February

We lay on the back deck, soaking in the sunshine. Never mind that it is mid-February and that there is snow at the other end of the deck, today is sunny and the deck, sheltered from the wind, is briefly warm. When Andre invited me to do this, I thought he was crazy, but it turns out, he was right.

February is not always my best month. I often find it too cold, too snowy, too gray. I miss the way summer days are easy: how I can go out without searching for my jacket and boots, hop in the car without clearing the windshield, or walk on the sidewalk without looking for ice. But this February, I adopted the word “deliberate” and I like to think that it has made a little bit of a difference.

To deliberate is to think about or discuss issues and decisions carefully; to be deliberate is to be slow, unhurried, and steady as though allowing time for decision on each individual action involved. Something deliberate is characterized by careful and thorough consideration. This February I’ve focused on discussing issues carefully with colleagues – which books should we be teaching? whose voices do our students need to hear? – and I’ve tried to slow down, especially in my teaching. With only four-ish weeks to teach a course and only around 10 days face-to-face with the students, I can find myself in a bit of a rush. We started our third quadmester on February first, and I already felt the urge to rush: there is so much I want them to know, so much they would love to learn. Instead, I’ve been focused on staying unhurried, not adding to the stress that piles up around us like February’s snow. I’ve been trying to be deliberate.

I’m also reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, sometimes listening to the audiobook where her gentle voice soothes me, sometimes reading the paper version of the book where I marvel at her sentences. If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Here is a vision of a deliberate life; not a life of no action, but rather one of thoughtful steps through the world we inhabit. Each essay calls me to think and rethink my own journey. This morning, I startled when I realized that she had spent twelve years cleaning up a pond on her property. Twelve years! I went back to listen to that part again. I, too, can work slowly and deliberately towards my goals.

Now February – so much shorter than any other month – is moving towards a close. Next month’s word will be publish as I move into Two Writing Teachers March Slice of Life challenge; I know there will be days when I will rush forward without time to think. Before that, however, I have five more days of deliberate and, if I’m lucky, maybe one more day remembering how, at its best, February brings blue skies that hang impossibly high and deep above me as I lay next to my loved one on boards warmed by a sun whose strength is in its consistency.

The little plow

About halfway through my drive to work, I caught myself letting my car drift gently from one lane into the other without signalling. Bad habit, I thought. The windshield wipers swished across the glass in front of me, temporarily clearing the melted snow. I signalled belatedly.

As I approached each stoplight, I pumped the brakes, aware of how long it might take me to slow down. I turned the corners with care. I noticed how much easier it was to drive in someone else’s tracks, and how I felt briefly out of control when I tried to drive in a different lane.

I’m an English teacher and a writer: I was already developing a somewhat ham-handed metaphor as I drove – carefully – through the snow. Snow driving and this school year – snow driving and hybrid learning – snow driving and equity work… I shaped the metaphor in one part of my brain even though most of my brain was occupied with getting me to school safely.

Then I saw the truck. A semi, big for the downtown streets, was paused at the corner ahead of me. Wait. Not paused; it was stuck. Or… not quite stuck, but not far from it. I was driving slowly, and now I slowed even more. As I came to a stop a good ways back, a little orange sidewalk plow skittered off the sidewalk and across the street. The driver waved and placed his little plow between two lanes of traffic and the truck, creating a nice gap to let the big rig maneuver. The semi backed up and tried again to move forward. Nothing. The plow driver waved to us again, then turned his bright orange machine so the plow was forward, ran up behind the truck and pushed. I almost laughed at the earnest effort of the little plow coming to the aid of the giant truck. We were rooting for them – and not only because we’d now missed two light cycles. Still, no luck.

Now the little plow backed up, hesitated, then scooted up alongside the truck’s cab. The plow driver gestured, and the truck’s reverse lights lit up again. I’d almost swear that little plow did a joyful little skip as it wiggled in front of the truck and started clearing the offending corner.

