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.

Gathering #SOL2021

We had planned to meet last weekend, but we didn’t. We wanted to gather in our small planning group of three, but we knew with marking, and family, with deadlines and conflicts with other events, we could not do this with a sense of ease and purpose.

Friday night we texted our plans in the group chat. We agreed to meet at 9am on Saturday. Tobi asked if we could meet outside because she is allergic to Amanda’s cats, but loves them from windows.

The weather was cooler than previous days, but the sun was out and Amanda had set up her outdoor propane heater on the back deck of her house, an ancient brick home nestled in the centre of the city where lattice and vines provide privacy but dogs still visit and birds are perennial guests. Three chairs with quilts and blankets circled around a small glass side table. We settled in an adirondack chair, a pair of folding chairs in our coats, opened our laptops, and books while Amanda emerged from the sliding glass door to her kitchen carrying a ceramic teapot next to mugs releasing steamy smells of chai and vanilla into the cool morning air.

We talked, sharing easily among the three of us.We had time to settle in to the comfort of this circle for some time before getting to the functional purpose of our meeting – planning the next unit of our English classes. Initially, the conversation moved and morphed around our three different teaching spaces until we landed on the task in front of us. In what seemed to be less than 20 minutes, we talked through a four week unit of informative writing in English: summary, infographic, and podcast.

The heater, seemingly a member of this group, ran out of propane just as we completed our plan. Rising from the chair to leave, I felt the cold in my feet and smiled. We hugged goodbye as we had hugged hello, and the ease that characterized the preceding two hours travelled with me.

I thought about Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering and wondered what made this one so perfect.

“But here’s the great paradox of gathering. There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we’re doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully, committing to a bold, sharp purpose. When we skip this step, we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gatherings. We end up gathering in ways that don’t serve us, or not connecting when we ought to.”

While our purpose was clear, the unfolding is what warmed me – our voices swirled in this outdoor space along with the updraft of warm air lifting and falling in a what felt like a perfect gathering.


Resting in Effort #SOL2021

I thought I would feel an overall level of comfort in the first few weeks of school. I thought I had a good plan for lessons, a structure that could work, and this was largely because I’d been planning and creating resources for my school board with colleagues all summer. We had sustained effort with virtually (pun intended) no rest. I was ready for this teaching year. So, when the classroom reality struck, I struggled to understand my quickened pulse, sweaty armpits, and digestive distress – I know these signs.

Most of the first few days ran smoothly with students reading and writing freely, but engagement in the lessons dropped and varied wildly over the next few weeks. On one particularly difficult day, I heard audible groans, and witnessed bodies slumped across desks. The three hours of planning felt like lost effort. That night, I knew I needed to respond and revise.

The next day, in whole class discussions students were silent or sometimes outright hostile. As preparation for “The Iguana in the Bathtub”, I asked, “Who knows what an iguana is or has owned one as a pet?”

One boy angrily blurted out, “That’s cruel! They belong in the wild!” I heard some follow up grumbling and saw him turning to seek agreement from the crowd behind, but I quickly nodded and agreed with him. Afterall, he was right, and I knew that we would be viewing a short BBC video clip about an iguana deftly escaping some snakes. It was full of narrative drama and that was our unit – narrative. Showing the video brought them back to life as they collectively and enthusiastically slammed their hands on desks, cheering on the struggling iguana until its eventual and incredible escape. Rather than have them analyse the narrative text – as planned – I decided to back away from that task, release the plan, and just read for pleasure. I read and they followed along in silence.

It’s not adjusting in the moment that is difficult for m – I have done this all the time. This feels different – significantly different. I’ve been getting to the end of each day and revising everything that I’d planned. Everything. Every day. I’ve rewritten tasks and edited slideshows and created new slides and searched for new videos. I’ve added more hours to my school day and what feels like more days to my week.

Then, serendipity struck. Sunday, while I was out on a run, listening to a podcast, I came to a resting place – not physically, but mentally. My son had shared “Controlling Your Dopamine for Motivation, Focus and Satisfaction” from Huberman Lab. I listened to this long, mainly scientific episode, but there was one part that really shifted me. The narrator says, “subjectively attaching the feeling of effort and friction to an internally generated reward system” is what is needed during difficult tasks. There is a part of the brain that will adjust if “you can tell yourself that the effort part is the good part. The rewards are inside of effort.”

