10 Things I’ve Learned: a response to Doug Peterson’s Blog

This morning I continued my usual routine of reading blogs and preparing for virtual meetings, trying to catch a digestible drink from the firehose of online teaching resources. I made an attempt to consolidate my learning here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DMgQIkgMS_UVn0E2Lc73Zqq-N8a2vO9yxRuIcG0NkGs/edit?usp=sharing

Then I read Doug Peterson’s blog because he has the ability to deliver big ideas in meaningful bites, and still retain the essence of what is necessary; his blog is always a sip of usefulness. He wrote, “Over the course of this time at home and watching the news, I was reflecting on the different things that I’ve learned” and he challenged others to share in this.

My list is different in many ways, but this is what I learned in March 2020.

  1. Writing matters – when I practice written expression, I sort out ideas and feelings in conversation with myself. Writing forces me into my own head and heart and the action of documentation helps me make sense of what matters.
  2. Daily writing matters – without the force of commitment behind me, there are always legitimate reasons to avoid doing something – especially when they are hard. Daily writing forced me to confront a struggle and this understanding is a reminder for me; struggle is part of the process of growth.
  3. Writing teachers should write – teaching it is really difficult. And I would predict the practice of writing ends after Teachers College or University. My good friend, Amanda Potts shared her believe that writing teachers should write; and she is right.
  4. Writing builds curiosity – I started to notice small details about life and the people in my neighbourhood because I needed these observations for description. By observing and witnessing the world from social distancing, I became more curious about the small and seemingly insignificant things.
  5. Curiosity creates empathy – in being more curious, I started to considered movement from someone else’s perspective and it occurred to me that this curiosity is a form of empathy. Through describing people and their physical abilities or circumstances, I had to put myself in their shoes and wondered at the remarkable in the everyday.
  6. Loss builds appreciation – I remember my student teacher complaining about the public bent to criticize teachers; it really bothered him. But, I have witnessed a shift in this popular thinking online, and what I do, as a teacher, with this time will be important to the future appreciation of teachers. I need to make the most of loss.blog pic of staff
  7. Social Distancing unites – we can’t be together, but we are together – in this. I realized this when the staff at my school started arranging virtual hangouts and videos and collaborating in ways that are unprecedented. We are all full of fear about the way this will work, but we are united in making this distance learning work for students and one another.
  8. Discomfort promotes growth – discomfort is often a choice for the privileged; it has been for me as a White teacher. But, it’s the only place from which I can grow. This is going to be messy, and I’m going to make mistakes, so I’m going to embrace the discomfort because I’m hopeful.
  9. Students need connection – Before we left for March break, many of my students expressed anxiety and panic. When I invited them to Google Hangouts over the past few weeks, they showed up, slowly at first, cautiously, but eventually we had nearly a full class meeting. Just to connect and for me to reassure them and they expressed thanks in ways that was unexpected.
  10. Students need models of courage – I know my students need me to be resilient and optimistic and demonstrate that I am opening to learning and failing in public. Now is the time when I can practice being courageous by trying something new, exploring teaching and learning as fearlessly as possible. Brene Brown said it best, “There is no courage without vulnerability.”

Falling in love – 31/31 #SOL20

Since I’ve been writing daily, I’ve occasionally lost my sense of time and space which is common when you fall in love. Writing and commenting in this space, where teachers gather and share and comment – this has been my daily anchor – a routine that can be relied upon.

And since I’ve been writing daily, I’ve noticed changes in myself. Writing has slowed my thinking and my responding. I have fallen in love again. Although writing takes time, it was a luxury that I afforded myself and often, it came before anything else. There was one day this week, as I was doing my usual thinking and researching potential topics for writing, when it occurred to me that curiosity is a form of empathy.

I fell in love again because I became increasingly curious about the ways that others wrote, about the topics they chose, and about them as human beings. I watched the emotional waves of life experiences rise and fall and rise again. I watched the comments lift and support and validate all of the diverse voices. This space became a place for me to visit and stop by a stranger’s place for a chat. This witnessing of the stories unfold and the sharing of emotions which, at times, were so deeply personal made me realize that in this community of writers, there is an unwritten code of trust. A trust that writers can share the private parts of themselves with no risk. The writers are always supported in this web of care. And then, I realized that we were participating in an act of love.

