Photographic memories (cont’d) 5/31 #SOL2021

(This is the third day experimenting with the writing a fictional short story.)

She sat in her housecoat reading the newspaper article taking quick, shallow breaths, her mouth open, her shoulders curled forward with her head hanging over the table where the broadsheet pages lay flat. She had left her bedroom, venturing down the stairs to the kitchen for the first time since returning home from the hospital, since waking up from the coma, since realizing there had been an accident that she could not remember.

For three…no, six long months, she thought. She was waking up to an awareness that Celia had kept her hidden with a purpose. She had told her that she needed to be “safe”, but the opposite of this was unknown so she searched through the archives outside of her for answers. She searched in photographs.

The sound of a car door brought her back into the moment, one for which she was entirely unprepared and this disoriented her. A panic grew as she heard the footsteps up the path, the door clicking open, then clumping shut, the deep sigh, and then the gasp.

Celia stood in the doorway still partially at the entrance looking like a flight risk. Her arms were still behind her caught in the sleeves of her jacket which hung partially from her shoulders and she was frozen in place facing her sister’s discovery. The newspaper story was there – published with graphic images, published without her.

Rising only slightly from the chair, she glanced down then up, then down again. “What is this story, Celia?” she pushed out of her throat.

The jacket now fell to the floor landing on the moistened carpet in the hallway. Celia crossed the threshold of the kitchen robotically, pulled off her mask, poured a coffee, and then sat across from her sister. Celia did this seemingly without her eyes.

“I’ve been trying to keep the story from you because..” She paused searching for words, thinking back to the plans she had in case she needed to tell her that it was her fault. Celia felt the groan of her empty stomach, but not as hunger so much as a vacancy. Breathing and swallowing another gulp of coffee, she rubbed her right eye to steady a spasm of the lid, a recurring tick that had regularly irritated her of late.

Then, the story emerged with urgency and now it propelled her forward unfolding honestly, or as honestly as she was able, with the limited reflection she has allowed herself. It was mostly factual, most chronological with only vague similarity to the one found in the newspaper.

“My eyes,” she whispered, “were focused on the rear view mirror. I wasn’t watching where we were going. I was looking back. It’s my fault. Your life is changed and it all my fault.”

“But, there’s more, right?”

Stories were now spoken out loud, and she knew it didn’t really matter to what lay ahead, that she wouldn’t find the answer in the photographs, in the newspaper article, but she did finally realize that everything was different and the same.

Pausing the story 4/31 #SOL

After two days of trying to write a short story, I am pausing for reflection.

Yesterday, after class, they came to see me, two of the Five Writers group that I’m supervising as extracurricular work. We’ve been writing together since the fall and the most recent prompt that they accepted was writing a short story; we looked at techniques of setting, and dialogue and talked about the complexity of taking an idea from one’s imagination and translating it to the page so your reader sees what you envisioned. As a writing teacher, I know the importance of writing alongside students, so I decided to join them as part of my own struggle to grow and wrestle with a writing life.

Both of these young women who sat, masked and distanced, are beautiful humans, complex and thoughtful intellectuals who possess a love of literature and humanities; I have taught both of them in grade 11 and, now, grade 12. We have forged a connection through words and I make a point of centering theirs. A month has passed and they are struggling with their ideas and reaching out for advice. I felt a lack in this area of the craft despite knowing the theory, and knowing how to find themes, literary devices, and apply the formulas of analysis to artistic form. But, I’ve never written a short story.

This might not be the most settled time for me to be writing a short story, since there are many personal and professional battles in my wake, but I decided to use this as the moment to gather more from the creative resources within, to mine that spirit which drives us for connection and reflection. And, so, I began to write, and the story has moved and shifted in ways that have been unpredictable. And, yes, I have a plan (sort of) and I definitely have thematic ideas that I want to convey, but the product and the process are challenging me in ways that I couldn’t understand had I not done this.

We talked about our ideas and what is happening with our writing. One fears that her vision of the story will not be understood and she has made several attempts, but her writing stutters — she feels unable to bring the story to the page. The other, too, imagines a story, plots out its parts, but can’t seem to bring it together “into a cohesive whole”. I thought about our processes of writing and wondered if a part to whole or whole to part framing of the writing might be helpful.

I shared my thematic idea:

I’m hoping to convey a message about reckoning with the past, with our own past as a way of moving forward. I was thinking about the ways that photographs can provide a sense of the past that isn’t real and yet being in the moment is so ethereal, so transient and living is like looking through the front windshield of a car while glancing back in the rearview mirror. We are trying to live forward while looking back.

I then shared the process over the past two days and the fact that the story morphed and changed as I wrote while I kept trying to keep this centre of meaning. It sparked a shared recognition and a lightness filled the room; they were both able to see themselves in what I had shared in my writing experience. Although I know that my craft is limited, I just don’t know how limited unless I try and fail and try again to reckon with this writing life.

Photographic memories (cont’d) 3/31 #SOL2021

(This is part 2 of a short story that I’ve been meaning to write.)

Speaking the words, saying it out loud makes it real and true. This is what I fear.

Celia writes these words in her notebook deciding that is enough for today. Even thinking is an awkward navigation of the mind and often she must disembark to stay on solid ground. The situation forces silence and she is muted, feeling blunted emotionally. Yet, she does this with intention and purpose so she can still get up, have a shower, travel to work, do what she does, and return home again. In one piece.

She takes her knitting with her in a handhewn bag made from recycled plastic bags, locks the front door glancing upwards to her bedroom before turning and driving away. The windshield fogs repeatedly and she turns the fan on and then off again when the way ahead is in view. “It must be damp today”, she thinks as the greyness hovers and the sky hovers low as one wanting to touch the earth.

