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Virtual Debt #SOL2021

We talk on the phone sharing shards of struggle which pierce the day of virtual teaching and each time I write or say or read the word, I cannot help but stop, wondering – “virtual teaching” – this is not quite teaching just as “virtual reality” is not quite reality. And then I open a desperate email from a fellow English teacher confessing her virtual emotional meltdown and subsequent “ugly cry” while facing a checkerboard of muted icons. She can no longer feign instructional joy to an unreceptive liquid crystal window as she enthusiastically waits in a durge towards “discussion”. She writes about the 17 years of teaching, the motivation to enter the profession, and the losses exponentially accumulating in her – compound interest.

That heaviness and shallow breathing returns to me too. That weight pressing on my lungs, near my centre which curls me forward like a rubber bug when touched. I think I am not alone in this. We may not be together in person, but we are collectively accumulating some form of virtual emotional debt wracking up expenses beyond calculation. Who knows what we might owe at this point in the pandemic?

Then, Chris Cluff speaks to me from the void of Twitter with his creative engagement group, “words keep wolves at bay”. This curious phrase has me twisting in my thoughts with metaphors and imagery wondering if “bay” should be “Bay” as in the street and the concept of imaginary wealth traded in numbers and dots on a screen. Which “wolves” am I trying to keep from calling me out on my obligation? And so, I sit and write and ponder this crushing costly debt we collectively share. This ambiguous loss. This virtual loneliness. This fee required by some unknown entity.

After listening to Nora Young on the podcast, “Spark”, I gained some insight into costs the pandemic and technology is forcing us to recognize. In the episode, “Touch, Trust, The Alchemy of Us” a neurobiologist points out the “complex emotional information” provided through the skin. When we cannot touch someone physically, we are missing a great deal of emotional information about them. There is a loss, a growing debt in relationships, yet, the episode did reassure me in the need for voice over image. She says, “hearing someone helps you understand better than reading words” and seeing them is not required to connect.

In a scuttling moment of intrusion upon my mind’s eye, I see some futuristic mechanism, massive in stature, lording over me demanding emotional labour, pushing me to extreme exhaustion, suctioning up my cognitive energy. Glimpsing the face of the monster, I startle and refuse to accept my own reflection – at least, for now. Because I have work to do, a class to teach, students who need support, so I look away and facilitate the accumulation – secured debt.

My husband waits patiently never pressuring me to break the trance of the plastic portal. The dog, on the other hand, applies more pressure pawing me, interrupting my keystrokes, demanding affection which, when given, returns in some wonderful exchange of revolving debt. He awakens me, asking me to balance my emotional account, calculating what I am giving to the screen in relation to what I am getting back. The spreadsheet is clear. This virtual debt is growing.

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Capital “H”, Hybrid #SOL2020

This hybrid teaching thing is hard, capital “H”, hard.

I had a sense of the challenges before the school year started, but what I’ve actually experienced and what I’ve actually learned is more than anticipated in ways not anticipated. And, it’s not just technological applications, slides, and jamboards – though they are really helpful if you use them purposely – it’s actually deeper than the platforms. This hybrid model has taken me into a complex state of reflection on the doing and the being of teaching: what am I explicitly and implicitly valuing? How does the material and the mode that I use in the delivery acknowledge the humanity of each student? of me?

Evan Selinger on Twitter: "This sticker should be on every laptop! Thanks @ Autumm & @hypervisible!… "

I now more deeply appreciate the sticker gifted me by Autumm Caines and I occupy more cognitive space in the “why” of teaching these days. Feeling the need for nourishment, I picked up Kevin Gannon’s teaching manifesto and realized what we need in hybrid learning during a quadmester model is “radical hope”, capital “H”, hope.

This has me reflecting more thoughtfully on my use of technology, but I have to be honest; the preparation for the lessons – some in class, and some online at home – is intense. It needs hypervigilance with iterative cycles of focus on purpose and audience. It demands precision in text selection to avoid the default to the status quo. It forces purposeful planning for student collaboration, and an unprecedented level of explicit instructions which are often formatted in different ways for different learners (the Google Classroom wasn’t going to work for her, so I created a Google Doc with steps and links).

Quadmester hybrid learning has given me an extra cognitive load which I am embracing, but which also might explain the persistently bloodshot eyes, the dull ache behind my brow, and the twisted bed sheets from which I unravel myself each morning. I know that UDL will reduce this need, so I double down to keep learning.

And even though I don’t feel that rush of an energetic class discussion with bodies jostling, chatting, and engaging in this combined virtual and distanced space, I’m still hopeful. With each purposeful interweaving of the physical and the virtual, something new reveals itself and the very acts that we are engaging in become food for discussion, critical thought, and reflection. These are meta-moments, and they really are “a moment”, but this requires a shift in thinking. I wonder, “maybe the screen is what forces us back to our humanity”? That’s a strange irony.

It started back in the summer when my equally enthusiastic teacher friends, Amanda, Tobi, and I knew we were going into September with a quadmester hybrid model so we planned the ideas, the timing, imagining the synchronous and asynchronous, using the concepts learned from digital pedagogy sessions with Sean Michael Morris and we embedded a thread of social justice through the grade 12 University English course. We selected concepts such as identity and representation, power and privilege, and we were thrilled with the opportunities for memoir writing with hopes for rich class discussions. Yet, there is the plan and there is the execution in the “classroom”.

I posted all of the learning goals at the beginning of the first quadmester. It didn’t take long for one of the brightest and most vocal of my students to challenge me on this “not English” thread and the need for “classics”, so we booked a virtual meeting after school. I was in my feelings, heart pounding, and not really ready to defend my decisions with thoughtful words. He was animated on screen at his desk and seemed forceful stating that he didn’t “believe social justice is related to English” and asked for “tradition”, the status quo. He accused me of “playing politics in the classroom” and feared I might reduce his marks if his views are not in alignment with mine. I listened carefully, looking away from the screen so I could hear him. I let him talk, feverishly feeling my own emotions simmering and checking them carefully. Without interrupting, at his pause, some words just tumbled out of my mouth. I didn’t prepare them. I didn’t plan any of them. But they were all true.

I said, “But, teaching is a political act. It’s inescapable. Every text that I select is political, every text I exclude, every voice that I amplify is an act that indicates what is valued, what is centred as we learn. We both have choices. We can learn together from the silent voices, because you already know the names of those who are centered and you can choose to learn those on your own.” I paused to see if he was with me.

“I am listening to you right now, and I do take this very seriously. I value your views and only want to add to your growing knowledge of the world by providing other voices, own voices. Nonetheless, my politics in the classroom are not large ‘C’ Conservative, they are not large ‘L’ Liberal. In fact, they are large ‘H’ Human. English is called a Humanities course because it is concerned with the human condition. And so am I.”

I hope I made my point and later in the course thanked him a couple of times pointing out the necessity for troublesome conversations, for the growth that comes from challenging our own thinking. He probably didn’t realize that his brought me closer to mine, but I hope he grew in his sense of self, and others, the need for empathy.

And then I thought, “maybe I needed to spend more time on the human in the capital “H” in Hybrid space.”

