Summative Portfolios-Chapter 2 “Awe” #SOL2023

I don’t think it’s coincidental that I stumbled across and began the book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Kaltner. Witnessing the possible in students, seeing the transformations, and celebrating the learning this semester allowed me to experience my own recent small moments of awe.

This book review by Edward Posnett of The Guardian begins with his astute observation: “I find it hard to think of a word that is as unmoored from its root as “awesome”. He’s right, and I have now resolved to restrict my use of this throwaway term often used for everything from a synonym for “okay” to an acknowledgement of agreement. In his book, Keltner, a University of California psychologist, tells the story of awe from a historical, social, and biological perspective. He argues that awe helps us develop happiness and feel a part of something larger than ourselves. I’m not quite done the book, but the descriptions of awe in prisons, at the death of his brother, and in momentary interactions with the natural world, meant that I began seeing the everyday differently.

This week during summative portfolio presentations, I experienced a sense of awe through witnessing student growth. Here are some awesome summative portfolios which were shared with me (and with permission to share with you).

This massive camera construction contained evidence of reading with literary lenses, an understanding of the focus on narrative, informational, analytical, and a film strip of writing that actually works!

Another student created a magazine full of evidence which introduces prospective students to the course. He maintained a focus on third person with clear and consistent tone and presented this in a professionally prepared media text.

This portfolio was presented as a children’s story complete with working parts and hand painted images.

And finally, there was a vinyl album with liner notes used to contain evidence of writing throughout the semester.

These moments of shared learning felt transcendent in small but meaningful ways — everyday moments of awe.

Advertisement

Summative Portfolios-Chapter 1 “Trust” #SOL2023

Today was the first day of portfolio conferences with students. They have been working on reflecting, curating, and editing evidence of their reading and writing skills this semester which they will present in a media text through an oral conference or recording. We’d spent time talking about the ways that the forms of writing or communicating shape the content – they realized that an auditory text communicates using different content than a visual text and that all communication is really just a form of code.

I’d offered suggestions of forms to contain their learning (you can find the assignment here if you’re interested) – a treasure chest, a cereal box, a map, a website, a recipe book – whatever form it would be, they needed to use the codes and conventions of the form and design it with an audience in mind. Some were genuinely excited about the opportunities to annotate the lyrics of their favourite songs as a demonstration of reading skills. Others rolled out six foot lengths of craft paper for treasure maps and I could feel excitement in the room as requests for scissors and glue followed questions about layout or editing. They knew what they had learned and most just needed affirmation that their creative ideas for presentation would work.

We’re at the end of five months of learning together so this celebration of evidence is just what we all needed right now. Yet, I’m also reflecting and realizing what I’ve learned: I’ve needed to trust in the process, to persevere with the centering of student choice, and the letting go of traditional ways (even in a 100 year old building where generations of families expect to share conversations with their children about the same book that they had studied 50 years earlier). Most importantly, I’ve needed to trust the students.

And, I’m so glad I did.

One very quiet student shared his recipe book with me. He said that he had prepared notes and rehearsed. Blotchy spots on his neck contrasted his cool demeanour.

I noticed the complexity of thinking while he gave me a tour explaining the codes of the form and the content that he had created. We were both excited about his learning and the celebration of it – he could articulate the changes in his approach to reading and writing with honesty and clarity.

Another toured me through his website portfolio explicitly demonstrating the progress that he made over the semester.

What surprized me most about each conference was the enthusiasm in the sharing. The ten minutes that I had planned quickly turned into fifteen and they had so much to say, so much to share about their own learning, about themselves – they had transformed and I was a witness.

I wish that I had taken photos of the children’s book, the life sized map, the full colour printed magazine, the treasure chest (a cedar box created by his grandfather which usually houses other treasures from home). And then I realized that this story can have many chapters and there are more portfolios to follow. For today, I will trust that this is enough.

Responding to a Prompt – Act 2 #SOL2023

“Take close care of your inner stories. They create your outer life. Reality isn’t your biggest threat. Your inner stories about reality are. People say I have trouble sleeping. What they really mean is I have trouble storying.

Dr. Jaiya John Fragrance After Rain

https://equator-coffee-roasters.square.site/?location=11eaf2a154b899479beeac1f6bbba82c

Sitting in the small local coffee shop waiting for her to arrive, a warm contentedness stirred me, prompting me to add up the elements interacting in that blissful moment. Time to rest plus restedness, fresh ground coffee plus vanilla and cream overtones, clanking cups and conversational voices, sunlight, wooden tables, glistening espresso machines, large windows and movement in and out the door, up and down at the tables, cups and saucers and voices.