Opening her computer, she flinches at another email request for specific details of the accident; a journalist has found her place of work and the initial violation compelled her immediately to ‘delete’. She knows this reaction would not close this connection, this seeking for the answers to the story, so she decides to open the email which contained attachments – photographs. Scrolling through words that seem to float off screen she senses a presence over her shoulder. The cubicle of space, the area that she can control and monitor with deft precision is breached and goosebumps travel across her neck, tingling and rising up to her hairline.

“Oh my God, what the hell happened there?” The words are drawn out, long and lowly whispered.

The attached photos sit squarely on the screen brutal and vivid, colourful and uncensored displaying graphically the results of Celia’s poor driving. March 2020 slammed her in the chest and she gasped for air just as she had when the airbag exploded, just as she had when the blood from her sister’s head ran across the dashboard and began spilling in her lap.

Photographic memories – 2/31 #SOL2021

(This is the beginning of a short story that I’ve been meaning to write.)

Everything was different and the same.

She could only remember the parts of life saved in snapshots, blurry images, cell phone selfies, or fading pictures shot with disposable cameras. The albums, oversized and wrapped in plastic, lined three and one half shelves of the floor to ceiling unit in her cramped old bedroom, organized chronologically since the accident and labelled along the spine with dates in black ink.

Pulling one volume from a shelf, she thumbed quickly to March 2020. Smiling she stepped back slowly lowering herself to the bed’s edge, eyes fixed on images as she created conversations from smiling mouths with words she could not hear, but instead felt deeply, assuring herself that this happened – there was a story of her.

It did happen. She repeated these words, mostly sure, but she needed the proof. Though her memory was empty and incapable of any recollection, any reconnection, she had reconstructed a past, photograph by photograph, until she felt her own history. And it was a history full of happiness and celebration – it was all there, on the pages of her photo albums, so it had to be real.

Celia challenged her every time she talked about family and experiences they apparently had shared, dismissing her characterizations of people and events with a scorn that slowly chipped away at her frame. And, even though she was blood, her older sister according to Celia, and the photos seemed to prove this, they had nothing in common, other than the one character trait that kept them arguing – the need to be right.

Opening the door, Celia leaned her head into the room.

“You’re not going to find the answers there. You know this, right? We’ve been over and over this.”

Catching a glimpse of her dark hair, she kept her eyes focused now on the bedroom window where she could see unfocused motions of the morning, cars backing out of driveways, a child on a bike waiting for an adult walking, and a greyness that comes with winter mornings in the city. The grilles of the window bothered her and felt like impediments to comprehension.

“Are you leaving now?”

Towards Reckoning – 1/31 #SOL2021

This was not the plan, not what we expected.

In a car seat, she is still strapped in after falling asleep on the drive over, now on the floor of my sister-in-law’s apartment. We have our coats off and are chatting, but there is discomfort and tension in the air which I feel as frustration.

I see her arms abruptly lift, stiff and shaking out in front, perpendicular to her body, eyes wide and staring ahead, pupils massive and black covering her pale blue iris.

“She just had a seizure” I spit into the room and disbelief fills the air, convictions of my imagination, still sleep deprived at six weeks postpartum.

“No”, I declare refusing their dismissals and when they witness it for themselves, we begin the panicked departure. Within fifteen minutes we are rushing to emergency and jumping a cue as nurses and paramedics witness the onslaught of tonic clonic distortions to this delicate new born.

The white curtains are drawn partially around the bed for protection, or comfort, or to protect others from this invasion. Phenobarbital courses through her veins from an IV drip halting the electrocutions and the drooping faces around me add to a growing disorientation. This moment begins a loss which surfaces and stays.

I return to work within four months and he takes the rest of the parental leave to be at home. I know this postponement will serve for now. Reckoning will come, eventually.

Masks #SOL2021

With mouths covered for most of the day, I am learning to read people’s eyes. But, sometimes I need to think of them in the time before.

I recall the time that I met her several years ago noticing the way her eyes squinted with a gentle smile and a glance down of deference which was offered to all. Her mouth, nearly always neutral or upturned, rarely opened to voice opinions without prompting or stories unsolicited and instead she waited patiently observing with grace and kindness. Each word, each phrase, each sentence proposed was and is measured – carefully considered. I remember feeling quite intrigued by this gentle, gracious soul of a teacher and I have studied her movements as if wanting to absorb this way of being with the world. She openly shares her challenging class discussion, the way she feels she has failed and I stand in awe thinking how incredibly fortunate I am learning from her.

I met him nearly a decade ago noticing his wide eyes, searching for safety and sensing his story. I feel a urge to stretch out my arms in a gesture of support and instead did so with nods and agreement where possible learning of his deep commitment to education and his craft. He has invested heavily in his safety in a physical space, but the distance of the pandemic has brought him out and he told me his story realizing the need to trust and be vulnerable – physical and emotional masking and unmasking dancing about the spaces we occupy, each partner moving to give the other the distance needed. He is thoughtful, wise, and I am better for being near him.

Now, in the time of covered faces, we talk on phones or text, and meaning is possibly missed or misunderstood.

I received a text in Google Chat from a student too upset to come to our Google Meet. “I’m too enraged by homophobia masked as religious freedom,” he writes. I tell him not to worry knowing this is our last few days before the end of the quadmester, but now I’m curious so I call his other teacher after class and she comes to my room to talk at a distance. We are in our fourth week of lockdown, but we are coming physically to the school to teach from screens, to live and teach in separate spaces. She breathes life into the unravelling of this difficult online conversation in World Issues. Her neck is red and blotchy while she moves two feet right, then two feet left, shifting position to gain some grounding; the details don’t penetrate because I am focused on her discomfort and defense. I see myself in her response, the arbiter of teen discussions on matters of ethics and morals, and I want to reach across the space with a knowing hug. I want to say, “Do you know how much I admire you?”

I wonder at the strange ways that the world of teaching is changing, bringing forth struggles beneath as we work with masks.

