It happened on the bus

It happened on the bus. I remember it vividly like a photograph etched in my memory.

In this photo, I am coming home from my job in downtown Ottawa. I sit in the window seat looking, my eyes over my right shoulder blindly staring out at the frozen river, snow covering all visible ground. It is the bleaker, deeper, and quieter part of winter when only the grey, salt-stained concrete contrasts the white snow and the trees stand skeletal in the bitter air. I feel the forced mechanical drone of the bus under my feet, about my head like vertigo. Bodies seemingly absent from experience sway back and forth as the bus rounds corners and they reel forward, then back at stops.

I wear sunglasses to hide from others eyes. I relive the past three months of seizures repeatedly going over and over the events to be sure it was not imagination, not my fault. There is a memory in the photograph, a memory in the memory. My now six month old daughter, my second child, has undergone the most invasive, extensive, expensive assessments available to modern medicine. I was told that I will have a severely and permanently disabled child as sibling to my bright, intelligent two year old son. Juxtaposition hovered on my lips. I now counted and timed the number and duration of seizures she had each day. I measured medications and researched interventions in some infinitely futile and powerless effort to stop a furious onslaught of unknown origin. The doctors shook their heads, mouthed sounds, and lowered their eyes.

In this photograph of memory, I look away, out of the salt-streaked window to the lifeless world mechanically moving frozen in a dream-like death march. Pathetic fallacy, I tell myself. Spring will come.

Some people on the bus read, some sleep, others chat with one another, their lives chugging along in routine. Another bus ride home, another dinner routine, another pattern of emotionless motion. I envy the routine dullness of everyday. From my place of hiding, I look and long for boredom, for moments empty of emotion.

And then it happens. Unannounced, unpredictable, and spontaneous, like some divine seizure, some electrocution given to thaw the salty and frigid anguish. It moves like an ocean wave curling and cresting over me from behind. This stealthy child of hope crashes into me, while I sit trying to unfeel the weight of my world, and it presses my body against the cold steel seat of my position. Like one compelled by water, I lift my head for air. In this photograph of memory, I feel myself gasp for breath. And then it happens. I feel the joy of life beginning to spring.


Writing Beside Them

I am trying to live the practices that I learned this summer. I’m trying to be very precise and persistent in holding true to what pedagogical practice and research has shown to be most effective with students, and I’m trying to practice in front of my students.

I gave my grade 11 students an article, “Just Mom” by an Indigenous author, Kahente Horn-Miller in which she spoke of a “bundle of knowledge” gained from her mother, the Mohawk Warrior Princess. I asked students to speak with an elder or coach or someone in their life who had provided them with a “bundle of knowledge” and write a 300 word essay. I told them that I would join them in this writing, and this is what I wrote:

Letters of Hope

by Melanie White

I was never close to either of my grandparents. It’s not surprising, however, given the fact that they lived so far away and we had such infrequent contact. Yet, my father’s mother often figured in my imagination because of her capacity for hope.

She was a very round and smiley women with a full head of curly white hair and a tendency towards silence. I remember her house in Birmingham, England, the same one that my father grew up in during the great depression, the same one that was bombed during WWII, the same one where they found her lifeless body on the stairs from the kitchen, her dead budgie bird in her right hand.

She was 94 years old when she died, but her quiet presence in my life reminded me to always hold on to hope.

I wrote her a letter when I was eleven years old. I was concerned about the state of the world, fearful that the next atom bomb was about to be dropped, or that overpopulation would force the globe out of the orbit of the sun. I wrote the letter initially as a thank you letter for a birthday gift – she never forgot my birthday, or Christmas – but my writing took off in another direction and I wrote pages and pages of concern, somehow knowing that she would send me words of comfort.

She wrote back.

I have seen three wars in my lifetime and lived through the Great Depression, and my life is wonderful. People pull together in difficult times, and the world won’t fall out of the sky. God made sure of that. Everyone is capable of great goodness, and there are young people like you who will change the world. Just hold on to hope.

Love Gram xxx

I thought about her words from the letter and that budgie bird found in her hand and wondered if the bird’s name was Hope. I think that would make her laugh.

