Finals, Studying, and Survival Tips 12.9.16

img_5938I love finals week. Wait, don’t click off this page in disdain… Hear me out. It is a planner’s dream to approach finals week—for one week out of the semester, time seems suspended as classes don’t meet and you have these arbitrary times when tests are to be taken. Suddenly, it seems as if you’re in control of your destiny. And the words “finals week” gets you out of pretty much any event whatsoever. So in a way, time stops while millions of students the world across sit and study.

But really, I know that most students hate finals week. So without further ado, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about studying.

1) Map it out.

The first thing to do for any finals week (or upcoming test) is to plan out the time you’re going to devote to it. This is helpful for all of us. If you are the type to not spend enough time studying, this holds you to a standard; if you are the type that spends every hour awake studying, this makes you stick to a schedule and not turn into a zombie during finals week.

Pro Tip: If you have a take home final, plan the exact hours you’re going to take it. Even if this is spread out over a few days, it is much better than taking it in the wee hours of the morning because you forgot it was due the next day. I do not appreciate take home finals, but you can create an exam-like situation by turning off your phone, getting dressed for an exam, and having plans afterwards. Oh, and have a teapot full of some caffeine to keep you alert.

The goal here should be to create a realistic schedule in which you are not neglecting any class (or your health). There are two types of study schedules:fullsizeoutput_6dc

  • Time Based

In this sort of schedule, you set a time you want to devote to each subject for each day. This is the schedule I did for this week, so I’m spending about an hour and a half on each class per day. This is helpful if you could spend days studying one subject because of the depth, but need to focus your study on what is most important. Also helpful if you only have so many free hours per day. This prevents cramming for one exam, then cramming for another, etc.But even with this type of schedule, write out what you plan to do each hour, or else you may find yourself staring into space.

  •  Goal Based

For this schedule, break up what you need to study over the days that you have. If you have 7 chapters of Spanish to study for the exam on Wednesday, start on Tuesday the week prior, focusing on one chapter a day (excluding Sunday and the day of the exam). You may like this sort of schedule if you are unsure of how long each subject will take you. The danger in this schedule is studying yourself to death, so be sure to keep tip #4 in mind.

 

2) Shut off the WiFi.

I’ve spent…let’s see…about 17 years in school, and I still get distracted while studying. So don’t beat yourself up about it—find solutions. Something I started doing in college was putting my phone on airplane mode while studying and turning off the WiFi on my computer. If you still need your phone, or the WiFi, there is such a thing as turning off social media notifications or blocking websites that you frequent (yes, many of us have blocked Facebook while studying). And when you get back on social media after studying, think about how much more exciting that will be!

We can talk about the epidemic of distraction another day. It’s a problem.

 

3) Develop your own study habits.

I will go to the grave singing the praises of flashcards and timelines. My students know this (and some don’t appreciate it). Find what works for you and stick to it. Here are some ideas:

  • Create a “study guide” for yourself that includes key terms, definitions, and even diagrams
  • Make a timeline of major movements, people, and events
  • Go back and highlight your notes in different colors based on topics
  •  Study with other people in your class IF all of you are committed to actually studying
  • Make flashcards–there are apps for this, which are great because you can study whenever, wherever! But it is also helpful to be forced to write out the information on physical flashcards, as the act of writing assists in memory. Pick your poison.
  • Have a “location” for each study session. This could be moving from room to room, sitting at a coffee shop for a few hours, or going to the library. Anything that gets you out of a rut!

 

4) Remember the physical world.