“I love this coffee shop”, I thought. “It’s where community gathers and bonds in the sharing of stories.”

The barista smiled recognizing me from the past two days of consecutive visits. I ordered something different this time, “Americano — just black, please”, sat down and made space for two at the rustic wooden bistro-style table. Seconds later, she breezed through the door and we slipped easily into stories of her first year at Dalhousie, the Foundations Program — she’d applied and been accepted to an elite architecture program at UBC along with other offers for admission, then decided on a gap year serving at a tea house somewhere in the mountains near Banff. After declining the offers to study out west, she accepted the unexpected out east.

“Tell me about your first semester.”

She spoke while fumbling a fresh slice of banana bread sipping her tea and speaking in choppy intervals. I filled the space of a moment, just briefly, so she could eat and drink before another story spilled over. The previous signs of stress in conversation, the red blotchy marks on her neck and forehead, didn’t appear; I breathed relief to see her so calm despite the stories of stress and anxiety in adapting to the world of academia.

“Our midterm was a fifteen minute oral exam. No notes. Just a conversation with the Dean and a prof who took notes and occasionally prompted me. I nearly didn’t go. I didn’t sleep all the night before and nearly threw up beforehand. And, then, I just decided to go and get it over with. It wasn’t that bad afterall.”

We talked more and I took mental notes preparing to share the logistics of this form of evaluation with my current group of grade 12 students. She was returning for the second half of the year and we tried to plan a virtual meet with my class, then realized the time difference, and that we couldn’t make it work.

“Next semester. Let’s make a plan for your grade 12s next semester.”

These stories of learning exist at the center of my world right now. The past must be a place that we visit to gather the stories of our learning, and avoid the dangers of nostalgia. I have worked diligently this year to avoid looking back with a sense of loss for what could have been, or should have been; instead, seeing where I’ve been and how I am continuing to learn. I haven’t always succeeded.

But back to the “stories of learning” – the English teachers in my department decided that we would opt for student portfolios of learning instead of an exam this year. We planned with the students and I took the stories from past students and wove them into the class conversation like a local coffee shop where we relaxed in conversation.

Responding to a Prompt #SOL2023

I read the word “memory”

and lift my chin,

unease spilling and spreading inside.

I pause, wondering at this cracking open.

I look again, at this prompt asking me to “find a memory”,

to go back

and to write.

But, excavating the recesses of experience

feels fraught, as if I may discover

some time smoothed over,

a moment missed in comprehension,

which only now finds shards slung and dodged –

splinters just below the skin,

shims invisible in daylight.

This house startles me, cries for renewal in creaks from her hundred year old frame.

Then, I wonder – what stories live in these wooden beams and bracing?

Her memories hold it all;

then and now in this moment,

and this old body brings me back.

“If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much that you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”

— Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Book Joy #SOL2022

An exquisite joy comes from time spent searching and finding the right book at the right time for a student. It might not be the one for whom it was intended, as happened today, but that elation I feel happened nonetheless when I share the book jacket summary in class. The Getaway by Lamar Giles was snapped up by a grade 9 boy at the back of class. He’d finished the entire published series of Heartbreaker, though rarely engaged with others in the class or with any of the collaborative tasks offered. He resists inclusion preferring to immerse himself in a book – but it needs to be the right book.

Another kind of joy comes with completion; that sense of accomplishment and pride in having finished an entire book independently. Reading it just because it was interesting. She found this joy and even though she’s in grade 12 and has aspirations, she somewhat reluctantly shared her joy in completing this one young adult novel – the first book she’s actually finished reading in high school. We high-fived and leaned in to share smiles of joy, and now, six weeks later, she’s on her third book this semester.

An unexpected sort of book joy happened recently. I’d been searching for a book on snowboarding or skiing for a grade 9 boy and stumbled across Ski Weekend by Rektok Ross – I finally got one copy and brought it to school. The students were book dating in the library and the one copy that I had purchased for this one student was accidentally left at a table – this book was not meant for “tasting” or cirulation, but once I scanned the students’ selection pages after class, I noticed that four girls had selected it. I asked and they were adamant about wanting to read it.

Still, the truth of this book joy is financial – it has a cost and is a function of privilege and opportunity. I can afford to spend my own money to purchase three more books. I know that not every teacher can. I know that not every student has this opportunity.