I thought my summer effort was wasted because none of that lesson planning is helping this lesson delivery. But, maybe that’s the point. The making of lessons is only a part of the learning, my learning and not their learning. Now, the resting in effort – in sustaining this effort – matters most.

Ripping #SOL

We texted in a group chat about decisions, stuff we’d done, plans for the week, videos we’d shown. I’d taken action on something that needed to be done. I hadn’t asked for permission, because I knew this was a good decision for students.

Each year the three of us select an emoji, an annual symbol, which represents an abstract idea of our situation or circumstance or approach to the year. When we text in the group chat, we’ll send threesomes with the emojis of the year. Last year’s emojis included the clown face, a pretzel. and the Easter Island head. (I will not divulge whose is whose on the grounds that it might incriminate us.) Besides, it’s our code.

This year’s emojis are fire, tornado, and bicep flex. I think this information might be enough evidence for someone to profile each of us, but this thread weaves throughout our communications.

The group chat from today went like this:

Melanie: I ordered x books without checking because the students need some joy.

Tobi: finger and the three emojis.

Amanda: high five and the three emojis.

Tobi: Amanda’s way more polite.

Amanda: Not anymore. I’m within spitting distance of 50 and no longer give a rip.

That line had me in stitches and I am so thankful for the way we play with texts and emojis and words. We share our joys and suffering, not always in equal measure, but these people make up the fabric of my teaching life.

Communities #SOL

Bicycles now lean like blossoms reaching for the sun in one long row locked along the front parking lot of the school. They fill the space of green grass vacant since March 2019. Masked students with backpacks move across the land in small swarms visible from my second floor classroom window. There is energy in the air; albeit muted, but I see it and feel it.

I greet my grade 9 students knowing they cannot see my mouth, so I smile more with my eyes, listen more to what they have to say,  and linger longer beside their desks. I say their names, a few times, asking if I am saying them correctly, leaving space for an offered anecdote or story to fill this once empty room. 

I then ask them to use evidence found in the classroom or online to figure out aspects of my identity – who is this teacher in front of you? They draw conclusions and have fun speculating using information from Instagram and Twitter to list my loves; dogs, raspberries, rose, kale, running, but mostly books. They tell me that I’m married and they know this by my ring. They laugh among themselves making guesses about me not realizing they are learning to use evidence and inference. One boy offers what he first thinks is simple “you’re a teacher. I expand on this and let them know this is a fundamental aspect of my identity. I intentionally don’t talk in the language of “school” yet, because I hope that this natural curiosity will flow. I’ll share more about my identity tomorrow; but not today.

The inquiry ends and they begin to use paper and sticky notes left on each desk.

“Glance around the room and count the number of people who you recognize. Write the number in the middle of the paper on your desk.”

I join them and we raise our papers in unison. They see the large zero in the middle of my paper and students with 0 or 1 smile knowing we are in this together. Suddenly, we aren’t alone in being alone.

The sticky notes serve a different purpose as I gently ease them into this community. Each holds a hope and a worry.

“Use one sticky note to record what you are looking forward to and one to record a worry or wondering.”

I make two columns on an easel of chart paper, face it away from the students at the front of the room, and ask them to post the notes anonymously. Watching them move about the space reminds me that they are not used to being in crowds – 28 in this class, 31 in another. Most hang their heads, move in staccato motions towards the front anticipating others. Some have not yet grown into their legs, or feet, and trip, or knock into desks avoiding eye contact with peers. 

We have filled the two and a half hours with independent reading, personal writing, some short videos, poetry, and lots of talking. There were two classes today, one of 28 and another of 31. There will be two tomorrow and the days after that as we try to build a learning space together. I am pausing to read the room and I know this is my objective in this prolonged pandemic year as I’ve done all the webinars and trauma informed pedagogy and I have worked nearly all summer to bring equity to my practice. 

But we are not well. I hear it in the deep sighs at the photocopier. We share the same physical space but each of us moves internally carrying residue. There are three of us, in three different physical spaces, who have worked together as friends and colleagues since the pandemic hit. We text in a shared chat – often daily. We Google Meet on weekends or call one another and problem solve and sometimes cry. We have used technology to keep us connected. We create our own community where collective action and nurturing is our goal. We are not well, but we have each other.