Safe now, I drove slowly forward, a line of cars following behind me in a gentle curve around the area – just enough to make sure the truck and its plow had lots of space – and towards the signal twenty feet in front of us. The light turned green right when I got there, but a glance in my rearview mirror showed that little orange plow up on the sidewalk again, spinning around, as the now-freed truck pulled onto the main street.

Who needs a heavy-handed metaphor when a little orange sidewalk plow comes to rescue a truck?

Image result for ottawa sidewalk snow removal
This isn’t the plow, but it could have been.
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I threw them out

Our school board moved from fully online teaching to hybrid in-person when February began. No transition day, no time to clear out the classrooms we had been teaching in when Winter Break began and online learning was abruptly declared. No time to move textbooks, supplies or decorations into our new classrooms. Friday we were at home teaching one set of classes; Monday we were teaching new classes in a new semester and often in new rooms. Less than ideal.

I have a prep period right now, so I’m trying to help clear out some of the classrooms that aren’t occupied this week. This gets a little complicated because teachers can’t go into classrooms with students who aren’t theirs, but there’s still plenty that can be done. For example, today I went into my old old classroom (from two terms ago) and found that my now sad-looking displays of student work were wilting off the bulletin boards. As I started to pull them down, one pushpin at a time, I spied a stack of shiny objects tucked into the corner of a shelf. Books! From a distance, I couldn’t tell which ones.

Ever willing to be distracted from a dull task, I cupped the sharp tacks in my hand and ambled over to see what people had been reading, but my heart was already sinking: these books were not appealing to readers. At some point in their lives, these poor novels had been denuded of their original covers and reclothed with paper, laminated, folded and glued on after someone used a thick marker to scrawl the title – but not the author’s name – across the front. Now the cheap covers clung somewhat desperately to the books’ spines creaking open to reveal torn, yellowed pages full of tiny print. I flipped sadly through one of the books and realized that a teacher had handed these out as a class novel last quadmester.

I’ve written several pages of unpublishable material about the infuriating task of trying to update a book room with no budget, but despite my frustration, our school is in no way left with only books whose very appearance actively repels readers. Teachers are not required to choose novels whose presentation tells students that their reading lives are not valued. We have better books than this. My initial curiosity about the books in the corner was rapidly shifting.

We have better books than this. What we don’t have right now are better books that require little prep by teachers because they have been taught off and on for 50+ years. No, wait. Even that is not true: Our bookroom houses many old “classics” that are in much better shape than this. We are trying to update our reading lists to better reflect our diverse student population, but we are far from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have plenty of books that would have honoured our young readers by showing them that they deserve books that still feel alive.

I stood there for a minute, laminated book slick in one hand, sharp tacks gently pricking the other. I loved this novel when I was in high school, but I am nearly 50 and so, I suspect, are these books. The world has changed beyond what the author would have recognized; it may have changed into what he feared. Still, few readers are hooked by books so old they are barely hanging together. Will we have enough money to replace these books? Will we choose to replace this title if we do have money? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I do know that we have to show our students that their intellectual life matters to us. These books didn’t do that. I threw them out.

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A Mile In Whose Shoes?

This afternoon, I walked a mile around the kitchen island. I was on the phone with a student, having a one-on-one discussion after a tough “public” discussion at the end of class. I wanted to really listen to the student, to hear the thoughts behind their words, because I had the sense that I was missing their deeper truth.

During those last minutes of class, I heard this young person complaining about “too much emphasis” on “Black issues” and “victims” in our English class. I heard their desire to stop talking about Black Lives Matter and to get politics out of the classroom. I heard this, but I had trouble hearing these things. Their concerns were hard for me.

As we talked – me with my camera on, the student with their camera off; me in my house, the student in theirs; each of us deeply and personally involved – other students came back into the main room and started listening. People stayed long after class had officially ended. This conversation mattered.