So I was thrilled when Amanda won the Book Love grant and she posted joyful photos of her book stack in her classroom. These kinds of donations, this form of philanthropy, is vital if we really want to generate the necessary book joy.

Unless #SOL2022

I’ve been struggling with my committment to write each week, so I wrote with my students today using sentence stems of subordinating conjunctions. Unless I begin…

Unless I reconsider the tug,

that habitual retreat

to isolation,

I will no more

than sleep walk

as I now move.

Although what I carry

cannot be named

safely, I must resist

the descent

to nightmares, ghoulish fascinations

of anxious wonderings,

projections.

If only I will, with hope,

hold subordination,

gently,

until I am unless.

The Sound of Paper #SOL2022

There’s a scene in the movie, Brazil, where Tuttle enters a tower-lined city street scape while swirling papers blown by the wind begin to stick to his face, his torso, his legs. He squirms and tries, arms flailing in futility, to free himself from the onslaught, page upon page trapping him until he disappears into a spiraling pile of paper on the concrete. It’s labelled “Tuttle’s Demise” on YouTube.

This scene is the expression of the overwhelming demand for documentation, for papers of proof, each page an attempt to save or record, each collaborative meeting ending with echoes of “let’s create a spreadsheet”. This visual metaphor has haunted me.

I should probably be clear that I’m not against documentation; in fact, I’m doing this right here and I keep talking about the challenges of my own pedagogical documentation – sorry – I’m sure this must be annoying if you’ve already heard me talk or write about this, but I’m struggling – like Tuttle.

I probably shouldn’t be, but am still surprized by the mountains of paper, physical and virtual mainifestations, which multiply and seem to regenerate like a virus. My desk at work has stacks of paper, my gmail is at 1,910 unread messages, including invites to Google Classrooms, and Google Spaces, to spreadsheets and folders and documents and my drive is running on fumes – both drives: the Google one and my own. With every receipt, every form of paper, every attempt to control processes, the existence of paper expands in the dance of my universe – “metric expansion”.

Today, I knew that I needed to pause (and breathe), observe, and wait for that panicked feeling to pass, reminding myself that I am working with humans and not paper and not technology. I wondered if any of this physical and virtual paper has acutally helped my classroom practice. I thought about the lines of Scott Hutchison “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth.”

I wrote this line on my phone in the notes while listening to an episode on Hanif Abdurraquib’s podcast Object of Sound. I love Hanif’s voice as a host and even with the difficult content of this episode, the sounds soothed me as I feverishly recorded lines on my phone to log the memory of the listening experience. “We have no control over the way people respond to what we put out in the world” and eventually “your work becomes you”.

Then I wrote down “I’m working on my faults and cracks” and “we all write alone and all of those voices in your head, the creeping self-doubt comes out when we’re writing alone”. I’m still trying to figure this paper thing out, but maybe, just maybe, paper is a way to hold experiences and if the paper swallows me like Tuttle, then I’m spending too much time documenting and not enough time listening.

Inclusion #SOL2022

You know when you have one of the moments when you suddenly realize something profound that radically changes your perspective, maybe even your worldview? This happened several times recently, which is why I haven’t been writing here, every Tuesday, as I have previously committed to doing. (That’s the excuse that helps me rationalize my delay.)

I did commit to co-hosting an online book club with my colleague and friend, Tobi, and some elementary educators whose equity work holds them in high esteem. We read the first chapter of Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation. Using a Jamboard, we asked educators to identify the margins in their classroom. Initially, the question felt effortless, I thought I knew this, and I watched as others posted similar comments. We invited observations and then it happened – that statement which sticks with you.

Siobhan, another colleague and friend who works as a science and numeracy coach, unmuted her mic and said, “I noticed that these are all deficits.” I recall gasping recognizing the negative connotation which I had associated with the word “margin”. Was I unintentionally looking for what was lacking? I knew that I needed to sit with this, and as it happened, I heard about Ruchika Tulshyan’s book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. I had an Audible credit, so I do what I usually do, downloaded it, devoured it on walks, on runs, on the way into work, and then bought the hard copy.

Even though this is not a book about education, the principles of equity apply. It is a book about inclusion in white dominated spaces, and, let’s face it, that is education. In chapter one, Tulshyan provides a framework for cultivating an inclusion mindset for white folks.