“This painting is a mirror”

Image result for christi belcourt

I am awestruck by the beauty and complexity of Christi Belcourt’s art. And I am somewhat ashamed at my ignorance and inability to accuractely read and interpret this piece. Her gift has given to me and my experience is enhanced, but I have nothing in return, no way to navigate its truth with words.

I visited a store in Ottawa this summer called “Beaded Dreams” which is Indigenous owned and operated. I spoke with Ashley, a talented beader, and she told me that hers is a gifting culture. Christi Belcourt’s gift is given a title with the word, “mirror” and I keep thinking about a spoken word poem by Guante, “The Family Business” . His poem contains the line, “they got me wiping my reflection from the glass”.

I also keep thinking about Emily Style and how she wrote about the curriculum as “Windows and Mirrors”; I am deeply committed to students being able to see themselves in our classwork this year, so this art and writing and thoughts are consuming me. Yet, I am fortunate to have a partner in this difficult be necessary work. Amanda Potts is a beautiful person, a beautiful teacher. Her classroom is a painting that is a mirror for all of her students and you need to know that she works with the most struggling students; she works with the ones that others fail to reach. I hear about her lessons, her thinking and ideas and watch her through this window wanting to see myself reflected on the glass.

She talks about reading and writing, how all English teachers read, but very few write and she’s right.

So I’m going to write.

But today, I am afraid.

Tomorrow, begins the important work of Indigenous Studies in grade 11 University English at Nepean High School, my first year as English and Fine Arts Department Head. I look up Christi Belcourt’s painting again and find it on a website filed under the category of “resilience”. My consternation is fractured with a smile, aha, and I vow to take the gifts of learning and give them all away.

Avoiding Regret

We are driving home and my son tells us about his day spent dwelling on a mistake he made at work. His coworkers keep telling him that it’s no big deal and to stop worrying, he knows it, but feels he somehow deserves to suffer for such a simple mistake. And then he says, “I have to stop living my life through regret.”

It was one of those moments when my heart squeezes tightly and my instinct is to mend with words, “sweet philosophy”. But, I don’t. I’m learning to let go, to sit with the feeling, the sentiment, and just allow it to be aired.

The silence is heavy and I try to slow my mind. It is night and the vehicle moves through the darkness punctuated by street lamps, and lawn lights.

He speaks some more about the day and the air lifts, my heart slows, but this moment gets me thinking about regret. I’m reminded of Ophelia’s floral offerings to Claudius – “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it ‘herb of grace’ o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.”

Like weeds in any garden, a sense of lost opportunities or sadness for missteps is part of the parenting and teaching experience. I am going to make mistakes. I am going to feel regret for actions taken, for actions not taken. But, my son has it right. I can’t live to avoid regret or live through old regrets. Tending to my emotional garden is intentional and if I am going to bloom along with my students, regret must be culled and controlled.

We pull into the driveway and he shares regrets for not pursuing some of his passions. I tell him, “You should write” and his voice elevates breaking the darkness, “Ya!

I smile and realize it’s Slice of Life Tuesday tomorrow. Time to avoid regret.

Nurturing Guilt

I wanted to keep some of this private, but I’ve realized that guilt needs some nurturing for it to be a productive force. And, I have to admit that guilt has its face in much of my life’s business; white guilt, colonial guilt, childhood guilt, sibling guilt, parental guilt, teacher guilt. Yet, despite my hesitation to speak or write about this, I know that guilt unacknowledged or untended grows like weeds choking up the host leaving no room for other forms of life. It’s like those few extra pounds around my hips that I can ignore if I never observe myself from behind. Some things need to be acknowledged, others can be hidden with the right clothes.

So here is part of the story.

A long time ago, I sought therapy to help me manage the stark reality of having a severely disabled child. I was convinced that my actions during pregnancy had caused my daughter’s seizure disorder and impending very dependent life. I was responsible for this mess, but now someone else, someone innocent, had to share the cost with me.

During one of our hour-long sessions, I seemed to have a moment of clarity in which I saw all the guilt that I had carried forward from my mother, letting it weigh me down as I willfully ignored the burden, and I could see myself passing this on into the future to my three children. I couldn’t let this happen, so I asked Dr Boulais for parenting advice and he was succinct; “I tell everyone the same thing. Deal with your own shit.”

