Slow dancing #SOL2022 1/31

“It’s a long way down.”

The lyrics are projected on the screen at the front of the class, the music of One Direction pounding and vibrating the subwoofer of my speakers. This song is for slow dancing. As a media studies teacher, I know that quality sound is vital to create an effect, to engage the students in the feeling parts of literary comprehension.

I ask them to think about the title of Jason Reynold’s book of the same name. We are reading together as we listen to the author’s narrated audiobook.

“What might this mean to be a ‘long way down’?” I ask them to write in their journals. Some do, some draw, and others scroll social media – they are not ready to be here emotionally or cognitively, but they brought themselves to this classroom, so I decide to breathe patiently and wait for them accept my invitation to dance. I decide that I am making progress if they are here physically on a Monday morning, first period in February 2022.

We talk a bit about the metaphorical references to “up” and “down”, the emotional connection and then build from the song lyrics.

“It’s about love.”

I venture an attempt to continue the thinking moving towards the novel gently. “What about in the novel title, Long Way Down?”

“He loved his brother, Shawn.”

“And, he’s going down the elevator.”

“But, it’s only seven floors. I don’t get it.”

The conversation moves a few steps toward, then away, and this was enough for today. Because I’m struggling too. Some days I focus on a couple of students, other days I shift my gaze and try to create a warm space for them just to be safe. To be together. And I constantly question if this is the right way to dance.

Today, he is different. Not in how he shows up physically, fully dressed in a puffer coat with the hood up, a balaclava covering everything except his eyes. We are five weeks into the semester and I realize that I do not know the colour of his hair. Until today, he has followed and written and shared his writing with me. But now, he stays on his phone and nothing that I offer shifts his attention; not the music videos, not the Black History Month video, not the audiobook, not the discussion.

I ask her to open her book and she obliges. I ask another to shift his focus from drawing to following the words on the page of the novel. But, he is showing up differently today, and my dance steps are never sure, never the same, always improvisational, and today, I am slow dancing.

Doubting and Dreaming #SOL2022

My mind is full of doubt and dreams on these first few days after the winter holiday. For several reasons, not the least of which is that we just found out we’ll be teaching online tomorrow for at least two weeks. (That’s more of a nightmare than a dream, but I’m choosing my perspective intentionally here). While I am doubting my abilities, I am dreaming about the possibilities for destreamed English classes which focus on a love of reading and writing, which inspire students to reach and risk and never fear feedback.

I have to doubt. Rather than self-flagellate or call this imposter syndrome, I embrace my self doubt. In fact, I often tell my senior students that doubt can be our superpower; it makes us curious and continually considering other perspectives, moving towards something better, brighter. I doubt myself because this drives my learning and revision. I am not happy with the status quo and never sure that I have the answers, so I learn from others whose visions broaden mine.

I have to dream, because students are depending on us – the teachers in front of them – and those stakes are too high for me to look away or lay blame elsewhere. My dreams are not beautiful and shiny and perfect. They are not encapsulated in a quote, but they are aspirational ones filled with the joy of holding hope despite the mess, the deficits, and failures of leadership or systems or governments. I returned to the words of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto by Kevin Gannon,

Our advocacy of a better future…depends on praxis. Hope is aspirational, but also depends on agency. For our students to see themselves as active, empowered learners…they need to work within learning spaces that cultivate that understanding…The real work of change…is done student by student, classroom by classroom, course by course, and it’s done by educators who have committed to teaching because it and their students matter. (152)

On Thursday of this week, I have the gift of participating in a panel discussion called “Doubting Destreaming” organized by The Mentoree. This VoicEd Radio podcast includes a group of preservice teachers in the Faculty of Education who will share questions with Jason To, Usha Kelley Maharaj, Siobhan McComb, and me as we explore the many implications for destreamed classes in the junior grades of high school. And, despite the doubts, later on this month I’ll get to dream with a small group of educators in a three session workshop model which aims to shift a classroom practice.

Shifting really feels like the right word in light of Gannon’s wisdom on change in education. It is part adjective and part verb describing a movement. And dreaming also feels like the right word because this opens me to possibilities not yet achieved, some consequence of movement. And, because doubt continues to be a part of my patterns of thinking, I am unsure that I’ll be able to generate a shift in these conversations and workshops, but I have to try. Because this is my praxis.

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.

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.

Lifting weights #SOL2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Nurturing Guilt

I wanted to keep some of this private, but I’ve realized that guilt needs some nurturing for it to be a productive force. And, I have to admit that guilt has its face in much of my life’s business; white guilt, colonial guilt, childhood guilt, sibling guilt, parental guilt, teacher guilt. Yet, despite my hesitation to speak or write about this, I know that guilt unacknowledged or untended grows like weeds choking up the host leaving no room for other forms of life. It’s like those few extra pounds around my hips that I can ignore if I never observe myself from behind. Some things need to be acknowledged, others can be hidden with the right clothes.

So here is part of the story.

A long time ago, I sought therapy to help me manage the stark reality of having a severely disabled child. I was convinced that my actions during pregnancy had caused my daughter’s seizure disorder and impending very dependent life. I was responsible for this mess, but now someone else, someone innocent, had to share the cost with me.

During one of our hour-long sessions, I seemed to have a moment of clarity in which I saw all the guilt that I had carried forward from my mother, letting it weigh me down as I willfully ignored the burden, and I could see myself passing this on into the future to my three children. I couldn’t let this happen, so I asked Dr Boulais for parenting advice and he was succinct; “I tell everyone the same thing. Deal with your own shit.”

Now, twenty-five years later, I have realized the many benefits of having to care for my disabled child, given up the selfish notion that it was my fault, and what seemed to be irreconcilable has been reconciled for me. I feel like this is cause for hope as I face the truth of my white privilege, the truth of our colonized curriculum, and the lack of diversity in the buildings in which I teach.

Although I have shed some of the childhood, sibling, and parental guilt, I have to admit that I do feel guilty for Canada’s role in harming our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. I do feel guilty for the residential schools, I do feel guilty for the reserves, and the lack of clean drinking water at Attawapiskat, a national disgrace.

But that guilt needs tending, it needs some action, so as these summer days shorten and new ground is about to be broken with Indigenous Studies in grade 11 English at my school, I am going to nurture that guilt. I am going to deal with my own shit. I am going to raise up and celebrate our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, and I am going to need some help if I am going to become an ally. The seeds of guilt can grow when exposed to the truth and when nurtured out in the open.