  1. Be uncomfortable
  2. Reflect (on what you don’t know)
  3. Invite feedback
  4. Defensiveness doesn’t help
  5. Grow from your mistakes

She writes that “If you have not had the lived experiences of racism, it can be more comfortable to live in denial that it exists. That’s precisely why we need more white people to sit with this discomfort, and investigate how racism impacts the lives and careers of people of color…” (57)

This framework was not unfamiliar to me, but I kept listening until that next moment of radical shift happened. She tells the story of Arlan Hamilton, “a gay Black woman who overcame homelessness to become a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist.” (59) Hamilton urges people to replace the word “marginalized” with “underestimated”.

“I want to share this journey, not because I think I’m exceptional, but because, like many people, I have been exceptionally underestimated,” Hamilton wrote in her 2020 book It’s About Damn Time.

This shift in language is necessary because it moves the student from being in the margins to the teacher who does not see, who underestimates the wealth a student brings. That, for me, is the language of inclusion.

A Reading of “Love into your fears” by Kiese Laymon #SOL2022

“We are not good enough not to practice“, the title of Kiese Laymon’s essay, uses repetition with intention mixed with formal and informal language. I read this as both advice and anti-advice; a message contradicting itself at insections within paragraphs compelling me to read and reread and to write and rewrite. I am trying to love into my fears finding the intersections of contradiction. I am trying to love into many fears.

Fears at home, fears in friendships, and fears in education are palpable. They pulsate at three in the morning when the chaos of the mind lifts the lid of sleep. I’m trying to listen and feel, but right now, it might be too much. There are “reading wars” and verbalized doubt about the ability of the education system to successfully deliver professional development for destreamed English classes. There are forces “returning to normal” making me feel anything but. And, “normal” was never helpful. (But, that’s another essay for another day.)

While Kiese Laymon’s essay is clearly about writing, it might have well been about teaching. At least, that’s how I read it. The essay could be advice and anti-advice about the practice we enact in the classroom. “We are not good enough not to practice.”

I had the privilege of sharing in a circle conversation with an Indigenous scholar and my department this morning – my principal knows that this release time shifted our teaching practice last year. This time, with new members, we moved through conversation in different ways though similarly without a formal agenda, but with a vision to form a set of beliefs meant to guide our actions.

Picture of Octavia Butler and the quotation: Belief initiates and guides action – or it does nothing.

Part way through the sharing of a challenging situation, the Indigenous coach suggested that we do exactly what she was asking; we paused to write about our “why”, our honest reasons for wanting to teach. I know this matters. But, as I thought about Kiese Laymon, and I thought about that circle of new faces, I wish that I had the courage in the moment to ask some questions about fear. What are we afraid of? Now, I wonder, if we share our fears, might we collectively love into them.

I know that I am not good enough not to practice.

September 19 #SOL2022

On September 19, the whole school, the whole school Board, and all school boards across Ontario were directed by the government to take a moment of silence recognizing the death of Queen Elizabeth. And, the strange and jarring juxtaposition that this is Powley Day (a nationally recognized day which affirms the rights of the Metis Nation) is stark.

I read many posts on Twitter from anti-oppressive educators who said they would be resisting this directive and as colleagues, we talked extensively in texts, and emails, and in-person wrestling with another one of those moments, those complex teachable moments that ask you to enact your personal pedagogy. How can I pause for the person who led the institution which represents such longstanding and devastating oppression for so many? I can’t.

Michelle and I text back and forth. She’s teaching grade 11 English; a course focused on Indigneous Voices. I think about the land acknowledgements, the attempts to “decolonize’ the classroom, the Indigenous and Equity Road map and they all feel empty in the face of this directive. The memory of Jason Reynold’s Lesley College Commencement address comes to mind. In the address he tells the graduates to use their positions wisely, for justice, otherwise their degrees will be “nothing more than paper-thin pedestals. Talismans of ego, connected to more of the same blanket rhetoric about change that we will conveniently use to readjust the comfort level of our ill-fitting skin during moments of apathy.”

A slide with text and links saying Have you heard about Powley Day before? Let’s learn more about it.
Different people have very different feelings about the Monarchy and the Queen. Let’s listen to a discussion about some of these perspectives (first 14 min).
Colonialism: the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
The Province has directed all schools to observe a moment of silence in recognition of the life of the Queen at or around 1:00 p.m. today. Let’s take a look at OCDSB communications regarding this. 
How do you feel about taking a moment of silence for this purpose?

In my own ill-fitting white skin, I tell myself that I cannot stand but I need share more than my voice. Trevor Noah helps.

His thesis is clear; we cannot all mourn the same losses. He says, “How can we be expected to respect something that didn’t respect us back.” Amanda Jonz shared her carefully researched writing prompt and collectively, we gather and plan to turn this into a moment to reflect and decide for themselves.

