Up close and at a distance

I was giving feedback to my students online the other day and realized that the way we think of reading, the way we position ourselves in the process of reading is vital. I also realized a missing part of the learning that I have been providing; I missed showing them how to know and recognize when you are moving from examining writing up close to examining writing at a distance.

You see, we read the beautifully crafted article by Alicia Elliott, “On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy and Writing with Love”, and the students examined specific words, devices, phrases, and the various shapes and sizes of sentences. We analysed those small parts of her writing which contribute so meaningfully to the whole. We read up close.

But then when we switched the learning to a new task: an annotated bibliography based on their own research on any Indigenous issue and this reading required that they look at the whole, that they read at a distance, and indicate why it is relevant to the subject of their research.

In giving them feedback, I realized that I missed something important is the space between these two tasks. I missed providing the transition from reading up close to reading at a distance.

I’ve been continually wondering how students feel about this distance learning so I polled them, anonymously, to get feedback on a few of my questions. I wondered how much time the work in each course is taking them, which methods of instruction and support are beneficial to them, and what other issues are getting in their way.

This is what they told me:

time per course

From this small sample of 28 students, nearly half are spending three hours or less per day on course work, while nearly one third are spending more time than is expected.

I really wanted to know what specific structures in distance learning were supporting them and this was the result:

ways of learning online

Although my items in the list need further consideration, I think there is useful information here. If these results and my interpretation is to be trusted, then I think that the “presence” of the teacher online matters. Nearly half the students felt that short Google Meets, and screencasts done by the teacher support their learning while worksheets and assignments are the least beneficial way of learning for most students. And I don’t think this means the same thing as “synchronous learning”, but this does mean that teachers need to be active and present in the course and with the material. We have to get up close and interact with students and the course content if they are going to learn at a distance.

I’d been feeling the eeriness of this online teaching experience. I’m not close enough to the learning to understand it, so I’m left wondering from a distance. Perhaps this requires some fantastical thinking.

It was superhero day last week and I needed to lift my own spirits before our virtual class. For our weekly Google Meeting, I asked students to identify their superpower and to type it in the chat function. They were stumped. They said they didn’t have one and wanted to make it fictional and speculative. I let them to maintain fantastical thinking. Some wanted to fly or be able to make themselves invisible. But, I didn’t think they yet know their own superpowers and I wondered if I even know my own.

And then it hit me. I’m “wonder woman” but not in the descriptive or noun sense of “wonder” and not the shapely and beautifully appearing Wonder Woman of the television screen. I am “wonder woman” of the digital screen. I am “wonder” in the verb sense of wondering and questioning. I love the wordplay of this which demonstrates the complexities of language and the ways in which we gender terms with women as objects and men as actions. Glennon Doyle points this out beautifully in her book Untamed as she describes the verbs on her son’s shampoo bottle and the adjectives on her daughter’s. I love getting up  close to words and then standing at a distance to understand differently.

I only hope that I’m modelling the ability to make transitions for my students as I struggle to stay close at a distance.

 

 

Remotely Speaking

I am spending a lot more time speaking to myself these days. These conversations are often dropped mid sentence or I’m silent and don’t reply to my own questions. Thoughts remain unattended for days. Sometimes weeks. I realize that I haven’t been a very attentive host to my own conversations and am reminded of a line I heard many years ago: “frustration is the product of unmet expectations.” This often applies to me, my own expectations of myself, events, the world. And, there are the often implicit or never clearly articulated expectations in the way that we communicate with one another.

What got me thinking about this was a post by The Mentoree here: The Mentoree

Being connected matters and I had been reflecting on the opportunities for communication and connection with students in remote teaching and learning. Because my field of study is communication, this fascinates me. And, I value student voice, but I’m troubled, conflicted. I fear my students may feel they are speaking into the abyss and this makes them apathetic. No one’s listening. We poll and question and prompt them to take control of their own learning only to wrestle it back from them in our own attempts to make it fit our curriculum, our expectations. We offer freedom and they wait, silently, for rules.

During a Google Meeting in the first few weeks of remote teaching, I asked them about the changes and challenges that they are noticing; some told me about the struggle to manage email – they had never used this mode of communication before. Since then, I have noticed four general categories of student emails. First there are the “singletons”- a one word reply with no introduction, no signature, just sure, or no, or thx. Then there are the well-coached “letter” emails complete with introduction, body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a salutation which are rare. But most often, I see the “texts” in an email which look something like this:

hey miss i was wondering if you want the annotated bib stuff in the same folder and sorry i dint do it till now 

And finally, there are the “silence” emails. These responses had me pausing to think about the contrasting use of email codes and conventions in the adult world. But then, I asked myself, “is email really the most efficient mode of communication? Does it really connect us or are the conventions merely obligatory and empty? Is the time that I spend managing my emails really the best way of building connections?” I haven’t answered myself yet, because I’m thinking; I don’t know.

What surprised me most about the student email “silences” is that they came from students who then voluntarily showed up in our weekly Google Meetings, no video camera on, but they were there, listening and not speaking. I knew then that the email message was received. They just didn’t reply. Maybe, they were thinking. Maybe, there is a teachable moment here. Maybe, there is a learnable moment here.

And, I’ve tried other forms to communicate and build a community of learners. There is the chat function in Google Classroom. I’ve tried it. Maybe not enough, but, it feels messy and clunky, and the linear thread of thoughts makes it difficult to navigate and hold a meaningful “conversation”. Some students post in the chat, without replying to others. For me, it feels artificial, inauthentic, and mechanical.

And, I have tried Flipgrid, too. Some students played along, for a bit, but the novelty wore off and since we know that teens are peak-self-consciousness, I wasn’t at all surpised when many students emailed to ask for an exemption from Flipgrid. So, I put this mode aside. For now.

I am still spending time speaking in weekly whole class Google Meetings, but they only listen and we only stay in meeting for twenty minutes. They reply in the chat function with single word responses, and when I pose questions their mics are muted, eyes and heads facing downward. They are listening but they are not speaking remotely.

