September 19 #SOL2022

On September 19, the whole school, the whole school Board, and all school boards across Ontario were directed by the government to take a moment of silence recognizing the death of Queen Elizabeth. And, the strange and jarring juxtaposition that this is Powley Day (a nationally recognized day which affirms the rights of the Metis Nation) is stark.

I read many posts on Twitter from anti-oppressive educators who said they would be resisting this directive and as colleagues, we talked extensively in texts, and emails, and in-person wrestling with another one of those moments, those complex teachable moments that ask you to enact your personal pedagogy. How can I pause for the person who led the institution which represents such longstanding and devastating oppression for so many? I can’t.

Michelle and I text back and forth. She’s teaching grade 11 English; a course focused on Indigneous Voices. I think about the land acknowledgements, the attempts to “decolonize’ the classroom, the Indigenous and Equity Road map and they all feel empty in the face of this directive. The memory of Jason Reynold’s Lesley College Commencement address comes to mind. In the address he tells the graduates to use their positions wisely, for justice, otherwise their degrees will be “nothing more than paper-thin pedestals. Talismans of ego, connected to more of the same blanket rhetoric about change that we will conveniently use to readjust the comfort level of our ill-fitting skin during moments of apathy.”

A slide with text and links saying Have you heard about Powley Day before? Let’s learn more about it.
Different people have very different feelings about the Monarchy and the Queen. Let’s listen to a discussion about some of these perspectives (first 14 min).
Colonialism: the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
The Province has directed all schools to observe a moment of silence in recognition of the life of the Queen at or around 1:00 p.m. today. Let’s take a look at OCDSB communications regarding this. 
How do you feel about taking a moment of silence for this purpose?

In my own ill-fitting white skin, I tell myself that I cannot stand but I need share more than my voice. Trevor Noah helps.

His thesis is clear; we cannot all mourn the same losses. He says, “How can we be expected to respect something that didn’t respect us back.” Amanda Jonz shared her carefully researched writing prompt and collectively, we gather and plan to turn this into a moment to reflect and decide for themselves.

Three students sit in blue reclining chairs around a wooden table, two writing on paper, one writing on a device.

Handling #SOL2022

I’m in class right now, writing with the students, trying to find something inspiring to say about hands, (our prompt from Sarah Kay’s beautiful spoken word poem) but I’ve been feeling too anxious, too stressed with the chaos of the start-up, or the chaos of what’s inside me, to consider saying anything interesting.

So, instead, I’ll breathe and wait. But, I will write anyway. And, this often works for me when I think of the white space as a place to sort out my own messiness or bring my emotions into some form of comprehension. And understanding reading comprehension has been a private pedagogical quest. Which, frankly, feels fraught, and futile and other “f” words that I won’t use here. I’ve been reading about the science, the art, the strategies, and trying to get a handle on it, to make sense of all this information when the paradox of it all strikes me. I’m not leaving space to linger, space to breathe with the difficulties.

I’d been listening to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show called, “The Subtle Art of Appreciating Difficult Beauty”. Chloe Cooper Jones explains that “all humans are engaged with a struggle between their internal and external self…there is always a disconnect.” She talks about a way of coping with pain, or the anticipation of pain, called “the neutral room”. It is a space in the mind intentionally created to carve out neutrality and it sounds a lot like a place to breathe.

My ten minute timer ends and I move to my desk to look back at my reading while students are working in groups. adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy sits open at a page. I’m reading the chapter “Fractals” and thinking of my elderly neighbour, an intensely positive Black man who makes fractal art, and wears tie-dyed fractal shirts. (Even his tricyle helmet is vibrant with colour and possibility.) He lost his lifelong partner to brain cancer last year and, still, he smiles and rides and connects with members of the community.

How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. (brown 52)

I think to myself, “There is so much that I’m not handling right now.” Maybe there is no handling. Maybe there is only finding the difficult beauty in these struggles and being comfortable with small movements of transformation.

Everything is Delicate #SOL2022

Movment in morning routines

alarms, even myself,

noticing each touch,

imagining

something so simple 

might

create catastrophe.