Three students sit in blue reclining chairs around a wooden table, two writing on paper, one writing on a device.

Handling #SOL2022

I’m in class right now, writing with the students, trying to find something inspiring to say about hands, (our prompt from Sarah Kay’s beautiful spoken word poem) but I’ve been feeling too anxious, too stressed with the chaos of the start-up, or the chaos of what’s inside me, to consider saying anything interesting.

So, instead, I’ll breathe and wait. But, I will write anyway. And, this often works for me when I think of the white space as a place to sort out my own messiness or bring my emotions into some form of comprehension. And understanding reading comprehension has been a private pedagogical quest. Which, frankly, feels fraught, and futile and other “f” words that I won’t use here. I’ve been reading about the science, the art, the strategies, and trying to get a handle on it, to make sense of all this information when the paradox of it all strikes me. I’m not leaving space to linger, space to breathe with the difficulties.

I’d been listening to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show called, “The Subtle Art of Appreciating Difficult Beauty”. Chloe Cooper Jones explains that “all humans are engaged with a struggle between their internal and external self…there is always a disconnect.” She talks about a way of coping with pain, or the anticipation of pain, called “the neutral room”. It is a space in the mind intentionally created to carve out neutrality and it sounds a lot like a place to breathe.

My ten minute timer ends and I move to my desk to look back at my reading while students are working in groups. adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy sits open at a page. I’m reading the chapter “Fractals” and thinking of my elderly neighbour, an intensely positive Black man who makes fractal art, and wears tie-dyed fractal shirts. (Even his tricyle helmet is vibrant with colour and possibility.) He lost his lifelong partner to brain cancer last year and, still, he smiles and rides and connects with members of the community.

How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. (brown 52)

I think to myself, “There is so much that I’m not handling right now.” Maybe there is no handling. Maybe there is only finding the difficult beauty in these struggles and being comfortable with small movements of transformation.

Everything is Delicate #SOL2022

Movment in morning routines

alarms, even myself,

noticing each touch,

imagining

something so simple 

might

create catastrophe.

Time feels too delicate,

too spacious 

– unhurried and open –

for me to rest

without fear

of some new 

brokenness.

The petals and rain falling,

a cat tiptoeing across asphalt;

what did I miss,

in the delicate mechanisms

bringing such consequences, 

such elevated 

heart beats?

Everything is delicate,

now.

Street Stories #SOL2022

I wish these stories weren’t true. They did happen, and this is how I remember them – as connected stories merging.

The first story happened in what feels like a previous life, with a former partner, and former friends, in Toronto – a city no longer my home. But the memory of him falling face first in the street, in the middle of the pedestrian walk, in the middle of winter, stays. I can still picture it and feel the echo of emotions on that street – reverberations.

We were a few hundred yards away, striding on cross country skis, on new fallen snow, up the affluent residential area to the busy intersection of Yonge Street. I don’t know how or why he fell. I just remember seeing two young men exit a small car which couldn’t drive where his body lay. Each passenger took an arm and dragged the lifeless form to a snow piled near the sidewalk. He was face down. Once lowered down, they turned, and got into their car to drive away.

But, we were close now and had all picked up our pace getting ready to intervene, to help. My partner said something to the men through their window as I stared at the lifeless body, rotating him over. His eyes were wide open. Someone called 911 and I remember a siren, a woman leaping out of her car stating she was a doctor, and CPR being administered as they scrambled into the back of the ambulance driving away with the back doors still open.

Police took our names and came to visit us in a friend’s apartment later that evening. They wrote down our statements, what we witnessed, and said the man was “homeless”, had hit his forehead on the concrete pavement, and died instantly. I wondered about his family. Did he have children? Who would notify them? I remember feeling disoriented, confused, and horrified at the implied which slammed against me as I sat there impotent. It was a long time ago, yet the memory is fresh.

Now, in Ottawa, I spend time walking the streets in my inner city neighbourhood. It’s easier than driving near my home, and I enjoy this design for feet over cars. I’ve come to mostly enjoy the various buskers, the local panhandlers, seeing this as varied forms of being, ways of eking out an existence. There are the men on bikes collecting bottles and cans for the beer store whose addiction drives them, and whose actions benefit the environment.

But the streets look different now. The pandemic has changed them. The 28 year old former roofer bound to a wheelchair passed away when COVID struck and his depleted body quickly responded to the virus – I read the article in the newspaper. Many in the neighbourhood watched out for him, knew where he lived, in subsidised housing. He was cared for. I remember giving him $20 as he panhandled for money outside of the local grocery store and he told me, “Oh no. This is too much. I just need money for a coffee.”