Some ask to have a Google Meet individually; they have questions and we talk through their wonderings. This seems to work and we both smile as we say goodbye. I think about my expectations and decide to put them aside, to be completely flexible, to build a way of communicating using guiding principles without predetermined modes or codes or conventions. Although, I know that time spent speaking to myself will continue for a while, but at least I now know that I’m listening for opportunties for speaking remotely.

 

 

 

The Healing Week

During my years after graduating university I worked as an injury claims adjudicator, and the medical professionals in my office would frequently claim that any injury takes six weeks to heal. Fractured ankle? Six weeks to heal. Crushed femur? Six weeks to heal. Broken heart? Well… maybe not all types of injuries take six weeks to heal.

This week, I started noticing some settling in to routines with staff and students, an easing of the panicked emails from parents, and then looked at my calendar realizing that we are in week six of “emergency remote teaching”. I had also been noticing this unusual and sometimes sudden propensity for tears prompted by everything from an act of generosity posted on social media, to the discovery of a hand-drawn birthday card from years past during a fury of house cleaning. These were atypical ruptures of the day’s skin.

Glancing at the calender of events for this week, I noted fewer scheduled meetings, fewer workshop registrations, and wondered if this might be what the medical field declares the healing week. Maybe this is the week when life settles into routines that flow and have been streched and massaged into a workable sense. The funny thing is, I thought that I had been largely unaffected, unimpaired by this disruption in the educational world, thought that, in fact, I was productively inspired to learn more about technology, about online teaching and learning. I have been both, but, now that week six has arrived, I’m not so sure that I was addressing the dislocation.

My piriformis was actually the first responder. This muscle, always on my left side, acts up whenever I push my running too far, too fast, without adequate stretching or rest. It kept me up last night reminding me that the body remembers and will always ask for healing. The ache was deep pulling me out of the drifting descent into the unconsious world back up to the surface where it screamed for acknowledgement.

I assessed the symptoms, shifted position, and committed myself to take a day of rest from running and to use this week for healing.

 

Thinking like a Scientist

I’ve been reading a great deal of advice and research on remote teaching, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, and the like but there is one call from Twitter which deserves reiteration: cite your sources. I think this is important, not only to credit the source of your inspiration, but also to recognize the source of your own growth and learning. It’s important to know the origins of your thinking, the seed of your inspiration, and to recognize the credibility of that source. 

I’ve immersed myself in the arts for much of my life and since this is my field, I often use analogy and metaphor to help me understand. But, I began my academic career in the sciences and know that longitudinal studies matter for reliability. Since few among us have much experience with teaching online during a pandemic, I now feel the need to find a meaningful comparison; I’m searching for a new COVID-19 pedagogy of praxis.

With this in mind I went for my daily run in the neighbourhood, my thoughts wandering while listening to the renowned physicist, Carlo Rovelli in conversation with Krista Tippet. His imaginative and passionate love for his field of study reminded me of the moment in high school when I fell in love with science. It fascinated me with its ceaseless questioning, its constant clarifying, and its collaborative uncovering of answers which hoped to be truths. Science gave me a sense of hope and a place to play with others and a way to experiment knowing that finding out I was wrong is still meaningful, still approaching some sense of understanding. In this moment, with my legs moving freely beneath me, I felt the good fortune which running allows me: time for reflection and contemplation, for thought experiments where mistakes in my metaphorical thinking can happen.

On this day, there was a light rain and I stopped at a red streetlight waiting for it to change, but, instead, I did. His narrative of quantum physics suddenly became understandable. His words punctured the thin veneer of my physical world creating one of those mystical moments of magical thinking where ideas both expand and collapse at the same time, where they explode and implode upon themselves. I heard him say,

Things which seem separate collapse into one and make sense…

a world of happenings not of things…

you see, a thing remains equal to itself…

a happening is limited in space and time… 

we don’t understand the world by things but by happenings…”

The light went green and my mind connected his words to teaching and learning. I created the analogy that I don’t understand my students by products (things) but by interactions (happenings). The ideas knitted previous wonderings into concepts and I thought, relationships online don’t typically happen in time and space and those “happenings” move in different ways. Maybe online happenings which are asynchronous are stretched out and this “happening” demands greater memory because the focus of our attention is perforated. We have to return to some past thinking and recall it in order to make the current interaction or happening understood. I crossed the barren main street and continued listening: ““We must accept the idea that reality is interaction…we understand the world better in terms of the interaction of things not through things.”

That’s it, I thought. Students learn not through the technology or the products that students submit, but it is in the happening, the interaction – it is in the process of experimenting and finding where they are wrong, or partially wrong, or partially right, or really right that they learn. The product at the end matters less than the process; it is the interaction which creates real learning.

I continued running, my mind weaving comparisons of remote teaching and learning with scientific thinking, and quantum thinking was starting to making sense through application of this analogy – two disparate fields collapsed and seemed, in that moment, to understandable. Listening to Rovelli made me think about my pedagogical stance for teaching right now, during this pandemic and I’ve decided that I need to teach and learn like a scientist. I need to realize this is an experiment, that certainty is unknown, but there can be learning in promoting the interactions. 

I turned the corner on the final stretch home, a flicker of doubt caused me to wonder if I had actually completed my usual running route; my body had done this according to my data collector, but my mind had been elsewhere, wrapped in tangled threads of thought so fascinating that time and space vanished. Rovelli mentioned to his host that “Einstein makes a lot of mistakes but comes up with new discoveries.. and it’s not about perfection or certainty as science is about the capacity to change ideas…science has the capacity to be wrong and is a way of thinking that accepts change. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

There is freedom in looking through new eyes and returning to visit a former first love has me thinking like a scientist.

 

 

What we deny

Only in our isolation and disconnectedness do we discover that everything and everyone is localized and connected. And, in this distancing, I am beginning to question what we deny.

