The realization that the turn lane looked a tad icy came just a moment too late. Instead of executing my usual smooth turn from one country road onto another on my commute down to school, my car clumsily skidded from one country road onto another.

My instincts from years of driving on slick snowy and icy roads kicked in, and I quickly righted the car. No harm, no foul.

After the initial adrenaline died down, the anger kicked in. Which, frankly, surprised me. Usually the emotions sequence is adrenaline (whoa!) – relief (thank goodness I’m ok) – self-admonishment (jeez, drive more carefully next time!). But this time I went from whoa! right to #$*%!! And not #$*% the road is icy! but #$*% why is this happening and why can’t I get a break for just one darn minute?

Ah, bingo!

I’d been in my usual peripherally aware driving state — that state of mind where you’re obviously paying attention to the road and the other drivers and such but you’re still free to think about other things, like what that podcast guest just said or how pretty the sundogs are this morning or I wonder what kind of soup the cafe will have today? And the road conditions changed to the point where I had to shift awareness from peripherally aware to hyperaware. Not usually a problem; that’s winter driving for you!

But I realized I was angry because I really needed to not be hyperaware for a hot second. I’ve been operating in hyperaware mode almost constantly since the term started, and it’s exhausting.

When all of my students are in the same room with me, I’m aware of what’s happening on multiple levels — reading body language to sense how well they’re understanding the material, monitoring the room for questions, paying attention to how well students are working together or who’s on task. Most of this time I’m highly aware. Years of teaching experience mean that I can take small peripherally-aware breaks — freeing me up to think about the transition to the next topic, or assess whether to skip the next activity so that I have time to introduce the next concept.

But when I have students in front of me and students on Zoom, I’m now hyperaware all of the time. I’m monitoring students in the classroom with one set of visual and emotional cues, and students on Zoom with a different set of visual and emotional cues. I don’t have time to downshift, even for a second, to any state less than hyperaware.

This hyperawareness extends outside of the classroom. How do I structure this sensitive conversation in a meeting when everyone is on Zoom and I have to both manage the conversation and try to discern body language? Should I make this particular ask of this particular person given how overburdened I know they are? And in the past few weeks, with a non-COVID sick kid and a concussed kid at home, I’ve been hyperaware there too (how worried should I be about this kid’s headache? is this too much screen time? do we need to figure out if concussed kid needs accommodations for finals?).

Even just walking around and existing in the world requires hyperawareness. How many people around me are not wearing masks? How many people are in this space? How risky is being in this space?

The need to be hyperaware is, sadly, not going away anytime soon — and part of the issue is that I have no idea how long this hyperaware state needs to last. Will the COVID situation get better in a month? Will I get to a point where I don’t have any students on Zoom, even for just a day? But just being able to put my finger on the fact that I am hyperaware the majority of the time is helpful. I know now to be hyperaware (ha!) of scheduling downtime and breaks, and to honor my limits more strictly. I have a name for part of the cause of my seemingly constant exhaustion, and while that doesn’t change the situation, it does provide a small bit of comfort. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.

What I’m reading: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.

What I’m listening to: I’ve been enjoying the “between-isodes” of The Agile Academic podcast, with the focus on reflection and intention-setting for the new year.


“x, y, z. Pretty close.”

My family and I spent a week with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece at the end of my winter break. My niece is a year and a half old, and unintentionally hysterical in the way that really young kids are.

My SIL recently taught my niece to recite the alphabet. As my niece practiced saying the letters and repeating the order, my SIL encouraged her by saying, “Pretty close!” My SIL used this phrase often enough that now my niece ends every recitation of the alphabet with a hearty “Pretty close.” To her, “pretty close” IS part of the alphabet.

(The alphabet recitation happened many times during our visit, and it never got old.)

I’ve been thinking about this scenario and how it relates to how students form mental models of course content. I recently introduced my Software Design students to git and GitHub. Students often struggle to learn version control — the workflow and the commands — and don’t develop great mental models as a result. Particularly at this point in the term, when they’ve only done two short labs introducing them to the key commands and ideas, git seems to consist of a series of magical and confusing commands you issue in hopes that your code will be saved in your local and remote repositories (as illustrated beautifully in this xkcd comic). It’s hard at this point for them to figure out which commands are “alphabet commands” — necessary to complete the task at hand — and which commands are “pretty close commands” — not necessary for the current task, but they’ve heard them in conjunction with the other commands and figure they must play a role in completing the task.