Look back at #2. That’s right—if you actually study when you say you’re studying, and not distracted by social media or texting, you’ll be able to get much more sleep than planned. I’m not saying that late nights won’t happen—because they will—but find a schedule and stick to it. Remember that your brain is actually part of your body, and if you aren’t functioning correctly, your thinking will be impaired. Here are some ways to take care of yourself:

  • Set a consistent sleep schedule. For me, during finals, this is 1am. to 9am. You might have an 8am exam, so your schedule should be something more like 11am. to 7am. Take advantage of your natural tendencies–if your brain works best at midnight, like mine, then stay up until then. If you’re a morning person (how do you do it?!) wake up at 6am and get started.
  • Stick to your exercise schedule, if you have one. Don’t create more stress for your body by not following your schedule. And if you don’t workout, this is not the week to start! Just take a stroll every once in a while.
  • Don’t study non-stop all day. I know, this is the best part. You should absolutely take breaks! Get some fresh air, call a friend, cook a meal, exercise. This should also be mapped out in your schedule.
  • Eat well, especially on test days, and especially breakfast. If you’re tempted to indulge in holiday sweets, see my next tip…

 

5) Treat Yourself.

In the abyss of studying, I sometimes promise myself something that acts as motivation. For me, it’s usually food (“Stick to my schedule today and then I’ll go get a pint of chocolate ice cream tonight!”). Now, I don’t plan on gaining weight during finals week (because it will easily snowball into holiday weight) so remember that #4 is also essential. Maintain a generally balanced life while studying and a pint of ice cream won’t kill you. If, however, you’ve been surviving on 3 hours of sleep a night, haven’t showered in four days, and decided to forego your workout for the past two weeks, then sugar is the last thing I’d recommend. You’ll regret it.

If you are not motivated by food, we can’t be friends. Just kidding, but I’m not sure who isn’t. Here are some other possible motivations to get your studying done:

  • Go see a movie
  • Invite a friend over
  • Start that novel you keep saying you don’t have time to read
  • Buy a sweater
  • I really can’t think of anything else that doesn’t involve food.

 

Happy Studying!

Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?: Confessions of a Macbeth-Obsessed Teacher

img_2841When the air gets cooler and my preference switches from iced tea to hot, I have an insatiable desire to immerse myself in the story of Macbeth. Maybe my craving comes from the early-falling darkness that demands a tale to follow suit; perhaps it’s the talk of witches and spirits that haunts each October; but just maybe my inclination stems from a classroom tradition I established: the reading and performing of Macbeth every fall.

First, I’ll quickly confess that the playing-out of this tradition is evidence of my evolving philosophy of education. The first year, we rushed through: the students read mostly at

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My students are talented! Sammy Reuscher, “Macbeth”, whiteboard, 2015.

home, I quizzed, and then we did a very brief day of student-planned performances. Perfect! We had “checked” Shakespeare off the list. Onward to the rest of British literature! Of course, this was a sorry excuse for a study of Macbeth.

The second year, I slowed it down a bit: we read the entire play in class, spent a few weeks rehearsing an abridged version, and then performed it for the entire high school during morning classes. The students also submitted five journals reflecting on the experience and themes from the play. But there was something lacking: complete engagement with the text, as the play itself was still an attempt to “get through the material.”

The third year, I must admit, was a highlight of my teaching career thus far. I still failed in many ways: not addressing the needs of every student, not drawing some students into discussion, not giving enough time for rehearsals… but we read it together in class, discussed each act, contemplated particular lines from the play, and then students performed excerpts, memorizing the original language instead of an abridged version. Finally, we were living together in the narrative, reflecting on Shakespeare’s words, recognizing our own souls in the confessions of the characters.

 

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Rehearsal, Fall 2015

The Scottish play is a frightening narrative, but what’s even more unnerving is when you and most of your students can admit: “I understand Macbeth as a character.” This was a statement much more prevalent in that third year of our tradition, as we journeyed together through Macbeth’s tragedy. If you haven’t read the play, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of Macbeth as a character: he is tempted by a prophecy to take matters into his own hands and consequently kills the king and becomes a tyrant.

Wait—isn’t my goal to lead students in wisdom and virtue? How is it virtuous and wise to say that I can understand—nay, even identify with—Macbeth?