Writing hypothesis #SOL2021

They should have completed the first draft of an analytical essay, with four days of writing and thinking and researching in class, and then a week to revise. But nine days later, nearly a third of them have submitted nothing. No rough notes, no point form notes, no links to research – there is nothing. I reach out by email to ask if they need help and I get only a few responses. I try again and a few more trickle in with explanations of “business projects”, “math is taking up all of my time”, and “I’m so behind in science”. One week of lessons spills into the next and I know that writing takes time which cannot be quantified or diagramed with efficient formulas with hypotheses. I know this intellectually, but I feel the “should” shove me anyway, that inward turned dagger of insufficiency.

And even though I know that I can intellectualize the role of writing in all subjects, English is, much like other physical skills, one which requires practice – regular practice without gaps of time. The practice is the point and research can demonstrate the validity of this. It is a type of personal housework which perpetually waits to be done, which gratifies once completed, but which dismays in its demands to return and repeat these actions again and again and again. Writing is never complete, never finished. I try to make this evident in my instruction, yet, I fear they view the task of writing as quotidian. Get it done and move on. They write an introduction before knowing what they will write about and I am still aghast every time I see this. I should not be. Conceptually, they view writing as a product produced by formula, a task of fill in the blanks, or a linear equation. Inwardly again I recoil knowing this is a lesson that repeats in me. I know that I must change for them to follow so I am moving to teaching the process more than the product – the one place where they need to spend time – I will spend time teaching the doing and in not the completing.

Stuck in these accelerated structures of four-hour-hybrid quadmester conveyor belts, I opt not to force feed lessons and expect them to regurgitate the learning. I decide to formulate a new hypothetical framework; write for joy, for curiosity, for discovery; read for joy, for curiosity, for discovery. Learn about yourself, learn about others, and value writing as the process of embodied empathy.

Virtual Debt #SOL2021

We talk on the phone sharing shards of struggle which pierce the day of virtual teaching and each time I write or say or read the word, I cannot help but stop, wondering – “virtual teaching” – this is not quite teaching just as “virtual reality” is not quite reality. And then I open a desperate email from a fellow English teacher confessing her virtual emotional meltdown and subsequent “ugly cry” while facing a checkerboard of muted icons. She can no longer feign instructional joy to an unreceptive liquid crystal window as she enthusiastically waits in a durge towards “discussion”. She writes about the 17 years of teaching, the motivation to enter the profession, and the losses exponentially accumulating in her – compound interest.

That heaviness and shallow breathing returns to me too. That weight pressing on my lungs, near my centre which curls me forward like a rubber bug when touched. I think I am not alone in this. We may not be together in person, but we are collectively accumulating some form of virtual emotional debt wracking up expenses beyond calculation. Who knows what we might owe at this point in the pandemic?

Then, Chris Cluff speaks to me from the void of Twitter with his creative engagement group, “words keep wolves at bay”. This curious phrase has me twisting in my thoughts with metaphors and imagery wondering if “bay” should be “Bay” as in the street and the concept of imaginary wealth traded in numbers and dots on a screen. Which “wolves” am I trying to keep from calling me out on my obligation? And so, I sit and write and ponder this crushing costly debt we collectively share. This ambiguous loss. This virtual loneliness. This fee required by some unknown entity.

After listening to Nora Young on the podcast, “Spark”, I gained some insight into costs the pandemic and technology is forcing us to recognize. In the episode, “Touch, Trust, The Alchemy of Us” a neurobiologist points out the “complex emotional information” provided through the skin. When we cannot touch someone physically, we are missing a great deal of emotional information about them. There is a loss, a growing debt in relationships, yet, the episode did reassure me in the need for voice over image. She says, “hearing someone helps you understand better than reading words” and seeing them is not required to connect.

In a scuttling moment of intrusion upon my mind’s eye, I see some futuristic mechanism, massive in stature, lording over me demanding emotional labour, pushing me to extreme exhaustion, suctioning up my cognitive energy. Glimpsing the face of the monster, I startle and refuse to accept my own reflection – at least, for now. Because I have work to do, a class to teach, students who need support, so I look away and facilitate the accumulation – secured debt.

My husband waits patiently never pressuring me to break the trance of the plastic portal. The dog, on the other hand, applies more pressure pawing me, interrupting my keystrokes, demanding affection which, when given, returns in some wonderful exchange of revolving debt. He awakens me, asking me to balance my emotional account, calculating what I am giving to the screen in relation to what I am getting back. The spreadsheet is clear. This virtual debt is growing.

Resistance #SOL2020

It’s been a little over two weeks since I was briefly encouraged, then relentlessly pummeled on Twitter for posting pictures of two boxes of Lord of the Flies next to the garbage. I playfully posted that I was doing a Marie Kondo-like cleanse by decolonizing the book shelves of my school. The reactions were swift, visceral, and pointed. I’ve had some time to reflect, time to write privately, and time to formulate a more reasoned response than one I might have given in the moment.

Yet, I worry that my delay is also part of the problem with moving to a more equitable list of books. I wonder that in my taking time to respond, I have granted de facto power to those who rail against the disruption of the “literary canon”, resistors who uphold the status quo. We know that change in education is slow and I’ve observed that some fear it more than others. This systemic resistance to change sometimes requires what appear to be radical acts of disruption.

I’ll admit that I made an impulsive decision to post this box of books to Twitter, but the decision to discard them was at least two years in the making. It started in 2019 when I spent a summer learning about First Nations, Metis, and Inuit ways of knowing, reading Indigenous authors, and following Indigenous thought leaders on Twitter like Jody Kohoko and Josh. I joined #4BigQuestions and #AntiracistReads listening to Pamala Agawa and Colinda Clyne. With the colonial lens of my upbringing now in full view, the need to shift the content and approach to instruction came into focus as part of Truth and Reconciliation, the educator’s call to action, and so I made an emotional commitment to change.

But there was more to this story of discarding books which came through listening to students in our Diverse Student Union, Black students who recalled being the only student of colour in a class where white students read the “n-word out loud”. Reading Lord of the Flies had seared a traumatic memory in their minds. Grade 10, grade 11, and grade 12 students referred to specific moments in class citing this text as a source of pain.