What does a teacher do when a student is questioning her? More importantly for this blog, what do I do? I was trying to listen, but I was aware that I was feeling defensive. Online teaching is exhausting. Online teaching when I had planned to be face-to-face is worse. Online teaching that I wasn’t expecting that is offered a different number of hours and days than I had planned for is nearly killing me. I am doing the best that I can, and it’s pretty good, but even pretty good is taking every bit of me. I believe that my students should ask me hard questions about what and how I teach, but I realized that it’s hard for me to listen well when I am tamping down emotions.

My students this term are largely 17 or 18 years old. They are thoughtful and well-spoken. They are reflective and desire to do good things in the world. Most of them are reasonably well-versed in current events. Ten days ago, we spent the full class period discussing the attack on the US Capitol. It was easy for my students to condemn the attack, but I was left wondering how many truly understood that the problem wasn’t solely with the individual people who attacked but also with the rhetoric that brought them to that point. If we believe that rhetoric and systems were the problem in addition to individuals, then we have to acknowledge that we, too, might fall prey to ill-considered ideas.

At any rate, as our class was ending today, the student who was questioning our studies was struggling for words. I know them to be an excellent student, an deep reader, an eloquent writer. I know they hold strong religious beliefs and they feel somewhat isolated from peers for that reason. I tried to keep all of this in my heart as I listened, but I struggled. How do I listen deeply to this student and honour others who are listening, some of whom have experienced racism first-hand?

I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and its lessons for leading meaningful race conversations in the classroom. I thought about holding space and about helping white people recognize their own racialized existence. I knew I needed to be clear about what is fact and what is my opinion; I knew I needed to be humble; I knew I needed to be involved.

But y’all, I was tired. 20 minutes after class had officially ended, after what had stretched into two hours and fifteen minutes (yikes), I called it – I ended the discussion and closed the room. Had I been even-handed? Had I prevented others from casting one student as the villain? Had I heard the student’s beliefs? Had I been forthright in my own beliefs? I wasn’t sure.

And then the student’s parent called.

Before I called back, I ate some lunch and talked to a wonderful colleague who helped me find some words and work through some reactions. When I called I was able to speak honestly. The parent was curious, I was clear; I am not sure that we came to agreement, but we certainly were not at odds. I suggested that I could speak to the child at the end of the school day.

The student and I spoke for a long time. I walked. And I listened. I listened to understand, not respond. I sat in my discomfort. I asked, curious, “Can you explain what you mean?” and “Can you tell me more?” My student, ever interested in learning, asked me similar questions, trying to understand what I meant. I am not sure yet that I know the students’ deeper concerns, but I am closer, just as they are closer to articulating their thinking. I suspect there may be more uncomfortable conversations. And that’s ok. Because learning is about asking and thinking, asking and thinking. As long as the dialogue continues, we are learning.

Later, another colleague checked in. She offered some sage advice: it’s ok to tell your class that you need time to think about how to respond to this. It’s ok to go back and tell them your “why” again. I suspect I will do both of these things tomorrow. I will remind them that reading text – any text – critically may leave us with unanswered questions, and that’s ok, too.

Hmmm.

I can’t say I walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, but I can say I walked a mile in mine. I walked and I walked around the kitchen island, listening, speaking and reflecting. This, I think, is the work of anti-racism. This, I think, is the work of learning. This, I think, is the work.

Ask

It’s January, so lots of people – or at least lots of teachers – or at least lots of teachers I know – are considering their One Little Word for the year. The idea here is that we choose one word as a focus for the year – kind of like a New Year’s Resolution.

For the past two years, my word has been listen. I’ve been having a hard time letting it go because I’m not convinced I’m very good at it yet. Every time I think I’ve got listening down, I realize that my brain is talking over other people again and I have to try again. Also, listening seems wildly important to teaching (and, of course, to life). Pretty much every step I’ve taken in teaching has come from listening. I like listen. It’s a good little word. I considered making the whole thing moot by “not choosing” a word and secretly holding on to listen. We won’t discuss the fact that pretty much no one besides me knows or cares about my word and I can’t exactly hide my perfidy from myself. Sigh.

