Falling in love – 31/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherri Spelic

Elisabeth Ellington

Glenda Funk

Susan Kennedy

Eddie Hren

My new friend, Lisa Corbett

And my dear friend, Amanda Potts

 

 

Dear Students – 30/31 #SOL20

Dear Students,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting – 29/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

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

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

More Small Comforts – 28/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

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

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

At a Loss – 27/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’ve been here before – 26/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Pran Patel Tweeted,

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

Image

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

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

So, I don’t want the label, “ally”.

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

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

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

 

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

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

So, I continue, until I can surrender.

 

From nature – 23/31 #SOL20

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

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

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

This sky by @hystericalblkns

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

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

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

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

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

Quarantine Learning Levity 22/31 – #SOL20

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

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

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

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

Defining my refuse – 24/31 #SOL20

Yesterday, I felt a chasm open and a sludge of panic filled my gut. Significant change has marked much of my life, so I was perplexed by these emotions. I had been on a twelve-hour-a-day Twitterfest, staying connected in virtual meetings, and preparing for distance learning, so I suppose it should be of no surprise. I was thinking more about school and teaching and learning and equity while trying to manage a new normal.

I have also been doing a LOT of reading and thinking about ways to teach my students online and I was inspired by John Warmer’s recent article, “If it Doesn’t Make Sense…Refuse” in Inside Higher Ed .

This was a signal for me. I decided to define my refuse:

  1. I will not comment on American politics on Twitter. I’m not American, and while I do have a vested interest as a fellow human being, what I witness at a distance on Twitter confounds and distresses me. I won’t feed that part of the internet.
  2. I will not post platitudes and seemingly simplistic thoughts on eduTwitter. It only draws challenges and the ire of some who might be tired of the “starfish”.
  3. I will not challenge the platitudes and seemingly simplistic thoughts of some on eduTwitter unless they are racist or sexist or elitist. This is the line that I will hold firmly.
  4. I will not expect others to respond to me on Twitter, in email, or to my writing or podcast. I am learning through both silence and critical feedback. Silence is its own form of feedback.
  5. I will not expect others to join me in my willingness to bend to the needs of students and parents for online teaching at this time.
  6. I will not give up on my willingness to bend to the needs of students and parents for online teaching at this time.
  7. I will not spend money needlessly, but I will indulge myself and my students in books and educational material, conferences, etc.
  8. I will not stop sharing what I can with those who have less.
  9. I will not stop working for my students.
  10. I will not give up my optimism.

 

 

 

Resisting to Transform #equity – 21/31 #SOL20

It is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today and I have agreed to participate in a Twitter chat with some educators from Australia. The time difference (11 hours) has me realizing that I’ll be late to the online chat, but I’m not concerned. Asynchronous learning has so many benefits and I’m anxious to listen to more voices.

This personal interest in equity and racism is not new for me, but my intentional self-education is. I’ve read more and listened more and have purposefully acted more for inequities in the system for racialized students. And it was unnerving when I realized the extent of the resistance to listen to student voice and reflect on the changes required for equity in education.

Black History Month animated 2020

I overhead several pockets of discontent and grumbles of  White teacher discomfort following our school’s Black History Month assembly; Black students had publically called out White teachers for erasing them from the curriculum. They called them out for teaching books with the “n-word” and not providing historical context or recognizing how they might feel when a White student reads the word aloud. They called out their classmates for asking for the “n-word pass”. And, teachers knew that we had helped with this assembly. They saw me and my colleague in the student video. They saw me say that we should decenter Whiteness for equity. They saw her say that White people should never say the word.

I was ruffled too, but only by their response. The students were voicing their truths. I resisted my own capacity for fragility. But, I had a series of questions and wrote an email to Adrienne Coddett, a Black teacher who runs the Black Youth Forum and just casually mentioned the disruption that this event had initiated. She wrote back and reminded me why it’s important to resist the pull to comfort saying,

Black History Month compilation 2020

“For those people who are challenged I say, ‘It’s just your turn to even briefly experience what it’s like to not be the centre of attention’.  It’s important for people to sit with those feelings. Doing nothing about it means they are part of the problem.  Not wanting to transform that experience means they are part of the problem.