Time feels too delicate,

too spacious 

– unhurried and open –

for me to rest

without fear

of some new 

brokenness.

The petals and rain falling,

a cat tiptoeing across asphalt;

what did I miss,

in the delicate mechanisms

bringing such consequences, 

such elevated 

heart beats?

Everything is delicate,

now.

Street Stories #SOL2022

I wish these stories weren’t true. They did happen, and this is how I remember them – as connected stories merging.

The first story happened in what feels like a previous life, with a former partner, and former friends, in Toronto – a city no longer my home. But the memory of him falling face first in the street, in the middle of the pedestrian walk, in the middle of winter, stays. I can still picture it and feel the echo of emotions on that street – reverberations.

We were a few hundred yards away, striding on cross country skis, on new fallen snow, up the affluent residential area to the busy intersection of Yonge Street. I don’t know how or why he fell. I just remember seeing two young men exit a small car which couldn’t drive where his body lay. Each passenger took an arm and dragged the lifeless form to a snow piled near the sidewalk. He was face down. Once lowered down, they turned, and got into their car to drive away.

But, we were close now and had all picked up our pace getting ready to intervene, to help. My partner said something to the men through their window as I stared at the lifeless body, rotating him over. His eyes were wide open. Someone called 911 and I remember a siren, a woman leaping out of her car stating she was a doctor, and CPR being administered as they scrambled into the back of the ambulance driving away with the back doors still open.

Police took our names and came to visit us in a friend’s apartment later that evening. They wrote down our statements, what we witnessed, and said the man was “homeless”, had hit his forehead on the concrete pavement, and died instantly. I wondered about his family. Did he have children? Who would notify them? I remember feeling disoriented, confused, and horrified at the implied which slammed against me as I sat there impotent. It was a long time ago, yet the memory is fresh.

Now, in Ottawa, I spend time walking the streets in my inner city neighbourhood. It’s easier than driving near my home, and I enjoy this design for feet over cars. I’ve come to mostly enjoy the various buskers, the local panhandlers, seeing this as varied forms of being, ways of eking out an existence. There are the men on bikes collecting bottles and cans for the beer store whose addiction drives them, and whose actions benefit the environment.

But the streets look different now. The pandemic has changed them. The 28 year old former roofer bound to a wheelchair passed away when COVID struck and his depleted body quickly responded to the virus – I read the article in the newspaper. Many in the neighbourhood watched out for him, knew where he lived, in subsidised housing. He was cared for. I remember giving him $20 as he panhandled for money outside of the local grocery store and he told me, “Oh no. This is too much. I just need money for a coffee.”

The other day I saw a neighbour striding along the sidewalk shifting towards the road shaking his head – not shaking his head “no” so much as an aggressive negation, a form of tutting disgust and rejection. The kind of head shake with a downward scowl that communicated derision. I noticed and wondered at this clean white man, well beyond middle-aged, tall with a round belly and a white golf shirt. He wore sunglasses, so I couldn’t see what his eyes were saying, but the body movements were loud. He was passing a young homeless man, one of many who have appeared in growing numbers. He was moving away on this narrow street, shaking his head at this thin, dark haired man sitting on well-worn slip of cardboard on a concrete patio under the shade of a tree, legs crossed rocking back and forth over a Starbucks mochachino, half consumed, a smile spread across his dirty face. I felt my heart sink.

In this passing moment, a mere millisecond of linear time, I entered an intersection of past and present street stories.

Slowly Unfurling #SOL2022

Good morning. How are you? Have you expanded easily into summer?

Slowly unfurling.

My father built his first sailboat in the garage of our bungalow in Toronto. We lived on a cul de sac, which sounds much better than “dead end street” which we used to say as children. It was a dingy, a single-sailed boat with a mast called a Penguin. He bought the blueprint designs, the wood and tools and constructed every part by hand, except the sail. He hand crafted the wooden hull secure against the water and waves, but purchased the triangular cloth, the sail with a symbol and a number, almost like a license plate but for boats, ready to catch the wind.