Feeling the need for action, I rushed to post to Twitter in a week where I feared my own foot-dragging and invisibility which made me safe and comfortable while our Director, Camille Williams-Taylor, made bold, informed, and necessary moves to curb the trauma experienced by racialized students in the classroom. The ban on racial slurs and epithets was passed and this gave me the impetus to discard the one text that so many students over the years had named as the source of their classroom trauma. I had the support of my principal so what I was doing felt right.

What I was not prepared for was the response.

That impulsive decision had me experiencing an onslaught of attacks against me which ranged from gender to race, to my role as an educator; I was accused of “virtue signalling”, succumbing to the dangers of “woke culture” and being a “white saviour”. An educator in the US warned me that I had been posted on the Twitter feed of a radical conservative with thousands of followers, James Lindsay, and she suggested that I delete the post and lock my account for my own safety. The Twitter response seemed out of proportion to the action. Why would so many people so far away from my geographical location decide to vilify me and attempt a public takedown on Twitter?

I did not understand anything other than my need to sort through the voices to listen, reconsider, and resist the attack. I locked my account, my blog, and stayed off Twitter for a week. I then wrote myself a pep talk:

I understand that you’re afraid. That’s human and those attacking you are fearful too. So tell your truth, honestly and clearly. Say what happened, where it took you, what you’ve learned, and where you stand. Because if you can’t stand up against a status quo that so clearly causes trauma for students, if you can’t absorb the invisible anger thrust against you, then you aren’t ready for this fight. You have doubters and critics and maybe even enemies, but your decisions are not for you. Resist the urge to cave in when the anger appears. Resist the pull to comfort. Resist the lull of the status quo.

Although I might regret some part of my impulsive post, it taught me that a genuine commitment to student well being requires active listening to the marginalized, active changes in the status quo, persistence in the face of personal attacks. Reflection, in this case, brought me closer to my own understanding of resistance.

Feeling Parts 20/13 #SOL

Parts and particles

are both individual and collective,

masses separated yet still meaningful to the whole.

Parts and participles

are both description and action,

leavings and leftovers of completed thoughts

still not forming easily.

We

so partly present

so partly absent

like our virtual classes,

gatherings which feel unconnected and scattered.

Yet with intention,

participation is parts joined

that generate a particular clarity,

particles seen clearly through crystal screens,

the spark and sparking light in distant eyes and minds.

I dwell on all the parts of this “pandemic teaching”,

marginalized parts, too important to the whole.

Remote teaching:

the adjective – ambiguous in its modification;

teaching from a distance?

or

teaching that doesn’t touch

the feeling parts.

Capital “H”, Hybrid #SOL2020

This hybrid teaching thing is hard, capital “H”, hard.

I had a sense of the challenges before the school year started, but what I’ve actually experienced and what I’ve actually learned is more than anticipated in ways not anticipated. And, it’s not just technological applications, slides, and jamboards – though they are really helpful if you use them purposely – it’s actually deeper than the platforms. This hybrid model has taken me into a complex state of reflection on the doing and the being of teaching: what am I explicitly and implicitly valuing? How does the material and the mode that I use in the delivery acknowledge the humanity of each student? of me?

Evan Selinger on Twitter: "This sticker should be on every laptop! Thanks @ Autumm & @hypervisible!… "

I now more deeply appreciate the sticker gifted me by Autumm Caines and I occupy more cognitive space in the “why” of teaching these days. Feeling the need for nourishment, I picked up Kevin Gannon’s teaching manifesto and realized what we need in hybrid learning during a quadmester model is “radical hope”, capital “H”, hope.

This has me reflecting more thoughtfully on my use of technology, but I have to be honest; the preparation for the lessons – some in class, and some online at home – is intense. It needs hypervigilance with iterative cycles of focus on purpose and audience. It demands precision in text selection to avoid the default to the status quo. It forces purposeful planning for student collaboration, and an unprecedented level of explicit instructions which are often formatted in different ways for different learners (the Google Classroom wasn’t going to work for her, so I created a Google Doc with steps and links).

Quadmester hybrid learning has given me an extra cognitive load which I am embracing, but which also might explain the persistently bloodshot eyes, the dull ache behind my brow, and the twisted bed sheets from which I unravel myself each morning. I know that UDL will reduce this need, so I double down to keep learning.

And even though I don’t feel that rush of an energetic class discussion with bodies jostling, chatting, and engaging in this combined virtual and distanced space, I’m still hopeful. With each purposeful interweaving of the physical and the virtual, something new reveals itself and the very acts that we are engaging in become food for discussion, critical thought, and reflection. These are meta-moments, and they really are “a moment”, but this requires a shift in thinking. I wonder, “maybe the screen is what forces us back to our humanity”? That’s a strange irony.

It started back in the summer when my equally enthusiastic teacher friends, Amanda, Tobi, and I knew we were going into September with a quadmester hybrid model so we planned the ideas, the timing, imagining the synchronous and asynchronous, using the concepts learned from digital pedagogy sessions with Sean Michael Morris and we embedded a thread of social justice through the grade 12 University English course. We selected concepts such as identity and representation, power and privilege, and we were thrilled with the opportunities for memoir writing with hopes for rich class discussions. Yet, there is the plan and there is the execution in the “classroom”.

I posted all of the learning goals at the beginning of the first quadmester. It didn’t take long for one of the brightest and most vocal of my students to challenge me on this “not English” thread and the need for “classics”, so we booked a virtual meeting after school. I was in my feelings, heart pounding, and not really ready to defend my decisions with thoughtful words. He was animated on screen at his desk and seemed forceful stating that he didn’t “believe social justice is related to English” and asked for “tradition”, the status quo. He accused me of “playing politics in the classroom” and feared I might reduce his marks if his views are not in alignment with mine. I listened carefully, looking away from the screen so I could hear him. I let him talk, feverishly feeling my own emotions simmering and checking them carefully. Without interrupting, at his pause, some words just tumbled out of my mouth. I didn’t prepare them. I didn’t plan any of them. But they were all true.

