Carrying #SOL

“Baggage” has such a negative connotation, but I actually appreciate the imagery of a rucksack, worn in places yet still strong enough to support a heavy load. A rucksack is always carried on the back, just like the past, behind us, hopefully holding what we want to bring with us. But this baggage need not weigh me down if I’m careful and judicious about my choices and what I will carry with me.

I promised myself and my accountability partners, Tobi and Amanda, then publicly on Twitter, that I would reflect on this year, in this blog. And I promised myself that I would look back at my practice, consider the voices of students, and decide what principles I’ll use and what practices I’ll continue into this next school year. As I sort through the fragments of memory, and digital evidence of this learning year, I’ll try to be reflective.

I keep a sticker on the keyboard of my laptop, generously given to me by Autumn Caines: “computational tools aren’t going to make people recognize our humanity”. It reminds me that digital tools should support the human interaction and not replace it. I can use Google Classroom and Jamboards and still have discussions and interact with students in the classroom – both rather than one or the other. In fact, these tools can liberate me from whole class instructions and allow groups to work, and individual discussions to develop with my observation or my participation – both rather than one or the other. And that reminds me that design principles matter – a lot – and for everyone. Universal design principles with multiple access points. Design Justice is such a great place to begin because education is all about equity and justice.

When I was physically in the classroom, I’d begun the practice of book talks and silent reading at the beginning of each period followed by a writing prompt (modelling 180 Days by Kittle and Gallagher) My grade 10s were reading more, talking about books more, and this year, the writing of my grade 12s was some of the best I’ve seen in my career. Whether I was online or in person, these approaches to engaging and empowering students have transformed my practice and I’ll carry this with me.

Noticing and Wondering #SOL2021

I’m noticing so many of the small moves that teachers make in virtual teaching and wondering which I will take with me into next year. I really want to document the moves that worked now, while they are still there in my thoughts, before I bounce back into more thoroughly engrained routines. I really need to create a space where I can refer back to these habits or practices or ways of teaching high school English now for use when I am back to the classroom, in person with the students. There were so many new ways of moving through material that I can see as transferable and I don’t want to lose these.

I’m noticing that there are parts of the year that I don’t want to let go and wondering what this means.

On Twitter, Shana V White (no relation) frequently posts an image or graphic and poses two questions:

These questions appear to be deceptively simple, but I learned that they can generate complex critical thinking and discussion. I’ve seen teachers who pose these questions with #pairedtexts which bring in the element of compare and contrast. I decided to experiment this year using these two questions often as ways to approach critical thinking – I thought this would prevent me from being prescriptive or guiding students to predict what the teacher wants as a response.

It took time to take root, but eventually, the students were able to respond openly, realizing there was no “wrong answer”. Surprisingly, there was tremendous diversity in what they noticed, and even when there was some commonality among groups of students, the wondering then took the discussion in different and unscripted directions. They wondered why only four students noticed the potentially harmful trope.

There was also a freedom in the simplicity of these questions and discussions sometimes ran beyond class time when the topic was in their news. They cared about the conversations and through my noticing and wondering what they were thinking, I was able to learn about them more deeply as individuals, to ask them why they noticed certain aspects of text and didn’t notice others. These interactions and explanations became reflective reading and a metacognitive practice. Simply noticing, and simply wondering.

Although it might seem repetitive to pose the same questions over and over, the power lay in the sharing. These questions became an exploration of shared understanding and meaning-making with a text. They analysed and explained how they were reading a video or an article or an infographic. These two simple questions gently opened a window to conversations which flowed as icons fluttered or the chat buzzed.

I’m wondering how I’ll let this way of teaching go and take what I noticed with me.

Breathing Room #SOL2021

I was wrong. I thought that taking a day and a half away from school work this weekend would help me catch my breath, help me focus and choose. I have struggled with many decisions this month, though lately, it has worsened. And, this struggle hasn’t just been choices about the content of grade 12 Social Justice and Equity class in this last week of this last year of high school for my students. I have struggled with my role as a leader or facilitator in the virtual room as we wrestle with hard conversations. Should I spend more time on Islamophobia? What about the atrocities of the Residential Schools? What message am I sending by not addressing Palestine this week? It’s Pride month and we haven’t talked about homelessness. What social justice issue am I neglecting for my own comfort, to avoid the conflict among students?

This class is virtual, online learning, leaving me unable to read the emotional response of digital icons, unable to gain the knowledge through movement, the shifting in chairs, the heavy breaths in and out – but maybe that’s just an excuse that I’m telling myself. Still, I do know that I have been purposeful in managing each conversation with intensive listening, following up with those who voice concerns, and intervening when meetings spiral into religious debates verging on combative over collaborative discourse. I feel the urgency of every – single – choice – now, in this moment, with this graduating class.