Lifting weights #SOL2021

Backs are like canaries, an early warning system of the body. They alert us to dangers ahead, foretell the development of weaknesses, or misalignments, and signal the passage of time. Backs help us stand strong and carry weights.

My back gave way several years ago while lifting pressboard posters on a stairwell. I leaned forward ninety degrees at the waist reaching arms straight out in front of me to lift the thirty pound load. I collapsed on the landing knowing I should have taken time to move closer, assess the weight, or ask for help. But, I rarely ask for help.

And, I think I know why. My father is fiercely and proudly independent and I have flown similarly in this pattern, a murmuration of movements through life all the while feeling alone and I must do on my own. At ninety-six years old, I watch him decline, now with pneumonia, his back curling forward with the weight of time.

Yet, not all lifting is physical. I thought I was asking for help at a difficult time where life’s challenges weigh upon my usual inclination to keep doing and keep holding in the heaviness, alone. I asked for help with as much truth as words allow. I had hoped it would be met with empathy that was informed, that would lead me forward without leaning at ninety degrees. And, I should say that I was met with what appeared to be empathy, but not the kind that actively lightened or lessened or lifted any of this weight. Not the kind where someone sees you dropped the grocery bags in the parking lot and they wordlessly pick them up carrying them with you to your car because they can see this is too much for one alone. No words; just actions.

Now, to be fair, I know that everyone is stressed and overwhelmed with schooling in a pandemic. We each carry invisible loads, and I get it. But, I asked for help and I rarely ask for help. I shared very personal parts of my life, and now, I wish that I hadn’t.

A few weeks back, someone with a position of power over me, sat in my classroom describing the consequences of my request for help. I was given the scenarios in detail with a clear demonstration of how this would affect another. Of course, they know me. And, they knew this would be a deal-breaker. Selflessness is an exponential burden when your audience is comfortable with evasiveness and blame.

Sure, the facial expressions masquerading as genuine concern were there and the canned commentary about “wanting to do everything in our power to support you”. You lift this on your own, was never said. But, the conversation did make its way to the place where “my decision” would affect “opportunities for others”.

I feel a strain in my back now. I wonder if it was the workout, the lifting books, the awkward position I’m in when I open the windows of the classroom. I sit here this morning feeling proud and mournful for my father stuck in this swirling flight of life asking myself, how much does regret weigh?

The Patty Pan #SOL2021

The half moon gourd sits glowing with sunshine yellow flesh on the counter of my kitchen. It’s an unfamiliar squash to me and my family. We’ve indulged frequently in spaghetti and acorn and butternut, but never patty pan. And, I don’t deserve it.

It was Saturday, market day, so we decided to walk the few blocks to the park where stalls from various local farmers congregate on a triangular patch of land in this city scape. The central path, a bike trail on all other days, was a moving cluster of shoppers in masks with bags and dogs, the scent of fresh bread and dill weed, garlic and kimchi tossed about by a slight September breeze. I’d seen this Jamaican-Canadian farmer on previous visits selling his hot sauce, recognizing his Carribean lilt, and felt a pang often seeing him sitting alone while all the white residents passed without comment, without engagement, without purchase. I smiled regularly and nearly stopped to buy, but I already have too much hot sauce in my house – maybe just one more?

Today, he had more for sale than usual at his stall, and there were a few people milling about. His table was framed by flowers and there were beans and tomatoes so we stopped alongside another younger man making a purchase. I knew that I would buy from him today. It really didn’t matter what, but it wouldn’t be more hot sauce. After dumping his large long green beans into my bag beside the minute cherry tomatoes, I pointed to this half yellow moon positioned to one side of his cash.

“I can tell that is a squash, but I’ve never seen that kind before. What is it?”

“Patty pan.”

“Patty pan? I’ve never heard of that. What does it taste like?”

“Here. Take it.”

“I’ll pay for it.”

“No, no. You’ve been nice to me. Take it.”

Those words landed in me uncomfortably and I squirmed a bit before smiling and thanking him. I hadn’t done anything unusual, nothing extraordinary nor deserving of such a gift. He explained that a few half moon squash just appeared in his garden hiding under some large green leaves and his characterization of the yellow surprize made me acutely aware of his connection to the land. He hadn’t planned to grow them, but there they suddenly were.