The other day I saw a neighbour striding along the sidewalk shifting towards the road shaking his head – not shaking his head “no” so much as an aggressive negation, a form of tutting disgust and rejection. The kind of head shake with a downward scowl that communicated derision. I noticed and wondered at this clean white man, well beyond middle-aged, tall with a round belly and a white golf shirt. He wore sunglasses, so I couldn’t see what his eyes were saying, but the body movements were loud. He was passing a young homeless man, one of many who have appeared in growing numbers. He was moving away on this narrow street, shaking his head at this thin, dark haired man sitting on well-worn slip of cardboard on a concrete patio under the shade of a tree, legs crossed rocking back and forth over a Starbucks mochachino, half consumed, a smile spread across his dirty face. I felt my heart sink.

In this passing moment, a mere millisecond of linear time, I entered an intersection of past and present street stories.

Slowly Unfurling #SOL2022

Good morning. How are you? Have you expanded easily into summer?

Slowly unfurling.

My father built his first sailboat in the garage of our bungalow in Toronto. We lived on a cul de sac, which sounds much better than “dead end street” which we used to say as children. It was a dingy, a single-sailed boat with a mast called a Penguin. He bought the blueprint designs, the wood and tools and constructed every part by hand, except the sail. He hand crafted the wooden hull secure against the water and waves, but purchased the triangular cloth, the sail with a symbol and a number, almost like a license plate but for boats, ready to catch the wind.

For three summers, he learned to steer the vessel, catching wind, navigating the waters of Georgian Bay. But, this wasn’t enough. One sail couldn’t harness much wind and he would fall behind other boats racing across the choppy blue-green waves. So, he bought another blueprint and built another boat with a mainsail and a jib – a Fireball – first conceived in 1962.

I remember skipping, double-dutch, in the driveway, peeking over at the sleek cedar hull, sanded and varnished, feeling admiration and pride. Neighbours came to watch the process unfolding, seeing the nearly five foot expanse jutting out of the too-small garage. It was summer and he had been preparing in the basement all winter.

That boat would speedily slide across the choppy waters and even with my mandatory life preserver, I was scared with every outing. I sat tense near the centre mast at the front of the boar. We would tack across the bay from Beaver Dams beach to Blueberry Island where we would fill a bucket with wild blueberries. Other than the odd pine growing out of the rocky mossy surface, blueberry bushes covered the tiny island. I’d sail for blueberries, knowing we had a destination, but fear would grip me every time.

Each tack sent me under the boom to the other side of the boat and my father would coax me to “handle the jib” barking commands to bring in the sail to catch the wind. I’d pull and watch the two white pieces of fabric flutter with each turn imagining they would never open again – we’d be stranded. Yet, each time, with a few turns of the rudder, and attention to nature, they would unfurl and open again to the wind.

Obligation #SOL2022

The police arrived and smashed in the two rear windows of his new black truck parked across the street beneath the balconies of two newly constructed three story buildings, an infill on our old residential street. They needed to get a brown Lab out of the vehicle. It was nearly 30 degrees celsius and his tongue was extended, bouncing with his rapid panting.

For the past six months or so, I’d seen this new tenant, a middle-aged portly white man, living in an expensive apartment, yank and yell at his two Labrador Retrievers, one older and one younger – a puppy just learning to walk. Each aggressive thrust on the leash hurled their muscled bodies back against him as he leaned forward cursing and glowering. Each time, I felt my body pull away, my head turn sideways, eyes squinting, and mouth drawing in air through clenched teeth. I desperately wanting to admonish him. But, I didn’t.

Through my dining room window. I’d seen him enter the building with his disabled son, on his own, and thought I should hold my tongue, hold judgement. Maybe I’d witnessed him at a difficult moment. Unrestrained frustration. But then, I’d see the same public violence, yanking, yelling, nothing that would leave visible marks. I’d observe, weigh and measure, looking for an opportunity to speak, maybe offer help, a trainer, some advice on positive reinforcement, on kindness as encouragement. I’d imagine myself saying, “I’m no expert, but I’m a dog owner, and that looks harmful.”

This reluctance changes when I realize this animal’s life was in danger. He made a choice to leave a living being locked in a hot vehicle. This choice is not only illegal. This moment confirms my obligation. It’s no longer about kindness or being non-judgemental.