Resistance #SOL2020

It’s been a little over two weeks since I was briefly encouraged, then relentlessly pummeled on Twitter for posting pictures of two boxes of Lord of the Flies next to the garbage. I playfully posted that I was doing a Marie Kondo-like cleanse by decolonizing the book shelves of my school. The reactions were swift, visceral, and pointed. I’ve had some time to reflect, time to write privately, and time to formulate a more reasoned response than one I might have given in the moment.

Yet, I worry that my delay is also part of the problem with moving to a more equitable list of books. I wonder that in my taking time to respond, I have granted de facto power to those who rail against the disruption of the “literary canon”, resistors who uphold the status quo. We know that change in education is slow and I’ve observed that some fear it more than others. This systemic resistance to change sometimes requires what appear to be radical acts of disruption.

I’ll admit that I made an impulsive decision to post this box of books to Twitter, but the decision to discard them was at least two years in the making. It started in 2019 when I spent a summer learning about First Nations, Metis, and Inuit ways of knowing, reading Indigenous authors, and following Indigenous thought leaders on Twitter like Jody Kohoko and Josh. I joined #4BigQuestions and #AntiracistReads listening to Pamala Agawa and Colinda Clyne. With the colonial lens of my upbringing now in full view, the need to shift the content and approach to instruction came into focus as part of Truth and Reconciliation, the educator’s call to action, and so I made an emotional commitment to change.

But there was more to this story of discarding books which came through listening to students in our Diverse Student Union, Black students who recalled being the only student of colour in a class where white students read the “n-word out loud”. Reading Lord of the Flies had seared a traumatic memory in their minds. Grade 10, grade 11, and grade 12 students referred to specific moments in class citing this text as a source of pain.

Feeling the need for action, I rushed to post to Twitter in a week where I feared my own foot-dragging and invisibility which made me safe and comfortable while our Director, Camille Williams-Taylor, made bold, informed, and necessary moves to curb the trauma experienced by racialized students in the classroom. The ban on racial slurs and epithets was passed and this gave me the impetus to discard the one text that so many students over the years had named as the source of their classroom trauma. I had the support of my principal so what I was doing felt right.

What I was not prepared for was the response.

That impulsive decision had me experiencing an onslaught of attacks against me which ranged from gender to race, to my role as an educator; I was accused of “virtue signalling”, succumbing to the dangers of “woke culture” and being a “white saviour”. An educator in the US warned me that I had been posted on the Twitter feed of a radical conservative with thousands of followers, James Lindsay, and she suggested that I delete the post and lock my account for my own safety. The Twitter response seemed out of proportion to the action. Why would so many people so far away from my geographical location decide to vilify me and attempt a public takedown on Twitter?

I did not understand anything other than my need to sort through the voices to listen, reconsider, and resist the attack. I locked my account, my blog, and stayed off Twitter for a week. I then wrote myself a pep talk:

I understand that you’re afraid. That’s human and those attacking you are fearful too. So tell your truth, honestly and clearly. Say what happened, where it took you, what you’ve learned, and where you stand. Because if you can’t stand up against a status quo that so clearly causes trauma for students, if you can’t absorb the invisible anger thrust against you, then you aren’t ready for this fight. You have doubters and critics and maybe even enemies, but your decisions are not for you. Resist the urge to cave in when the anger appears. Resist the pull to comfort. Resist the lull of the status quo.

Although I might regret some part of my impulsive post, it taught me that a genuine commitment to student well being requires active listening to the marginalized, active changes in the status quo, persistence in the face of personal attacks. Reflection, in this case, brought me closer to my own understanding of resistance.

Sparkling Light Reflections of Being #SOL2020

Warm silk sand slips through my fingers as my hands dig into the beach on either side of my outstretched legs. I repeat this motion one the sand disappears back into the massive carpet of sparkling light. I am eight years old, unconscious of my round belly folds formed by slouching to view the sun twinkling off the grains like refractions of fire. I am living in my body with the sand and with the earth and I belong here.

Photographs of my heavily freckled face, my flyaway sprawling mass of hair reveal this blind oblivion to self and world as separated lives. I can see the unselfconsciousness in my eyes, but that was about to change irreversibly.

There is one particular day where the shift began and this floats in my memories of days on that same beach. I am wearing a bikini, not quite developed to be the bikinis associated with womanhood, and I decide to go for a quick swim. The sun is high and it is the middle of summer. The beach is crowded with camping families, towels and blankets spread wide and umbrellas to block the glare of sunlight off the pure white sand. Sounds of laughter and chatter and waves fill my ears. My feet burn on the hot sand as I traverse from towel to lake whose water is clear and immediately refreshing. I wade in looking down at the water and eventually feel the waves gently rocking me at the waist, small crashing crests floating around me with bubbles which quickly evapourate.

A waterbound log floats my way and I decide to lean on this limb while riding the rise and fall of the water, the flow guiding me without my control. Something shifts in me and I become acutely aware of this moment. I wonder, “Will I remember this?”. In this sudden shift, I become an observer of my life, a witness to the moment, and I squint at the sandy bottom of the lake. Feet touched down, I then lift one leg over the heavy dark log and feel a sharp scratch across my inner thigh. Pulling away, I raise my thigh and think, “Now I have a scar; my body will carry the memory.”

Step Down #SOL2020

I watch my feet descent the steps of the school hallway on my way out after class; black dimpled mats cover nearly century old steps and appear to be new relative to the structure beneath. They cover what I know is an ancient old school, with Hogwarts-like hallways, twists and turns that no wheelchair could successfully navigate, many flights of stairs built only for the able-bodied. Step down. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of old buildings, preserving structures which has preserved this privilege, and that may be central to what has now become quite public. Step down. The stair coverings are new, the purple paint, the gym equipment, the field, and even much of the furniture is new. But, my mind in this moment of departure, is on my foot falls, is on the steps, and not on the testimonies, the students screaming accusations outside the building. Step down. I am deep inside myself returning to the ways that I begin to know my students, the irreplaceable communication that happens with presence, a breath of a moment. Step down. I wonder to myself if blindness raises this knowing, if presence of the other comes to the sightless mind in a way which vision impedes. Maybe we are looking on the surface too much. Step down.

I reach the landing with yellow taped arrows and blocked off sections of tiled flooring remind me of the “social distancing”. Another wondering invades the movement where I notice nostalgia binding us to a past that we remember, that is comfortable, and a heaviness presses on my chest pushing out breath, not quite physical, but there nonetheless. There is the weight of making high school memorable, of making it about something more than survival. This has been walking with me, unacknowledged tension always hovering at the forefront of my mind like a gnat, barely visible and a reminder of absent presence.

I am carrying my bag, the weight heavy, even with little more than my laptop and mouse. In class today, I noticed the lifeless air in the room, but it wasn’t really the air, it was the mood, reading bodies, in the building, on the screen. Those grade nine students were there, but not there today; many were mentally wandering in some other place, maybe full of nostalgia, maybe full of longing. I tried to lift them, pretended that I didn’t notice and did my best to smile behind the mask, spending time beside them, showing them online material, cautiously selecting every movement, every word, every subtle message that my body might betray my state while navigating a difficult digital world where they really would rather not be.

I reach the 25 foot high oak wooden door at the front of the school, lean in to make it move, and wonder how many have crossed this ancient threshold. Old ways are like old doors; they are hard to move and require some leaning in. Old ways are safe and support the privileged. Another set of stairs greets me before I will make it to the ever changing magnificent maple whose orange and yellow leaves are drifting, are caressing the hood of my car. Step down.