The land unexpectedly gave to him and I felt this unexpected gift deeply.

Being spaces #SOL2021

I was there. Again.

Showering quickly, I knew the day ahead was closed. It would not be open to the possibilities characteristic of summers for teachers. Instead, today I would be bound to a headset, confined to a computer, in a virtual space with colleagues where I would be visible. Unscheduled days gave me space to disappear into grasses and the river, into the peeping of small birds and chirping of crickets.

Stepping into my shorts I noticed the sunlight reflecting from the hardwood floor and thought, only the shirt matters – that’s all they will see.

The workshop had not even begun. But I went there, to that same space, as I have many times before sliding easily into what I call the “shrinking space”. I think other women might understand this; sometimes we go alone and sometimes in pairs or groups.

Afterwards, she texted, “Do you have a minute to talk because I want to listen.” My house is old with a foundation built in 1900. Much of it has been rebuilt, renovated with an addition. Yet, this ancient place is still standing with a grand total of 1500 square feet. Our bedroom bathroom is really small and when I’m moving quickly, it’s infuriating, but when I’m moving slowly, it’s comforting, so that is where I went. Pausing, I remembered a line from Rumi: “Do you make regular visits to yourself?” I texted her back thanking her, but not just now. I needed a small space.

I woke very early the next day with a memory of a threaded metaphor from a book. Mary Lawson used the motif of surface tension on water in her novel, Crow Lake. I remembered the experience of reading that book, the connection I had to the lake, the landscape, the love of science, curiosity, and water spiders. I believed the protagonist and her version of the story wholeheartedly as I read eagerly nodding with the knowing. Until I got to the later end of the novel. The voice of her brother broke the trance and revealed another perspective on that tension, that surface tension which exists in families, relationships. I’ll always remember that moment of transformation, the narrative on the page rippling in me. Inner space transmuted by a book.

I walked through their dawn filaments again this morning. They always weave their webs in the same places where we will walk, breaking them, completely ignorant of the incredible energy and optimism spun with each thread. Once these gossamer filaments were broken, I stopped to notice and thought about the spiders who persist ever hopeful that a space will sustain them.

The abscess #SOL2021

The face cloth was moist and warm, folded so a flat spot could be pressed over the open draining wound. We were walking him when he noticed blood dripping down his back leg. Dogs rarely complain – being natural Buddhists choosing delight in the moment over a focus on their own suffering. He didn’t seem to be limping so we kept walking agreeing to check it later.

Once home, we shifted his frame to expose the underside of his belly and found a weeping hole on the inside of one leg. He was frightened and a bit jumpy, but he let us investigate perhaps using past experience to inform his sense of trust. It was warm and clearly painful – an oblong segment of raised skin had been licked raw and a hole exposed yellow liquid. Pressing gently nearby more yellow puss squeezed out which confirmed it as some kind of infection. Yet, with love, any quiet doubt needs attention.

“We need to call the vet. Let’s take him today.”

I heard the tension in his voice, but I had a hint of what it might be. I grabbed my phone and searched for images of abscesses. Squares of red and yellow, black and brown, skin and hair filled the screen. All manner of shapes appeared and it was difficult to decide if these represented the wound that we discovered on Duke, our three year old Standard Poodle. I read some descriptions from veterinarians on how to treat the area quickly grabbing some rubbing alcohol, gauze, and an antibiotic cream. I thought, he’ll just lick it off, but I put it on anyway thinking a moment of disinfection is better than nothing. Any quiet doubt needs action.

“When this happens in the wild, they just lick it to clean it, so maybe we should just leave it.”

I watched and listened to George’s voice as he swung back and forth between doing and not doing. He didn’t have dogs growing up so despite the past 20 years of experience, he still feels ill-equipped as an owner. Yet, then there is love. He loves Duke. And Duke loves him. His quiet doubt temporarily attended.

Tree Planting #SOL2021

It had taken a month to find it, but the local nursery finally had a new shipment of flowering cherry trees; there were only four left when we called and three when we got there. We bought it in the rain and planted it in the sun.