One of my favourite philosophers is Cornell West. I love his wild and wonderful hair, the gap in his teeth, his infectious laugh and smile, but most importantly his incredible intellect. He has the rare ability to distill a complex topic to something tangibly human. He said, that “Justice is love made public”. And since I believe that this is true, then this blog space is justice in action.

I want to thank everyone for their love in this space.

P.S. This list is not exhaustive, but I am forever grateful for the writing and feedback from the following:

Sherri Spelic

Elisabeth Ellington

Glenda Funk

Susan Kennedy

Eddie Hren

My new friend, Lisa Corbett

And my dear friend, Amanda Potts

 

 

Dear Students – 30/31 #SOL20

Dear Students,

I don’t quite know where to begin this letter, or at least, this is the umpteenth time that I’ve begun this letter because writing is all about the drafts, which, of course, you already know, because you heard me say this when we were in class. I mean, I know my purpose for writing, but I worry about my purpose for reading and whether or not this letter will adequately convey the complexity of my thoughts and the incongruence of my emotions. I started drafting an outline, but this isn’t an essay or a poem or a short story or any of the usual forms of writing. This is the kind of message that sort of follows one’s heart.

letter planningAnd, I definitely don’t want this to come off as some tearful, needy, “I am not complete without you” burdening message because, let’s face it, I’m the adult in the room. And that is disingenuous, and no teenager needs to feel the burden of an adult’s emotional life. You need us to keep teaching and supporting your learning, so I think what I want to do in this letter is share a little bit of my learning and we can figure out where this goes.

One of my most significant lessons has been from my writing, here, on this blog. At the beginning of March, I committed to writing a post every day for 31 days, and here I am at Day 30. Wow, I can hardly believe it. There were some days I wasn’t sure if I’d make it and some of my writing really sucked, but there were some days when I just had to just write something and post it without worrying. Just let it go. Stop aiming for perfection in every piece. Get it done and move on.

I guess what I really learned here is that just like me, you are going to struggle with writing. But, what you need is a teacher that writes. Regularly. In fact, maybe even daily. And another lesson that grew out of this daily practice of writing was a heightened sense of awareness. I started paying closer attention to the world around me, my neighbours, my dog, and this grew a kind of curiosity in me. As I wrote about them, I wondered about their challenges and how they were doing in this time of “social distancing”.

Irony: the opposite of what is expected. Do you see it here? But, maybe it’s more than irony. Maybe it’s a paradox, two seemingly contradictory ideas that hold an essential truth. That is, the physical distancing actually brings us closer to one another socially. Do you think that might be true?

Did I tell you that I’m practicing lessons using Screencastify? It’s taking time to plan, but I think it’s going to be really helpful for learning at home. I’m making a lesson on essay writing, but what I really want to do is make a bunch of lessons on creative writing; how punctuation can convey – remember conveyor belt – ideas in your writing. I want you to look up words and use visuwords to build better ways of expressing your thinking. Furthermore, I could also do a lesson on transitional words, and in light of this opportunity, phrases as well.

And, this increased use of technology is taking up a lot of my time! I had three hours evapourate like water on a summer sidewalk yesterday (see that simile) when I impulsively decided to change my WordPress blog theme and couldn’t get the functions working; it was a lesson in patience and perseverance. It’s still not exactly as I want it, but the truth is, I made a change and I’m going to keep making those changes, slowly and intentionally, so I can get better. Tomorrow, which is indefinite and unsettled, but I’m going to stay open to the possibilities.

And did I mention that writing daily is really helpful? I did? Oh yes, I did.

But what I didn’t tell you is how many different forms of writing there are. Take for example, this one, right here. This is epistolary; a story that is carried by letters. Ideally, you would reply to this letter, and then I’d reply, and we’d have this story of our time in quarantine during COVID-19. We could call it, Letters in the time of COVID-19.

So I am posting this letter from my blog in the Google Classroom today, and I’m going to wait for you to reply so we can build this story together.

