Holding #SOL2021

I started this Tuesday and didn’t finish on time. I’m posting it late and hope you will not deduct marks.

This is the last Tuesday of 2021 – the last Slice of Life for 2021. This is the place I’ve chosen to write and think about holding what I’ve learned as 2021 becomes 2022.

But, I am still in the muck of the school year, and I’m not sure how to unearth it.

I was listening to Elizabeth Lesser this morning as she discussed her path to mysticism, the discovery that mystery is essentially the spirit of everything. This comforting thought crumbled as I began this final piece of writing intended to be something worth holding. I’d like to be writing with the creative abandon which comes though living the mystery, but I’m not – not in this moment, or this week. Lesser says that she uses writing to figure out what she thinks. I will try to do the same here. Because it’s time for me to hold and release – both actions necessary as one year gives way to another.

A glancing memory from my post graduation job visited me. At the time, I was working for a government agency and office talk was critical, sarcastic, and condescending about many of the clients we served. As painful as this thought is now, I must claim my part despite being somewhat silently alarmed and privately discouraged. I did not, at that time, believe that I could influence or change that culture. Now, many years later, the complexities of school culture and the ways that these differ from place to place fascinate me. I will no longer hold the belief that school culture is something apart from me; instead, I am a part and have a role.

But, maybe this role, or this way of holding myself accountable is what changes for me in 2022. I bought myself Kristin Neff’s latest book, Fierce Self-Compassion: how women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. I am digging through it slowly allowing space to sift and sort ideas waiting for transformation. But, I know it often doesn’t work this way, so instead I’ll keep digging for the practices and actions worth holding.

It wasn’t until Thursday morning when this metaphor of “holding” returned. In the morning, my mother and I exchanged a few texts. I shared concerns about the return to school plans, the fact that one of my students tested positive for COVID before the break, and I had to get tested, and then had to wait through a week of anxiety-filled fear of infecting my daughter who is disabled, and fear of infecting my 96-year-old father who just recovered from pneumonia, and evidently there is a public push for in person teaching – in four days. She said, “I feel like the government will change in June”. I said, “ I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for two and a half years.”

I’d already been thinking about some beautiful lines from “Holding Back the Years” and an article about the singer, Mick Hucknall, who was abandoned by his mother as a child. The song pays homage to that memory. “Yes”, I thought and wondered what memories from teaching I can hold. Then, “Oh no. If I’m holding my breath, have I actually abandoned myself. Damn. Maybe that’s it.”

Valarie Kaur

Valerie Kaur says that “Healing is the long journey of returning to one’s body.” In this interview she shares the Sikh wisdom of the sage-warrior; the warrior who fights and the sage who loves – she asks, “How do we hold both?”

Kaur grabs my imagination with her birthing metaphor and the mystery returns. The midwife says, “push and breathe”. There is a surrender in the breath, a giving in to being here now, and being enraptured by it; then in taking a deep breath and rolling up our sleeves to do the work, to ask “what is my role to make the world a more just place for us all”?

That is all I can hold for now; breathe and push into 2022.


Disruption’s Feedback

I feel like my life is at the vortex of one massive and monumental disruption. School was disrupted by COVID19. White privilege is being disrupted by the undeniable Anti Black and Anti Indigenous racism, governments are disrupting laws by making attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, and ejecting members of parliament for calling someone “racist”. Policing is being disrupted, institutions are being disrupted. And, if reports are to be believed, nature is restoring in places where we are not. This disruption is feedback if we listen and reflect.

I wonder if increasing rates of anxiety might be “the canary in the coal mine”. We all know that emotions are a form of feedback which, depending upon our response, can improve our performance. But I also wonder if we’ve been ignoring some of the most important messages. Maybe if we thought of the community body, we might be more concerned about the anxiety of others and probe a bit further rather than medicating or numbing it away.

I’ve been working on intentionally listening to myself and I find it interesting to consider the ways that  making a podcast has forced me to take in the sound of my own voice, to confront the expression of my own words, my own thoughts which evolve and change. I have to face the permanence of words found in the recording, even when the words connected to the thoughts have dislodged and changed in me. I also have to accept my errors, publicly. It is a humbling way to approach change, but it feels necessary.