Cataloging and Comprehending

Librarians knit skin with stories, people with pages, and they are keepers and filers and spreaders of words. They have the awesome and demanding task of acquiring, sorting, filing, posting, suggesting, promoting, supporting, along with many other participles; I have felt a kinship with these scientists. They are the hosts to cultural reflection, potential revolutionaries working behind the shelves of coded Dewey decimals sending out secret gossamers of inspiration in typeset and clandesdine reams of revolution in chapters. It seems that some politicians fear the spider-like stealth of the librarian spinning thoughts.

They should. Librarians are socialists; they check out words for free.

This past week, I was taken aback, and thrilled when Beth Lyons, librarian extraordinaire, read my previous blog post on ways of knowing and then posted her centred response (sorry, Doug, but I think it’s interesting). I thought, “I must send words back to her, though mine are never quite centred.”

Now, I wish I’d taken that moment, captured it before evapouration. You know that green feeling which takes you out of the moment of physical existence, that first read of something engaging and something that has your brain spinning and spilling out words in webs of threaded meaning? Well, a gust of something temporal broke that fragile string of response and I’m trying here to reclaim it.

Nevertheless, I’ll do this for now, and hope it will make sense in the way that it did yesterday. I’m always hoping to hold those moments of awe that come from reading. I don’t know whether it’s the words that inspire the awe, or the awe that inspires the words. Maybe its reciprocal, like a chiasmus. (And there’s another amazing word with “chi” or life energy flowing back and forth.) I’ll break the silence of the classroom to share the beautiful words.

I must admit that words stick to me. Some stay. and sometimes I want them to wash away with my morning shower, to let them flow down the soapy drain, but often they persist, staining my skin, pigmenting my perspectives…nevertheless. Take even that word there, “nevertheless“. Where did this strange linguistic formation grow and what perplexed mind constructed this Frankenstein formation of adjective-article-adjective – “never-the-less“?

Yet, I do love “nevertheless”, and, likewise, “unless”. They are words with backpacks of hope, not visible, but present nonetheless. They are a breath of promise with “less” suggesting “more” and I twist myself inside out in noticing that the opposite of “unless” could be “unmore”, which, of course, is less.

Nevertheless, this librarian wrote about “dichotomy” (such an awesome word) and I had just been discussing the dangers of binary thinking with my grade 12 students; we discussed that the typical “either or” response to the complexities of life limits options for conflict resolution, for decision making, and we had been talking about the ability to intellectually hold two contradictory ideas which can both be simultaneously true; they are seeing that paradox is everywhere.

“Hold on to doubt”, I told them. “Doubt is hopeful. That same doubt about your knowing keeps you learning and growing, it checks your understanding in triangles and gives readers and thinkers balanced patterns of support’. But, what do I know?

Now that the moment of some linguistic epiphany passed without expression, I needed more time to send back words to the librarian. But that’s a problem, here. Because, in this, we have “no time”, and we grind forward, pushing the “content”, giving the feedback, ignoring doubt, that possible sense of the alternative, that hopeful possibility in the strength of triangulation. Are we crushing the possibility for divergent pauses, for the play with words that only third-eyed librarian can creatively catalogue and give freely to us now?

Ways of Knowing

This afternoon, I was texting back and forth with Chris Cluff about Robin Wall Kimmerer and the podcast she did with Krista Tippet. I said that we, as a culture, really need to consider Indigenous knowledge, other ways of knowing and that I deeply value the concept of reciprocity as outlined by Dr. Kimmerer. He asked me what I meant about “other ways of knowing”.

I had to step back from the conversation and told him that I would figure out what I meant and get back to him. In this reflection, I realized that this personal interrogation had actually begun earlier in the day. In another threaded discussion on Twitter, just a few hours earlier, with a former student of my high school, I responded to her post connecting to the feelings of a young boy in front of a computer crying. This image, captured by the parent was shared with the teacher to let her know about his online learning experience. His teacher needed to know. Image

This former student replied in the thread sharing the difficulty of remote learning because teaching and learning were happening in the same space – her home. I found that to be interesting because teaching and learning for me are always in the same spaces of my life.

I replied,

For me, the loss was presence. 

Once the physical connections of student presence were severed in favour of digital ones, the learning that I gained by simply existing in the same space, breathing the same air, moving about amidst the myriad of nonverbal cues which we consume each day, vanished. The messages found in presence fell away and I was starved of vital physical and emotional information about my students. As teachers, we become accustomed to reading the body, the eyes, the facial expressions, the kinetic energy and we are negotiating a connection, an understanding in each moment; we are trying to know our students.

And, when you get to know someone really well, you just know without words. Ironically, in the documentary about the making of the movie, The Matrix, Keanu Reeves is asking the Wachowski brothers how Trinity knows that Neo loves her and they keep repeating, “He knows?” with greater and greater emphasis and a deeper bend in the knees with each repetition. Sometimes, my youngest son will, without prompting, be in a room with me and say, “What’s wrong?” He knows in a way that cannot be quantified or proven and didn’t need explicit evidence for him to discern it.

I got back to Chris and said,

I think about it in terms of culturally relevant pedagogy.

I knew this was an easy way out of a complex question. And here I am, hours later still musing on ways of knowing.

 

 

Anticipation and Imagination

This morning I searched the etymology of “anticipate” since I, and many other teachers, are well and truly mired in it. I sometimes find comfort in the analysis and deepening in my understanding of a word, its connotations, derivations, and anatomy.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states,

1530s, “to cause to happen sooner,” a back-formation from anticipation, or else from Latin anticipatus, past participle of anticipare “take (care of) ahead of time,” literally “taking into possession beforehand,” from anti, an old form of ante “before” (from PIE root *ant- “front, forehead,” with derivatives meaning “in front of, before”) + capere “to take,” from PIE root *kap- “to grasp.”

Later “prevent or preclude by prior action” (c. 1600) and “be aware of (something) coming at a future time” (1640s). Used in the sense of “expect, look forward to” since 1749, but anticipate has an element of “prepare for, forestall” that, etymologically, should prevent its being used as a synonym for expect. Related: Anticipatedanticipating.

I like the use of anticipation as a form of “taking care” rather than preventing; it is the hopeful sense of the word that I want to feel right now. And even though, there is anxiousness, undeniably, I did experience a sense of lightness return as I prepare a shell of a course, a shell of an evidence record of learning, both which may serve for any English course that any English teacher, including me, might be teaching. It’s liberating in a way, not being confined to one predetermined timetable as our school boards wrestle with the pandemic school plan. This educational freedom to step back from the specific content of the course is forcing me to focus on the much sidelined, more important approaches, more humane ways of building community, creating equity, and bringing social justice to the forefront of everything that I do.

 

Yesterday’s webinar with Dr. Robin Kay on Remote Teaching felt like the pulse of a defibrillator which converted my anxiety to anticipation. The workshop was an experience in meta-teaching; he taught a group of 80+ educators remotely while modelling for us what works and how to pace the content, keep engagement, and differentiate. All my previously scheduled afternoon plans evapourated as I fell into the tech vortex of experimentation trying Perusall, and Edpuzzle, and exploring shared websites from generous participants in the workshop. I returned to my former playful self full of curiosity rather than concern.