For three summers, he learned to steer the vessel, catching wind, navigating the waters of Georgian Bay. But, this wasn’t enough. One sail couldn’t harness much wind and he would fall behind other boats racing across the choppy blue-green waves. So, he bought another blueprint and built another boat with a mainsail and a jib – a Fireball – first conceived in 1962.

I remember skipping, double-dutch, in the driveway, peeking over at the sleek cedar hull, sanded and varnished, feeling admiration and pride. Neighbours came to watch the process unfolding, seeing the nearly five foot expanse jutting out of the too-small garage. It was summer and he had been preparing in the basement all winter.

That boat would speedily slide across the choppy waters and even with my mandatory life preserver, I was scared with every outing. I sat tense near the centre mast at the front of the boar. We would tack across the bay from Beaver Dams beach to Blueberry Island where we would fill a bucket with wild blueberries. Other than the odd pine growing out of the rocky mossy surface, blueberry bushes covered the tiny island. I’d sail for blueberries, knowing we had a destination, but fear would grip me every time.

Each tack sent me under the boom to the other side of the boat and my father would coax me to “handle the jib” barking commands to bring in the sail to catch the wind. I’d pull and watch the two white pieces of fabric flutter with each turn imagining they would never open again – we’d be stranded. Yet, each time, with a few turns of the rudder, and attention to nature, they would unfurl and open again to the wind.

Obligation #SOL2022

The police arrived and smashed in the two rear windows of his new black truck parked across the street beneath the balconies of two newly constructed three story buildings, an infill on our old residential street. They needed to get a brown Lab out of the vehicle. It was nearly 30 degrees celsius and his tongue was extended, bouncing with his rapid panting.

For the past six months or so, I’d seen this new tenant, a middle-aged portly white man, living in an expensive apartment, yank and yell at his two Labrador Retrievers, one older and one younger – a puppy just learning to walk. Each aggressive thrust on the leash hurled their muscled bodies back against him as he leaned forward cursing and glowering. Each time, I felt my body pull away, my head turn sideways, eyes squinting, and mouth drawing in air through clenched teeth. I desperately wanting to admonish him. But, I didn’t.

Through my dining room window. I’d seen him enter the building with his disabled son, on his own, and thought I should hold my tongue, hold judgement. Maybe I’d witnessed him at a difficult moment. Unrestrained frustration. But then, I’d see the same public violence, yanking, yelling, nothing that would leave visible marks. I’d observe, weigh and measure, looking for an opportunity to speak, maybe offer help, a trainer, some advice on positive reinforcement, on kindness as encouragement. I’d imagine myself saying, “I’m no expert, but I’m a dog owner, and that looks harmful.”

This reluctance changes when I realize this animal’s life was in danger. He made a choice to leave a living being locked in a hot vehicle. This choice is not only illegal. This moment confirms my obligation. It’s no longer about kindness or being non-judgemental.

Another neighbour holds his toddler while two others twirl around his legs. He talks with my husband at the end of the driveway explaining the dog was in the car for 40 minutes. He, too, saw the police smash the truck windows jarring the neighbourhood out of summer slumber. He’d spoken to the man previously over the fence that separates their properties, the man who yelled obscenities at his disabled son; he’d asked him for kindness. “Please stop. My children are in my backyard and they hear you yelling.” He’d seen him kick his dogs and told him to stop.

This duty begins unfolding in my head as I calculate how, and when, and if I’ll speak to him directly. I research information on animal abuse through the Humane Society, my chosen charity for the year. Anil Seth reminds me that “I am a part of what’s going on; I am not apart from what’s going on.” My obligation is now clear.

Borders #SOL2022

The cafeteria walls, rising higher than any step ladder could reach, made the balloons at eye level seem small and insignificant. But, the students had built an impressive arch of purple, white, and glossy gold ones for a photo booth in a smaller alcove near the entrance. This welcoming banner gave an air of formality for this school-based multicultural festival. Flags took up space behind presentation boards and tables exploded with food and drink and cultural items of significance.

Several weeks of difficult meetings had preceded this. In fact, a tornado warning cancelled the event the evening just prior nearly blowing away all possibilities for celebration. But, they did it. The students regrouped, rescheduled for the evening after the storm, and we all felt a collective sigh, shared a collective cheer, as we watched Palestinian dancers, listened to a haunting Jewish ballad, and learned an Afghani dance step.