I said, “But, teaching is a political act. It’s inescapable. Every text that I select is political, every text I exclude, every voice that I amplify is an act that indicates what is valued, what is centred as we learn. We both have choices. We can learn together from the silent voices, because you already know the names of those who are centered and you can choose to learn those on your own.” I paused to see if he was with me.

“I am listening to you right now, and I do take this very seriously. I value your views and only want to add to your growing knowledge of the world by providing other voices, own voices. Nonetheless, my politics in the classroom are not large ‘C’ Conservative, they are not large ‘L’ Liberal. In fact, they are large ‘H’ Human. English is called a Humanities course because it is concerned with the human condition. And so am I.”

I hope I made my point and later in the course thanked him a couple of times pointing out the necessity for troublesome conversations, for the growth that comes from challenging our own thinking. He probably didn’t realize that his brought me closer to mine, but I hope he grew in his sense of self, and others, the need for empathy.

And then I thought, “maybe I needed to spend more time on the human in the capital “H” in Hybrid space.”

Sparkling Light Reflections of Being #SOL2020

Warm silk sand slips through my fingers as my hands dig into the beach on either side of my outstretched legs. I repeat this motion one the sand disappears back into the massive carpet of sparkling light. I am eight years old, unconscious of my round belly folds formed by slouching to view the sun twinkling off the grains like refractions of fire. I am living in my body with the sand and with the earth and I belong here.

Photographs of my heavily freckled face, my flyaway sprawling mass of hair reveal this blind oblivion to self and world as separated lives. I can see the unselfconsciousness in my eyes, but that was about to change irreversibly.

There is one particular day where the shift began and this floats in my memories of days on that same beach. I am wearing a bikini, not quite developed to be the bikinis associated with womanhood, and I decide to go for a quick swim. The sun is high and it is the middle of summer. The beach is crowded with camping families, towels and blankets spread wide and umbrellas to block the glare of sunlight off the pure white sand. Sounds of laughter and chatter and waves fill my ears. My feet burn on the hot sand as I traverse from towel to lake whose water is clear and immediately refreshing. I wade in looking down at the water and eventually feel the waves gently rocking me at the waist, small crashing crests floating around me with bubbles which quickly evapourate.

A waterbound log floats my way and I decide to lean on this limb while riding the rise and fall of the water, the flow guiding me without my control. Something shifts in me and I become acutely aware of this moment. I wonder, “Will I remember this?”. In this sudden shift, I become an observer of my life, a witness to the moment, and I squint at the sandy bottom of the lake. Feet touched down, I then lift one leg over the heavy dark log and feel a sharp scratch across my inner thigh. Pulling away, I raise my thigh and think, “Now I have a scar; my body will carry the memory.”

Step Down #SOL2020

I watch my feet descent the steps of the school hallway on my way out after class; black dimpled mats cover nearly century old steps and appear to be new relative to the structure beneath. They cover what I know is an ancient old school, with Hogwarts-like hallways, twists and turns that no wheelchair could successfully navigate, many flights of stairs built only for the able-bodied. Step down. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of old buildings, preserving structures which has preserved this privilege, and that may be central to what has now become quite public. Step down. The stair coverings are new, the purple paint, the gym equipment, the field, and even much of the furniture is new. But, my mind in this moment of departure, is on my foot falls, is on the steps, and not on the testimonies, the students screaming accusations outside the building. Step down. I am deep inside myself returning to the ways that I begin to know my students, the irreplaceable communication that happens with presence, a breath of a moment. Step down. I wonder to myself if blindness raises this knowing, if presence of the other comes to the sightless mind in a way which vision impedes. Maybe we are looking on the surface too much. Step down.

I reach the landing with yellow taped arrows and blocked off sections of tiled flooring remind me of the “social distancing”. Another wondering invades the movement where I notice nostalgia binding us to a past that we remember, that is comfortable, and a heaviness presses on my chest pushing out breath, not quite physical, but there nonetheless. There is the weight of making high school memorable, of making it about something more than survival. This has been walking with me, unacknowledged tension always hovering at the forefront of my mind like a gnat, barely visible and a reminder of absent presence.

I am carrying my bag, the weight heavy, even with little more than my laptop and mouse. In class today, I noticed the lifeless air in the room, but it wasn’t really the air, it was the mood, reading bodies, in the building, on the screen. Those grade nine students were there, but not there today; many were mentally wandering in some other place, maybe full of nostalgia, maybe full of longing. I tried to lift them, pretended that I didn’t notice and did my best to smile behind the mask, spending time beside them, showing them online material, cautiously selecting every movement, every word, every subtle message that my body might betray my state while navigating a difficult digital world where they really would rather not be.

I reach the 25 foot high oak wooden door at the front of the school, lean in to make it move, and wonder how many have crossed this ancient threshold. Old ways are like old doors; they are hard to move and require some leaning in. Old ways are safe and support the privileged. Another set of stairs greets me before I will make it to the ever changing magnificent maple whose orange and yellow leaves are drifting, are caressing the hood of my car. Step down.

Cataloging and Comprehending

Librarians knit skin with stories, people with pages, and they are keepers and filers and spreaders of words. They have the awesome and demanding task of acquiring, sorting, filing, posting, suggesting, promoting, supporting, along with many other participles; I have felt a kinship with these scientists. They are the hosts to cultural reflection, potential revolutionaries working behind the shelves of coded Dewey decimals sending out secret gossamers of inspiration in typeset and clandesdine reams of revolution in chapters. It seems that some politicians fear the spider-like stealth of the librarian spinning thoughts.

They should. Librarians are socialists; they check out words for free.