Now, twenty-five years later, I have realized the many benefits of having to care for my disabled child, given up the selfish notion that it was my fault, and what seemed to be irreconcilable has been reconciled for me. I feel like this is cause for hope as I face the truth of my white privilege, the truth of our colonized curriculum, and the lack of diversity in the buildings in which I teach.

Although I have shed some of the childhood, sibling, and parental guilt, I have to admit that I do feel guilty for Canada’s role in harming our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. I do feel guilty for the residential schools, I do feel guilty for the reserves, and the lack of clean drinking water at Attawapiskat, a national disgrace.

But that guilt needs tending, it needs some action, so as these summer days shorten and new ground is about to be broken with Indigenous Studies in grade 11 English at my school, I am going to nurture that guilt. I am going to deal with my own shit. I am going to raise up and celebrate our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, and I am going to need some help if I am going to become an ally. The seeds of guilt can grow when exposed to the truth and when nurtured out in the open.

Learning from EduTwitter challenges

I was distracted from my online course on FNMI cultures yesterday though I did stay on topic. A Twitter thread caught my eye and I followed the discussion throughout the day and well into the night. I read most of the responses and thought carefully about the issues being raised as well as the way in which the central “edu-influencer” both responded and was responded to.

I think the whole discussion started with @doxdatorb posting this:

This was followed by a link to a thoughtful critique of @MeehanEDU’s gamified “Dream Rush” which can be found here:
This prompted a response from Dr. Debbie Reese, whose profile states: 
Tribally enrolled: Nambe Pueblo. Founder: 
American Indians in Children’s Literature. 
PhD Education; MLIS. ALA’s 2019
 Arbuthnot Lecturer. She/her.

She responded with: 
“You’ve arrived” — sounds innocuous. It wasn’t. 

“uncharted” — you mean “uncharted by colonizers” 

“our race” — you expect Native kids to join that “race” and “yearlong wagon train”?

This definitely got me thinking about the blindness of our bias and how we need “edu influencers” from the margins to challenge all of us and our thinking. It certainly helps that I’m enrolled in a course on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit in Canada since I’m already open and learning, but I would hope that we, as educators, can be open enough to the critique of others (especially those working on the margins of dominant culture) that we don’t ignore, or silence them.

I made a list of what I learned from this:
  • don’t erase debate from your Twitter feed (as done by @MeehanEDU)
  • consult, consult, consult before you publish
  • there are dangers in the commercialization of education
  • respond individually to people on Twitter and avoid “cut and paste” responses
  • don’t hold your creation “too close to your heart” (thanks to @XanWoods for that metaphor)

This Twitter discussion was difficult and made me very uncomfortable at times. I wonder how often someone on the margins flinches in discomfort in the classroom? I am working on making my classroom a place where these discomforts can be shared and I don’t mind if this makes me the most uncomfortable one in the room.

Mother’s Day Reflections

I had a profoundly emotional moment in class last week which brought me to tears and then suddenly a flush of embarrassment.

We had been live on VoicEd Radio with Stephen Hurley and my students in grade 10 Academic English were being interviewed. My mother in Goderich, and my husband at home had promised to listen in.

I had been moving about the room trying to encourage students to work through the hashtags for the Twitter chat, to respond to the five questions that I had timed to be released every 10 minutes, and ensuring as many students as possible could share their voices on the radio.

Of course, I was anxious and somewhat fearful, because I’d never done this before. It was a new experience and I wasn’t quite sure about the outcome. It was very public, and I felt very exposed.

But the hour passed fairly smoothly, and many students were engaged and participating. Some were excited and willing to share their thoughts on live radio. I could feel my heart swell whenever they got up to the microphone and I wanted to reach out and support them, but didn’t as they made their way through the questions from the host with thoughtfulness and honesty.

And as we signed off, a text from my mother came in. I raised my voice to share the text, and then was suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion. I paused and broke. Tears flowed and my peer tutor stepped forward to read the text message:

“I can understand why you love your job. Those young people are SO worth caring about.”

After a few gentle hugs from the students, I composed myself and the ebb of embarrassment appeared. It hung around for several hours and into the next day, until this day, Mother’s Day, I realized what it was.