Students will know the difference between those who stepped up to the challenge and those who want to promote a “status quo” that continues to stifle the opportunities for Black students.”

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I am resisting my own comfort.

Done – 20/31 #SOL20

That’s it. I’m done. I’ve got nothing more.

(Click on the table)

You expect me to work independently, without you? Like, I can just crawl inside that pea-brain and figure out the words on my own?

(Silence with only breathing)

I know you’re struggling, sitting there with your head in your hands, taking deep sighs expecting some muse to suddenly appear. But, I can’t do this without you! We have to do it together.

(Silence)

Okay… I get it. You’re not paying attention to me because you’ve run out of ideas, you think your writing all sounds the same like some banal-grey-oatmeal-mush of blah! Ya, and maybe you’re even feeling a bit sorry for yourself in your impotence, like some imposter pretending to be a writer, maybe even pretending to a be a teacher – and ya, I know that one hurts the most, but, geez… Get a grip on me and start! Start somewhere! Hell, start anywhere. Start in India on the balcony of some lush palace. Start in Australia in a remote village. Start…

Wait, what? Why would I want to start somewhere that I’ve never been?

(Pause) Because you’ve never been.

(Click from the table)

I guess I could write some kind of a dialogue, but, not one with people – done that already. Maybe…one with an object. Like a pen, and even if it doesn’t feel good, at least I’m writing something different and stretching myself.

(Silence)

Uh huh. Looks like you’re already done.

 

Neighbourhood Mending – 19/31 #SOL20

We see her from our kitchen window, walking early with purposeful strides, and three, sometimes four, large cloth bags loaded on her short stout frame. Two are slung on her right shoulder, resting on her back as she tilts forward with each step to keep them there. Over her left shoulder, her dark brown hair veils her Latinx features, and another bag hangs with soft fabrics spilling over the opening. We wonder about her parcels which go back a forth and speculate that she is a seamstress carting frayed fabric home each evening, and returning them repaired each morning. She is mending the neighbourhood.

We see him from the front window most winter mornings in a white pickup truck with a plow of the front, preparing to push mounds of snow out of driveways making way for cars to move. My husband who has, for many years, ascribed nick names to our neighbours, calls him “Grumpy Cat”, and my youngest chastises him for what he sees as cruelty. I admire this man who lives with his two teen children and his cancer-ridden mother a few doors down the street; his garage and front yard is a mechanics shop, small engines and trailers and metal equipment strewn about in some attempt to organize. Last summer, he build a structure inside his pickup holding his tools in place to prevent them swimming about the back on his way to tend to the lawns of the neighbourhood.

We see her sometimes, but not often. She lives in a building of rent-to-income apartments just a block from where we live facing the transit way, a bike path running alongside the front edges of its lawn. We see her bent down in the earth, tending flowers, pulling weeds, beautifying the beds that flank this twenty story tower. Each time that we pass, I hope she will turn her youthful dark brown face in my direction so I can smile and wave hello to my neighbour. But she stays facing away, looking only at her plants proccupied in tending them, the life growing in front of her.

We see him struggle up the sidewalk, cerebral palsy gripping him, his chin jutting up towards the sky, each stride a monumental task in forward motion on the toes, hands gripping the metal bars of his walker with each push along the pavement. Deep lines are carved into his face but it is difficult to tell his age. Sometimes we see him sitting on a park bench, the only time his body is still, and as he passes us this morning, my husband playfully asks, “Staying out of trouble?” His face lights up, and his smile overwhelms me as I see the lines move up towards his gleaming joyful eyes. We all laugh as we glide and he stutters by and I feel the neighbourhood in his presence.

The glossy magazine announcing our neighbourhood arrives on the door and I seeth a bit inside. White perfect people, families of wealth and privilege, are the only versions in this two dimensional unreality. In my mind I am screaming, “This is not my neighbourhood!” I think of sending a letter asking them why they do not profile these people of the neighbourhood, but I know why. I then decide to send it anyway.

