Limits #SOL2021


I saw this post on Adam Grant’s Instagram and wondered about “Giving Tuesday”; who might contemplating their own limits at this moment?

Limits have always confounded me. Not limits in spending or excessive unproductive behaviour, but perhaps the opposite. Limits to self-imposed expectations, ideals (maybe) that I can never live up to. I’m not sure, but this song has haunted me since I first heard it.

“There’s a limit to your love

like a waterfall in slow motion

like a map with no ocean

there’s a limit to your care

so carelessly there

is it truth or dare

there’s a limit to your care.” James Blake 2010

There is rhyme and rhythm and deceptively simple lyrics backed by a trance-like beat and reverb. I don’t know music, so it’s difficult for me to describe, but the limited words remain. And, I’m not sure why.

The type of limits on my mind right now aren’t about love or lyrics. Instead I’m wondering about what can’t get done for students because we’ve all “reached our limits”. I’m wondering about the systemic, the process, or the procedural ones which get in the way. Education seems to have this propensity for paper, now digital paper — documentation as justification. Each action must exist in the digital archive, because motivation and achievement and progress must be measured. I wonder about this. It often feels like I move and grow in small unscripted ways through unscheduled, undocumented human interactions: motivations of the heart, inspired and driven externally, movement of being unexpected and unlimited internally.

I think this firmly held belief in documentation limits us in education. And, what we are able to change. In us. In the system. My work with The Mentoree feels like some form of personal progression, but I don’t think I could measure this beyond the relational realm. There is no documentation to support this movement or change.

I admit that I am very fortunate, but I also have life challenges which are unique, yet which have unexpectedly surprised me. The limits that I put upon myself have shifted steadily with each challenge, painfully pushing me. Kobe Bryant conveys this sentiment in a video that I showed in class yesterday – “The Beautiful Scar”. And, it had me wondering: what do we learn from reaching our limits?

Limits of systems are created and can change, like us, but not without some pain. And what I give need not always be documented and measured. That’s my limit.


The Possibilities of a Book #SOL2021

I’ve heard it said that a book can change your life. And while this might seem cliche or hyperbole, I have lived this experience.

That book finally arrived — nearly one month after pre-ordering — in the middle of midterm report cards, and in the middle of November, one of the cruelest months in teaching. My husband greeted me at the front door, at the end of the school day, a familiar thin brown cardboard package welcoming me with equal warmth.

I had a feeling it was the book that I’d been waiting for so eagerly, and after pulling the perforated tab, sliding the thin volume out, I knew this was the one, its familiar cover art. But, I had no time tonight. I decided,

“Maybe I can pick it up during the scheduled reading at the beginning of class. Maybe this would lift me in the ways that 180 Days had.”

A great deal of unrecognized hope permeated that moment but, I also didn’t realize just how this book could change me in the middle of midterm report cards, in the middle of November, one of the cruelest months in teaching. Each school day has been softened and nourished with 15 to 20 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of class, a practice changed by Kittle and Gallagher’s book. Now, resting into their new book, I began the opening chapter: “Teaching the ESSAY as an Art Form”.

For the past five or more years, I’ve been leading teams of teachers and working to disrupt the five paragraph essay which stubbornly persists with such ubiquity, I have sometimes wondered if my attempts were misguided, or so far on the margins, that I was missing some crucial pedagogical considerations. Then, after reading John Warner’s book, I decided last year to completely abandon this unforgiving form moving instead to personal writing, lots of unstructured writing, and then analysis of secondary sources affirming a student’s own reading of a book as more accurate than a secondary source. They supported their own thinking in writing. I’ll be honest. It was exhausting. I had to facilitate in ways that I’m still processing. I do know one this: these were the most important student essays that I have ever read.

In this silent reading time, I usually gravitate to fiction and leave the nonfiction for after school hours, but hope propelled me forward into the pages. I savoured the phrases that framed the possibilities of essay writing written in the pages of 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency. This didn’t feel like a teacher’s book at all. This felt like art explaining art, metaphor showing me metaphor, and I vibrated with energy and enthusiasm.

“In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a real need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.” (Katherine Bomer, 2016)

This one book brought me out of midterm despair, out of the cruelest month, and into possibilities.

Beneficial Conversations #SOL21

This school year has a few benefits which I’m thoroughly enjoying. These show up somewhere in the middle section of two and one half hours of class when the students and I don our coats — and sometimes umbrellas — to go for a walk break in the fresh air. We usually communally stride around the block passing the neighbouring elementary school where many were once students, heads watching the pavement in conversation. We witness dog walkers and strollers, leaf rakers and cyclists, but it’s actually the conversations, the unfettered youthful exchange, which delights me on these walks. And then there is the pause to breathe. Beneficial breath.

I overhear them on one sunny but crisp walk as they move in pairs or small groups, sometimes in front and sometimes behind me. I intentionally move fast enough to give them space to be on their own, but I still overhear their excited exchange.

“What do you mean?! (Pause) I’m mature!”

Laughter ensues and then some inaudible reply.

“What?! I’m mature. That just means I’m lazy, but it doesn’t mean I’m not mature.”

This time with inflection and insistence, “I’m mature!”

More laughter and exchanges float my way as I process this perspective, a young teen who holds the middle space between two brothers. He’d written a memoir about the fighting and the love which did reveal a mature understanding of these complicated and fraught familial bonds.

Then I wonder how the dialogue emerged, how others view maturity, and what marks this label. This conversation leads me further back to my own story, the one with parents of post-war Britain with what might be the outright denial of anything emotional. History had shown me that when emotions did emerge, there was war. They exploded and destroyed. Instead, maturity was conceptualized as control.

And, here I am, reflecting on maturity prompted by the transient words of teens in conversation, a small moment prodding me to wonder how this might be an important class discussion – beneficial breath and inspiration for conversation.