Fighting – 29/31 #SOL20

When the boys were young, I was hypervigilant about fighting, about violence, as I was acutely conscious of the cultural association between violence and masculinity. I saw myself as a liberal parent with humanist political leanings and my boys were six years apart in age which meant fighting would take different forms because of this age and size differential. As a parent, I delayed video games, encouraged sports deemed less “aggressive” and had them making their beds, baking, crafting, and camping whenever possible; work with your hands to create goodness.

But the world crept in (or, I should say, I caved in) and by the time my third child arrived, my once ardent views flexed to breaking with the practical realities despite my apparently very porous hard-line logic. The forces of society and popular culture mowed over me like I was some inept rebellious weed trying to grow on a suburban front lawn. The oldest wanted to play football, so I relented, the youngest wanted to play video games, so I relented; all this operated erosively. The unravelling of my loosely knitted stance had seemingly untangled and I was yielding to the dominant narrative or, at least, to the pressure to please.

By the time the youngest was 12 years old, we had an arsenal of Nerf guns that filled an oversized plastic storage bin and foam bullets skulked in corners of nearly all rooms, along the baseboards, and between seat cushions. His friends hung out in our basement for Nerf Wars and epic battles spilled into the neighbouring yards, the forest across the street, and lingered into the evening on summer days.

At this same time, the oldest was playing football for his high school team and simultaneously a recreational team. He played five nights per week until suddenly he couldn’t; he was concussed. The brute force of the head-on-head hit abruptly halted what had become routine. Because he was a skilled athlete and also a pleaser, he’d been playing both offence and defence for his high school team. I knew his body was crumbling under the weight and let it. The coach visted our home the day it happened and I can still picture him standing there delivering the message with one leg on the lower step, body half-facing the street in a runner’s readying stance: head on hit, passed out, didn’t know where he was, and cried, he’s okay now. My knees buckled a bit while my heart played panic inside my chest. I fought with myself and that battle readiness resumed.

I didn’t sleep much last night as the previous days haunted me and Paul Gorski’s words from our Zoom meeting on “Avoiding Racial Detours” were still fresh in my ears, shame still discolouring my breath – I still wasn’t sure just why until my sub-conscience was forcing me to face this. Fighting is not my habit; pleasing is. So, when I awoke at 2:30am and thought to my self, “you are the dangerous White Liberal that he warns against”, I was deeply disturbed and wrestled with the sheets for hours. I faced that thought and decided to fight it. I told the pleaser to sit to the side in her comfy lawn chair while I stand in the discomfort even against myself and make a vow. Better to be the dangerous White rebel weed growing in the front lawn than to be mowed over by White supremacy. This is going to be a messy uncomfortable front-yard fight, but this is one worth enduring.

More Small Comforts – 28/31 #SOL20

He texts us early in the morning with a list of groceries. We offered knowing his existence is now even more precarious with no income. Avoiding illness has been a decade-long obsession following an HIV+ diagnosis. He makes sure to use Signal, an apparently secure communication app, as a way of texting following a two year episode of personal terrorism when his phone and computer were invaded and he was stalked. He switched phones several times, switched jobs, and is vigilently cautious about his use of technology, his privacy. Caution lives with him and just demanded more space. We are getting him blackberries, soap, and other essentials and leaving them on his doorstep as small comfort.

She was one of the first neighbours to greet us. She lives next to us in the cooperative housing units with her partner, Bill, an elderly Black man who reminds me of a walking comma, bent elbows jutting and swinging backwards, his colourful knitted Marley hat bobbing in front with each lumbering step. He is always smiling, well, nearly always until they stopped us outside while unloading groceries one day. Her diagnosis was colon cancer and we listened while she shared and spilling some of her life on the driveway in front of our house: a healthy lifestyle, exercise, she’s a nurse, why did this happen, can’t believe it. Bill looked at the ground for most of these moments shifting his body back and forth while her eyes glistened and we faced her listening, projecting comfort. She is okay now, but asked for bananas so we will leave them on her doorstep today.

He trots over to me wagging and dipping his head before he brushes his body against my leg. I think he feels the surface tension, the accumulation that builds pools which collect and fill throughout the day, then recede and disperse somewhere between my head and heart. Experts have talked about canine intution and its on display in my house of late. It’s unusual that he seems to be very needy, wanting constant contact, paws batting at me as I type, or write, or read calling me back to his deep brown eyes. He is not getting his usual rest because he is tending to his pack.