 

The Weight of Reading Conversations – 18/13 #SOL20

 

I am reading Jesse Thistle’s memoir, From the Ashes, this week, largely due to the inspiration of Lisa Corbett who proposed a March Break Reading Club on her Twitter account. I responded, then Amanda, and before we knew it, the author agreed to join us for our conversation. Lisa’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion on Twitter turned into a major event and even online, I can feel the buzz of energy and enthusiasm amidst the pandemic.

And this unusual blend of complex emotions hovers about me as I wrestle with reading tragically painful descriptions of his childhood hunger, the descent into drugs and homeless, I am thinking about the reading group, what we might want to discuss, how to make use of the author’s generous gift of time. It feels weighty.

M. Keats posted a link to the CBC website with an article and this sent me down the rabbit-hole of internet research and all my time was vacuumed up, my previous plan to complete some essay evalutions now abandoned and part of a looming list. I skimmed his Masters dissertation, scrolled through his website, and scraped together as much understanding about the book and author as possible. He had clearly been interviewed extensively, pressed by the press.

He said “I only chose the events that would make it understandable, relatable and interesting to the reader. Because if you read one horrific thing after another, then it’s just a series of unfortunate stories. There’s no arc to it. My publisher and editor helped me choose the stories that I needed to include — and then let the dead space in between those stories speak for themselves.”

And as a reading group, what are we doing with “the dead space in between the stories”? Are we filling it with stories of our own? I’m reminded of a key concept in Media Studies which suggests that interpreters of texts negotiate meaning through the filters of their own experiences. We figure out meaning as it relates to our understanding of the world.

On a morning walk with our dog and my husband, I talked about Jesse’s description of elementary school and graduating grade 5 functionally illiterate. I wondered about his teachers, I wondered about my own blind complicity in my career. This conversation in motion gave me the space to connect my emotional response to something informed and actionable. Our discussion with the author is one that is with educators and can be about education. In fact, we’ve been talking a great deal about “trauma-informed teaching and learning” of late, and here it is – right in front of us. The lived experience from a celebrated author and academic.

Suddenly my reading of this memoir changed and I thought about this hefty group of nearly 30 educators sharing an experience of reading and what we can collectively do to change the narratives, to work towards equity by listening and speaking the stories. Can we ever measure the weight of reading conversations?

Distance – a series of scenes – 17/31 #SOL20

Her full legs stutter as she moves and straighten when she plants her face between her father’s knees. His arms stretch down to meet her head and steady her wobbly strides. The street is blocked for a summer BBQ and many of the neighbours have gathered to connect and build community. She is round faced with untamed luxiourious brown curls above her skeptical eyes. She retreats when foreigners invade and make attempts to engage with her – she keeps her distance.

Scene change:

Shouts and stamping feet echo up the steps to my back door, and out the window I can see a group of five boys on hands and knees clambouring up four foot high snowbanks along the edges of my driveway. Occasional squeals of laughter and commands makes the window vibrate and a motion light comes on. It is midwinter, but they are in short-sleeved shirts. Their boots are unlaced and steam rises from their sweaty heads. They laugh and run for cover continuing this spontaneous game conjured on the walk up the street from the gymnastics club – a short distance.

Scene change:

We walk from the yoga studio to a coffee shop around the corner and spill into a croud shifting to make room for those waiting in line. Conversations fill the space, echoes of plans being made, museums to visit, a cappichinno is ordered, clinks of spoons on cups, and scents of vanilla, toasted cinnamon, and coffee overwhelm me. This time, this pause between events opens a space in me and we share our struggles, challenge and support one another before I walk the short distance home.

Scene change:

He is in his mid-fourties but looks much older, warn by experience. Arriving early to class, he sits centrally, and places his books on the desk with purpose in measured moves of grace and composure. He works the night shift cleaning office towers, then attends classes, sleeps four hours and repeats this five times a week. His dreams are written in his eyes, but his pen will not deliver the words and he hopes that just his physical presence will fill the space. He attends knowing the distance.