Rebecca Solnit kept appearing in my daily consumption of media and I’m beginning to wonder if this is the work of a latent existential force drawing my attention to something I should have known or done long ago. I listened to her voice in an episode of On Being last week. She wrote, “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers…and that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” The unusual lilt of her voice and calm intellect still spin in my mind’s ear. And, this morning, I stopped scrolling my Twitter feed struck by this linguistic wisdom. She wrote,

“Inside the word ’emergency’ is ’emerge’; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.” #RebeccaSolnit

And then on Twitter, Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote that an “old therapist friend” told him why everyone was “so exhausted after video calls. It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting. Our bodies process so much context…” I stopped to think about that wording, “plausible deniability”, and the more common legalistic use for one escaping criminal repercussions as a member of a corrupt organization or political power.

However, I couldn’t wrap my head around this experience of dissonance and the connotations of “plausible deniability” as something happening to us rather than something we choose to avoid like the truth or an injustice. According to Wikipedia“the expression was first used by the CIA” but the idea apparently has a longer history. I needed to understand the term, like Solnit explored “emergency”; it was an itch that pressed me, so I read further. “Plausible denial involves the creation of power structures and chains of command loose and informal enough to be denied if necessary”.

Then a thought struck me. What power structures are currently in place which I deny? What small almost imperceptible movements have made me complicit in this dance of distraction? Solnit reappeared during my longer moment of breakfast reading in The Guardian article entitled: “The impossible has already happened: what coronavirus can teach us about hope”. How marvelous and uplifting it is to read her vibrant words calling us to action and existence, to make the most of the worst.

While I cannot deny there is absence in my new-found isolation, I can also see that my thoughts attend a new experience. I am paying attention to moving about my house, to walking the dog, to gazing out the window with no real productivity pressure of this instant. And, yes, I am teaching remotely, but connecting, supporting personalized learning is my focus rather than a product on the line of academic factory life. This is where I cannot sense Petriglieri’s Tweet about “plausible deniability”. I am now working on processing the context of my daily life which I previously ignored in mind-numbing haste consumed by the blind goals of my own productivity or some socialized version of productivity.

My body is processing the context of my life in isolation and thinking about the actions needed for when we might connect again. I am trying not to deny my own physical interaction with and existence in the world.

 

 

10 Things I’ve Learned: a response to Doug Peterson’s Blog

This morning I continued my usual routine of reading blogs and preparing for virtual meetings, trying to catch a digestible drink from the firehose of online teaching resources. I made an attempt to consolidate my learning here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DMgQIkgMS_UVn0E2Lc73Zqq-N8a2vO9yxRuIcG0NkGs/edit?usp=sharing

Then I read Doug Peterson’s blog because he has the ability to deliver big ideas in meaningful bites, and still retain the essence of what is necessary; his blog is always a sip of usefulness. He wrote, “Over the course of this time at home and watching the news, I was reflecting on the different things that I’ve learned” and he challenged others to share in this.

My list is different in many ways, but this is what I learned in March 2020.

  1. Writing matters – when I practice written expression, I sort out ideas and feelings in conversation with myself. Writing forces me into my own head and heart and the action of documentation helps me make sense of what matters.
  2. Daily writing matters – without the force of commitment behind me, there are always legitimate reasons to avoid doing something – especially when they are hard. Daily writing forced me to confront a struggle and this understanding is a reminder for me; struggle is part of the process of growth.
  3. Writing teachers should write – teaching it is really difficult. And I would predict the practice of writing ends after Teachers College or University. My good friend, Amanda Potts shared her believe that writing teachers should write; and she is right.
  4. Writing builds curiosity – I started to notice small details about life and the people in my neighbourhood because I needed these observations for description. By observing and witnessing the world from social distancing, I became more curious about the small and seemingly insignificant things.
  5. Curiosity creates empathy – in being more curious, I started to considered movement from someone else’s perspective and it occurred to me that this curiosity is a form of empathy. Through describing people and their physical abilities or circumstances, I had to put myself in their shoes and wondered at the remarkable in the everyday.
  6. Loss builds appreciation – I remember my student teacher complaining about the public bent to criticize teachers; it really bothered him. But, I have witnessed a shift in this popular thinking online, and what I do, as a teacher, with this time will be important to the future appreciation of teachers. I need to make the most of loss.blog pic of staff
  7. Social Distancing unites – we can’t be together, but we are together – in this. I realized this when the staff at my school started arranging virtual hangouts and videos and collaborating in ways that are unprecedented. We are all full of fear about the way this will work, but we are united in making this distance learning work for students and one another.
  8. Discomfort promotes growth – discomfort is often a choice for the privileged; it has been for me as a White teacher. But, it’s the only place from which I can grow. This is going to be messy, and I’m going to make mistakes, so I’m going to embrace the discomfort because I’m hopeful.
  9. Students need connection – Before we left for March break, many of my students expressed anxiety and panic. When I invited them to Google Hangouts over the past few weeks, they showed up, slowly at first, cautiously, but eventually we had nearly a full class meeting. Just to connect and for me to reassure them and they expressed thanks in ways that was unexpected.
  10. Students need models of courage – I know my students need me to be resilient and optimistic and demonstrate that I am opening to learning and failing in public. Now is the time when I can practice being courageous by trying something new, exploring teaching and learning as fearlessly as possible. Brene Brown said it best, “There is no courage without vulnerability.”

Falling in love – 31/31 #SOL20

Since I’ve been writing daily, I’ve occasionally lost my sense of time and space which is common when you fall in love. Writing and commenting in this space, where teachers gather and share and comment – this has been my daily anchor – a routine that can be relied upon.

And since I’ve been writing daily, I’ve noticed changes in myself. Writing has slowed my thinking and my responding. I have fallen in love again. Although writing takes time, it was a luxury that I afforded myself and often, it came before anything else. There was one day this week, as I was doing my usual thinking and researching potential topics for writing, when it occurred to me that curiosity is a form of empathy.

I fell in love again because I became increasingly curious about the ways that others wrote, about the topics they chose, and about them as human beings. I watched the emotional waves of life experiences rise and fall and rise again. I watched the comments lift and support and validate all of the diverse voices. This space became a place for me to visit and stop by a stranger’s place for a chat. This witnessing of the stories unfold and the sharing of emotions which, at times, were so deeply personal made me realize that in this community of writers, there is an unwritten code of trust. A trust that writers can share the private parts of themselves with no risk. The writers are always supported in this web of care. And then, I realized that we were participating in an act of love.