It was the moment of parental recognition that said, “I understand you.” This Mother’s Day I’m reminding myself of this power to hold and validate the worth of our children.

Unlearning – Journal 1

We are one week into this unit and I couldn’t be more excited, more overwhelmed, and equally, more afraid. I’m excited by the range of topics and enthusiasm that some students are finding, I’m overwhelmed by the notifications streaming into my Twitter account, and I’m afraid that this might not be sustainable.

But, I’m equally inspired to keep moving in this direction as I’ve learned more about my students and their thinking on a range of topics than I could have in any other format. Using Twitter for research allows them to find their own voices, make connections with others in their field of interest, and most importantly learn how to dialogue in shared spaces. It allows me the opportunity to share articles and credible sources which may help their research, broaden their perspectives, or even deepen their understanding and appreciation for the complexities of life.

Going into a library is a wonderful experience for me, but students often don’t know where to begin. To navigate a library they need to take a mass of information and sort, select, and distil the information down to the narrow focus of their research topic. On the other hand, Twitter allows them to move in the opposite direction; from small bits of information across the surface of understanding and then to deepen when they find what they need.

Image result for it's complicated by danah boydThis unit has brought me back to the trajectory of my learning when teaching Media Studies. It’s reminded me of Dana Boyd’s point that “In a world where information is easily available, strong personal networks and access to helpful people often matter more than access to the information itself…
Rather than focusing on coarse generational categories, it makes more sense to focus on the skills and knowledge that are necessary to make sense of a mediated world. Both youth and adults have a lot to learn.” 
― Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

I have a lot to learn over the next three weeks.

Using Conversations as Evidence of Learning

(This happened last year and the name of my student has been changed.)

George drops by my class every morning.

“Hi Miss!” he shouts.

He tells me about his girlfriend, and asks for breath mints
because he got rushed out of the house and didn’t have time to brush his teeth. He showed me pictures of the sheep on his family farm.
A supply teacher told me that he dropped by when I was absent and left me an apple.

Several weeks back I saw him in the principal’s office and rather than understanding that his location
might reveal a discipline problem to be concerned about, he waved enthusiastically to get my attention.

If someone were to record the number of times the name “George” is said in a period, I believe that it
would exceed the names of all other students. Getting George’s attention is difficult. Getting George to
understand and to learn is difficult. Liking George isn’t difficult.

I’ve always known that technology can be the great leveller in the classroom and this definitely applies to
George. In our professional learning this year, we decided to record student voices and to see what
learning takes place that is not evident when they write. George loves speaking so using a voice
recorder and interviewing him after a reading task was easy and he was engaged the entire time.
But was he learning? And, if there was learning, could I hear it?

This classroom intervention, this intentional interruption in my teaching practice, sparked so many thoughts and questions and changes in me. I have started to pay closer attention to the types of questions that I ask students and I listen more. I sit in small groups and let them direct the conversations making connections between the skills that we are learning in class and their lives.
George pays closer attention when it connects with his own life and I’m getting a better understanding of what he understands.

Last year, our Literacy Achievement Collaboration Group allowed teachers the time to reflect on students and themselves; it provided a learning environment that had high expectations for learning, and which was rigorous and demanding, but allowed for many voices in the interests of

growth. I feel like this is what needs to happen often with George and other students just like him and I am making this my focus for this year.

I always set myself goals for improvement, and this year I want to make the changes that will allow me to use conversations as evidence of learning. And, I know that there are those students who are reluctant to speak (my youngest son was one of those students) so I will find ways to hear what they are learning. I found this interesting idea to help promote peer to peer conversations and will work this into the group discussions this year.

Continuing the Conversations on Cell Phones

This semester, I have three grade 9 classes, and even though they are exciting to teach, they can be very distracted, very scattered, and very much in need of classroom and teacher supports to keep them focused on the learning.

I’ve been following the debate around cell phone use closely. I saw a report on CBC news about a Social Studies teacher in Toronto who had ordered the pouches for his class; the report included a brief interview with students who reported being able “to focus more”, so I sought the approval of my principal and we decided to run an experiment out of my class.