Four weeks ago we were wrestling with “culture” and whether that included “Queer culture”. Three weeks ago we were debating the presence of maps and flags, examining the borders of place and time and identity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how much of the world comes into the school. We wrestled with the unknown, with being wrong, and with moving towards right, even when it was hard.

Worry about world conflict, about student well-being entered each meeting. Doubt had fluttered around the edges of the entire year, sometimes hanging in front of me requiring my immediate response, and other times demanding some silent reflection.

One week ago, I spent an evening in my head working through several discussions, writing out my thoughts, doing research to challenge my thinking. I opened the next meeting with the Diverse Student Union in this way:

A few thoughts that I ask you to consider in the planning the work of the DSU. This is social justice in action. Please ground any decisions you make in equity, diversity, and inclusion philosophy and practice. Never forget that events have contextual meaning – school context and world context. All previous events in the school ripple into future events. All world events ripple into the school.

Whatever decisions you make for this multicultural event, you need to anticipate a response to claims of harm and offense. You will not please everyone, and you will need to take a collective stand, to connect, and possibly understand the sense of harm. Yet what you are working towards matters – identity matters – validation of culture matters. And, only sustained conversations and education will help to bring understanding. A single school event not considered carefully can do more to escalate conflict than sustained difficult discussion.

So plan beyond the event, plan for the follow through, plan to listen – what will you do after the event? How will you cross borders and build bridges?

Living near an edge #SOL22

Father’s Day is around the corner so he’s on my mind. Born in 1925, my father lives near the edge of life’s expanse, it’s outer margin, and soon, I will have to learn to live with loss.

Today, I put in my wireless headphones, headed out the door for a run, and heard an interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. My father – who walks two or three times daily, who exercises on a rowing machine and an elliptical – has lived with us for nearly 30 years. I have witnessed him avoiding the edge, “raging against the dying of the light”.

One line halted me. I paused briefly at the intersection I was crossing, allowing my arms to bend, and my hands to cup my nose and mouth as if in prayer: “Sometimes what appears to be catastrophe becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life.” These words pulled on me, cracking neatly stored memories.

Catching my breath and folding feelings back inside, I returned to thoughts of him. I wonder if my father has been looking at the world through this window, from this edge, for a long time. Perhaps war does this to a person.

In 1953 he came to Canada having served in the military during WWII. He’s rarely spoken of it, often avoiding my brother’s probing questions, declining to watch historical films of the time period. He doesn’t speak much. Less now that he is completely deaf in one ear and profoundly deaf in the other. Though, I do remember Depression stories were explicit, served up to prompt our gratitude. Emigration tales were descriptive, shared to convince themselves they had escaped. But, I’m not sure. I think the war came with them, lodged in the contours, unchecked baggage stored in the body.

He has carried the story of this war on him battling skin cancer for five decades. Last year, he lost half his chin, more recently, part of his cheek – chunks of flesh scraped away to keep the rest of him alive. He tells me that it started a long time ago. He thinks he knows the source – in the navy they were bathed in DDT, sprayed down while naked, to prevent lice. He doesn’t have to talk about the war. It lives on him.

Dr. Remen offers wisdom for living well despite illness. She says that “even what is wrong with us is what we have and that is good enough. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer; what seems to be important is so much more simple and accessible”. She says, “the sick people in our culture are the repository of wisdom.”

What an incredible gift to see the edges of life as the spaces of wisdom.

Writing in digital spaces #SOL2022

For the quickwrite in class today, I shared two poems and this video of the Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur (she’s referred to as the Instapoet because of her posts on Instagram).

We talked about the intentional craft of consistency across posts and the concept of visual identity on social media. These ideas fascinate me. Why Times New Roman font? Why is each stanza indented at the same distance from the margins? She doesn’t explain all of the craft moves in the video and I have more questions that answers now. And I think that is productive.

These questions are drawing me into multimodal expressions and I feel inspired by the fact that writers can shape their identity in new ways. I really want my students to see this, to value new modes of expression, and to know that the path to publication is varied and not the singular one once the privilege of only some.