One of my favourite philosophers is Cornell West. I love his wild and wonderful hair, the gap in his teeth, his infectious laugh and smile, but most importantly his incredible intellect. He has the rare ability to distill a complex topic to something tangibly human. He said, that “Justice is love made public”. And since I believe that this is true, then this blog space is justice in action.

I want to thank everyone for their love in this space.

P.S. This list is not exhaustive, but I am forever grateful for the writing and feedback from the following:

Sherri Spelic

Elisabeth Ellington

Glenda Funk

Susan Kennedy

Eddie Hren

My new friend, Lisa Corbett

And my dear friend, Amanda Potts

 

 

Dear Students – 30/31 #SOL20

Dear Students,

I don’t quite know where to begin this letter, or at least, this is the umpteenth time that I’ve begun this letter because writing is all about the drafts, which, of course, you already know, because you heard me say this when we were in class. I mean, I know my purpose for writing, but I worry about my purpose for reading and whether or not this letter will adequately convey the complexity of my thoughts and the incongruence of my emotions. I started drafting an outline, but this isn’t an essay or a poem or a short story or any of the usual forms of writing. This is the kind of message that sort of follows one’s heart.

letter planningAnd, I definitely don’t want this to come off as some tearful, needy, “I am not complete without you” burdening message because, let’s face it, I’m the adult in the room. And that is disingenuous, and no teenager needs to feel the burden of an adult’s emotional life. You need us to keep teaching and supporting your learning, so I think what I want to do in this letter is share a little bit of my learning and we can figure out where this goes.

One of my most significant lessons has been from my writing, here, on this blog. At the beginning of March, I committed to writing a post every day for 31 days, and here I am at Day 30. Wow, I can hardly believe it. There were some days I wasn’t sure if I’d make it and some of my writing really sucked, but there were some days when I just had to just write something and post it without worrying. Just let it go. Stop aiming for perfection in every piece. Get it done and move on.

I guess what I really learned here is that just like me, you are going to struggle with writing. But, what you need is a teacher that writes. Regularly. In fact, maybe even daily. And another lesson that grew out of this daily practice of writing was a heightened sense of awareness. I started paying closer attention to the world around me, my neighbours, my dog, and this grew a kind of curiosity in me. As I wrote about them, I wondered about their challenges and how they were doing in this time of “social distancing”.

Irony: the opposite of what is expected. Do you see it here? But, maybe it’s more than irony. Maybe it’s a paradox, two seemingly contradictory ideas that hold an essential truth. That is, the physical distancing actually brings us closer to one another socially. Do you think that might be true?

Did I tell you that I’m practicing lessons using Screencastify? It’s taking time to plan, but I think it’s going to be really helpful for learning at home. I’m making a lesson on essay writing, but what I really want to do is make a bunch of lessons on creative writing; how punctuation can convey – remember conveyor belt – ideas in your writing. I want you to look up words and use visuwords to build better ways of expressing your thinking. Furthermore, I could also do a lesson on transitional words, and in light of this opportunity, phrases as well.

And, this increased use of technology is taking up a lot of my time! I had three hours evapourate like water on a summer sidewalk yesterday (see that simile) when I impulsively decided to change my WordPress blog theme and couldn’t get the functions working; it was a lesson in patience and perseverance. It’s still not exactly as I want it, but the truth is, I made a change and I’m going to keep making those changes, slowly and intentionally, so I can get better. Tomorrow, which is indefinite and unsettled, but I’m going to stay open to the possibilities.

And did I mention that writing daily is really helpful? I did? Oh yes, I did.

But what I didn’t tell you is how many different forms of writing there are. Take for example, this one, right here. This is epistolary; a story that is carried by letters. Ideally, you would reply to this letter, and then I’d reply, and we’d have this story of our time in quarantine during COVID-19. We could call it, Letters in the time of COVID-19.

So I am posting this letter from my blog in the Google Classroom today, and I’m going to wait for you to reply so we can build this story together.

Fighting – 29/31 #SOL20

When the boys were young, I was hypervigilant about fighting, about violence, as I was acutely conscious of the cultural association between violence and masculinity. I saw myself as a liberal parent with humanist political leanings and my boys were six years apart in age which meant fighting would take different forms because of this age and size differential. As a parent, I delayed video games, encouraged sports deemed less “aggressive” and had them making their beds, baking, crafting, and camping whenever possible; work with your hands to create goodness.

But the world crept in (or, I should say, I caved in) and by the time my third child arrived, my once ardent views flexed to breaking with the practical realities despite my apparently very porous hard-line logic. The forces of society and popular culture mowed over me like I was some inept rebellious weed trying to grow on a suburban front lawn. The oldest wanted to play football, so I relented, the youngest wanted to play video games, so I relented; all this operated erosively. The unravelling of my loosely knitted stance had seemingly untangled and I was yielding to the dominant narrative or, at least, to the pressure to please.

By the time the youngest was 12 years old, we had an arsenal of Nerf guns that filled an oversized plastic storage bin and foam bullets skulked in corners of nearly all rooms, along the baseboards, and between seat cushions. His friends hung out in our basement for Nerf Wars and epic battles spilled into the neighbouring yards, the forest across the street, and lingered into the evening on summer days.

At this same time, the oldest was playing football for his high school team and simultaneously a recreational team. He played five nights per week until suddenly he couldn’t; he was concussed. The brute force of the head-on-head hit abruptly halted what had become routine. Because he was a skilled athlete and also a pleaser, he’d been playing both offence and defence for his high school team. I knew his body was crumbling under the weight and let it. The coach visted our home the day it happened and I can still picture him standing there delivering the message with one leg on the lower step, body half-facing the street in a runner’s readying stance: head on hit, passed out, didn’t know where he was, and cried, he’s okay now. My knees buckled a bit while my heart played panic inside my chest. I fought with myself and that battle readiness resumed.