This state of not knowing what I’ll be teaching or specifically how I’ll be teaching has also allowed me to employ what Cornelius Minor refers to as”radical imagination”. I am creating a shell which radically imagines social justice, student voice, and a community of inquiry framework. The chaotic part of pandemic teaching has allowed me to break out of the prescribed English teacher’s “do this” list and, instead, forge ahead with ideas that I’ve allowed to be sidelined because they are seen as “woo woo” or “not effective” or “the latest trend” or “not rigorous enough”.

I returned to the online etymology dictionary and typed in “radical”.

late 14c., in a medieval philosophical sense, from Late Latin radicalis “of or having roots,” from Latin radix (genitive radicis) “root” (from PIE root *wrād- “branch, root”). Meaning “going to the origin, essential” is from 1650s. Radical sign in mathematics is from 1680s.

That’s it. The anticipation of teaching that has roots grounded in the individual student experience and identity which is essential to realizing one’s genius. There is a vision that I can anticipate and radically imagine for teaching this year.

Exposure – Day 3 of #digped #VisualDialogues

I’ve been thinking about my identity as part of the Visual Dialogues course that I am taking in the Digital Pedagogy Lab. I couldn’t seem to find anything that represented a “selfie” and some participants began posting “fragments” in photo and hand drawn images. I scrolled through photos on my phone, tried to draw, but couldn’t find nor create anything that I felt represented my “self”. I am also thankful for this day without a Zoom meeting, without a keynote to reflect and gather up the fragments of my identity.

What I didn’t realize is what I would be uncovering or discovering and it has me feeling somewhat off balance or out of focus. Maybe even over-exposed, like some photograph that does not reflect the construction of the mind’s eye, and seeking out fragments to collect into some focused imagining of myself.

But, I need to back up and explain. Several weeks ago, I met, not formally, a young person who (I could see from visual cues) is disabled and who was out walking down my street with a support worker. It was a sunny afternoon and I said hello and offered for them to pet my dog, but the worker dissuaded them, moved them away, so I carried on walking home and said goodbye and maybe next time. The next day, the same young person walked by again, but this time with one who appeared to be a parent , a mother, and when I said hello and waved, they enthusiastically waved back and said hello in a way that said “I remember you!”. But, I could also see the parent’s response – the tell-tale signs in the body language, the half-smile, the retreat, the deflection away, the emotional cloak of invisibility to move the disabled child from the voyeur, the sympathetic stranger. I thought, “she doesn’t know.” Today, the young person walked by again with their support worker, but this time, my own disabled child wearing her seizure helmet was with me on the front porch and the visual cues of her significant disability were clear. The worker smiled this time and joined the young person in an enthusiastic wave and now we were all seeing with greater focus and attention to the background, the history, the knowledge. A few weeks of momentary passing visual discourse brought us to a place of understanding; we were now seeing through a similar lense of experience.

I know that parental response in myself. It made me rethink the visual fragments of my own identity, and while I’ve already written about having a disabled child, it always feels self-indulgent  – I worry that my audience will think that I’m inviting some pity party which I am not. I often avoid the topic because it’s unique and messy and people often think you  are insensitive or hardened. I have also (for me and my other children) tried to write and speak about her disability in a way that validates the many blessings which have come with her life.

But I don’t think I have ever considered enough, or maybe even acknowledged, the intersection of her disability with my own identity until today. I guess the deflection, the cloak of invisibility where one can safely hide the disability at home has been happening all along. I can venture outside of my home into the world of White, able-bodied, cisgendered privilege never truly having to acknowledge this “defective” part of my life. This is now astounding, even to myself, that I could not see this, until I was asked to put a visual lens on my identity.

This is hard and full of exposure. But the hard truth is that my movements through the world are often predicated on her abilities so it makes sense that she forms part of my identity. Much of what I do and my decisions are predicated on sustaining and providing for her. I run and weight train to be strong enough to lift her. I don’t vacation because we cannot get care and her needs are too complex for travel – or maybe that’s what I tell myself because I don’t want the gaze of strangers.

4F8E8B23-3F7B-43C8-9327-FC71D98B405FThese are not restrictions that I lament, but they are with me and part of me and for me to deny this is to deny part of my identity, like the parent who wants to disappear from the watchful gaze of a world that does not understand.

So here are my fragments of self as they intersect with my identity as the parent of a disabled adult child.

I am turning the watchful gaze back on myself and I’m feeling exposed.

Flash

I love when I witness someone. in the midst of deep inner reflection, suddenly and  unselfconsciously bursts out some pithy statement of deep critical thinking and I gasp wide-eyed. I usually ask them to repeat this flash of brilliance, but sometimes, like lightning, it’s gone and the echoes of it fade like some remote untouchable memory.

My son has these flashes every so often while we are having casual conversations. And, he recently lit up my thoughts one evening during our usual post-workday discussion. We were talking about society and people, about social media, and Instagram and the ways it differs from Twitter (I’m still not acclimatized to that platform, but I’m persisting to see if I can find some genuine utility other than reading and reposting). He was explaining how he moves through life differently than his peer group and especially around the use of social media. He often does not have his phone out at social events, because he said that he wants to “be there”. He is a self-proclaimed introvert, and he feels that paying attention to others is important, it’s a sign that you value them. He continued saying,

“I don’t understand it. They must look at their pictures and say, “That was such a good time. I wish I was there.”

I stopped what I was doing and thought about the complexity of this future observation about the absent presence created when technology interfaces with humanity. I wondered if the drive to chronicle one’s in pictures is a reluctance to let life change and to hang on to moments in time as if keeping them saves the pleasure too. I have felt this impulse when my children were young, the dog was a puppy, but I have never felt it in terms of the documentation of self. I am missing from my own photographs, another absent presence behind the lens.

So, here I am, a week after this flash, taking a course in Critical Visual Dialogues through the Digital Pedagogy Lab creating images and discussing the many implications of a visual culture. I read the email posted by Francesca Sobande and Daniel Lynds feeling many years of study and passion coalesce. They wrote that in the course we could consider,

  • Creative approaches to designing assessments and incorporating critical visual dialogues
  • How to encourage and help students to develop critical media and digital literacy skills with a focus on visual culture
  • Addressing issues related to racism and intersecting oppressions, including by critically considering how the visuals in learning and teaching environments can perpetuate harmful power dynamics
  • Critically reflecting on issues related to power and privilege in relation to marketing representations and graphic design
  • Exploring and experimenting with video/visual essays

English, Media Studies, equity, antiracism: these once separate concerns merged in a flash and the weight of learning lessened, lifted by some invisible force of connection and interconnectedness.

Briefly Deep and Meaningful

I read some short pieces of writing by Ross Gay, Chris Cluff, and Elizabeth Acevedo; their voices are still with me now and while what I have read by each author is but a brief glimpse into the human experience, the words are so deep that I need space and time to hold and understand their meaningfulness.

In many ways, this has been the case with lines from Shakespeare which cling to me like summer’s sweat, or poems whose rhymes continue to shift in depth and breadth under my skin. I’ve been thinking about some of the deep and meaningful lessons of identity and what we willingly select as “core texts” in the classroom, and I’m looking for ones which convey a range of emotions and ones that represent rich identities, ones other than my own. These three were appetizers to a massive feast of thought and reflection this week.

