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Resting in Effort #SOL2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Poetry and Music of Lesson Study

During this March break, I started thinking about my role as an Instructional Coach and wondering about the conceptual metaphor I chose (bridge) to frame my work this year. I’m asking myself some big questions about some recent lesson studies in local schools.

How do I authentically reflect on the journey of learning bridging understanding among the participants?

How can I be present in the moment of instruction, both acting and observing, while trying to capture all that happens on the path to understanding?

During my morning run, I listened to an On Being podcast with Joe Henry who talks about his daughter who is currently in her senior year of high school. He notes that in Grade 12  “everything is about later as opposed to having an experience and giving that value” now. He says that all experience becomes a checklist of actions to be completed. Joe Henry writes poetry and music; he understands the unknowable act of living, but still attempts to explain it.

In my role as a coach, I meet Administration and teachers in the middle, as co-learners, and  I try to focus my work on the facilitation of lesson study. It is rewarding work that takes time, energy, and commitment on the part of everyone involved; everyone’s voice and observations must be valued. I have to let go of what I plan to allow the poetry and music to happen.

Yet, I’ve heard and observed much hesitation, much reluctance to participate in lesson study. It is messy and can feel uncomfortable. Teachers might feel a loss of control, or perhaps reluctance to participate is based in fear – perhaps if we try to understand too hard how it is working, we stop understanding the mystery of why it is working.

I also know there are many legitimate defenses against lesson study – the amount of time out of the classroom is significant. However, even in my limited experience with the process, lesson study has been pivotal in changing my professional practice and I’ve seen the same transformation in others; lesson study has shown me the tremendous value of observations.


When a lesson study is done with a focus on objective observations of student behavior, participants gain insights from a shared experience. It is a powerful process of cooperation and collaboration.

At a local high school, I had the opportunity to observe two lessons with a focus on reading strategies. The lessons had a common article, but one lesson was in a Learning Strategies class, while the other was in a Science class.

In both lessons, students worked together to make meaning and write responses to questions based upon the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test.



In the debrief, one fragment of observation provided some insight into the struggle of one student; in both lessons, the student struggled with vocabulary words. “sow” was misunderstood as “cow” and the student had no understanding of the word “aviation”. This momentary observation connected all five teachers in understanding the student; it was a bridge shared.

The challenge of lesson study is observing without inferring. It can be difficult to find the right balance between general and specific observations. It often feels more like art than science, more like listening to poetry or music – part of it is completely unknowable.

But it doesn’t mean that we don’t listen and we don’t observe, because there is something invaluable to be gained. We might not be able to measure and graph it. We might not be able to understand it the first time through, but the poetry and music of lesson study is in the process.

In fact, I believe the power of lesson study is the shared authority of our observations; the bridge where weight bearing is a shared endeavor. We are equals struggling to build a bridge of understanding through observing their learning.

Negotiating New Year’s Day Reflections with poetic "Possibilities"

New Year’s Eve is the night where we celebrate on the precipice between past and future. It is a time to reflect and prepare for a meaningful year, so I decide this morning that I will reflect and think about possibilities.

I woke up to the CBC radio show, The Current, with Sherry Turkle. I’ve used her Ted Talk, Connected but Alone, with students and we usually have some really interesting discussions about the use of cell phones in our social lives. Students readily admit to an addiction. But some of Turkle’s statements in this radio interview made me wonder.

Now, I know that she is a well educated scholar who has done extensive research on this topic, but my own personal experiences with my teen aged children and my own students make me wonder about some of her claims. To begin with, both my boys, much like me, dislike talking on the phone for anything other than purely pragmatic purposes, yet we are lovers of radio and podcasts. When communicating with family, we prefer face to face interactions, or the next best thing, the written word. We enjoy long conversations at the dinner table, in the car, or on walks with the dog. Both sons write long text messages in complete sentences and tell me that they care about word choice and punctuation, knowing how imprecise diction and punctuation can skew a message. These are young people who have grown up with computers and cell phones. On the other hand, my over 60 husband frequently sends out messages, sans punctuation, which leave me frothing at the mouth in frustration as I try to figure out his possible meaning.

Another idea raised by Turkle bothered me. She talked about students exhibiting a decline in empathy, yet I see students involved, concerned for the planet, for refugees, for social justice. In Canada, we elected a young Prime Minister whose philosophies of inclusion and social justice are humanitarian and grounded in empathy. She said that the markers of empathy in children have declined in the past ten years.

Yet, I was reminded of a British documentary series which followed the lives of school children as a sociological experiment. The series recorded observations and interviews with the children every seven years starting in 1964.

In the first series of the documentary, 7 Up, young British children are seen throwing rocks at a Polar Bear in the zoo, and at the 7 minute mark of the video, the audience witnesses two young school boys having a full on fist fight in the school yard while others carry on playing, and a teacher is slow to respond. In interviews, the children say that they are “concerned for the poor”. I wondered if there is a gap between the action and the word.

And as I scrolled through my Twitter feed over coffee, this Upworthy video called Cyber Seniors appeared. I open the video file and watched this with my husband:

There is a Senior’s residence right beside my son’s high school, so I’ve resolved to bring this idea to the school Administration. What a wonderful way for students to contribute to the community, to learn about patience, and teaching someone else is always the best way to learn.

This idea that New Year’s Eve gives me time to reflect upon the past and prepare for 2016 requires that I step outside of my own experience and reflect. With or without technological connection, I must do this. Language, whether spoken, or written, always mediates between the lived and the shared experience. I do think Sherry Turkle’s message is important; we are connected but alone. But, technology can document our experience and allow us to emotionally, if not physically, connect and hopefully, empathize. Technology is full of possibilities, if we choose.

As with anything new, time must pass, observations must be made, and reflections on the purpose and meaning must be drawn. And where there are gaps, whether they be economic, academic, or otherwise, the reflective empathetic person is called to action, called to possibilities.

May your year be full of possibilities and poetry. 
https://soundcloud.com/brainpicker/amanda-palmer-reads-possibilities-by-wislawa-szymborska