I didn’t sleep much last night as the previous days haunted me and Paul Gorski’s words from our Zoom meeting on “Avoiding Racial Detours” were still fresh in my ears, shame still discolouring my breath – I still wasn’t sure just why until my sub-conscience was forcing me to face this. Fighting is not my habit; pleasing is. So, when I awoke at 2:30am and thought to my self, “you are the dangerous White Liberal that he warns against”, I was deeply disturbed and wrestled with the sheets for hours. I faced that thought and decided to fight it. I told the pleaser to sit to the side in her comfy lawn chair while I stand in the discomfort even against myself and make a vow. Better to be the dangerous White rebel weed growing in the front lawn than to be mowed over by White supremacy. This is going to be a messy uncomfortable front-yard fight, but this is one worth enduring.

More Small Comforts – 28/31 #SOL20

He texts us early in the morning with a list of groceries. We offered knowing his existence is now even more precarious with no income. Avoiding illness has been a decade-long obsession following an HIV+ diagnosis. He makes sure to use Signal, an apparently secure communication app, as a way of texting following a two year episode of personal terrorism when his phone and computer were invaded and he was stalked. He switched phones several times, switched jobs, and is vigilently cautious about his use of technology, his privacy. Caution lives with him and just demanded more space. We are getting him blackberries, soap, and other essentials and leaving them on his doorstep as small comfort.

She was one of the first neighbours to greet us. She lives next to us in the cooperative housing units with her partner, Bill, an elderly Black man who reminds me of a walking comma, bent elbows jutting and swinging backwards, his colourful knitted Marley hat bobbing in front with each lumbering step. He is always smiling, well, nearly always until they stopped us outside while unloading groceries one day. Her diagnosis was colon cancer and we listened while she shared and spilling some of her life on the driveway in front of our house: a healthy lifestyle, exercise, she’s a nurse, why did this happen, can’t believe it. Bill looked at the ground for most of these moments shifting his body back and forth while her eyes glistened and we faced her listening, projecting comfort. She is okay now, but asked for bananas so we will leave them on her doorstep today.

He trots over to me wagging and dipping his head before he brushes his body against my leg. I think he feels the surface tension, the accumulation that builds pools which collect and fill throughout the day, then recede and disperse somewhere between my head and heart. Experts have talked about canine intution and its on display in my house of late. It’s unusual that he seems to be very needy, wanting constant contact, paws batting at me as I type, or write, or read calling me back to his deep brown eyes. He is not getting his usual rest because he is tending to his pack.

We walked him this morning. Leaving the house later than our usual morning walks, the spaces were surprisingly still vacant waiting for motion and contact. He darted towards two Canada Geese in the field along the parkway, but their broad lifting wings, protruding necks, and honking sounds warned against lessening the space between, and he stuck close to my feet, tripping me as he often does, both of us looking away, elsewhere. Further along the path, I noticed a sign on a school: Private Property and thought about my concern for shrinking public space. In my memory, school grounds were always open, free, and accessible to the community as part of the public trust and we had this collective responsibility to pick up after our pets, ourselves. In my imagination, I see this open space inviting back the shrills of children playing, the echoes of bells, and here the sounds still.

Once home, I fill the tub with warm water, bath salts, and sit back to listen to a podcast: On Being episode 819: Ross Gay – Tending Joy and Practicing Delight . This is small comfort in the water, in the words and voice of one who seeks the joy in public spaces, whose imagination can see the beauty in the inequity and work without missing the delight blossoming with each moment.

At a Loss – 27/31 #SOL20

I read the comments on my recent blog post and wondered, How many possibilities have I lost?

This internal question slammed into my chest and the density of fear, of impotent inaction, made my heart thud. This response is not the usual spasm of self-doubt or shame. This was much stronger; this was loss.

I had that book. I bought it, then gave it away without considering it. Now, another blogger says it has been her patient guide through a writing life. What possibility did I miss?

But it seemed so small and obscure. Why might this matter?

My thoughts scanned past events for an answer and I remembered that important diversity event missed because I felt overwhelmed emotionally, was behind in my evaluations, and the chaos of paper mangement had set in so substantially that I was hiding piles of paper in filing cabinets under some persistent delusion that I would organize it all “in the summer”. But, if I’m really honest with myself, I missed it because my armour was slipping and bits of my brokenness were poking through.

That day that my mother moved out of the family house, when I was fifteen,  I remember because the sky was bright and sunlight filled the front room as my father and mother lifted her suitcases and belongings out the front door, his rearend propping open the aluminum screen door as she moved in quick spurts of fastideousness, rushing the unusual departure, but brows still furrowed and firm. I went back to my room and lay on my bed, which was made up for the first time in a while. Both arms were outstretched behind me resting my head in my hands. I knew that I should feel something, scanned for evidence, but came up empty.

The years passed and we carried on after this loss mostly as usual though I was beginning to run wild. My father is a man of few words and he has rarely ever commanded and demanded. One day from nowhere, he asked me what I wanted to do after high school, and I said I was thinking of becoming a childcare worker. He spat a response; “why don’t you become a doctor or a dentist!” This novel outburst fractured my seventeen year old dismissive veneer. And I felt empty. Not because I was committed to the field of caregiving, because in truth, this idea had only just floated into me from some invisible force of popular culture like a dandelion seed planting wild thoughts of a future I could not imagine. Ideas rooted in soil that was not tended. She had been gone for nearly three years at this point, and he was a good father, but he was at a loss.

I woke up this morning and wondered how many of us are now at a loss, chronicaling missed ouropportunities, or thinking that maybe now, in so much absence, we might see a way to reconcile, to release and let go of past practices which have not worked for so many. Today, scrolling social media was a grief-laden endeavour, so I shifted my focus and decided to listen to voices of possibility and potential. I needed something to move me past passivity and inaction. The wisdom and powerful words of Tarana Burke and Brene Brown in an episode of  “Unlocking Us”  had me captivated. She once said,

“If I found a healing tree in my backyard, and it grew some sort of fruit that was a healing balm for people to repair what was damaged, I’m not going to just harvest all of those fruits and say, ‘You can’t have this.’ If I have a cure for people, I’m going to share it.”

The grieving for the losses began a transformation as if something was grafted onto me, a twisted and gnarly stem still growing through the losses both within and without.