Despite growing up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, and teaching at Christian schools, it took me three years of teaching to realize that traditional Christian rhythms are helpful in leading students to wisdom and virtue: the pattern of daily prayer, the cycle of work and rest during the week and then the Sabbath, and the repetition of repentance and renewal each year during Lent and Easter. By this time in my teaching career, we were practicing the daily prayers at noon with my church history class, contemplating Berry’s Sabbath poetry in my AP Literature class… but I had yet to turn my “lectern into a confessional,” as Josh Gibbs often proposes. Some Christian practices in the classroom are encouraged, even by teachers in progressive education: addressing the marginalized, being hospitable to the stranger, giving to the poor. But the practice of repentance is inherently against the model of progressive education, where the teacher is seen as the ultimate guide and guardian to the students’ education and self-esteem.

Yet the Christian narrative does just that: subverts the worldly institutions and interrupts the secular narrative. In the third year of teaching Macbeth, I had decided that to truly encounter wisdom and virtue in this study, I had some repenting to do: his attempt to control his own fate, his power-hungry, ambitious self—well, that’s me. And some of my students followed in the confession, soon recognizing this downfall of human nature: the desire for power, the grasp for control. Macbeth himself confesses, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition…” and soon after realizes that he must attempt to hide his sin: “False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

After we recognized this downfall of Macbeth (and, if you will, the human race),  the unexpected occurred.

Macbeth is considered by most the darkest play that Shakespeare ever composed. But instead of the students agreeing with Macbeth that life “is a tale // told by an idiot, full of sound and fury // signifying nothing”, they recognized this manifesto as an extension of his pride. Suddenly, we could no longer follow Macbeth into insanity, as modern readers often do. Rather, the story itself showed us the way to renewal after repentance.

This redemptive reading of the tragedy is, I suggest, impossible to discern with the modern, nihilistic view of life. And that is why no contemporary production of Macbeth has ever satiated my autumnal cravings. But that’s for another post.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series. 

See Part 3 of the Macbeth series. 

 

Why “Dappled Studies”?

img_2700Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.
“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

If you know me well, you’ll gather two things: 1) my likelihood to name a blog after a poem, and 2) my obsession with Hopkins. This poem completed my long journey back to faith after an arduous crisis; how could I read it without experiencing both confession and praise?

Like most literary obsessions I now have, I discovered Hopkins’ poetry because of my students. When I taught AP Literature, I devoted an entire quarter to poetic structure—and, of course, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a textbook example (quite literally in our AP textbook). Intrigued by his mastery of sound, I began researching and discovered that this poet-turned-priest burned all of his pre-conversion poetry. He then swore off poetry because he didn’t see the connection between his vocation and art. Thankfully, seven years later, his rector pressured him to write a poem in remembrance of five monks drowning in a shipwreck, and afterwards he couldn’t put the pen down. What does this conviction of Hopkins’ to refrain from poetry reveal about his view of art?

Hopkins understood the power of art to speak to the human soul; he appreciated the responsibility of the artist; and perhaps above all, he realized the importance of language in pointing us to the Word Himself.

Yet Hopkins, for all his wisdom and clarity concerning art, had a dappled life. He was surrounded by darkness in his later years (see his poem “Peace”). And this idea of “dappling” reminds me of reality: there are shadows that we don’t quite understand, moments that will never become clear. There is a fickleness, a constant change to our lives, that may confuse us. This dappling affects even my studies: every grasping at truth seems to terminate in both beauty and mystery.

I remember discovering this poem last winter, and it became so sacred to me that I didn’t even want to teach it. But I eventually gave in–even if it was just for the beauty of Hopkins’s language–and brought it into the classroom. My students, being teenagers, were experiencing immense changes every day; they were struggling to see the beauty of life, wondering who would be loyal in the end, and perhaps seeking something eternal. Hopkins, in eleven short lines, encapsulates my goal in the classroom: to communicate beauty, mystery, and an unchanging God while inviting moments of doxology and confession.

The line that surprises me every time I read this poem is the last: “Praise him.” For all the things we encounter in life, those things “counter, original, spare, strange,” our response should be doxology. What begins as a description of spotted things ends in a simple response: praising the God of all.

And if you haven’t read this poem all the way through–aloud–now would be the time; you may soon come to appreciate Hopkins’s mastery of the English language and his insight into the human soul.