Numbers and Levels and Rubrics and Grades – Check #SOL2022

Midterm is here and I am anxious – again. I checked my assessments, flexed rubrics, collated the data, used observations and conversations. Yet, this happens – every time. It doesn’t matter what I might have done to prepare, to give feedback, to support student learning with clear evidence, I still feel an overwhelming sense of dread and panic at report card time.

I just listened to “Grades Have Huge Impact But Are They Effective?” and find relief in the fact that this dread is grounded in pedagogical science. Research suggests that students aren’t motivated to learn by grades, and that grades can actually interfere with learning, in particular, when students haven’t mastered a skill. Arrgghhh! How do I fulfill my obligation to provide a midterm grade while knowing this can be detrimental to learning and well being?

I’ve been struggling with numbers and levels and rubrics and grades for some time now. And it’s not just what it does to learning, it’s the fact that I can’t ascribe a number to the unique craft of writing or the cultural knowledge required for reading.

How do I measure beauty with a number? (I know – beauty isn’t in the curriculum, but it has a place in student lives and I hope they can see their own beauty.)

How do I place a level on writing that a student poured their heart into? (I know – skill and effort aren’t the same thing, but what do low evaluations do when a student is learning the skill?)

How do I apply a rubric to a piece of reading that requires background knowledge outside of a student’s lived and cultural experience? (I know. Scaffold the learning and provide background, but what about the cultural nuances that I miss, and I’m a skilled reader!)

I have so many questions about traditional evaluations in addition to the systemic desire for content control in classrooms. I went looking for answers and cracked open a thin book on rubrics looking for words to strengthen me in this internal wrestling match. These lines pinned me:

What really distinguishes Wilson’s analysis is her willingness to challenge rubrics not merely for their technical deficiencies but on the basis of the goals they serve. That’s a rarity in the world of assessment…She shows that their attempt to standardize assessment in rooted in an error to rank students…(Rethinking Rubrics by Maja Wilson, Foreword by Alfie Kohn, xv)

Wait…”that’s a rarity in the world of assessment” – someone who challenges the deficiencies of rubrics is a rarity? Does this mean that rubrics are mostly viewed as infallible solutions to accurately assessing and evaluating expectations from the curriculum?

When it comes to writing, I’ve observed that most rubrics (Ministry created, student co-created, teacher created, etc.) fail to adequately measure what students demonstrate. Rubrics are cumbersome when the range of written expression is qualified and quantified. LIke the author of Rethinking Rubrics, I wonder if the creative writing of Hemingway and Morrison would score poorly on the syntax of sentences or the jarring choppiness of dialogue. If a writer intends to struggle through dialogue in a parallel struggle with the character, then the writing has been effective. Maybe the writer wants the reader to create their own meaning.

Can a rubric actually be open enough and specific enough for the creative imagination to emerge? Or is this just another set of boxes for students to check, for teachers to check. For me, I think the answer is both “yes” and “no” – there is the discomfort rising in my chest again. I’m not going to find a solution to the discomfort that comes with grading – this is my space to navigate carefully with the student at the center and my signal to check.

Break #SOL2022

“Hit the brake.”

Translation: stop

“Take a break.”

Translation: rest

“We are all on the verge of breaking.”

Translation: self-destruction

“What light through yonder window breaks?”

Translation: I see the beauty of another through a window.

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”

Translation: The situation will not end well and this means I will suffer in silence.

Caesura: a break between words in the metre of a poem.

Translation: a place for the reader to to fall and break open.

A poem for April in three drafts #SOL2022

Draft #1

Writing prompt: trace your hand on the page. Select a word which represents and emotion and try to write using the structure of the hand to guide your thoughts.

Draft #2

Move to lines or sentences to build a poem for April.

Draft #3

It lands in my throat

halting breath,

migrates to my stomach,

twisting flesh.

It rings in my ears

singing fatality,

but mostly, it lives in my heart centre,

stopping blood,

pooling platelets,

preventing

healing

here.