Another neighbour holds his toddler while two others twirl around his legs. He talks with my husband at the end of the driveway explaining the dog was in the car for 40 minutes. He, too, saw the police smash the truck windows jarring the neighbourhood out of summer slumber. He’d spoken to the man previously over the fence that separates their properties, the man who yelled obscenities at his disabled son; he’d asked him for kindness. “Please stop. My children are in my backyard and they hear you yelling.” He’d seen him kick his dogs and told him to stop.

This duty begins unfolding in my head as I calculate how, and when, and if I’ll speak to him directly. I research information on animal abuse through the Humane Society, my chosen charity for the year. Anil Seth reminds me that “I am a part of what’s going on; I am not apart from what’s going on.” My obligation is now clear.

Borders #SOL2022

The cafeteria walls, rising higher than any step ladder could reach, made the balloons at eye level seem small and insignificant. But, the students had built an impressive arch of purple, white, and glossy gold ones for a photo booth in a smaller alcove near the entrance. This welcoming banner gave an air of formality for this school-based multicultural festival. Flags took up space behind presentation boards and tables exploded with food and drink and cultural items of significance.

Several weeks of difficult meetings had preceded this. In fact, a tornado warning cancelled the event the evening just prior nearly blowing away all possibilities for celebration. But, they did it. The students regrouped, rescheduled for the evening after the storm, and we all felt a collective sigh, shared a collective cheer, as we watched Palestinian dancers, listened to a haunting Jewish ballad, and learned an Afghani dance step.

Four weeks ago we were wrestling with “culture” and whether that included “Queer culture”. Three weeks ago we were debating the presence of maps and flags, examining the borders of place and time and identity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how much of the world comes into the school. We wrestled with the unknown, with being wrong, and with moving towards right, even when it was hard.

Worry about world conflict, about student well-being entered each meeting. Doubt had fluttered around the edges of the entire year, sometimes hanging in front of me requiring my immediate response, and other times demanding some silent reflection.

One week ago, I spent an evening in my head working through several discussions, writing out my thoughts, doing research to challenge my thinking. I opened the next meeting with the Diverse Student Union in this way:

A few thoughts that I ask you to consider in the planning the work of the DSU. This is social justice in action. Please ground any decisions you make in equity, diversity, and inclusion philosophy and practice. Never forget that events have contextual meaning – school context and world context. All previous events in the school ripple into future events. All world events ripple into the school.

Whatever decisions you make for this multicultural event, you need to anticipate a response to claims of harm and offense. You will not please everyone, and you will need to take a collective stand, to connect, and possibly understand the sense of harm. Yet what you are working towards matters – identity matters – validation of culture matters. And, only sustained conversations and education will help to bring understanding. A single school event not considered carefully can do more to escalate conflict than sustained difficult discussion.

So plan beyond the event, plan for the follow through, plan to listen – what will you do after the event? How will you cross borders and build bridges?

Living near an edge #SOL22

Father’s Day is around the corner so he’s on my mind. Born in 1925, my father lives near the edge of life’s expanse, it’s outer margin, and soon, I will have to learn to live with loss.

Today, I put in my wireless headphones, headed out the door for a run, and heard an interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. My father – who walks two or three times daily, who exercises on a rowing machine and an elliptical – has lived with us for nearly 30 years. I have witnessed him avoiding the edge, “raging against the dying of the light”.

One line halted me. I paused briefly at the intersection I was crossing, allowing my arms to bend, and my hands to cup my nose and mouth as if in prayer: “Sometimes what appears to be catastrophe becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life.” These words pulled on me, cracking neatly stored memories.

Catching my breath and folding feelings back inside, I returned to thoughts of him. I wonder if my father has been looking at the world through this window, from this edge, for a long time. Perhaps war does this to a person.

In 1953 he came to Canada having served in the military during WWII. He’s rarely spoken of it, often avoiding my brother’s probing questions, declining to watch historical films of the time period. He doesn’t speak much. Less now that he is completely deaf in one ear and profoundly deaf in the other. Though, I do remember Depression stories were explicit, served up to prompt our gratitude. Emigration tales were descriptive, shared to convince themselves they had escaped. But, I’m not sure. I think the war came with them, lodged in the contours, unchecked baggage stored in the body.

He has carried the story of this war on him battling skin cancer for five decades. Last year, he lost half his chin, more recently, part of his cheek – chunks of flesh scraped away to keep the rest of him alive. He tells me that it started a long time ago. He thinks he knows the source – in the navy they were bathed in DDT, sprayed down while naked, to prevent lice. He doesn’t have to talk about the war. It lives on him.

