Dad’s Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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



Remotely Listening

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

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

Online Teaching Tuesdays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up close and at a distance

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

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

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

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

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

This is what they told me:

time per course

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

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

ways of learning online

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

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

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

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

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