I had hoped for some room to breathe on Saturday, so I worked in my garden waiting for nature’s guidance. I thought, “maybe there, in that open space, I will find a way to breathe and then all the issues would find the right amount of air”. Of course, I was wrong. Every step on the green grass outside my house was a reminder of my freedom to walk on a land that is legally called my “home”, in a place where there will be no knee on the neck of my son, on a sidewalk where there is no risk of hatred or death by car.

I am still shallow breathing this morning, anxiety and indecision sending my shoulders up and slightly forward. Noticing my breathing reminds me that there was once asbestos in the walls of this classroom that I am standing in, and maybe it’s been “removed”, and I remember having been assured that the air is “safe” in this century old building. There was a time when asbestos kept us safe, but now we know better – lessons learned from the lungs of workers who took their last breath. I open the classroom windows each day anyway, not because I don’t trust these assurances, but because the air from the tree-lined street is always sweeter smelling. Flying visitors enter because there are no screens on these windows, so wasps and moths join me in this space. I’ve mastered a technique, both paper and air, sending them to freedom with a gentle breath, blowing them somewhere safer.

In the moments of thinking and writing here and now, I’m clearly avoiding a choice, avoiding responsibility and making the choice to step away from the difficult lessons while I notice my surroundings and breathe the air in my white-middle-class-Canadian-freedom. And then I hear Tobi’s voice reminding me to press ahead. I’m trying to make the lessons fit when, really, the lessons are hard and uncomfortable. I should never be comfortable in what I have chosen until I can see each student has moved into a society that defends all human rights. My classroom once contained the poison which resulted in breathing problems, lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma; those previous generations of students learned in this space breathing in air they felt was “safe”; they moved into the world after leaving this building with the possibility of poison in their bodies.

As an educator, I feel the push to breathe life into the walls of whatever learning space there is – physical or virtual – to open the windows, the doors, to unleash the natural genius, break down the injustice for the privileged who walk with me in this centuries old building. I was definitely wrong. But not for the reasons that I initially thought. I was wrong to think that my work and my life are separate ventures parcelled discretely for processing. Breathing is necessary all of the time.

Loose Ends #SOL2021

Everything feels stormy.

So, I’m going to try to breathe into this feeling and to breathe out into the summer, full and lushness, never striving to be green and growing. And it seems that everyone I know also feels this similarly untethered lurking anxiety, this sense that stuff needs to get done, yet we don’t quite know where to begin or how to begin, but we really, really want it to be done. We are done, and we want it to end.

Everytime I begin a task, I am yanked (usually by myself) in another direction and then I’m left with a dozen sticky notes with curling edges and smudged pencilled letters fading after salad dressing has touched the dry porous paper at the bottom of my lunch bag. I’m not very efficient in my physical file management, in my creative idea or problem solving management, so the sticky notes are ready when a thought arrives. I grab them nearly unconscious as I intend to transfer these notes to the agenda, or the journal, or well, one of the four or five colour coded journals that I now have begun, nearly finished, tried to label and keep separate for the many different roles that I play. But, it hasn’t worked. The journals aren’t separated by my role or the club or the plan. My thoughts are not organized in these journals. Instead, notes spread from one journal to the next like salad dressing staining each task with some taste of a thought from another time or place. It’s all blown apart now, each club coming to a close, each class nearing an end.

Still, I’ve learned to imagine my “file management system” using the image of leaves caught in a gust of wind, cycling and swirling around me. The ideas are there, hovering, but not always landing simultaneously. Sometimes, I wait, other times, I can pull them from the vortex and connect them to an important conversation. Often, I imagine that the ideas are not my own, but ones generated among us, and I just help to bring them into a space or a conversation. Even though I’ve had enough experience to know that there is probably a more efficient way for me to learn and lead and teach, I’ve allowed this way of working to flow because pushing against it feels like I am working against the weather. I also wonder if the carefully organized binders of lessons, or if the planned march to completion leaves enough room for spontaneity, for that gust of wind like breath that sends me down some path of curiosity in search of meaning and solution. I’ve always feared and loved the wind.

In fact, my father is a sailor. It all began when he joined the Navy, floating on a minesweeper that travelled the Mediterranean, and then, he decided to construct his own craft, a sail boat he built when I was six. That small craft built by hand in my garage, called a Penguin, then inspired another wooden vessel, a Fireball, when I was ten. We sailed every summer on the tempest that is Georgian Bay. My parents forced me into the boat sensing my fear each time I struggled into the life preserver, and sat me squarely up front in charge of the jib, the small sail beside the main sail. I was tasked with reading the wind, knowing when to pull the line of rope in, and when to let the line of rope out. Each tug and release was an attempt to catch it. When gusts hit and we were about to be tossed overboard, I would let out the rope, slacken the jib so it was not resisting, and the boat would level floating along the choppy waves as we zigzagged our way to Blueberry or Pancake Island (one named for the bushes that we would raid and the other named for the rock formations). With fear and love, I learned to use the wind to guide us safely to shore.

Maybe this year is ending with unpredictable weather and that is what is leaving me at loose ends. Maybe I’ll just pay attention to the wind.