Dr. Remen offers wisdom for living well despite illness. She says that “even what is wrong with us is what we have and that is good enough. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer; what seems to be important is so much more simple and accessible”. She says, “the sick people in our culture are the repository of wisdom.”

What an incredible gift to see the edges of life as the spaces of wisdom.

Writing in digital spaces #SOL2022

For the quickwrite in class today, I shared two poems and this video of the Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur (she’s referred to as the Instapoet because of her posts on Instagram).

We talked about the intentional craft of consistency across posts and the concept of visual identity on social media. These ideas fascinate me. Why Times New Roman font? Why is each stanza indented at the same distance from the margins? She doesn’t explain all of the craft moves in the video and I have more questions that answers now. And I think that is productive.

These questions are drawing me into multimodal expressions and I feel inspired by the fact that writers can shape their identity in new ways. I really want my students to see this, to value new modes of expression, and to know that the path to publication is varied and not the singular one once the privilege of only some.

Numbers and Levels and Rubrics and Grades – Check #SOL2022

Midterm is here and I am anxious – again. I checked my assessments, flexed rubrics, collated the data, used observations and conversations. Yet, this happens – every time. It doesn’t matter what I might have done to prepare, to give feedback, to support student learning with clear evidence, I still feel an overwhelming sense of dread and panic at report card time.

I just listened to “Grades Have Huge Impact But Are They Effective?” and find relief in the fact that this dread is grounded in pedagogical science. Research suggests that students aren’t motivated to learn by grades, and that grades can actually interfere with learning, in particular, when students haven’t mastered a skill. Arrgghhh! How do I fulfill my obligation to provide a midterm grade while knowing this can be detrimental to learning and well being?

I’ve been struggling with numbers and levels and rubrics and grades for some time now. And it’s not just what it does to learning, it’s the fact that I can’t ascribe a number to the unique craft of writing or the cultural knowledge required for reading.

How do I measure beauty with a number? (I know – beauty isn’t in the curriculum, but it has a place in student lives and I hope they can see their own beauty.)

How do I place a level on writing that a student poured their heart into? (I know – skill and effort aren’t the same thing, but what do low evaluations do when a student is learning the skill?)

How do I apply a rubric to a piece of reading that requires background knowledge outside of a student’s lived and cultural experience? (I know. Scaffold the learning and provide background, but what about the cultural nuances that I miss, and I’m a skilled reader!)

I have so many questions about traditional evaluations in addition to the systemic desire for content control in classrooms. I went looking for answers and cracked open a thin book on rubrics looking for words to strengthen me in this internal wrestling match. These lines pinned me:

What really distinguishes Wilson’s analysis is her willingness to challenge rubrics not merely for their technical deficiencies but on the basis of the goals they serve. That’s a rarity in the world of assessment…She shows that their attempt to standardize assessment in rooted in an error to rank students…(Rethinking Rubrics by Maja Wilson, Foreword by Alfie Kohn, xv)

Wait…”that’s a rarity in the world of assessment” – someone who challenges the deficiencies of rubrics is a rarity? Does this mean that rubrics are mostly viewed as infallible solutions to accurately assessing and evaluating expectations from the curriculum?

When it comes to writing, I’ve observed that most rubrics (Ministry created, student co-created, teacher created, etc.) fail to adequately measure what students demonstrate. Rubrics are cumbersome when the range of written expression is qualified and quantified. LIke the author of Rethinking Rubrics, I wonder if the creative writing of Hemingway and Morrison would score poorly on the syntax of sentences or the jarring choppiness of dialogue. If a writer intends to struggle through dialogue in a parallel struggle with the character, then the writing has been effective. Maybe the writer wants the reader to create their own meaning.

Can a rubric actually be open enough and specific enough for the creative imagination to emerge? Or is this just another set of boxes for students to check, for teachers to check. For me, I think the answer is both “yes” and “no” – there is the discomfort rising in my chest again. I’m not going to find a solution to the discomfort that comes with grading – this is my space to navigate carefully with the student at the center and my signal to check.

Break #SOL2022

“Hit the brake.”

Translation: stop

“Take a break.”

Translation: rest

“We are all on the verge of breaking.”

Translation: self-destruction

“What light through yonder window breaks?”

Translation: I see the beauty of another through a window.

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”

Translation: The situation will not end well and this means I will suffer in silence.

Caesura: a break between words in the metre of a poem.

Translation: a place for the reader to to fall and break open.