This past week, I was taken aback, and thrilled when Beth Lyons, librarian extraordinaire, read my previous blog post on ways of knowing and then posted her centred response (sorry, Doug, but I think it’s interesting). I thought, “I must send words back to her, though mine are never quite centred.”

Now, I wish I’d taken that moment, captured it before evapouration. You know that green feeling which takes you out of the moment of physical existence, that first read of something engaging and something that has your brain spinning and spilling out words in webs of threaded meaning? Well, a gust of something temporal broke that fragile string of response and I’m trying here to reclaim it.

Nevertheless, I’ll do this for now, and hope it will make sense in the way that it did yesterday. I’m always hoping to hold those moments of awe that come from reading. I don’t know whether it’s the words that inspire the awe, or the awe that inspires the words. Maybe its reciprocal, like a chiasmus. (And there’s another amazing word with “chi” or life energy flowing back and forth.) I’ll break the silence of the classroom to share the beautiful words.

I must admit that words stick to me. Some stay. and sometimes I want them to wash away with my morning shower, to let them flow down the soapy drain, but often they persist, staining my skin, pigmenting my perspectives…nevertheless. Take even that word there, “nevertheless“. Where did this strange linguistic formation grow and what perplexed mind constructed this Frankenstein formation of adjective-article-adjective – “never-the-less“?

Yet, I do love “nevertheless”, and, likewise, “unless”. They are words with backpacks of hope, not visible, but present nonetheless. They are a breath of promise with “less” suggesting “more” and I twist myself inside out in noticing that the opposite of “unless” could be “unmore”, which, of course, is less.

Nevertheless, this librarian wrote about “dichotomy” (such an awesome word) and I had just been discussing the dangers of binary thinking with my grade 12 students; we discussed that the typical “either or” response to the complexities of life limits options for conflict resolution, for decision making, and we had been talking about the ability to intellectually hold two contradictory ideas which can both be simultaneously true; they are seeing that paradox is everywhere.

“Hold on to doubt”, I told them. “Doubt is hopeful. That same doubt about your knowing keeps you learning and growing, it checks your understanding in triangles and gives readers and thinkers balanced patterns of support’. But, what do I know?

Now that the moment of some linguistic epiphany passed without expression, I needed more time to send back words to the librarian. But that’s a problem, here. Because, in this, we have “no time”, and we grind forward, pushing the “content”, giving the feedback, ignoring doubt, that possible sense of the alternative, that hopeful possibility in the strength of triangulation. Are we crushing the possibility for divergent pauses, for the play with words that only third-eyed librarian can creatively catalogue and give freely to us now?

Ways of Knowing

This afternoon, I was texting back and forth with Chris Cluff about Robin Wall Kimmerer and the podcast she did with Krista Tippet. I said that we, as a culture, really need to consider Indigenous knowledge, other ways of knowing and that I deeply value the concept of reciprocity as outlined by Dr. Kimmerer. He asked me what I meant about “other ways of knowing”.

I had to step back from the conversation and told him that I would figure out what I meant and get back to him. In this reflection, I realized that this personal interrogation had actually begun earlier in the day. In another threaded discussion on Twitter, just a few hours earlier, with a former student of my high school, I responded to her post connecting to the feelings of a young boy in front of a computer crying. This image, captured by the parent was shared with the teacher to let her know about his online learning experience. His teacher needed to know. Image

This former student replied in the thread sharing the difficulty of remote learning because teaching and learning were happening in the same space – her home. I found that to be interesting because teaching and learning for me are always in the same spaces of my life.

I replied,

For me, the loss was presence. 

Once the physical connections of student presence were severed in favour of digital ones, the learning that I gained by simply existing in the same space, breathing the same air, moving about amidst the myriad of nonverbal cues which we consume each day, vanished. The messages found in presence fell away and I was starved of vital physical and emotional information about my students. As teachers, we become accustomed to reading the body, the eyes, the facial expressions, the kinetic energy and we are negotiating a connection, an understanding in each moment; we are trying to know our students.

And, when you get to know someone really well, you just know without words. Ironically, in the documentary about the making of the movie, The Matrix, Keanu Reeves is asking the Wachowski brothers how Trinity knows that Neo loves her and they keep repeating, “He knows!” with greater and greater emphasis and a deeper bend in the knees with each repetition. Sometimes, my youngest son will, without prompting, be in a room with me and say, “What’s wrong?” He knows in a way that cannot be quantified or proven and didn’t need explicit evidence for him to discern it.

I got back to Chris and said,

I think about it in terms of culturally relevant pedagogy.

I knew this was an easy way out of a complex question. And here I am, hours later still musing on ways of knowing.

Anticipation and Imagination

This morning I searched the etymology of “anticipate” since I, and many other teachers, are well and truly mired in it. I sometimes find comfort in the analysis and deepening in my understanding of a word, its connotations, derivations, and anatomy.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states,

1530s, “to cause to happen sooner,” a back-formation from anticipation, or else from Latin anticipatus, past participle of anticipare “take (care of) ahead of time,” literally “taking into possession beforehand,” from anti, an old form of ante “before” (from PIE root *ant- “front, forehead,” with derivatives meaning “in front of, before”) + capere “to take,” from PIE root *kap- “to grasp.”

Later “prevent or preclude by prior action” (c. 1600) and “be aware of (something) coming at a future time” (1640s). Used in the sense of “expect, look forward to” since 1749, but anticipate has an element of “prepare for, forestall” that, etymologically, should prevent its being used as a synonym for expect. Related: Anticipatedanticipating.

I like the use of anticipation as a form of “taking care” rather than preventing; it is the hopeful sense of the word that I want to feel right now. And even though, there is anxiousness, undeniably, I did experience a sense of lightness return as I prepare a shell of a course, a shell of an evidence record of learning, both which may serve for any English course that any English teacher, including me, might be teaching. It’s liberating in a way, not being confined to one predetermined timetable as our school boards wrestle with the pandemic school plan. This educational freedom to step back from the specific content of the course is forcing me to focus on the much sidelined, more important approaches, more humane ways of building community, creating equity, and bringing social justice to the forefront of everything that I do.