We walked him this morning. Leaving the house later than our usual morning walks, the spaces were surprisingly still vacant waiting for motion and contact. He darted towards two Canada Geese in the field along the parkway, but their broad lifting wings, protruding necks, and honking sounds warned against lessening the space between, and he stuck close to my feet, tripping me as he often does, both of us looking away, elsewhere. Further along the path, I noticed a sign on a school: Private Property and thought about my concern for shrinking public space. In my memory, school grounds were always open, free, and accessible to the community as part of the public trust and we had this collective responsibility to pick up after our pets, ourselves. In my imagination, I see this open space inviting back the shrills of children playing, the echoes of bells, and here the sounds still.

Once home, I fill the tub with warm water, bath salts, and sit back to listen to a podcast: On Being episode 819: Ross Gay – Tending Joy and Practicing Delight . This is small comfort in the water, in the words and voice of one who seeks the joy in public spaces, whose imagination can see the beauty in the inequity and work without missing the delight blossoming with each moment.

At a Loss – 27/31 #SOL20

I read the comments on my recent blog post and wondered, How many possibilities have I lost?

This internal question slammed into my chest and the density of fear, of impotent inaction, made my heart thud. This response is not the usual spasm of self-doubt or shame. This was much stronger; this was loss.

I had that book. I bought it, then gave it away without considering it. Now, another blogger says it has been her patient guide through a writing life. What possibility did I miss?

But it seemed so small and obscure. Why might this matter?

My thoughts scanned past events for an answer and I remembered that important diversity event missed because I felt overwhelmed emotionally, was behind in my evaluations, and the chaos of paper mangement had set in so substantially that I was hiding piles of paper in filing cabinets under some persistent delusion that I would organize it all “in the summer”. But, if I’m really honest with myself, I missed it because my armour was slipping and bits of my brokenness were poking through.

That day that my mother moved out of the family house, when I was fifteen,  I remember because the sky was bright and sunlight filled the front room as my father and mother lifted her suitcases and belongings out the front door, his rearend propping open the aluminum screen door as she moved in quick spurts of fastideousness, rushing the unusual departure, but brows still furrowed and firm. I went back to my room and lay on my bed, which was made up for the first time in a while. Both arms were outstretched behind me resting my head in my hands. I knew that I should feel something, scanned for evidence, but came up empty.

The years passed and we carried on after this loss mostly as usual though I was beginning to run wild. My father is a man of few words and he has rarely ever commanded and demanded. One day from nowhere, he asked me what I wanted to do after high school, and I said I was thinking of becoming a childcare worker. He spat a response; “why don’t you become a doctor or a dentist!” This novel outburst fractured my seventeen year old dismissive veneer. And I felt empty. Not because I was committed to the field of caregiving, because in truth, this idea had only just floated into me from some invisible force of popular culture like a dandelion seed planting wild thoughts of a future I could not imagine. Ideas rooted in soil that was not tended. She had been gone for nearly three years at this point, and he was a good father, but he was at a loss.

I woke up this morning and wondered how many of us are now at a loss, chronicaling missed ouropportunities, or thinking that maybe now, in so much absence, we might see a way to reconcile, to release and let go of past practices which have not worked for so many. Today, scrolling social media was a grief-laden endeavour, so I shifted my focus and decided to listen to voices of possibility and potential. I needed something to move me past passivity and inaction. The wisdom and powerful words of Tarana Burke and Brene Brown in an episode of  “Unlocking Us”  had me captivated. She once said,

“If I found a healing tree in my backyard, and it grew some sort of fruit that was a healing balm for people to repair what was damaged, I’m not going to just harvest all of those fruits and say, ‘You can’t have this.’ If I have a cure for people, I’m going to share it.”

The grieving for the losses began a transformation as if something was grafted onto me, a twisted and gnarly stem still growing through the losses both within and without.