 

I’ve been here before – 26/31 #SOL20

“It doesn’t matter how you see it, it doesn’t matter how your mind perceives it, the moon is always full. ” B. D. Schiers

We drove along sidewalked streets of the suburban neighbourhood looking for a place to call our home. We were new to one another, but we had done this before. This shopping for houses, for neighbourhoods and schools, and places for our children. The tending of lawns and mending of fences. We had pushed bums on swings, bandaged scraped knees, and cheered from the sidelines of “swarming soccer” – that was our term for the six year soccer players who gathered around the ball like a swarm of bees moving about the field where no one scored and they all played for the same team.

Finding a place mattered. We took our time and weighed each decision like an ancient treasure valuable but fragile. The bay window in front was the first tendril of imagination drawing me in, then the ornamental garden and the interlocking driveway, the wooden screen door and we knew this was the place.

We booked a viewing and it was late, the sun dropped quickly behind the houses across the courtyard, but we still wanted to see inside. Walking into someone else’s home had always felt like an invasion so my attention was reigned and cautious; I had to avoid picking up someone else’s life lingering in the objects. I walked up the steep flight of switchback stairs and turned left to the front of the house wanting to see out the bay window up above the living room one, it’s twin one storey above. This would be my first son’s room.

The sun was gone and the moon in full view, not quite full but familiar in shape and texture as something approaching completion. In that moment, some distant idea blew through me and landed near the tip of my tongue – I’ve been here before. My eyebrows lifted, he asked what I thought but I needed to think, so I just filled the space saying, “it’s nearly a full moon.”

There is imagination in the wanting, something vague and transcient, not quite yet ready for full expression. Not ready for words, but having been before. But it didn’t matter because my mind could percieve it, even in its absence.

 

So You Want to be an Ally? – 25/31 #SOL20

 

I feel the danger of writing about this topic. but, as Amanda Potts so cleverly wrote in her blog, Persistence and Pedagogy,

Just do it! Go out on the limb, take a guess, ask the question! Try the hard way, make a fool of yourself…Let it all hang out, be yourself, be human.”

So, I take the first step and look to mentors.

Pran Patel Tweeted,

“Allyship is first an act of vulnerability. It’s about reaching into a world you can never enter and taking the worst parts of it. Then it’s an act of reflection to recognise that you benefit from that worst. Finally it’s an act of surrender in giving up your power in support.”

Image

I didn’t enter the teaching profession for the money or status or “summer’s off”. I certainly didn’t enter it for some myth achieving “success” through a professional label. I entered it following the birth of my disabled daughter, life’s literal slap across the face yelling at me, wake up and deal with this! In perhaps some small way, I know about reaching into a world I’ve never been before and having to take the worst parts of it.

Glancing back over my years in teaching, I wonder at this system of education which uses labels to sort out the vastness of humanity, to make sense of the individual uniquenesses. The system then categorizes the students “at risk” or students who need “Individual Education Plans”, but I haven’t met a child yet who wouldn’t benefit from an indivdualized plan for their education; they are just that, individuals. I wonder at these labels which set some students apart from their peers which is somewhat ironic since this act of creating difference is antithetical to the teen experience; they don’t want to be different. Yet, when we really look at who is “different”, who is considered “at risk”, then we should not be surprized that these students are also on the margins of ability, poverty, and race. Sometimes labels are the dividers which separate the systemic problems from reality.

So, I don’t want the label, “ally”.

Shifting the focus inward, I’m working with Pran’s plan, being vulnerable here, and elsewhere, making myself sit with the discomfort of ruffled fragile White feathers, refecting, and waiting for the opportunities to surrender power.

I don’t want the label, but will do the work of being an antiracist educator, an ally. And I know this means most of the work has to happen within before I can work on the systems without. I know this means I will remain a student (because I need to learn about racism and poverty in perpetuity) with an individual education plan (because I’m White and middle class) and work at equity, act for equity, and give over power to those marginalized by either poverty or race.

tweetLast week, I posted this image on Twitter which generated a series of probing questions from Chris Cluff. These were interesting questions, and they had me back peddling and reflecting. Eventually he DM’d me and we spoke on the phone while I was walking the mostly empty streets of my neighbourhood in Ottawa, and he was walking up a hill in Newmarket petting cute dogs as they passed. It was a thoughtful conversation about education and what we want, our deep desires and the barriers which get in the way.

 

He is without doubt an incredibly creative thinker and I listened carefully – his work is on the margins. I’m still processing his words and reflecting. I told him that I don’t want my equity work to be about me. I am not here for attention. In fact, quite the opposite and I am content to sit on the sidelines in the shadows.

He said, “But at some point it has to be about you. Draw the attention to the issue and then turn it over to someone else. Surrender.”

So, I continue, until I can surrender.

 

From nature – 23/31 #SOL20

I am looking up at the night sky, the nearly full moon in clear view and I notice that my breath comes easy, most natural, as if my looking and my breathing is one continuous motion. Breathe in the moon, breathe out the moon.Image result for night moon

I remember frequently looking skyward as a child studying the cloud formations as I lay in the grass of my front yard, sweet green grounding me, or watching the trails of planes from the beaches of Killbear Provincial Park, warm sand hugging me. Someone once told me that people who notice the sky are healthy because they are connected to nature.

I was reminded of my skywatching days when @hystericalblkns posted this picture on Twitter and I felt an early pull.

This sky by @hystericalblkns

For two months each year of my childhood, my family lived outside, camping everywhere that we travelled: each stop on a 6000 mile journey was a new lesson from the Earth. The Prairies, the Rockies, Bryce and Grand Canyon, the deserts of Nevada and Tiauana, Mexico. We had no electricity, no cell phones or social media. For most of our trip, we lived in nature.

When camping for 10 weeks at a time in the Muskokas, I would catch frogs and create cities out of sand and water, forest and rock. Many hours were devoted to constructing vast amphibian empires that would fall overnight, my slimy captives breaking free. But time spent temporarily arresting them, living in the natural world, forged a deep connection. This was my toybox where I touched and smelled and learned.