Chris Cluff posted this image of visual-verbal prose-poetry. I love how his posts defy classification in form and content. He leaves you with thoughts unconfirmed, in a state of wonder. Yet, it seems to me that the brevity of Twitter may obscure these potential morsels of richness. I thought deeply about the meaning of “white noise”, how sometimes these poetic pauses encapsulate such an enigmatic range of ideas. I cannot say for sure what he intended here, but I thought about this brief post for a long time reading it through the lens of my own experience.

And then a post by Vicky Mochama led me to an episode of the podcast, Code Switch, called “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma”. The hosts of the episode discuss the dilemma of pausing to explain something that a White audience might not understand that a BIPOC audience typically does understand. They debated the need to provide the brief explanatory pause as it “speaks to who is valued or centred in the conversation”. The problem is that White supremacy is at play here and Black culture or Brown culture or othered cultures which have all sorts of references known internally need to provide explanations for White people to understand. They make is clear that they don’t really mean “all White people” but that “White people is slang” for what we are all being force fed by the overarching whiteness where “everything is filtered through a white lens” from history to English to Science. They want to reach an audience, a wide audience, but the “double-consciousness” is revealed in the pause.

This got me thinking about the often stated rationale for teaching Shakespeare as students will “need to understand” the many cultural references to the Bard, there would be no need for the explanatory comma, or that his plays contain “universal themes” which defy cultural classification. I had once felt this, but now I wonder what “everybody should know” and what double-consciousness for a White person might feel like. I’m not sure that I know enough about this, yet.

I am having a hard time with sustained reading and writing these days, and it appears from Twitter, that I’m not alone. Maybe the unsustained reading is really just sustained thinking. Maybe what is brief requires time and space and sustained thought to develop into something meaningful. I hope so.

 

Of Lexical Doubt

Destreaming conversations hover in my social media feed, on the lips of friends, and in the emails from colleagues. I’m pleased to see these conversations about equity, yet like many complex problems in education, it creates a summer tension in me.

This stalking presence of educating myself, of preparing for what may come propels me to continual thought, extensive reading, and intensive planning which can be a wonderful way to spend time, as well as an infinitely infuriating self imposed overload which then results in the recognition of overgrowth and the need to cull. My garden becomes the living metaphor of my summer education. But the ground is rich and so I till it every summer full of doubt about the end products.

Moments of the day are interspersed with reading and I experienced one of unusual joy this morning while reading Ross Gay’s essay, “But Maybe…” from The Book of Delights. I was between family tasks, taking every waking moment to attempt to fulfil my curated list of required reading for next year. Standing with the book cracked open, glancing down and slowly breathing in the words, I smiled truly embracing this window into the complexity of communication.

And then I read his essay “The Joy of Caring for Others” and my knees buckled in a moment of awe.

..she told me she was on her way to drop off some masks she’d made for her nephew, who’s about my age, at the jail.

“Here’s an extra,” she said, holding a mask out the window, where it dangled from her finger. It was pretty, kind of floral and quilt-y, and homemade as hell. I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time — both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close), making that by-now-familiar I-hope-we-are-not-infecting-each-other face.

Just that parenthetical aside had me reeling with such depth contained in this lexical observation. Sometimes these obtuse observations challenge the status quo and remind us that words are just inert symbolic representations of lived experiences. They don’t replace it. In fact, I thought about the language of “destreaming” which is metaphorical and the complexities of those conversations filled me with doubt. Not about the inherent benefits of destreaming, but about the meaning of it, of “expectations” and “equity” and of the necessary disruption that will ensue.

Glancing back over this, I notice the titles: “But, Maybe…The Joy of Caring for Others” and think that as I traverse these rocky waters of destreaming, maybe I can remember that the lexicon doesn’t matter as much as my joy in caring for others.

 

The Work and Auditing a Yearbook

Her lengthy email opened with a few sentences outlining some observations she and her friends had made about the school yearbook and the location of some important photos. She was in my grade 11 Indigenous Voices English class, has been on my podcast, and is a leader among the members of our Diverse Student Union. Her observations then transitioned to pointed, direct, and well reasoned accusations about the representation of Black History Month under the pages of “School Spirit”. She said that this decision demonstrates “disrespect” and is “insensitive, and ignorant”. I know her to be stoic in her demeanour, thoughtful in her expression, and this felt like a call to action.

I reached out to the teacher of the yearbook course, and looked at the sea of mostly White students enrolled, the selected editors who were guided by the White supervising teacher. At this point, I should also make it clear that the yearbook falls under my White headship, so I include myself as one among a sea of Whiteness responsible for this misrepresentation. And, as Amanda and I have discovered through our podcast and many conversations, taking on anti racist work means that you are going to make mistakes. The only way to actually address racism is to own the mistakes, admit them early, and act with the direction of the community affected. We’ve also discovered that once you see the systemic racism, you see it a lot more than you ever have previously. This is part of the work.

I decided to get a copy of the yearbook to perform an audit of sorts – a look at the representations of the student body at the school, what is valued by dedicated pages, and what appears most often. In this first audit, I wanted to focus on events that are similar to the Black History assembly. Full double truck pages were dedicated to several one time events: Relay for Life, Coffee House, United Way Breakfast, the school dance, and the Spaghetti Dinner. Other double truck pages were dedicated to ongoing aspects of school life: School Spirit, Outdoor Education, a Barcelona trip, Friends and Buddies, and Siblings.

I looked closely at the pages called “School Spirit”, and noted that two of fifteen photos were from the Black History Month assembly, unlabelled in anyway and only recognizable because I had been there, along with other photos of what appeared to be Halloween, a holiday play, and students holding ice cream cones.

Returning to her email, she said,

Our Black History Month assembly is not an act of school spirit. It’s the only month in the year where we get some recognition on the history, culture and current events of Black people. We are well aware of the student’s AND staff’s lack of interest in Black History Month but putting our image in “School Spirit” is utterly disrespectful for us and the thousands that were and are in the fight for racial equity…

I thought for some time about her concerns and reached the conclusion that there are potentially TWO omissions in the yearbook, and one significant misrepresentation; one omission is the month itself with the many aspects that should be woven into the fabric of academic learning and the other is the Black History Month assembly, the culminating one time event. Black History month is nowhere to be seen in the yearbook. But, I do know that it was celebrated in classes, in the hallways, and on the announcements. I remember teaching lessons. I remember hearing announcements. The culminating assembly is misrepresented with two uncaptioned images.

To be fair, this decision was not committed by an individual and there were students of colour who participated in the Black History Month assembly on the editing committee of the yearbook. Additionally, the context for producing a yearbook this year was ridiculously difficult and these students did a remarkable job in the middle of a pandemic. Their White teacher was an encouraging force of support for these students, her English classes, and her own young children learning at home. They all deserve recognition for their efforts to maintain engagement in their courses and for making a yearbook during what is arguably one of the most difficult times in recent academic memory. They were doing what they could do in the situation and in their understanding of representing the school.

I wanted to be sure that the unusual nature of this school year was the most significant factor in the omission, so I got copies of the yearbook from the previous two years at the same school. The structure of the yearbook was much the same as this year, and I could not locate a page dedicated to Black History Month or the assembly – in either year.