 

I’ve been here before – 26/31 #SOL20

“It doesn’t matter how you see it, it doesn’t matter how your mind perceives it, the moon is always full. ” B. D. Schiers

We drove along sidewalked streets of the suburban neighbourhood looking for a place to call our home. We were new to one another, but we had done this before. This shopping for houses, for neighbourhoods and schools, and places for our children. The tending of lawns and mending of fences. We had pushed bums on swings, bandaged scraped knees, and cheered from the sidelines of “swarming soccer” – that was our term for the six year soccer players who gathered around the ball like a swarm of bees moving about the field where no one scored and they all played for the same team.

Finding a place mattered. We took our time and weighed each decision like an ancient treasure valuable but fragile. The bay window in front was the first tendril of imagination drawing me in, then the ornamental garden and the interlocking driveway, the wooden screen door and we knew this was the place.

We booked a viewing and it was late, the sun dropped quickly behind the houses across the courtyard, but we still wanted to see inside. Walking into someone else’s home had always felt like an invasion so my attention was reigned and cautious; I had to avoid picking up someone else’s life lingering in the objects. I walked up the steep flight of switchback stairs and turned left to the front of the house wanting to see out the bay window up above the living room one, it’s twin one storey above. This would be my first son’s room.

The sun was gone and the moon in full view, not quite full but familiar in shape and texture as something approaching completion. In that moment, some distant idea blew through me and landed near the tip of my tongue – I’ve been here before. My eyebrows lifted, he asked what I thought but I needed to think, so I just filled the space saying, “it’s nearly a full moon.”

There is imagination in the wanting, something vague and transcient, not quite yet ready for full expression. Not ready for words, but having been before. But it didn’t matter because my mind could percieve it, even in its absence.

 

So You Want to be an Ally? – 25/31 #SOL20

 

I feel the danger of writing about this topic. but, as Amanda Potts so cleverly wrote in her blog, Persistence and Pedagogy,

Just do it! Go out on the limb, take a guess, ask the question! Try the hard way, make a fool of yourself…Let it all hang out, be yourself, be human.”

So, I take the first step and look to mentors.

Pran Patel Tweeted,

“Allyship is first an act of vulnerability. It’s about reaching into a world you can never enter and taking the worst parts of it. Then it’s an act of reflection to recognise that you benefit from that worst. Finally it’s an act of surrender in giving up your power in support.”

Image

I didn’t enter the teaching profession for the money or status or “summer’s off”. I certainly didn’t enter it for some myth achieving “success” through a professional label. I entered it following the birth of my disabled daughter, life’s literal slap across the face yelling at me, wake up and deal with this! In perhaps some small way, I know about reaching into a world I’ve never been before and having to take the worst parts of it.

Glancing back over my years in teaching, I wonder at this system of education which uses labels to sort out the vastness of humanity, to make sense of the individual uniquenesses. The system then categorizes the students “at risk” or students who need “Individual Education Plans”, but I haven’t met a child yet who wouldn’t benefit from an indivdualized plan for their education; they are just that, individuals. I wonder at these labels which set some students apart from their peers which is somewhat ironic since this act of creating difference is antithetical to the teen experience; they don’t want to be different. Yet, when we really look at who is “different”, who is considered “at risk”, then we should not be surprized that these students are also on the margins of ability, poverty, and race. Sometimes labels are the dividers which separate the systemic problems from reality.

So, I don’t want the label, “ally”.

Shifting the focus inward, I’m working with Pran’s plan, being vulnerable here, and elsewhere, making myself sit with the discomfort of ruffled fragile White feathers, refecting, and waiting for the opportunities to surrender power.

I don’t want the label, but will do the work of being an antiracist educator, an ally. And I know this means most of the work has to happen within before I can work on the systems without. I know this means I will remain a student (because I need to learn about racism and poverty in perpetuity) with an individual education plan (because I’m White and middle class) and work at equity, act for equity, and give over power to those marginalized by either poverty or race.

tweetLast week, I posted this image on Twitter which generated a series of probing questions from Chris Cluff. These were interesting questions, and they had me back peddling and reflecting. Eventually he DM’d me and we spoke on the phone while I was walking the mostly empty streets of my neighbourhood in Ottawa, and he was walking up a hill in Newmarket petting cute dogs as they passed. It was a thoughtful conversation about education and what we want, our deep desires and the barriers which get in the way.