For many years, I lost the sky and floated without knowledge of its power and potential in me. I once thought my desperate desire to camp and bike ride through forests with my first partner, was a yearning for family tradition, but it wasn’t just that. I continued to feel the pull of sweeping whites, skyward blues and blacks even after we split. My now husband understood this force without words and we built a life outside, camping, and walking in the forest as part of our communal nature. Those times on beaches near water, in the woods next to crackling fires, looking skyward restored me.

When studying literature, I often tell my students to look for the contrasts, the juxtapositions that reveal some concept or idea about the human experience. I am looking up and realize my paradoxical position. Staring into the night sky, the air above me where only visions of place exist in a mist, I am feeling grounded. I can study all the books, and identify all the themes, and intellectually indulge in all of life’s lessons, yet lose my way.

I think to myself, “how did I allow my life get so removed from nature?” And I wonder how many others are asking this too.

Quarantine Learning Levity 22/31 – #SOL20

This morning, I  learned that I have a few hidden talents. I discovered that when you are unaware that your male-dominated household has left the powder room toilet seat up, you can brace your rearend fall towards the water in the bowl by quickly raising both feet, bracing them against the walls in front of you as you lean forward with outstretch arms. (This only works in a very small bathroom.) The first time this happened, I was surprized by my agility, balance, and core strength. The second time I was surprized by my potty mouth, and the third time I was prepared.

I’m also learning that my husband is a new-age philosopher. I should, of course, have known this already as my two sons often celebrate his unique way of thinking and communicating. I’d been telling him about my concerns for students and what would happen following the weeks of March Break. Glancing down was he was examining the latest hydro bill, he said, “Well, one way or another they’re going to have to make a decision or not make a decision.” My head cocked sideways as the words fell out of his mouth, and I knew this was one of those rare gems my sons value so much. He was absolutely right, of course, and he had just dispensed one of the wisdoms that the boys refer to as “a George”.

Finally, I just learned that my brother-in-law who is a truck driver has turned into a celebrity of sorts. The shelves are somewhat bare at most stores in British Columbia where he lives and he’s working more hours delivering than he has in a long time. He called long distance on his way to make a delivery at a local grocery store and told us about his recent fame. He’s so popular that he can’t even get the ramp on his 18 wheeler down before the shoppers are hauling crates of toilet patper out of his cab. Even the porta-potties along his drive were places of theft, emptyless holders bereft of whatever no-name recycled one-ply that industry donates to temporary squatters.

But all of this aside, I am learning that keeping a sense of humour helps ease the isolation and there is lots of room for learning even in quarantine.

Defining my refuse – 24/31 #SOL20

Yesterday, I felt a chasm open and a sludge of panic filled my gut. Significant change has marked much of my life, so I was perplexed by these emotions. I had been on a twelve-hour-a-day Twitterfest, staying connected in virtual meetings, and preparing for distance learning, so I suppose it should be of no surprise. I was thinking more about school and teaching and learning and equity while trying to manage a new normal.

I have also been doing a LOT of reading and thinking about ways to teach my students online and I was inspired by John Warmer’s recent article, “If it Doesn’t Make Sense…Refuse” in Inside Higher Ed .

This was a signal for me. I decided to define my refuse:

  1. I will not comment on American politics on Twitter. I’m not American, and while I do have a vested interest as a fellow human being, what I witness at a distance on Twitter confounds and distresses me. I won’t feed that part of the internet.
  2. I will not post platitudes and seemingly simplistic thoughts on eduTwitter. It only draws challenges and the ire of some who might be tired of the “starfish”.
  3. I will not challenge the platitudes and seemingly simplistic thoughts of some on eduTwitter unless they are racist or sexist or elitist. This is the line that I will hold firmly.
  4. I will not expect others to respond to me on Twitter, in email, or to my writing or podcast. I am learning through both silence and critical feedback. Silence is its own form of feedback.
  5. I will not expect others to join me in my willingness to bend to the needs of students and parents for online teaching at this time.
  6. I will not give up on my willingness to bend to the needs of students and parents for online teaching at this time.
  7. I will not spend money needlessly, but I will indulge myself and my students in books and educational material, conferences, etc.
  8. I will not stop sharing what I can with those who have less.
  9. I will not stop working for my students.
  10. I will not give up my optimism.

 

 

 

Resisting to Transform #equity – 21/31 #SOL20

It is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today and I have agreed to participate in a Twitter chat with some educators from Australia. The time difference (11 hours) has me realizing that I’ll be late to the online chat, but I’m not concerned. Asynchronous learning has so many benefits and I’m anxious to listen to more voices.

This personal interest in equity and racism is not new for me, but my intentional self-education is. I’ve read more and listened more and have purposefully acted more for inequities in the system for racialized students. And it was unnerving when I realized the extent of the resistance to listen to student voice and reflect on the changes required for equity in education.

Black History Month animated 2020

I overhead several pockets of discontent and grumbles of  White teacher discomfort following our school’s Black History Month assembly; Black students had publically called out White teachers for erasing them from the curriculum. They called them out for teaching books with the “n-word” and not providing historical context or recognizing how they might feel when a White student reads the word aloud. They called out their classmates for asking for the “n-word pass”. And, teachers knew that we had helped with this assembly. They saw me and my colleague in the student video. They saw me say that we should decenter Whiteness for equity. They saw her say that White people should never say the word.

I was ruffled too, but only by their response. The students were voicing their truths. I resisted my own capacity for fragility. But, I had a series of questions and wrote an email to Adrienne Coddett, a Black teacher who runs the Black Youth Forum and just casually mentioned the disruption that this event had initiated. She wrote back and reminded me why it’s important to resist the pull to comfort saying,

Black History Month compilation 2020

“For those people who are challenged I say, ‘It’s just your turn to even briefly experience what it’s like to not be the centre of attention’.  It’s important for people to sit with those feelings. Doing nothing about it means they are part of the problem.  Not wanting to transform that experience means they are part of the problem.

Students will know the difference between those who stepped up to the challenge and those who want to promote a “status quo” that continues to stifle the opportunities for Black students.”