Acrostic After Reading Ratchedemic #SOL2022 30/31

I finished the nine hour audiobook Ratchedemic in three days. I could not stop listening and marvelling at the metaphorical use of a ratchet to comparatively discuss the loosening of teaching and learning in order to create more equitable student-centred environments. I started listening again tonight.

Dr. Chris Emden takes definitions and expands them for empowerment – take the term “ratchet” where he blends the urban vs literal vs metaphorical mechanical device that allows movement in only one direction.”The ratchet is designed for the hard to reach”. It is a historical examination of cultural improvisation and reactions to systemic oppression. To be ratchedemic is to change this and allow freedom of expression in all forms.

In chapter eight, he uses a medical condition as analogy. Agnosia – Usually, one of the sensory modalities is affected. For example, a patient with agnosia may not be able to identify a cup by sight, although they may be able to tell its color and identify it by touch by its shape and texture. He then suggested a new diagnosis a “cultural agnosia” – “this affects those who can witness the phenomenon but not explain what it is.” They can visually see Black students but cannot see the brilliance and genius they express.

He goes on to say that educators who are not comfortable with who they are may have “a ratchetness achievement gap”. Here is my acrostic poem celebrating this book and working to fill my own gaps with knowledge and celebration of the “ratchedemic”.

Teacher: An acrostic to myself

Realize your eyes deceive you. Look differently.

Acknowledge that you might not know. Look again.

Take the time. Slow down.

Cultivate curiosity before judgement.

Hold. Hold it all. Hold your tongue. Hold space. Hold them in the centre.

Examine yourself and be responsible for all that you do.

Trust that your students are geniuses already.

Thank you, Dr. Chris Emden.

Sorrows #SOL2022 30/31

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows was photographed next to my mouse pad, “Sorry, but I’m running with my dog.” I’m not sure what that means, or if it means anything, but “sorrow” and “sorry” have me thinking. Which actually is quite an accomplishment. Today. Here, with so much heaviness. And, so much to do.

And, isn’t it unusual that one can find solace in sorrow? And, now I wonder if those words are related. Maybe it’s just the words that I love and the dictionary that holds them so organized and meaningful like a family of related ones. Together.

6 Random Thoughts #SOL2022 29/31

Yesterday, I read Ryan Graybill’s post “Very Random” and this morning, I read Lisa Corbett’s post (Random). So, this is just some tiny random stuff.

  1. Why am I more likely to put my t-shirt on backwards or inside-out or even inside-out and backwards at the same time? Fatigue forces me into a mummified position in front of my closet twisting and turning, trying to find the most efficient way to dress and, in that process, I take a long time wrestling with the cloth that is meant to protect me and keep me warm. I stand there angry feeling the Fates are against me. Until I laugh at myself and say, “Be one with the shirt.”
  2. My desk is never organized. Folders don’t work for me. Files don’t work for me. I don’t understand systems.
  3. I love eyes. Yesterday at lunch, I overheard a Black student say that his eye colour on his passport is “black”. He said, “How does that happen? How can someone think my eyes are black?” I flinched and turned to him. “That’s wrong. They aren’t black. That’s clearly a person who missed seeing the beauty in your deep brown eyes. They weren’t even looking.”
  4. My first name is the Greek goddess of midnight, all things black and my last name is white. The M and the W are inverse representations of themselves. My hair is curly and my skin is light, my dress is colonial power and my actions are disruptive. I am a contradiction.
  5. How can grief be communicated through movement?
  6. I can never find the right shoes. There always too small or too narrow or too loose fitting. I miss cobblers. They saved our feet and preserved the memories of well worn soles.

Hexagonal Thinking #SOL2022 28/31

We’ve been reading infographics and they’ve been making posters noticing the methods of organization, the ways that they communicate, and I moved them from the large lined paper to small laminated hexagons.

“Rethink this again, but now reduce it down to words and show relationships with hexagons.”

I thought this would take some time, but was amazed at the speed and focus with which they worked. There was 6 minutes left in class. Each group of students stood, talked, huddled over the shapes, moving them around, debating the location, and then proudly asking me to take a picture.

Six sided six minute thinking geniuses.