Sitting at dinner, looking out the front window, it struck me. This was not the first, but the second tree that I have planted which is intimately connected to some former students. One tree planted for loss. Another tree planted for memories. One tree of a life that was, another of what lives may be.

He was in my grade 9 English class and I knew his mother, a former fellow English teacher, and his ability to gently navigate the world was evident early. He knew and cared about animal rights, took actions to raise money and awareness on Indigenous issues, climate change, but he got headaches often. One cold day, they called me down to the office and sat me around a table with three or four other teachers and the principal told us. There is no way to understand the news of a student’s death – not then, and not now, some four years later when I had hoped to see him graduate. The school community buckled under grief and the curriculum became life.

His friends decided to plant a tree just outside the windows of my ground floor classroom – something strong and hardy and Canadian – a maple. They called it the Dylan Tree Project and we had a ceremony with the planting. The family came – his two younger brothers hovering close to the legs of mum and dad. I have the pictures snapped shakingly, but have never looked at them. The images exist within replayed in memory. One tree planted to remember a life.

Four years later another group of students are planted in my heart. After school had ended, they gathered under a mature cluster of trees at the park down the street for an end of year celebration mixed with an eighteenth birthday, this group of eight students, myself and another teacher. She opened gifts, they ate pizza, and prepared for cake and games. They asked about my university days; I shared anecdotes, joking about age, and they asked me what was my favourite. Twenty-four marked my sense of self, and emerged as one which often hovers in my imagination. But that is so far in the past now, that numerical age has lost this resting sense. Instead, age feels both apart and separate from the self. They hand me an envelope with cherry blossoms and a gift card for a cherry tree. They know I’ve wanted one, couldn’t find one at a greenhouse, but want me to buy one eventually. They wanted to give me something meaningful and lasting and they know I love trees.

We discovered the perfect location on the front lawn, a sloping spot of ground near the verge of our street, Elmgrove Avenue, visible from the front window. Each move in the planting process was considered – a ritual to prepare the ground with mulch and bone meal, nutrients to feed the tender young roots. A constriction formed and grew in my throat throughout the process and I was grateful for sunglasses. Another tree planted to remember a time that was and what lives may be.

Resonances #SOL2021

Classes ended, a week of summer slid by, and we started lesson planning. Our summer course writing task was audacious and difficult, but with lots of conversation establishing some guiding principles, the work flowed into two weeks of twelve hour days which ended with a plan for lessons on getting to know our students using UDL (Universal Design for Learning), and CRRP (Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy) in destreamed grade 9 English classes.

Although we built some flexible lessons, I feel the most significant component of the work is the design – this is a community and a process. This will not be completed, it will not be a “one and done” or even a unit of study. This project aims to be prolonged over time – a responsive, ongoing, building of community.

I crashed hard after the many hours of focused screen time and four days later, I’m still not fully rested, if I’m being completely honest, though I cannot tell if this is just the lingering effects of virtual teaching. After the last day of collaboration, I intentionally stayed out of the house choosing to immerse myself in gardening, to run along the Ottawa river listening to podcasts. Yet, even this physical separation from a container of my life didn’t dull the vibrations of teaching. It’s always with me, so I rested in this realization that it is not the planning and thinking time about school that matters as much as the physical space and place and pace. When I moved with different objects of my attention, slowed without a deadline, without a screen, without a container, I began to listen lightly, to feel gently the resonances of life and work, of past and present.

Listening to Ocean Vuong and then Gary Kemp on the podcast, Good Life Project, had my mind buzzing with ideas. Kemp reflects on the changing purpose of music as once social connection grounded in the physical object of the vinyl album. He points to young people as “archivists” who want a sense of lineage, a way to “somehow feel the resonance of the past”. He argues for the very human desire to have “things with us” and to live outside of the digital world with our objects, which ground us in the now, showing us a line to the past. This vibrational continuum is found in his guitar which was made before he was born.

“It’s not made of zeros and ones. It’s made of wood…and as it ages these two bits of wood resonate together.”

This is not nostalgia, but rather an attempt to understand the current purpose of music and it’s changing form. He suggests that, “singing a song was the Instagram of the day – making the interactions with others with music, shared experiences that were passed on”. And he speaks of sampling as “pulling some of the past into the present”, a juxtaposition of “I know this, but I don’t know this”. Writing feels much the same as I read the most beautiful novelists, essayists, and poets. Their work resonates and the vibrations carry on well past the initial enjoyment of the form. In fact, an intentional examination of them sometimes endures.