Eventually, my niece will realize that “pretty close” is not the last letter of the alphabet, as she gains more understanding of and fluency with language and has more opportunities to practice the alphabet with feedback. And eventually, given enough practice and repeated exposure to the workflows, most of my students will be able to cut out the “pretty close commands” as their mental models of git shift. My role, to help them get to that point, is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to practice various workflows, while providing an underlying model of what’s happening to the repositories as they issue and execute those commands and providing appropriate feedback to help students figure out what parts of their models are correct and which ones need refining.

What I’m reading: The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir, by Sherry Turkle.

What I’m listening to: The audiobook version of No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), by Kate Bowler. (Apparently it’s Memoir Week around these parts!)

A rough start to the term and a prescient one (ok, two) word theme for 2022

Slack message: "Raise your hand if you are currently experiencing Week 9 levels of exhaustion" with 1 thumbs up and 3 hands up emojis.
Slack message to my department last Friday. So much for easing into the term…

Winter term started last Wednesday (January 5). It’s been every bit of chaotic as expected, and then some.

Some “highlights”:

  • Every class meeting has been hybrid. Unplanned hybrid.
  • Well, except for Monday, which I taught fully online because I have a sick (non-COVID) kid at home and of course this week my partner is out of town.
  • (Sick kid was finally diagnosed with strep. Is still contagious, so can’t go back to school until Thursday. Time to Reschedule All The Things!)
  • Day 1: the number of students on Zoom due to COVID was dwarfed by the number of students who couldn’t get back to campus in time due to travel issues.
  • Our COVID numbers are concerning, like everywhere else. This week’s second round of baseline testing for everyone should be…interesting? frightening? all of the above?
  • The sick kid’s school nurse was so backed up trying to record all the absences on Monday that we got a robocall from the district about our kid’s unexcused absence. (I really feel for the nurses / teachers / school staff trying to keep everything together in this chaos!)
  • Today’s message of doom from the school: elder kiddo (vaxxed and boosted, thankfully) is a close contact of someone who just tested positive, so now we are all on Covid Watch.

So, yeah, not the smoothest start to the term.

While I followed through on my plan for a year without goals, I did decide to pick a one word theme for the year. Or, rather, I couldn’t decide between two words, so I mushed them together to form a two-word theme for the year:

Gentle serendipity.

My intent with this theme is to stay present with whatever life’s presenting me at the moment, rather than trying to micromanage my way to control (serendipity), and to be ok with whatever decisions I make as a result, with a minimum of self-flagellation (gentle). Given how much is uncertain in my life right now — what’s my next career move when I’m done being STEM Director? when will I be able to run again / figure out this latest cluster of injuries? what changes do we need to make to special needs kid’s treatment plan to set him up for success as he starts middle school next year? will democracy survive in the US? — I need both flexibility and a reminder to treat myself with the same grace I try to treat others.

And boy, have I needed that this week.

My theme has become my mantra this week. And while I’m not going to lie and pretend that I haven’t raged internally at the extraordinarily bad timing of my partner’s business trip and my kid’s illness, or questioned whether it’s actually worth getting out of bed in the morning, repeating “gentle serendipity” (admittedly, sometimes between clenched teeth) moves me out of my head and forward. It’s helped me see the humor in the ill-placed typos in the in-class activity on Monday and use it as a teachable moment, to myself and my students, about the importance of knowing and honoring your physical and mental limits. (In this case, because I stayed up way too late Sunday night trying to finish the lab, well past the point of diminishing returns.) It’s reminded me to ask for, and accept, help. It’s helped me slow down, notice, and listen to what’s going on around me (which helped clue me in to how sick my kid was in the first place).

On the bright side, having so much early practice employing my theme is likely allowing the theme to take strong hold and setting me up for theme success in the new year!

I hope you are being gentle with yourself, and serendipitous as well, as the new year starts. (And if you have a theme for the year, I’d love to hear what it is in the comments!)