How to See Reading? #SOL2022 27/31

“It seems that the kind of reader and writer we want young children to be, we have to be. We have to know it-and teach it–by living it.” ~from a 1985 NCTE interview with Paulo Freire

Reading is “a bodily feeling” according to the writer, Kate DiCamillo. When she was young and struggling to read, her mother let her know explicitly she is smart, and implicitly there is always a solution. She made flashcards and helped her memorize. She calls this an “act of seeing”. The Right to Read is open in a tab on my computer, printed and highlighted as I work on “seeing”. How do I teach students to read when the complexity of the process requires relational witnessing, listening, guiding and reflecting, one on one, one by one, one at a time?

Kate DiCamillo has great respect for the wisdom of children; they “know everything about how hard the world is”. She remembers what is was like as a child to be invisible and believes that even in the smallest interaction, you can show that you see their intelligence. The podcast, a sermon, my Sunday morning reflection, asks important questions. “How do we tell the truth and make the truth bearable?” She says that “in order to survive, we have to close down so much of the wonder.” Yet, she says, “Books are the constant reminder to pay attention – wonder and marvel.”

I think our job is to trust our readers.

I think our job is to see and to let ourselves be seen.

This week we used time as a department to talk about books with an Indigenous coach and the one Black English Department Head in my school board joined us along with a colleague. We shared stories about books that harm and how curricular violence is enacted in the classroom, how uniformed, albeit well-meaning, white teachers create oppressive reading environments. How do I help a student select a book that is right for them? How do I bring community into the decision making? I keep returning to the metaphor of seeing them and nurturing their love with wonder.

In “Pathfinding through the Improbable”, Drew Lanham says, “if you can hoard experiences…it helps me find my place in the land and the past and now” and it informs seeing. As an ornithologist, he asks his students to write their own stories of the land. The sounds of birds “bookended” his days and before he thought about the science of the bird, there was a different kind of ornithology. He didn’t need to know the names of birds to appreciate and know the birds. Just as reading narrative and appreciating the craft can be done, can be imitated without knowing the names of craft moves in writing. There was a bodily experience.

“There is so much that appears simple that is complex. Just take the time to get to know the sparrow and you see all the hues – at first glance they appear brown, take the time to delve into what the bird is but who the bird is, the journey, the trials and tribulations, escaping hazards each of us have had these struggles from the nest.”

I decided to focus on the how, because my why seems clear and I’ve been down that path before. Instead, I am noticing how wonderful to see and let ourselves be seen.

A Saturday in 3 conversations #SOL2022 26/31

Conversation #1 – 9:28 am

I rose later than normal on Saturday after a particularly challenging week. I had my usual coffee and was preparing for an epsom salts bath with some podcast listening when a text came in from a dear friend asking if we could talk through a difficult situation at school. I listened carefully and could see at least three or four serious issues in this interaction she described – she was entirely right to be uncomfortable and concerned. I suggested that she call another trusted colleague with more ability to intervene.

George was sitting at the table. We’d finished our Wordle and she called me back later thanking me for the advice. With the phone on speaker, her words confirmed what I had been thinking about the situation and she felt seen, heard, and validated.

Conversation #2 – 11:45 am

Amanda, Tobi, and I had a Friday night meet to share challenges and consider how we might approach what we do differently. I’d been mulling over some ideas that I didn’t get to say. I’d been too fatigued to truly engage in the discussion since this sometimes means disagreeing with one another. I reached out and we gathered this morning again. The beauty of this group relationship comes from our capacity to disagree and listen. We are unique and we learn from one another. It means that sometimes we are seriously challenged by the raw honesty, but we also know that we can return to the support of this group. We apologize if we are wrong, and forgive when we feel wronged.

We talked in a Google Meet for more than an hour. On our screens family mulled in the background and the pull in different directions was visible – but we stayed until we were full.

Conversation #3 – 2:05 pm

I called my mother, one week after the death of my step-father, her husband of the past 40 years. It had been a difficult and painful death from cancer, and I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I was anxious and fearful because I am here and she is there and I just can’t leave my current situation to be with her.