While Kemp reminds me to consider the physical object as a link to the past, Ocean Vuong compels me to consider the body’s connection to the past saying that “PTSD is a displacement” in time as the experience of the past in the present. “To remember is a very costly thing…you forsake the present to go back.” News media have a way of capturing a moment, of encapsulating the refugee as Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, but the experience is one that is prolonged; it doesn’t end at the image or the immigration. He reminds us how important it is to understand the history of a nation founded on enslavement and genocide – the thread of past into the present.

To resonate is to vibrate, to reverberate, to carry across, to understand. The sounds of music and voice, the stories of experience are in us and the physical manifestation of these ideas into words becomes the concrete enactment; a captured moment in time which resonates into the future. This writing is made of letters and punctuation. Echoing Kemp, this writing is made of words which as it ages in practice, these bits of communication resonate together. It is the resonance of any lesson or any plan that matters. What will it carry out into the year?

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.

Just Brushing My Teeth #SOL2021

On Sunday morning, I was brushing my teeth when my phone vibrated, then illuminated, and cast a light from the bathroom counter upwards towards my face in the mirror. Glancing down I noticed that Chris Cluff had invited me to a conversation on Twitter in a new application called “Spaces”. Confused but curious, I tried to continue my weekend routine of slow focused everyday activities; I was brushing my teeth and trying just to brush my teeth.

But, curiosity already had me in its grips, so before finishing, I clicked to open this virtual speaking space, my mouth full of foaming paste. I heard the voice of Chris gently speaking, noting names of people joining, then Pamala Agawa laughed asking “what the heck is this?” and I instantly relaxed again. Pam has a way of doing that to an audience; she puts you at ease and simultaneously makes you listen even when it’s a difficult message. Will Gourley then spoke and I remembered hearing him on VoicEd Radio. Past associations were coalescing comfortably in this auditory space where Beth Lyons listened. Chris spoke again noting the names of others entering, some unfamiliar, and then calling out “Mel”, not quite me as I’m frequently known, but me nonetheless. I spat into the sink and unmuted the mic.

“I couldn’t speak because I was just brushing my teeth.”

I heard some laughter and friendly banter about teeth brushing as an important goal to accomplish in a day and then silently blushing I excused myself to go walk the dog all the while feeling this friendly space had quizzically broken some writing impasse for me. Chris predicted blog posts about “Poking the Bear”, “Got my teeth brushed” and “What’s in Cluff’s coffee this morning?” Yet, this surprising moment of distraction, of a curiosity seized, gave me a comforting sense of abandonment. I realized that I could just write about brushing my teeth, without worrying about the incredibly tense conversations generated by my Social Justice and Equity class, the negotiations with parents who object to the content of the course, or the students deep in the practice of social justice online. I realized that even the everyday banal events have meaning and significance.

About ten years ago when my children were younger and we were moving through daily tasks at breakneck speed, I was brushing my teeth, furiously moving the bristles back and forth, unconsciously aware of my fierce grip and staccato movements in and out of my mouth, moving and doing but only thinking of the long list of “not done” and “to do”, forcing this everyday task to a hurried conclusion when abruptly the brush slipped below my teeth and I stabbed the hard plastic tip firmly into my lower gums with such force that they split horizontally below the line of teeth. Blood began flowing and I began slowing. What followed were a series of trips to the dentist, the oral surgeon, spaced out over a month which were periodic reminders on the cost of my inattention, the cost of my senseless fury which I saw in the shocked faces of professionals who heard my story.

I was just brushing my teeth.

But, actually, I wasn’t. I was already imaginatively several hours ahead in the day, in a classroom with students, and in the office photocopying, and planning difficult conversations, and trying to remember what events were scheduled for the evening with my family. I was at the end of the day preparing before it had even begun. And, this self-inflicted oral wound became a necessity for pausing and moving with attention in each task; this delicate tissue holding bone in place was severed and in need of repair. I had been absent from the everyday.