 

He is without doubt an incredibly creative thinker and I listened carefully – his work is on the margins. I’m still processing his words and reflecting. I told him that I don’t want my equity work to be about me. I am not here for attention. In fact, quite the opposite and I am content to sit on the sidelines in the shadows.

He said, “But at some point it has to be about you. Draw the attention to the issue and then turn it over to someone else. Surrender.”

So, I continue, until I can surrender.

 

From nature – 23/31 #SOL20

I am looking up at the night sky, the nearly full moon in clear view and I notice that my breath comes easy, most natural, as if my looking and my breathing is one continuous motion. Breathe in the moon, breathe out the moon.Image result for night moon

I remember frequently looking skyward as a child studying the cloud formations as I lay in the grass of my front yard, sweet green grounding me, or watching the trails of planes from the beaches of Killbear Provincial Park, warm sand hugging me. Someone once told me that people who notice the sky are healthy because they are connected to nature.

I was reminded of my skywatching days when @hystericalblkns posted this picture on Twitter and I felt an early pull.

This sky by @hystericalblkns

For two months each year of my childhood, my family lived outside, camping everywhere that we travelled: each stop on a 6000 mile journey was a new lesson from the Earth. The Prairies, the Rockies, Bryce and Grand Canyon, the deserts of Nevada and Tiauana, Mexico. We had no electricity, no cell phones or social media. For most of our trip, we lived in nature.

When camping for 10 weeks at a time in the Muskokas, I would catch frogs and create cities out of sand and water, forest and rock. Many hours were devoted to constructing vast amphibian empires that would fall overnight, my slimy captives breaking free. But time spent temporarily arresting them, living in the natural world, forged a deep connection. This was my toybox where I touched and smelled and learned.

For many years, I lost the sky and floated without knowledge of its power and potential in me. I once thought my desperate desire to camp and bike ride through forests with my first partner, was a yearning for family tradition, but it wasn’t just that. I continued to feel the pull of sweeping whites, skyward blues and blacks even after we split. My now husband understood this force without words and we built a life outside, camping, and walking in the forest as part of our communal nature. Those times on beaches near water, in the woods next to crackling fires, looking skyward restored me.

When studying literature, I often tell my students to look for the contrasts, the juxtapositions that reveal some concept or idea about the human experience. I am looking up and realize my paradoxical position. Staring into the night sky, the air above me where only visions of place exist in a mist, I am feeling grounded. I can study all the books, and identify all the themes, and intellectually indulge in all of life’s lessons, yet lose my way.

I think to myself, “how did I allow my life get so removed from nature?” And I wonder how many others are asking this too.

Quarantine Learning Levity 22/31 – #SOL20

This morning, I  learned that I have a few hidden talents. I discovered that when you are unaware that your male-dominated household has left the powder room toilet seat up, you can brace your rearend fall towards the water in the bowl by quickly raising both feet, bracing them against the walls in front of you as you lean forward with outstretch arms. (This only works in a very small bathroom.) The first time this happened, I was surprized by my agility, balance, and core strength. The second time I was surprized by my potty mouth, and the third time I was prepared.

I’m also learning that my husband is a new-age philosopher. I should, of course, have known this already as my two sons often celebrate his unique way of thinking and communicating. I’d been telling him about my concerns for students and what would happen following the weeks of March Break. Glancing down was he was examining the latest hydro bill, he said, “Well, one way or another they’re going to have to make a decision or not make a decision.” My head cocked sideways as the words fell out of his mouth, and I knew this was one of those rare gems my sons value so much. He was absolutely right, of course, and he had just dispensed one of the wisdoms that the boys refer to as “a George”.

Finally, I just learned that my brother-in-law who is a truck driver has turned into a celebrity of sorts. The shelves are somewhat bare at most stores in British Columbia where he lives and he’s working more hours delivering than he has in a long time. He called long distance on his way to make a delivery at a local grocery store and told us about his recent fame. He’s so popular that he can’t even get the ramp on his 18 wheeler down before the shoppers are hauling crates of toilet patper out of his cab. Even the porta-potties along his drive were places of theft, emptyless holders bereft of whatever no-name recycled one-ply that industry donates to temporary squatters.

But all of this aside, I am learning that keeping a sense of humour helps ease the isolation and there is lots of room for learning even in quarantine.

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