She was quiet, composed, and reassured me that she was “fine”. We talked long enough for me to know that she has support from my brother and his wife, neighbours, and friends.

There is nothing so beautiful as conversations that wrestle and love.

Life is not a journey #SOL2022 25/31

We read and then I showed this video prompt for our quickwrite. We’ve been talking about metaphors, how we think about and explain life – students are creating life maps as visual representations, and writing memoirs or personal essays. Each lesson, each task, each discussion flows into the next while I look and listen for the clues.

They selected their favourite lines and annotated them.

After the video, I decided to write with them again today, because I can do both.

The journey metaphor has been so deeply ingrained in my work, is so deeply etched into the movement through each school year, that I wonder how I might walk a different path. Can I really change this chronological linear movement when the year begins at a particular point and ends with movement to another grade, a number that is next is the accumulation of time. Educators talk about our role as a reading and writing teachers in moving students from a point to another?

But, then, I realize a difference. Movement is necessary, life-giving, vital. Movement is not the problematic concept. Space is the problem. How does the educator or writer use the space?

My vision of education has radically changed. I’m no longer forcing students to read books that are deemed “important” or “literary” or the “canon”. Instead, I’ve followed the lead of many other English teachers and instead promoting book love.

And, my vision has moved for writing in the classroom, too. Last night, I had the great pleasure of participating in a podcast with Angela Stockman – an “Instructional Designer and adjunct faculty member at Daemen College in Amherst, New York” (whose new book on multimodal composition is already preordered – woo hoo). We talked about the essay and the need to change how we teach and think about this strict rigid unforgiving form.

It’s clear that we care about essays – we loves writing and reading essay. But not the five paragraph ones. Instead, we love essays because they are hopeful attempts – as Amanda Potts says, they help us “straighten out our thinking.” The essay is a try, an attempt. Yet, if we are to try, then we must also fail. The willingness to struggle matters. I’ve got to show that very struggle to my students (I’m doing this now, in front of them and they may believe it is easy, but it’s not; I’m self-conscious, aware that they might scoff at what I have to say.) Nonetheless, the essay gives us a place to work out ideas and essays in the “real world” are not five paragraphs.

Essays in the wild are just that – free to be wild with a purpose and structure suited to the message, free from rigid structures, free to use audio, video, and visual forms to communicate complex messages. Multimodal essays require that students think deeply about a topic and reach for original ideas remixing old forms into something new. This freedom from form is what I love about Alicia Elliott’s “Dark Matter” in A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. In this stunning work, she points out that,

“Racism, for many people, seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable.”

A circular pattern emerges, and it seems to me now that life is space.

5 minute window #SOL2022 24/31

Prompt posted in the Google Classroom: What’s on your mind this morning?

I begin writing online, right here, where it is projected for them to see. I want them to watch me write and respond in the moment. I want them to see how writing and thinking can happen.

This morning I read a beautiful excerpt from the Cellist of Sarajevo and it reminds me of the conflict in Ukraine which reminds me of my students from Ukraine which makes me sad. I’m worried about them and for them.

The students in class ask me questions and I have no answers. “Why does the military….?” “Aren’t there Muslims in Russia and Muslims in Ukraine?” “Why would Muslims kill one another?” “I heard that Russia…..”

These questions are complicated, and I can’t keep up with their movement. But, I can help them understand words like “demonize” and “dehumanize” and “oppression”. We talk about them and what they mean.

I admit that I have so much to learn and it will be difficult to know from afar. We can only get information from the news or social media; these are only windows. We need to think about the stories, who is telling them, and from what perspective. We talk about the fact that each person is unique and not a country or a faith.

I realize that my classroom is on my mind – each student following a unique path that intersects and crosses others. Some talk among themselves. Others listen alone. Right now, they should be writing so I interrupt them.

“Write.”

“I did already!” one yells.

But, it has been only two minutes and the few sentences that I have seen need to be developed, fertilized, and nurtured. I know they have more to say.

“Aim to write two more sentences before I interrupt you.”

There are five of thirteen sitting in class this early. Another enters now, late.

“Keep writing, lads!” he yells.

I smile focus back on this space to show what is on my mind this morning.