Scene change:

Each scene sticks in me, unfinished like a pause, like part of the distance.

Lists and Listening – 16/31 #SOL20

I am a lover of words and when I decided to make a list this morning, my imagination began creating an array of images and implications.

I thought about the lists on Found Magazine and the podcast that explores “personal stories of love, loss, hope, transformation and aspiration through the lens of lost and found notes”. Then I remembered listening to a story of a grocery list found in a shopping cart.

  • bread
  • milk
  • eggs
  • improve myself
  • start doing it before it’s too late
  • ignore what they say because it’s not true and I just can’t
  • leave

I love the implications of this list, and the way our minds, ever creating narrative, fill in the gaps of information; I’m reminded that we read ourselves into the narratives that we create perhaps without even realizing it. When we read them, they become a dialogic form.

My family have long been amused by my listing habits and I’ve noticed that my 94 year old father increasingly uses them as markers for living.

What narrative do our lists reveal? What about the way we write? He’s always used all caps, long before this convention signalled yelling. So, I’m listening closely to the lists of my father and looking for signs of slipping…of listing, that is, leaning or tilting. His lists will let me know when I need to step in to prevent the fall.

While this isn’t yet a list, it is my thinking about the stories that are woven out of this necessary human activity and how listening to our lists helps us understand one another.

Sloths and Learning 15/31 – #SOL20

I have often felt affection for the two-toed sloth and gravitate to their modest unharried expressions of serenity. The wonderful patience and steady determination it must take these gentle creatures to reach a goal makes me wonder if their minds wander while limbs move in puposeful motion. While I don’t share their demeanor, I do sometimes feel like a slow learner. It takes me time to bring my swirling thoughts to ground and sort them into comprehensible congnition.

I’ve always loved writing, but never dedicated serious time to the craft until a few years ago, my dear friend, Amanda Potts , raised this important question with English Department Heads.

“We are teachers of writing, yet how many of us actually engage regularly in the practice of writing? How many of us would call ourselves writers?”

Amanda and I have talked extensively on this issue and her insight on this cannot be understated. This truth became even more evident when we attended a three day conference with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in the summer of 2018 as they launched their book 180 Days: the Quest to Engage and Empower Students. We returned fromm the conference significantly changed as readers, as writers, as teachers.

Amanda and Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher showed me that becoming a teacher of writing means writing and publishing and giving and taking feedback. I started to write with them and took feedback from them revising my work with their suggestions and they more readily accepted it from me. We became better together.

So when Amanda introduced me to the Two Writing Teachers Blog, I knew I should join and begin a writing practice. I started the school year and wrote a “slice of life” each Tuesday, and then eventually committed to this month of March – 31 days of writing.

Despite my adherence to this writing promise, I admit to feeling like I’m a slow learner. My moments of inspiration have waxed and wained, yet changes have emerged, sprouting out from cracks, but not quite ready for full expression. I am learning more about ways to comment and give feedback and I am learning to broaden the range of my writing from reading the posts of others.

This morning, I quickly made a list of writing moves to make:

  • write in the third person
  • make lists
  • questions and answers
  • write from the voice of an object

Writing for #SOL has required patience and steady determination always reaching for a goal just beyond me, mind and limbs in puposeful motion. So much can be learned from the sloth, but even more from a writing community.

Small Comforts – Slice of Life 14/31 #SOL

We work out together in the weightroom after school a few days each week and while running stairs to warm up, I mentioned the strangeness of this day, this moment before three weeks of school closures for the COVID pandemic. He says something that takes me aback, but then which quickly makes sense.

“We are healthy and safe. This isn’t a civil war.”

He says this so quietly, it sounds almost like a whisper. He has a gentle demeanor and previously mentioned his Indonesian ancestry. On Tuesdays, he leads free yoga sessions for teachers. I begin to wonder if he or his family might be familiar with civil wars, so I mutter agreement between breaths as we descend the stairs preparing for another ascent around the building. I’m suddently out of my body and my worries, and in my head in the lives of others.

