It’s not that bad #SOL2022

I woke from a fitful sleep with a twisted gut. I was not looking forward to another week of teaching online after the holidays and feared the emptiness of the silent, lonely virtual space. I really wasn’t sure how this class of grade 9 students would be with “doing school” now that we are in another Stage 2 COVID protocol in Ontario. In person, in the afternoon, in groups, they had been noisy and lively and difficult to motivate beyond small group social interactions. Sometimes, I had to move from group to group to repeat the same instructions over and over because the whole class could not focus on instructions at once. But they were learning. The space was alive with energy, vitality, and this diverse group had both challenged and inspired me to look at new ways of assessing learning.

At the beginning of the semester, one student told me that I’d never make him read – in fact, he leaned forward staring intently at me until I moved closer to hear these definitive words. This forceful declaration was made on the same day that he shared his diagnosis of autism and oppositional defiance disorder with the whole class. I remember smiling, thanking him for sharing and saying, “we all have something that we are working on.” Within a few weeks, he realized that I was still providing reading time at the beginning of class, so he gave up on just sitting and started reading Jurassic Park. During our daily walk breaks we talked about it and I learned so much about his knowledge of dinosaurs, how he read and questioned the accuracy of the story. Once back in the classroom, I quickly documented the evidence and within weeks he was reading the second in the series, smiling at his own accomplishments. I marvelled with him at his success and we calculated how fast he was reading then compared this to the audio book. (He loves math so any opportunity to interconnect the disciplines helps keep him motivated.)

So on this first day after the winter break, this first day of more virtual learning for a group desperate for the vitality of the physical world, I wasn’t sure who would appear in the Google Meet. I opened our virtual space early and surprisingly a few faces appeared, turning on cameras to show me their pets or share news from the holidays. A baby crested gecko caught the attention and I heard the coos of many, a Bernese drooled in one square, a freshly groomed white miniature Poodle appeared in another, and these early moments of show and tell felt as warm and inviting as anything in person. I thought, “Huh. It’s really not that bad.”

Then, my reluctant reader mentioned above, turned on his camera and lifted a book to the screen. “Hey miss! Look what I got for Christmas. It’s another Michael Creighton book.” One piece of evidence that I had not been able to elicit either in person or through a podcast was reading fluency. I had the sense that he was a careful reader and critical thinker from our book-talk-walks, but I hadn’t heard him read aloud. An opportunity opened and I showed enthusiasm, interest, and a need to know more. “Wow. That book looks so interesting and I might want to read it. Can you read my the summary or review on the back of the book?” Without pause he did, carefully and precisely pronouncing each word, using voice inflection and emphasis for effect with all the skill of a masterful audiobook advertisement.

I checked off that skill on his evidence record and reminded myself, yet again, this is not so bad.

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Singularity #SOL2022

This week I’m teaching from my physical classroom at the school, but online. I’m standing alone in this open space of empty desks. It’s just me in here. And, my brain knows that everyone else is out there, virtually, but there is physical space separating us making me feel…well, lonely.

Then something serendipitous happened today. But, I’ll need to back up a bit.

I started my post-secondary education in the field of science. My first love of reading was a book classified as science fiction and I was always mesmerized by the natural world. The earth was the source of my creative play during the summer as I hid in trees, wove placemats and baskets from willow boughs, and built frog cities near the Humber River.

And then I discovered language and story pulled me back from the seemingly detached and clinical world of academic science. I fell in love with poetry and words that connected the emotional and sensory experience of the world.

I wonder if much that ails our s... - Robin Wall Kimmerer - Quotes.Pub

Now, I teach English, but science calls me back, over and over. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer may be the most important book of my lifetime because it showed me the damage and fragmentation which colonized academia created and then spread to the world.

What I didn’t realize then, but do now, is that I can love and be both – English and science. I don’t have to love or be one or the other. Esther Perel speaks of this paradox noting that “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.” 

In my planning for the analysis unit in grade 12 English on Sunday night, I happened across this beautiful persuasive animated poem. I decided to share the brilliance and beauty with my students.

“Singularity (after Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe

I hoped the poem would resonate, posted it on Twitter, and then got this message from a colleague, a science teacher who just happens to be a former student now grown and working at the same high school where I teach:

Sabrina and I had been talking about writing an interdisciplinary science and English class just a few days before this post. Our conversations and thinking merged offline and then united online, this braiding and winding of thinking and communicating as if moving together as one. I can’t explain why this lifted my spirits so much other than this – the feeling of minds flowing along similar waves makes the world feel more united, singular, and a little less lonely.

Doubting and Dreaming #SOL2022

My mind is full of doubt and dreams on these first few days after the winter holiday. For several reasons, not the least of which is that we just found out we’ll be teaching online tomorrow for at least two weeks. (That’s more of a nightmare than a dream, but I’m choosing my perspective intentionally here). While I am doubting my abilities, I am dreaming about the possibilities for destreamed English classes which focus on a love of reading and writing, which inspire students to reach and risk and never fear feedback.

I have to doubt. Rather than self-flagellate or call this imposter syndrome, I embrace my self doubt. In fact, I often tell my senior students that doubt can be our superpower; it makes us curious and continually considering other perspectives, moving towards something better, brighter. I doubt myself because this drives my learning and revision. I am not happy with the status quo and never sure that I have the answers, so I learn from others whose visions broaden mine.

I have to dream, because students are depending on us – the teachers in front of them – and those stakes are too high for me to look away or lay blame elsewhere. My dreams are not beautiful and shiny and perfect. They are not encapsulated in a quote, but they are aspirational ones filled with the joy of holding hope despite the mess, the deficits, and failures of leadership or systems or governments. I returned to the words of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto by Kevin Gannon,

Our advocacy of a better future…depends on praxis. Hope is aspirational, but also depends on agency. For our students to see themselves as active, empowered learners…they need to work within learning spaces that cultivate that understanding…The real work of change…is done student by student, classroom by classroom, course by course, and it’s done by educators who have committed to teaching because it and their students matter. (152)

On Thursday of this week, I have the gift of participating in a panel discussion called “Doubting Destreaming” organized by The Mentoree. This VoicEd Radio podcast includes a group of preservice teachers in the Faculty of Education who will share questions with Jason To, Usha Kelley Maharaj, Siobhan McComb, and me as we explore the many implications for destreamed classes in the junior grades of high school. And, despite the doubts, later on this month I’ll get to dream with a small group of educators in a three session workshop model which aims to shift a classroom practice.

Shifting really feels like the right word in light of Gannon’s wisdom on change in education. It is part adjective and part verb describing a movement. And dreaming also feels like the right word because this opens me to possibilities not yet achieved, some consequence of movement. And, because doubt continues to be a part of my patterns of thinking, I am unsure that I’ll be able to generate a shift in these conversations and workshops, but I have to try. Because this is my praxis.