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with the yearbook is systemic Whiteness; the students and their teacher didn’t even realize they were upholding a White culture that erases Black students and Black events at the school. I thought about Paul Gorski’s article, “Avoiding Racial Equity Detours” and how we cannot “pace for privilege”, we cannot wait for students and teachers to understand this before we act to support racialized students. I knew this required my interruption in a process that has been allowed to exist for at least the past three years, and I decided to do more research online to find out how to create a yearbook which addresses representation, equity, and inclusion. I came across this from Lifetouch:

Inclusivity impacts students

An inclusive yearbook does more than just properly represent the school, it makes students feel good about themselves. They feel they are a part of the community and are connected to their class. It also boosts school spirit. Furthermore, years from now when each student flips through the yearbook to reminisce, they’ll be reminded of all the good times they had and the experiences that helped mold them into adults.

The biting irony in this made me feel queasy. There is no question; we have to do better and I am now more prepared with evidence to take action by making the structural changes for next year’s yearbook – a two page spread for Black History Month and a one page spread for the assembly, student lessons in visual representation and the inclusion of all students in the yearbook. This is part of the work.

 

 

 

 

 

Disruption’s Feedback

I feel like my life is at the vortex of one massive and monumental disruption. School was disrupted by COVID19. White privilege is being disrupted by the undeniable Anti Black and Anti Indigenous racism, governments are disrupting laws by making attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, and ejecting members of parliament for calling someone “racist”. Policing is being disrupted, institutions are being disrupted. And, if reports are to be believed, nature is restoring in places where we are not. This disruption is feedback if we listen and reflect.

I wonder if increasing rates of anxiety might be “the canary in the coal mine”. We all know that emotions are a form of feedback which, depending upon our response, can improve our performance. But I also wonder if we’ve been ignoring some of the most important messages. Maybe if we thought of the community body, we might be more concerned about the anxiety of others and probe a bit further rather than medicating or numbing it away.

I’ve been working on intentionally listening to myself and I find it interesting to consider the ways that  making a podcast has forced me to take in the sound of my own voice, to confront the expression of my own words, my own thoughts which evolve and change. I have to face the permanence of words found in the recording, even when the words connected to the thoughts have dislodged and changed in me. I also have to accept my errors, publicly. It is a humbling way to approach change, but it feels necessary.

Whenever Amanda and I record an episode of Just Conversations, I’m torn about publishing it, especially now, as I’m working to decentre the White voice in my classroom. My hesitations are sometimes about my own sense of public humiliation for screwing up, but I also know that there is a difference between fear of something tangible happening to me, and the discomfort of personal failure; the risk is only perceived and not real and the only thing my silence does is uphold the inequities that I am struggling to challenge. I keep reminding myself, “I am the White liberal voice of education that is so dangerous to BIPOC students” and I’m in a fight to disrupt myself.

Just the other day, we talked and recorded our voices and as we explained our long silence, our conversation helped us articulate our purpose. We’ve been on this vulnerable journey striving for equity, but we realize that our podcast is actually better suited to White educators who are also wrestling with this work. In conversations about justice and equity, we realize our privilege, recognize our role, and refined our purpose. This helped us find better words, better thoughts.

I’ve been feeling another tension with speaking and listening in this current model of distance learning. Each week I move about the house, trying to find a space that is, in that moment, quiet enough for a Google Meet, yet free from the backdrop of my bedroom bathroom or other distractions of my small house. This quiet location migrates depending on my family members, outdoor construction, the wind. On screen in a confined and curated space, I welcome students saying their names as they enter the virtual classroom, cameras off, microphones muted. This quiet space of my home is reflected in the quiet space online. I stare at a screen of letters speaking as warmly as I can in some feeble attempt to connect, asking questions which they respond to in text form, in the chat function, quietly avoiding drawing attention to their own voices. They avoid being heard and I feel like I’m acting rather than teaching, holding up some charade of synchronous teaching. I know their voices are missing from these conversations and every attempt on my part feels inadequate, but I ignore my own feelings .

During our weekly English department lunch meeting, my colleague cried about the silence of virtual classes and I nearly joined her in the acknowledgement of this struggle, this disruption to our connected lives in education. And though there were tears, our conversations helped us make decisions to change our predominantly White book list. We collectively talked about our roles in upholding a racist system and this disruption begins to feel important and meaningful. We also commit to talking and learning more about a blended learning model; we know we need to ask the students what worked and what didn’t. This disruption of the school year is creating real movement in our profession and forcing us to get feedback from the students.

I am now seeing comfort as a luxury that is the norm for the privileged, but growth, progress, equity, and justice can only be achieved if we listen and reflect so we can respond to disruption’s feedback.

 

 

 

 

Inviting Discomfort

I am asking myself important questions and editing myself today.

Am I that White liberal so dangerous to the social justice movement required for equity?

I am digging deep to think about this and working on my willingness to take criticism from all corners. Just believing in equity while not standing for it, while not taking criticism for one’s representation is not enough. So, I am inviting discomfort in the process of learning.

Today, I was challenged by another White educator whom I respect and admire. And, going through the process of examining my representation, of recognizing her concerns and the intent of her advocacy, helped me acknowledge my need to edit, reflect, and keep what is core to my identity.

I should back up and explain what happened. I invited her through Instagram to a book club happening in my school district on Me and White Supremacy. I emailed her the plan for study and sharing, but she declined and then emailed me later in the week with concerns about my avatar, (she felt it was deceptive because she couldn’t tell that I am White) the name of this blog (she felt it offensive to a Black person reading it) and her concerns that White people should not be giving workshops on Black educator’s books. I knew she didn’t have the background about our district book study, which was not a workshop in any sense, but the emails continued back and forth between us as we struggled to understand one another, as we struggled to process our place in this work.

I thought about what she was reading in the representation of my social media and quickly changed my avatar to reflect my Whiteness. She was right and I need to fully disclose my White identity.

I then thought about the title of this blog which has gone from “reflecting on recreation” (re-creation as in creating my life over) to “thinking in a White room” and the reason that I changed it was specifically to acknowledge my White privilege. She contacted me again by email pointing out that my tagline was not evident. I had just recently changed the style of my blog and the tagline had disappeared so I changed it back to what it once was, thankful that she pointed this out, but I still felt discomfort.

I went for a run feeling a sense of uneasiness and resumed my current audiobook, Me and White Supremacy written and narrated by Layla F. Saad. I listened to “day 4: YOU AND WHITE SILENCE”.

“What is White silence? White silence is exactly what it sounds like. It is when people with white privilege stay complicitly silent when it comes to issues of race and white supremacy…White silence is also a defending of the status quo of white supremacy – a manifestation of holding on to white privilege…on the surface, white silence seems benign.”

Saad goes on to point out that “white silence is violence. It actively protects the system.”

I have spent the past four weeks listening intently to the words of Kike Ojo-Thompson and working to internalize her ideas – “disrupt, dismantle, and shift” in favour of racialized students and away from the privileged. Just as I needed to claim my identity in my avatar, my representation to the world, I am claiming my identity on my blog. I can never escape thinking from a White body and this blog is an acknowledgement of this – I am a work in progress and I make mistakes. But silence is worse.

I am also thankful that this educator who has nearly 48 thousand followers emailed me privately with her concerns rather than publically taking me to task on social media. I am working on “holding myself in healthy distrust” realizing my learning is never done and inviting the discomfort.