His statement lingered, so once I was home, I decided to look into the history of Indonesia and found that the Indonesian Communist Purge from 1965-66 resulted in an estimated 500,000 to one million deaths at the hands of the government. This is new learning for me, but I have seen the aftermath of war. It has touched my family and I know it’s residue remains in the blood and bones of my parents. I have witnessed war in the students at Adult High School, many new Canadians; one of my Sudanese students in Writer’s Craft had one arm. Others wrote about their own emprisonment, torture; these pieces were painful learnings for me. They were transformations.

Suddently, the strangeness I had felt earlier seemed small and insular. The closing of schools as safeguard against a pandemic took on an air of reassurance, a small comfort that we are looking after one another.

Coherence and Adherence – 13/31 #SOL20

High School English teachers interested in writing talk a lot about coherence. A quick search of coherence in the visual thesaurus visuwords reveals synonyms like “logical, fluid, understandable”. While, adherence brings up words like “stick, bond, bind”. I find this funny, sort of, but not really, because on the one hand we ask students to ensure their writing has flow while on the other demanding prescribed form. I guess that’s why I enjoyed John Warner’s book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. 

I’ve been trying to kill it for several years now, but realized that you can’t kill a behemoth alone. I need colleagues to help me slay this lifeless beast. Students often learn early to fear the dreaded essay and allow their thoughts on literature to be ruled by tyrants of form while not really understanding the liberation of function. They write with fill-in-the-blank formulas and check box thinking. So, when I ask them to let the ideas guide their structure, it’s understandable that they stare blankly at me. Coherence?

These contrasting ideas of coherence and adherence floated into me today during a brief conversation with my principal about an article on equity. She was sharing her thoughts about Gorski’s conclusion that students of colour are often found in “lower track” courses where they have less access to engaging content and more exposure to “control-oriented practices”. (Gorski, Paul. “Avoiding Racial Detours”, Educational Leadership, Apr. 2019, pp. 56-61) We stared at one another in a moment of shared despair and drive. Adherence?

And of course, adherence to models can produce measureable results, while coherence allows for flexibililty in the name of understanding and comprehension. I realize that I might be stretching the meaning of these words or excessively extending the metaphorical application to matters as complex as racial inequities in education.

But, then again, maybe not. Maybe, like writing, life is the place where we wrestle with ourselves to figure out the fluidity and coherence to come to a new understanding. Maybe, like writing, we need to focus on the ideas of equity to allow for coherence because adherence to one way means we forget the function of education.

Dreams

We just finished reading The Marrow Thieves and we’ve been talking about the author’s descriptions. They talk about the sixteen year old protagonist as if he exists which I believe is irrefutable evidence the author has been successful. I remind them – this is a 44 year old woman writing from the voice of a 16 year old boy. A few eyes shift left and I read a sense of awakening with the audible shifting in chairs, an “oh yeah”, and smiles blossom.

We then talk about the central premise that Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone marrow because they are the dreamers and eveyone else has lost the ability to dream. They seem to like this idea and there is no need to explain the importance of dreams to teenagers.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.” (Dimaline 18)

We talk about the scientific role of bone marrow as the source of blood – a metaphor for life, connection to others, identity. They understand without explanation nodding to let me know without words. Checking for comprehension is sometimes quantifiable and often not; I decide to trust my instincts not looking for levels and numbers to justify my findings. I believe they are following, making connections, and feeling the importance of dreams in their own lives, but I don’t have a data point.

My literary reverie is broken and the shards of reality peirce my comfort. I remember those who released their dreams, put them aside to care for younger siblings, work a part-time job, or help an ailing parent; their dreams are muted and constrained.

There is a student in her class that we have been watching closely. Poverty is an ever present guest and his home life is more than difficult, more than a 16 year old boy should be managing. Like Frenchie, he’s on the run, trying to hang on to his dreams and we are in his wake, behind invisible structures trying to bend them out of existence. As he leaves class today, I catch his eye in the hallway, smile and we exchange a look that isn’t quantifiable. I hope he hears me whisper inside, “We’re with you. You’ve got this. Keep dreaming.”