Absences have been accumulating about me as I listen to students struggle, family members struggle. Recently, friends mentioned my silence where usually I’m outspoken, or at least blogging, texting or Tweeting; absence where usually I’m present. It’s been several weeks, several Tuesdays, where writing feels impossible, but for some reason this spontaneous momentary gathering of voices released this story and I remembered why everyday I slow down to brush my teeth.

Windows #SOL

It is Spring, the day is warm, and there are ladders leaning against houses in my neighbourhood. Some are long, doubled extension ladders, and some are the everyday common stepladder found in the suburban vastness at most Canadian Tire stores. Each time I see a ladder next to a window, I’m reminded of the year that my daughter was very young, and glancing over his shoulder to see her braided ponytails, my husband was launched sideways to the ground by the buckling of a step ladder leg. He was cleaning the windows between two houses and our neighbour called out to get him to look. Truth be told, he was standing on the step part, right at the top, where the words, do not stand here, are engraved in the aluminum. But, fortunately, there was soft grass below which absorbed the five foot free fall of a perpendicular human frame and the commensurate expulsion of air. Though we laugh at this memory of window cleaning, he still feels the permanent shift in his back, and I worry that he never quite regained his balance – he approaches ladders with a new kind of hesitation.

We walk on this particular sunny Spring day to move out of doors and to look out at windows to see new growth in the neighbourhood. It is warm enough for window washing and this activity has brought out many with buckets and suds. I see a small child who blows bubbles across the brownish green grass, then stand to see two round and damp mud stains on his pants. Glancing up at his father, he looks for a solution finding none, so he bends over his chubby belly and blows on his knees hoping to move the stain as he did the bubbles. I imagine his father employing this learning and blowing on the windows as his sponge moves from bucket to window dripping. My reverie is broken by the whirring of a pressure washer and the clunk of the engine in the machine.

Today, I am standing in my classroom lit with brilliant sunshine, liquid gold light streaming in, and we (half of my grade 12 class and me) are masked up and looking out to the street and houses below. We see neighbours on lawns using rakes, dogs on the ends of leashes urging their walkers forward with outstretched arms, and people moving in and out of doors. I say to them, “This window is expansive but the view is limited at the same time; it is framed and faces a particular direction. What limited information can we know through this window? What or who is missing?” The students look and we begin the discussion about this metaphor of windows as a way of seeing the world. I remind them that television and our computer screens are windows on the world, limited versions of places we have never been, people we have never met.

We are looking back at the course now, our last few days together. I hope they will stay curious and full of doubt in their own understanding of the world, hoping always in that way of “radical hope” for all of us.

Doing hard things 31/31 #SOL

This has been very, very hard for so many of us. And, I know that I have put myself in situations without considering just how difficult they might be. But, this. This March has been really, really hard. The hardest by far.

It’s been the kind of hard when you lie down at night, and stare at the ceiling without a sense that you will sleep. The kind where you wonder if you’ll be able to ignore the thoughts in your head, the fears for your family. You wonder if you’ll just toss all night, race into work the next day to teach, and then mark, and then teach, and then mark without a day between one week and the weekend. They are really the same – the beginning and the end blur into an amorphous period of time – morning, night, morning, night.

It’s been the kind of hard where you notice your neck near the base of your skull is so tense it’s hard to turn and look left or right and then you notice a stye developing near the corner of your eye, a little flutter of the heart, and you wonder about your body responding when your brain refuses. You see your students dropping, missing, falling, and you kick into another gear, restore the composure to be there – for them – lift them up – the adult in the room, ready to help, all the while pushing that pain somewhere else into the future – the summer, maybe, when it can be owned. For now, it is unacknowledged and I refuse to go there.

It’s been the kind of hard where your heart squeezes and you learn how to secretly release a whiff of suffering travelling on air moving up the throat, expelling enough of a gasp through the mouth to release just a bit of the grief without displaying tears. I’ve actually become an expert and masks are helpful. Besides, only one other person here, in this school, knows about what is really hard for me right now, so when they ask, I just smile, and mention something light or funny to keep me from dipping below the surface of functioning.

It’s been the kind of hard where writing about another world, another experience, another person was the best kind of therapy. Yes, writing here was hard, harder than last year, and really hard this March. But it did give me a place to create another world, to imagine other experiences, and to delight in colours, in chords, and in collaboration. Thanks to everyone who read, and most of all, thanks to Tobi and Amanda who help me consistently do hard things.