 

What’s a voice without a platform?

A Black student once wrote this line in a summative essay in the grade 11 English course, Indigenous Voices: “What’s a voice without a platform?”

This sentence has been with me for months and has guided many of my educational choices. Today, as part of my weekly commitment to blogging, I am using my platform because #BlackLivesMatter.

This is my platform and here are two voices of Black students responding to racism.

Dani wrote,

“Seeing everything unfold in the last couple of days have been crazy and disheartening; seeing the pain a lot of people are going through (not only Black people but White people as well… even they are tired of the injustice going on in that corrupt system). The craziest part about all this is my little brother being only 12 years old and it feels like he’s already used to the discrimination in our world. Just a few weeks ago it was #JusticeForAhmaudArbery now it’s #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. With everything going on with the pandemic now I have to explain to my brother why being black is a blessing rather than something to hate. “

Dina wrote,

“The past couple of days have definitely been difficult and the Black community around the world is hurting and I am hurting with them. It has been a lot to take in. Hearing many ignorant comments like all lives matter or blue lives matter haven’t made any of it better. It is easy to look in from the outside and say the violence won’t solve anything. But as unfortunate as it is, it’s been proven to be needed. The Black Lives Matter Movement has been one of the most peaceful movements yet our brothers and sisters are being killed continuously. How long do you expect an oppressed group to stand by peacefully when they fear everyday that their children or brothers might be shot dead on the street on their way to school or work? This is years of intergenerational trauma, and peaceful protests haven’t stopped any of it. 

I think Andre, New York’s Governor, said it best. People are enraged. People are hurting. This is not a riot, it is an uprising; there needs to be clear changes in society. There can not be equality before you dismantle the systems that were never designed to protect you but create a continuous cycle of prejudice and racism against our people. This whole situation has been very eye opening, you get to really see who your allies are and who’s just posting just to say they posted or even those who love to talk, act, dress and be like Black people but are now mute when it comes to issues the Black people are facing. 

All of this just makes you wonder how much longer we have to live like this, is this going to my life forever? Is this how my children’s lives are going to be? We live in such hypocritical countries who flaunt their slogan of the land of the free, but this is not freedom; this is a way to live your life. Growing up having our parents telling us how to act if we any police encounters to not resist and do whatever they say even if it’s wrong, or when they told us to always be aware of your surroundings when you’re out because you never know when someone tries to frame you for a crime you didn’t commit. These things we didn’t understand but growing up you realize why they were telling us these things. You begin to feel numb, numb from the pain, the anger.”

And White students responded too.
Zoe and Ella wrote,

… I wanted to ask you whether there has been a message from the administration encouraging teachers to reach out to their black students and show their support surrounding the specific issue of racism and current events?

I can only imagine it is an extremely difficult and lonely time for them right now for many reasons, not only being students at a predominantly White school and in the midst of a pandemic but most poignantly seeing other Black people being murdered and weaponized. …

I am not sure if there has been discussion among other staff … on what is going on right now in the U.S and Canada, however if there hasn’t been I really hope you are able to encourage administration to share both resources for teachers to educate themselves on anti-racism actions so they can educate their students…It’s critical that teachers, who hold privilege and power, to lead by example at this moment. 

This is a call to action from the voices in our schools.

 

Dad’s Gold

My two sons tease their dad often, but, I must admit that he has provided them with opportunities for some comic gold. He has also been showing them how to make others laugh for a long time, but, they are more fortunate than their youthful hearts can know.

The family lore is full of dad stories. A few years ago, he would make his weekly trip to Costco and each time he would buy the largest box of Arrowroot cookies. This lasted for several months until one day, the oldest opened the cupboard to find the pantry shelves full, pausing only for a second, then turning to ask if his dad was building a bunker in the backyard. His dad didn’t notice the cookies weren’t getting eaten and his motivation was to ensure they never go without. Now, the Arrowroot saga is often the beginning of gentle teasing sessions, but, they don’t know that childhood poverty pressed this impulse into him.

Other stories include his penchant for cranial contusions. With regularity, he hits his head on open cupboard doors, in the basement, or anywhere one might accidentally come in contact with an external object of any kind. It’s actually quite remarkable how often we hear the tell-tale, “ouph” and “Geez” followed by a gasp. For Christmas one year, the boys bought him a construction helmet with a Green Bay Packers logo – his favourite team. They know he is usually so focused and engrossed in his work that he loses the physical sense of his body’s boundaries. But, they don’t know that this deficit developed early in his life; childhood abuse from his father carved an escape route from his external form and he armoured up against the world.

After his own father’s work injury in Australia, their dad felt emigration to Canada was hope, but teenage neglect nearly tossed him, like his shipwright father, over the edge into self destruction. The boys know his story of travelling through the Suez Canal and his earliest days in Ottawa. They know about his magical whimsical ways with humour and acting in high school plays. But, they don’t know about the teachers who saw the wreckage and saved him.

One year on a trip to Michigan to get medical treatment for our infant daughter, he imitated the voices of Mrs. Doubtfire and performed the antics of Robin Williams enough to persuade the nursing staff that he was, in fact, the comedian himself; he did look like him in his younger years. Humour is the healing he offers the world. The boys know this and the many names that he creatively conjures for neighbours, friends, strangers. But, they don’t know that his most golden moments were spent standing with me in our combined grief with the prognosis of a permanently disabled child and balancing both rock solid strength and loving empathy on a the pin head of each day until we were both okay with it all. And then he retired to stay home full time with her.

The boys see his tenacity, his unwavering commitment to them, and he knows their teasing is loving kindness. But they don’t know that their dad is an alchemist who transforms the unimaginable into living gold.

 

 

Remotely Listening

On Tuesdays afternoons, urged by the much admired Sherri Spelic, I joined an engaging weekly series of webinar discussions from the Office of Open Learning called “Open Teaching Tuesdays”. I am so glad that I did!

The hosts, Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier, invite various educators to talk and share experiences, expertise, and questions about teaching and learning remotely during the COVID19 Pandemic.

Online Teaching Tuesdays

The first session was a lively combination of onscreen chat from the hosts and guests, combined with conversations and questions posed in the chat function. Amanda and I texted back and forth enthusiastically from our phones during the webinar and the 45 minutes was over before we had time to breathe. It ended and I felt rejuvenated, even inspired.

I listened in again on the second week and couldn’t wait to for week three. This most recent Tuesday included discussions of Michael Moore’s theory of “transactional distance” or the psychological distance between teachers and students. The focus of discussion was on largely on the social aspects necessary for learning and the need for teachers to shift to a “pedagogy of care” during a global pandemic. We (the panelists in the webinar and the participants in the chat) talked about the characteristics that create and maintain caring relationships, how small acts of online teaching build relationships. I quickly typed a question in the chat: “What does a teacher listening to students look like in an online classroom?”

I was completely unaware in the moment, but they were modelling online listening for me in a synchronous environment. I posed the question in the chat, and they responded in the panel discussion.

After the webinar, I did what I usually do. I started researching and tried to find ways for teachers to demonstrate “listening” online, but I was quickly frustrated. Most of the advice involved getting students to listen, or getting teachers to improve their own listening in a physical space. Then I did what I usually do next. I explored metaphor, analogy, and figurative ways of “listening remotely”.

I brainstormed a list of visible actions which I could take which show to students that I’m “listening” to them.