 

Yesterday’s webinar with Dr. Robin Kay on Remote Teaching felt like the pulse of a defibrillator which converted my anxiety to anticipation. The workshop was an experience in meta-teaching; he taught a group of 80+ educators remotely while modelling for us what works and how to pace the content, keep engagement, and differentiate. All my previously scheduled afternoon plans evapourated as I fell into the tech vortex of experimentation trying Perusall, and Edpuzzle, and exploring shared websites from generous participants in the workshop. I returned to my former playful self full of curiosity rather than concern.

This state of not knowing what I’ll be teaching or specifically how I’ll be teaching has also allowed me to employ what Cornelius Minor refers to as”radical imagination”. I am creating a shell which radically imagines social justice, student voice, and a community of inquiry framework. The chaotic part of pandemic teaching has allowed me to break out of the prescribed English teacher’s “do this” list and, instead, forge ahead with ideas that I’ve allowed to be sidelined because they are seen as “woo woo” or “not effective” or “the latest trend” or “not rigorous enough”.

I returned to the online etymology dictionary and typed in “radical”.

late 14c., in a medieval philosophical sense, from Late Latin radicalis “of or having roots,” from Latin radix (genitive radicis) “root” (from PIE root *wrād- “branch, root”). Meaning “going to the origin, essential” is from 1650s. Radical sign in mathematics is from 1680s.

That’s it. The anticipation of teaching that has roots grounded in the individual student experience and identity which is essential to realizing one’s genius. There is a vision that I can anticipate and radically imagine for teaching this year.

Exposure – Day 3 of #digped #VisualDialogues

I’ve been thinking about my identity as part of the Visual Dialogues course that I am taking in the Digital Pedagogy Lab. I couldn’t seem to find anything that represented a “selfie” and some participants began posting “fragments” in photo and hand drawn images. I scrolled through photos on my phone, tried to draw, but couldn’t find nor create anything that I felt represented my “self”. I am also thankful for this day without a Zoom meeting, without a keynote to reflect and gather up the fragments of my identity.

What I didn’t realize is what I would be uncovering or discovering and it has me feeling somewhat off balance or out of focus. Maybe even over-exposed, like some photograph that does not reflect the construction of the mind’s eye, and seeking out fragments to collect into some focused imagining of myself.

But, I need to back up and explain. Several weeks ago, I met, not formally, a young person who (I could see from visual cues) is disabled and who was out walking down my street with a support worker. It was a sunny afternoon and I said hello and offered for them to pet my dog, but the worker dissuaded them, moved them away, so I carried on walking home and said goodbye and maybe next time. The next day, the same young person walked by again, but this time with one who appeared to be a parent , a mother, and when I said hello and waved, they enthusiastically waved back and said hello in a way that said “I remember you!”. But, I could also see the parent’s response – the tell-tale signs in the body language, the half-smile, the retreat, the deflection away, the emotional cloak of invisibility to move the disabled child from the voyeur, the sympathetic stranger. I thought, “she doesn’t know.” Today, the young person walked by again with their support worker, but this time, my own disabled child wearing her seizure helmet was with me on the front porch and the visual cues of her significant disability were clear. The worker smiled this time and joined the young person in an enthusiastic wave and now we were all seeing with greater focus and attention to the background, the history, the knowledge. A few weeks of momentary passing visual discourse brought us to a place of understanding; we were now seeing through a similar lense of experience.

I know that parental response in myself. It made me rethink the visual fragments of my own identity, and while I’ve already written about having a disabled child, it always feels self-indulgent  – I worry that my audience will think that I’m inviting some pity party which I am not. I often avoid the topic because it’s unique and messy and people often think you  are insensitive or hardened. I have also (for me and my other children) tried to write and speak about her disability in a way that validates the many blessings which have come with her life.

But I don’t think I have ever considered enough, or maybe even acknowledged, the intersection of her disability with my own identity until today. I guess the deflection, the cloak of invisibility where one can safely hide the disability at home has been happening all along. I can venture outside of my home into the world of White, able-bodied, cisgendered privilege never truly having to acknowledge this “defective” part of my life. This is now astounding, even to myself, that I could not see this, until I was asked to put a visual lens on my identity.

This is hard and full of exposure. But the hard truth is that my movements through the world are often predicated on her abilities so it makes sense that she forms part of my identity. Much of what I do and my decisions are predicated on sustaining and providing for her. I run and weight train to be strong enough to lift her. I don’t vacation because we cannot get care and her needs are too complex for travel – or maybe that’s what I tell myself because I don’t want the gaze of strangers.

4F8E8B23-3F7B-43C8-9327-FC71D98B405FThese are not restrictions that I lament, but they are with me and part of me and for me to deny this is to deny part of my identity, like the parent who wants to disappear from the watchful gaze of a world that does not understand.

So here are my fragments of self as they intersect with my identity as the parent of a disabled adult child.

I am turning the watchful gaze back on myself and I’m feeling exposed.

Flash

I love when I witness someone. in the midst of deep inner reflection, suddenly and  unselfconsciously bursts out some pithy statement of deep critical thinking and I gasp wide-eyed. I usually ask them to repeat this flash of brilliance, but sometimes, like lightning, it’s gone and the echoes of it fade like some remote untouchable memory.

My son has these flashes every so often while we are having casual conversations. And, he recently lit up my thoughts one evening during our usual post-workday discussion. We were talking about society and people, about social media, and Instagram and the ways it differs from Twitter (I’m still not acclimatized to that platform, but I’m persisting to see if I can find some genuine utility other than reading and reposting). He was explaining how he moves through life differently than his peer group and especially around the use of social media. He often does not have his phone out at social events, because he said that he wants to “be there”. He is a self-proclaimed introvert, and he feels that paying attention to others is important, it’s a sign that you value them. He continued saying,

“I don’t understand it. They must look at their pictures and say, “That was such a good time. I wish I was there.”

