato), of songs to the gods (Polyhymnia), of history (Clio), of chorus and dance (Terpsichore), of tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia), and of astronomy (Urania).
All of these arts rely on memory. Creating and performing these works means holding lines of verse, tunes, and motions in your head, keeping them in order, delivering them with the grace of a goddess. If we don’t have good memories, we can’t be good artists.
For all its miracles, Google is not helping us in the memory department. Don’t get me wrong; Google is amazing and powerful. I once employed its virtuosic search engine to identify a particularly nasty bug in my bathroom. I typed “big-ass bug with too many legs” in the glowing bar, and it delivered image after image of exactly the thing: a house centipede. So I know its phenomenal capabilities.
What I worry about is how much people are coming to rely on it. Sometimes I feel like my students have very little impetus (beyond the fear of failing quizzes) to remember anything; they’ll just Google it. My partner teaches chemistry. He has seen students who know the molecular weights of elements Google the weight of a compound instead of simply adding the weights together.
This seems small, I suppose, but I think it’s probably… not small.
When we stop calculating, we slowly lose the ability to check Google’s responses. When we stop memorizing things, we forget how to. When we don’t have stories and details and random facts that we find cool stored in our heads, we have nothing from which to create new worlds and solve the problems of this one. Memory is the mother of creativity.
It behooves us, then, to increase our memory. We need to go to the mental gym, not just the muscle gym. Those things that help us remember things? They’re called mnemonics, from Mnemosyne. Here are a few that always work.
 
Tell a story. If you want to remember a fact or a lesson, give it a narrative. We love stories (as evidenced by the fact that squarely seven and a half of those muses work in words). If you want to teach children to stay away from strangers, you tell them “Little Red Riding Hood.” If you want to teach them multiplication tables, it works there too. (There’s a video called Times Tales that animates numbers with narratives and helps kids memorize even math facts with stories).
 
Make a list. When we group things together that are similar, we visualize them together and see how they connect to each other. We have a tremendous ability to remember lists, whether we make up jingles for them or see them in our mind’s eye. Thinking of things’ similarities helps us remember them.
 
Visit your Mind Palace. Long before the BBC Sherlock visualized his Mind Palace to recall things, medieval folks imagined mental cathedrals, slotting facts or story blocks or shopping lists in to the stained glass windows of a cathedral and imagining themselves walking through it, seeing the items in order.
There are many more. When I have my students create journals for my Myth as Literature class, I give them complete freedom to use whatever tricks they can to help them remember the stories. Some make elaborate family trees. Some draw comics of their favorite scenes. Some write Tinder biographies of all the gods. Some theme their whole journal around what drink a god or hero would order at Starbucks and why it’s appropriate.
We need to do more of this, not less. We need to figure out what method works for us individually and what has a good track record on the whole, and we need to start employing these tricks. I’m heartened by the resurgence in Commonplace Books and Art and Bullet Journaling;  there does seem to be a trend currently to write things down that we want to remember.
Whatever we do, we need to combat the tendency to offload all our knowledge in to data files and websites. Otherwise we risk not only losing our ability to be creative, but also our own stories, our own lives, in the waters of Lethe, the River of Oblivion.