I can show my students that I am “listening remotely” by

  • responding to a statement a student said in a Google meet either synchronously or asynchronously
  • commenting on something unrelated to course material that the student shared in email or writing or discussions
  • quoting students and crediting them in screencasts or in synchronous meetings or in asynchronous announcements
  • mailing them hand written notes home about my observations of their remote learning and contributing to the class community

As this list developed, I started to envision a way of showing the whole class that I’m listening and thinking about them. My brain lit up and I wondered about a weekly newsletter posted to the classroom which sums up some of my learning and what I needed to teach just as I had done in the physical classroom whenever the students had finished a rich task. I wondered about creating a collective news bulletin board where students post thoughts, questions, ideas and we start building a new way of interacting and listening to one another online.

I’m still wondering and I know that I’m not there yet, but as I head into my Google Meeting for the day, I know that I will need a heightened sense of patience for myself and for the muted voices as I remotely listen.

Up close and at a distance

I was giving feedback to my students online the other day and realized that the way we think of reading, the way we position ourselves in the process of reading is vital. I also realized a missing part of the learning that I have been providing; I missed showing them how to know and recognize when you are moving from examining writing up close to examining writing at a distance.

You see, we read the beautifully crafted article by Alicia Elliott, “On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy and Writing with Love”, and the students examined specific words, devices, phrases, and the various shapes and sizes of sentences. We analysed those small parts of her writing which contribute so meaningfully to the whole. We read up close.

But then when we switched the learning to a new task: an annotated bibliography based on their own research on any Indigenous issue and this reading required that they look at the whole, that they read at a distance, and indicate why it is relevant to the subject of their research.

In giving them feedback, I realized that I missed something important is the space between these two tasks. I missed providing the transition from reading up close to reading at a distance.

I’ve been continually wondering how students feel about this distance learning so I polled them, anonymously, to get feedback on a few of my questions. I wondered how much time the work in each course is taking them, which methods of instruction and support are beneficial to them, and what other issues are getting in their way.

This is what they told me:

time per course

From this small sample of 28 students, nearly half are spending three hours or less per day on course work, while nearly one third are spending more time than is expected.

I really wanted to know what specific structures in distance learning were supporting them and this was the result:

ways of learning online

Although my items in the list need further consideration, I think there is useful information here. If these results and my interpretation is to be trusted, then I think that the “presence” of the teacher online matters. Nearly half the students felt that short Google Meets, and screencasts done by the teacher support their learning while worksheets and assignments are the least beneficial way of learning for most students. And I don’t think this means the same thing as “synchronous learning”, but this does mean that teachers need to be active and present in the course and with the material. We have to get up close and interact with students and the course content if they are going to learn at a distance.

I’d been feeling the eeriness of this online teaching experience. I’m not close enough to the learning to understand it, so I’m left wondering from a distance. Perhaps this requires some fantastical thinking.

It was superhero day last week and I needed to lift my own spirits before our virtual class. For our weekly Google Meeting, I asked students to identify their superpower and to type it in the chat function. They were stumped. They said they didn’t have one and wanted to make it fictional and speculative. I let them to maintain fantastical thinking. Some wanted to fly or be able to make themselves invisible. But, I didn’t think they yet know their own superpowers and I wondered if I even know my own.

And then it hit me. I’m “wonder woman” but not in the descriptive or noun sense of “wonder” and not the shapely and beautifully appearing Wonder Woman of the television screen. I am “wonder woman” of the digital screen. I am “wonder” in the verb sense of wondering and questioning. I love the wordplay of this which demonstrates the complexities of language and the ways in which we gender terms with women as objects and men as actions. Glennon Doyle points this out beautifully in her book Untamed as she describes the verbs on her son’s shampoo bottle and the adjectives on her daughter’s. I love getting up  close to words and then standing at a distance to understand differently.

I only hope that I’m modelling the ability to make transitions for my students as I struggle to stay close at a distance.

 

 

Remotely Speaking

I am spending a lot more time speaking to myself these days. These conversations are often dropped mid sentence or I’m silent and don’t reply to my own questions. Thoughts remain unattended for days. Sometimes weeks. I realize that I haven’t been a very attentive host to my own conversations and am reminded of a line I heard many years ago: “frustration is the product of unmet expectations.” This often applies to me, my own expectations of myself, events, the world. And, there are the often implicit or never clearly articulated expectations in the way that we communicate with one another.

What got me thinking about this was a post by The Mentoree here: The Mentoree

Being connected matters and I had been reflecting on the opportunities for communication and connection with students in remote teaching and learning. Because my field of study is communication, this fascinates me. And, I value student voice, but I’m troubled, conflicted. I fear my students may feel they are speaking into the abyss and this makes them apathetic. No one’s listening. We poll and question and prompt them to take control of their own learning only to wrestle it back from them in our own attempts to make it fit our curriculum, our expectations. We offer freedom and they wait, silently, for rules.

During a Google Meeting in the first few weeks of remote teaching, I asked them about the changes and challenges that they are noticing; some told me about the struggle to manage email – they had never used this mode of communication before. Since then, I have noticed four general categories of student emails. First there are the “singletons”- a one word reply with no introduction, no signature, just sure, or no, or thx. Then there are the well-coached “letter” emails complete with introduction, body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a salutation which are rare. But most often, I see the “texts” in an email which look something like this:

hey miss i was wondering if you want the annotated bib stuff in the same folder and sorry i dint do it till now 

And finally, there are the “silence” emails. These responses had me pausing to think about the contrasting use of email codes and conventions in the adult world. But then, I asked myself, “is email really the most efficient mode of communication? Does it really connect us or are the conventions merely obligatory and empty? Is the time that I spend managing my emails really the best way of building connections?” I haven’t answered myself yet, because I’m thinking; I don’t know.

What surprised me most about the student email “silences” is that they came from students who then voluntarily showed up in our weekly Google Meetings, no video camera on, but they were there, listening and not speaking. I knew then that the email message was received. They just didn’t reply. Maybe, they were thinking. Maybe, there is a teachable moment here. Maybe, there is a learnable moment here.

And, I’ve tried other forms to communicate and build a community of learners. There is the chat function in Google Classroom. I’ve tried it. Maybe not enough, but, it feels messy and clunky, and the linear thread of thoughts makes it difficult to navigate and hold a meaningful “conversation”. Some students post in the chat, without replying to others. For me, it feels artificial, inauthentic, and mechanical.

And, I have tried Flipgrid, too. Some students played along, for a bit, but the novelty wore off and since we know that teens are peak-self-consciousness, I wasn’t at all surpised when many students emailed to ask for an exemption from Flipgrid. So, I put this mode aside. For now.

I am still spending time speaking in weekly whole class Google Meetings, but they only listen and we only stay in meeting for twenty minutes. They reply in the chat function with single word responses, and when I pose questions their mics are muted, eyes and heads facing downward. They are listening but they are not speaking remotely.

Some ask to have a Google Meet individually; they have questions and we talk through their wonderings. This seems to work and we both smile as we say goodbye. I think about my expectations and decide to put them aside, to be completely flexible, to build a way of communicating using guiding principles without predetermined modes or codes or conventions. Although, I know that time spent speaking to myself will continue for a while, but at least I now know that I’m listening for opportunties for speaking remotely.