I ordered 30 Yondr pouches (seen in the image) for experimentation and spent time planning how I might use them, when I might use them, and I began drafting a letter Informing parents.

Donna Fry wrote recently about cell phones here:  She seems to question the banning of cell phones, and asked some very valuable questions.

When have we scaffolded the development of self-regulation with mobile devices? 

When have we empowered students by showing them how to connect with experts from around the world? 

These questions or similar concerns were expressed by other Department Heads at my school. Before I could take action, I felt that I needed to understand the debate more clearly and I wanted to engage my students in the experiment.
A Classroom Experiment:
One day during a station activity where students were trying to use literary devices in creative ways (write a menu or advertisement for Hyperbole cafe), I noticed that they were particularly rambunctious and nearly every student had a cell phone out and in use. I observed many Snapchat users and overheard discussions about a social situation that was drawing their attention. 
The next day I spontaneously decided to take action. I brought the pouches into the class and had students lock their phones before doing 6 vocabulary stations. The students knew about the pouches and understood that I was supporting them in creating a sense of focus; at least, that was my intention. I had students complete a Google Form about the experience and the next day I ran the stations again, with different words, and this time with their phones. I was fortunate to be in the middle of a collaborative inquiry cycle and had 7 teachers observe my students during the vocabulary stations so I got lots of interesting observational data.
What Happened?

On the first day using the Yondr pouches, I asked my students how they felt about working at the vocabulary stations without their phones and these are their unedited responses:

Before the activity, your phone was locked in a Yondr pouch. How did this affect the way you tried to work through the tasks at the station?
Did not effect me at all because I don’t use my phone in English.
It made it easier to concentrate
We needed to search some songs up and it was hard to do when the phone or the Chromebook was locked away so it was hard.
It didn’t change it much, I still did the work the same as I usually would have.
Doesn’t matter I didn’t have a phone
It made it a bit harder because i couldn’t look anything up
It didn’t really affect me to much, only when I may of forgot what a word was but I couldn’t search it up.
I found that it was much less of a distraction for me and my group members because i was able to focus more on my work and the entire group was able to focus and contribute to each station.We also were able to complete most of the stations in a reasonable time because we did not have a phone to distract us from our work, i think everyone can talk to a neighbor or group member and still complete work without access to our devices.
I found it made it easier to not have my phone because I wasn’t constantly checking it, or wanting to go on it. I wasn’t even worried about it and I got more work done, probably because I was more Focused on my work than my phone.
I’m fine without my phone. It didn’t effect me very much.
Couldn’t look up the words which made it tricky
On the next day, when they could use their phones, teachers observed students struggling with vocabulary and making decisions to skip words rather than use their phones to look up definitions.
Donna Fry wrote about the power of cell phones as sources of information. However, I discovered something unexpected with my students. 
What I Learned and Next Steps:
I should preface these next statements by the fact that I am a seriously dedicated social media fanatic and I have an obsession with Media Studies. 
Lesson #1: My observations in this early stage of my experiment, have led me to feel that often grade 9 students don’t see their cell phones as “powerful computers”.The distraction is the powerful pull of social media and the chance to interact virtually with their peers. In my school and in my classes, this is mainly Snapchat with some limited use of Instagram. As someone who once held the philosophical belief that  if the lesson is “engaging enough” students will use their cell phones wisely. I’ve realized that I’ll never be as engaging as their peer group or some Youtube videos. I can and have spent hours designing for engagement, but if the teenaged mind is consumed by emotions generated by the amygdala and they are immersed in some peer group drama, they will not be able to focus with or without a cell phone.
Lesson #2: But the experiment taught me even more. It’s not all about focus. It’s actually about working memory. My students relied on their phones so much, and the ways that they consume music is so different from previous generations, that they did not have working memory of songs or vocabulary words that we were using in class. 

Lesson #3: It can’t be all or nothing. Students need help understanding how and when to use their cell phones. They need help managing the use of the phone in and outside of the classroom.

This isn’t going to be an easy fix. We aren’t going to solve this with traditional measures or absolute controls. We need to continue the discussion, to involve students in understanding the potential and the dangers of cell phone use.

I’m continuing by listening to the debate on CBC Radio’s Ontario today.