I stopped what I was doing and thought about the complexity of this future observation about the absent presence created when technology interfaces with humanity. I wondered if the drive to chronicle one’s in pictures is a reluctance to let life change and to hang on to moments in time as if keeping them saves the pleasure too. I have felt this impulse when my children were young, the dog was a puppy, but I have never felt it in terms of the documentation of self. I am missing from my own photographs, another absent presence behind the lens.

So, here I am, a week after this flash, taking a course in Critical Visual Dialogues through the Digital Pedagogy Lab creating images and discussing the many implications of a visual culture. I read the email posted by Francesca Sobande and Daniel Lynds feeling many years of study and passion coalesce. They wrote that in the course we could consider,

  • Creative approaches to designing assessments and incorporating critical visual dialogues
  • How to encourage and help students to develop critical media and digital literacy skills with a focus on visual culture
  • Addressing issues related to racism and intersecting oppressions, including by critically considering how the visuals in learning and teaching environments can perpetuate harmful power dynamics
  • Critically reflecting on issues related to power and privilege in relation to marketing representations and graphic design
  • Exploring and experimenting with video/visual essays

English, Media Studies, equity, antiracism: these once separate concerns merged in a flash and the weight of learning lessened, lifted by some invisible force of connection and interconnectedness.

Briefly Deep and Meaningful

I read some short pieces of writing by Ross Gay, Chris Cluff, and Elizabeth Acevedo; their voices are still with me now and while what I have read by each author is but a brief glimpse into the human experience, the words are so deep that I need space and time to hold and understand their meaningfulness.

In many ways, this has been the case with lines from Shakespeare which cling to me like summer’s sweat, or poems whose rhymes continue to shift in depth and breadth under my skin. I’ve been thinking about some of the deep and meaningful lessons of identity and what we willingly select as “core texts” in the classroom, and I’m looking for ones which convey a range of emotions and ones that represent rich identities, ones other than my own. These three were appetizers to a massive feast of thought and reflection this week.

Chris Cluff posted this image of visual-verbal prose-poetry. I love how his posts defy classification in form and content. He leaves you with thoughts unconfirmed, in a state of wonder. Yet, it seems to me that the brevity of Twitter may obscure these potential morsels of richness. I thought deeply about the meaning of “white noise”, how sometimes these poetic pauses encapsulate such an enigmatic range of ideas. I cannot say for sure what he intended here, but I thought about this brief post for a long time reading it through the lens of my own experience.

And then a post by Vicky Mochama led me to an episode of the podcast, Code Switch, called “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma”. The hosts of the episode discuss the dilemma of pausing to explain something that a White audience might not understand that a BIPOC audience typically does understand. They debated the need to provide the brief explanatory pause as it “speaks to who is valued or centred in the conversation”. The problem is that White supremacy is at play here and Black culture or Brown culture or othered cultures which have all sorts of references known internally need to provide explanations for White people to understand. They make is clear that they don’t really mean “all White people” but that “White people is slang” for what we are all being force fed by the overarching whiteness where “everything is filtered through a white lens” from history to English to Science. They want to reach an audience, a wide audience, but the “double-consciousness” is revealed in the pause.

This got me thinking about the often stated rationale for teaching Shakespeare as students will “need to understand” the many cultural references to the Bard, there would be no need for the explanatory comma, or that his plays contain “universal themes” which defy cultural classification. I had once felt this, but now I wonder what “everybody should know” and what double-consciousness for a White person might feel like. I’m not sure that I know enough about this, yet.

I am having a hard time with sustained reading and writing these days, and it appears from Twitter, that I’m not alone. Maybe the unsustained reading is really just sustained thinking. Maybe what is brief requires time and space and sustained thought to develop into something meaningful. I hope so.

 

Of Lexical Doubt

Destreaming conversations hover in my social media feed, on the lips of friends, and in the emails from colleagues. I’m pleased to see these conversations about equity, yet like many complex problems in education, it creates a summer tension in me.

This stalking presence of educating myself, of preparing for what may come propels me to continual thought, extensive reading, and intensive planning which can be a wonderful way to spend time, as well as an infinitely infuriating self imposed overload which then results in the recognition of overgrowth and the need to cull. My garden becomes the living metaphor of my summer education. But the ground is rich and so I till it every summer full of doubt about the end products.

Moments of the day are interspersed with reading and I experienced one of unusual joy this morning while reading Ross Gay’s essay, “But Maybe…” from The Book of Delights. I was between family tasks, taking every waking moment to attempt to fulfil my curated list of required reading for next year. Standing with the book cracked open, glancing down and slowly breathing in the words, I smiled truly embracing this window into the complexity of communication.

And then I read his essay “The Joy of Caring for Others” and my knees buckled in a moment of awe.

..she told me she was on her way to drop off some masks she’d made for her nephew, who’s about my age, at the jail.

“Here’s an extra,” she said, holding a mask out the window, where it dangled from her finger. It was pretty, kind of floral and quilt-y, and homemade as hell. I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time — both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close), making that by-now-familiar I-hope-we-are-not-infecting-each-other face.

Just that parenthetical aside had me reeling with such depth contained in this lexical observation. Sometimes these obtuse observations challenge the status quo and remind us that words are just inert symbolic representations of lived experiences. They don’t replace it. In fact, I thought about the language of “destreaming” which is metaphorical and the complexities of those conversations filled me with doubt. Not about the inherent benefits of destreaming, but about the meaning of it, of “expectations” and “equity” and of the necessary disruption that will ensue.

Glancing back over this, I notice the titles: “But, Maybe…The Joy of Caring for Others” and think that as I traverse these rocky waters of destreaming, maybe I can remember that the lexicon doesn’t matter as much as my joy in caring for others.