Whenever Amanda and I record an episode of Just Conversations, I’m torn about publishing it, especially now, as I’m working to decentre the White voice in my classroom. My hesitations are sometimes about my own sense of public humiliation for screwing up, but I also know that there is a difference between fear of something tangible happening to me, and the discomfort of personal failure; the risk is only perceived and not real and the only thing my silence does is uphold the inequities that I am struggling to challenge. I keep reminding myself, “I am the White liberal voice of education that is so dangerous to BIPOC students” and I’m in a fight to disrupt myself.

Just the other day, we talked and recorded our voices and as we explained our long silence, our conversation helped us articulate our purpose. We’ve been on this vulnerable journey striving for equity, but we realize that our podcast is actually better suited to White educators who are also wrestling with this work. In conversations about justice and equity, we realize our privilege, recognize our role, and refined our purpose. This helped us find better words, better thoughts.

I’ve been feeling another tension with speaking and listening in this current model of distance learning. Each week I move about the house, trying to find a space that is, in that moment, quiet enough for a Google Meet, yet free from the backdrop of my bedroom bathroom or other distractions of my small house. This quiet location migrates depending on my family members, outdoor construction, the wind. On screen in a confined and curated space, I welcome students saying their names as they enter the virtual classroom, cameras off, microphones muted. This quiet space of my home is reflected in the quiet space online. I stare at a screen of letters speaking as warmly as I can in some feeble attempt to connect, asking questions which they respond to in text form, in the chat function, quietly avoiding drawing attention to their own voices. They avoid being heard and I feel like I’m acting rather than teaching, holding up some charade of synchronous teaching. I know their voices are missing from these conversations and every attempt on my part feels inadequate, but I ignore my own feelings .

During our weekly English department lunch meeting, my colleague cried about the silence of virtual classes and I nearly joined her in the acknowledgement of this struggle, this disruption to our connected lives in education. And though there were tears, our conversations helped us make decisions to change our predominantly White book list. We collectively talked about our roles in upholding a racist system and this disruption begins to feel important and meaningful. We also commit to talking and learning more about a blended learning model; we know we need to ask the students what worked and what didn’t. This disruption of the school year is creating real movement in our profession and forcing us to get feedback from the students.

I am now seeing comfort as a luxury that is the norm for the privileged, but growth, progress, equity, and justice can only be achieved if we listen and reflect so we can respond to disruption’s feedback.





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.

Coherence and Adherence – 13/31 #SOL20

High School English teachers interested in writing talk a lot about coherence. A quick search of coherence in the visual thesaurus visuwords reveals synonyms like “logical, fluid, understandable”. While, adherence brings up words like “stick, bond, bind”. I find this funny, sort of, but not really, because on the one hand we ask students to ensure their writing has flow while on the other demanding prescribed form. I guess that’s why I enjoyed John Warner’s book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. 

I’ve been trying to kill it for several years now, but realized that you can’t kill a behemoth alone. I need colleagues to help me slay this lifeless beast. Students often learn early to fear the dreaded essay and allow their thoughts on literature to be ruled by tyrants of form while not really understanding the liberation of function. They write with fill-in-the-blank formulas and check box thinking. So, when I ask them to let the ideas guide their structure, it’s understandable that they stare blankly at me. Coherence?

These contrasting ideas of coherence and adherence floated into me today during a brief conversation with my principal about an article on equity. She was sharing her thoughts about Gorski’s conclusion that students of colour are often found in “lower track” courses where they have less access to engaging content and more exposure to “control-oriented practices”. (Gorski, Paul. “Avoiding Racial Detours”, Educational Leadership, Apr. 2019, pp. 56-61) We stared at one another in a moment of shared despair and drive. Adherence?

And of course, adherence to models can produce measureable results, while coherence allows for flexibililty in the name of understanding and comprehension. I realize that I might be stretching the meaning of these words or excessively extending the metaphorical application to matters as complex as racial inequities in education.

But, then again, maybe not. Maybe, like writing, life is the place where we wrestle with ourselves to figure out the fluidity and coherence to come to a new understanding. Maybe, like writing, we need to focus on the ideas of equity to allow for coherence because adherence to one way means we forget the function of education.