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I am resisting my own comfort.

Done – 20/31 #SOL20

That’s it. I’m done. I’ve got nothing more.

(Click on the table)

You expect me to work independently, without you? Like, I can just crawl inside that pea-brain and figure out the words on my own?

(Silence with only breathing)

I know you’re struggling, sitting there with your head in your hands, taking deep sighs expecting some muse to suddenly appear. But, I can’t do this without you! We have to do it together.

(Silence)

Okay… I get it. You’re not paying attention to me because you’ve run out of ideas, you think your writing all sounds the same like some banal-grey-oatmeal-mush of blah! Ya, and maybe you’re even feeling a bit sorry for yourself in your impotence, like some imposter pretending to be a writer, maybe even pretending to a be a teacher – and ya, I know that one hurts the most, but, geez… Get a grip on me and start! Start somewhere! Hell, start anywhere. Start in India on the balcony of some lush palace. Start in Australia in a remote village. Start…

Wait, what? Why would I want to start somewhere that I’ve never been?

(Pause) Because you’ve never been.

(Click from the table)

I guess I could write some kind of a dialogue, but, not one with people – done that already. Maybe…one with an object. Like a pen, and even if it doesn’t feel good, at least I’m writing something different and stretching myself.

(Silence)

Uh huh. Looks like you’re already done.

 

Neighbourhood Mending – 19/31 #SOL20

We see her from our kitchen window, walking early with purposeful strides, and three, sometimes four, large cloth bags loaded on her short stout frame. Two are slung on her right shoulder, resting on her back as she tilts forward with each step to keep them there. Over her left shoulder, her dark brown hair veils her Latinx features, and another bag hangs with soft fabrics spilling over the opening. We wonder about her parcels which go back a forth and speculate that she is a seamstress carting frayed fabric home each evening, and returning them repaired each morning. She is mending the neighbourhood.

We see him from the front window most winter mornings in a white pickup truck with a plow of the front, preparing to push mounds of snow out of driveways making way for cars to move. My husband who has, for many years, ascribed nick names to our neighbours, calls him “Grumpy Cat”, and my youngest chastises him for what he sees as cruelty. I admire this man who lives with his two teen children and his cancer-ridden mother a few doors down the street; his garage and front yard is a mechanics shop, small engines and trailers and metal equipment strewn about in some attempt to organize. Last summer, he build a structure inside his pickup holding his tools in place to prevent them swimming about the back on his way to tend to the lawns of the neighbourhood.

We see her sometimes, but not often. She lives in a building of rent-to-income apartments just a block from where we live facing the transit way, a bike path running alongside the front edges of its lawn. We see her bent down in the earth, tending flowers, pulling weeds, beautifying the beds that flank this twenty story tower. Each time that we pass, I hope she will turn her youthful dark brown face in my direction so I can smile and wave hello to my neighbour. But she stays facing away, looking only at her plants proccupied in tending them, the life growing in front of her.

We see him struggle up the sidewalk, cerebral palsy gripping him, his chin jutting up towards the sky, each stride a monumental task in forward motion on the toes, hands gripping the metal bars of his walker with each push along the pavement. Deep lines are carved into his face but it is difficult to tell his age. Sometimes we see him sitting on a park bench, the only time his body is still, and as he passes us this morning, my husband playfully asks, “Staying out of trouble?” His face lights up, and his smile overwhelms me as I see the lines move up towards his gleaming joyful eyes. We all laugh as we glide and he stutters by and I feel the neighbourhood in his presence.

The glossy magazine announcing our neighbourhood arrives on the door and I seeth a bit inside. White perfect people, families of wealth and privilege, are the only versions in this two dimensional unreality. In my mind I am screaming, “This is not my neighbourhood!” I think of sending a letter asking them why they do not profile these people of the neighbourhood, but I know why. I then decide to send it anyway.

 

The Weight of Reading Conversations – 18/13 #SOL20

 

I am reading Jesse Thistle’s memoir, From the Ashes, this week, largely due to the inspiration of Lisa Corbett who proposed a March Break Reading Club on her Twitter account. I responded, then Amanda, and before we knew it, the author agreed to join us for our conversation. Lisa’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion on Twitter turned into a major event and even online, I can feel the buzz of energy and enthusiasm amidst the pandemic.

And this unusual blend of complex emotions hovers about me as I wrestle with reading tragically painful descriptions of his childhood hunger, the descent into drugs and homeless, I am thinking about the reading group, what we might want to discuss, how to make use of the author’s generous gift of time. It feels weighty.

M. Keats posted a link to the CBC website with an article and this sent me down the rabbit-hole of internet research and all my time was vacuumed up, my previous plan to complete some essay evalutions now abandoned and part of a looming list. I skimmed his Masters dissertation, scrolled through his website, and scraped together as much understanding about the book and author as possible. He had clearly been interviewed extensively, pressed by the press.

He said “I only chose the events that would make it understandable, relatable and interesting to the reader. Because if you read one horrific thing after another, then it’s just a series of unfortunate stories. There’s no arc to it. My publisher and editor helped me choose the stories that I needed to include — and then let the dead space in between those stories speak for themselves.”

And as a reading group, what are we doing with “the dead space in between the stories”? Are we filling it with stories of our own? I’m reminded of a key concept in Media Studies which suggests that interpreters of texts negotiate meaning through the filters of their own experiences. We figure out meaning as it relates to our understanding of the world.

On a morning walk with our dog and my husband, I talked about Jesse’s description of elementary school and graduating grade 5 functionally illiterate. I wondered about his teachers, I wondered about my own blind complicity in my career. This conversation in motion gave me the space to connect my emotional response to something informed and actionable. Our discussion with the author is one that is with educators and can be about education. In fact, we’ve been talking a great deal about “trauma-informed teaching and learning” of late, and here it is – right in front of us. The lived experience from a celebrated author and academic.

Suddenly my reading of this memoir changed and I thought about this hefty group of nearly 30 educators sharing an experience of reading and what we can collectively do to change the narratives, to work towards equity by listening and speaking the stories. Can we ever measure the weight of reading conversations?