Then, over at The Librarian’s Journey, Beth Lyons suggested we could try one word x 12 – a word a month for a year. Clearly I was addled by the thought of converting my entire class plans to online teaching because I thought this was the perfect solution. Had I paused (hmmm… there’s a word) I would have realized that this means having to choose a focus word TWELVE times. I did not pause. I told Beth & a few others I was in. Impulsive. There’s another word. Still, I like the idea of setting an intention each month. Over the course of a year, I sometimes get distracted – which may be why I still need to work on listening.

Beth took things down a notch by admitting that last year she often found herself choosing her little word somewhere in the middle of the month. This practice is both calming and intriguing: it allows me to choose a word that is aspirational – I’d like to focus on this for a while – and definitional – this is what this month is shaping up to be. It also recognizes that I am both a procrastinator (I’m writing this waaaay too late at night) and an observer. I decided to give myself a few days to consider what word might fit for January.

Last night I was up late trying to prepare myself for a week of teaching from home while both of my children have online classes and my partner works from home. I was feeling frantic and a little hopeless. I know that one way to quell this emotion is gratitude so, on the spur of the moment, I decided to write to several of the authors of the books my students are reading. Many of them might be surprised to find out that their novel is being studied in a high school book club and, for the most part, my students are loving their choices. I wanted to tell the authors that their work was making this moment a little more bearable. I wanted them to know that their work matters.

So I wrote. I put in a little effort, aiming for a tone that was light but sincere and adding some specific details for each author. I wrote about moving to online instruction – how hard it is, how my students are a little down and, almost as an afterthought, really as part of my attempt to find some upsides to where we are, I invited each author to come to our class for a few minutes if they wanted. I may have said “pop in.” I even decided to throw caution to the wind and write to some of the bigger names – doesn’t everyone benefit from a compliment? My students really do like their books. And then, one by one, I hit send. I felt a little silly afterwards, but whatever; it was done.

Y’all – one of the most well-known award-winning authors wrote back 20 minutes later and said, basically, “Thanks for the great email. I don’t usually do this, but I’d be happy to stop in.” There are some caveats – this is just for my class & will be entirely student-led – and I’m not going to share who it is because I think this kind of a private little thing, but the author is going to join our Google Meet next week – for an hour! I’m nearly giddy with excitement, as are the students who have read the novel. The rest of them are preparing by reading articles and essays. I honestly think we’re going to have a great time.

This morning, I realized that I’d found January’s word: ask. I like it. When I was growing up, my mother often said “it can’t hurt to ask” and “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” but I can’t say that I always followed her advice. So this will remind me to ask for what I want rather than assuming that I already know the answer. In the virtual classroom, I know that intentionally asking the students how things are going, what they need, what they are learning is part of what makes online learning work, so ask is a good word there. And, I have to admit, ask is pretty closely related to listen – after all, asking ideally implies that you will listen to the response – so I get to ease myself into my new little word.

I can’t wait to see how ask will show up this month.

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Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life blog challenge every Tuesday.

Pivot

Educators in Ontario are starting 2021 by pivoting. Again. 2020 saw us pivot from what we quaintly referred to as “school” to “emergency remote learning” from April to the end of June. Then, in my school board, high school teachers started September in “quadmesters” organized into what is possibly the weirdest teaching I can imagine (and one which I still cannot describe succinctly): we teach one course for approximately four hours a day every other week. During that week, half of the class is in person one day and the other half is at home; the next day, they switch. Teaching is hybrid because the at-home cohort requires “some” synchronous connection with the in-class cohort during the day. Once both cohorts are home and have had a lunch break, they are supposed to do asynchronous learning for another hour. I’m pretty sure we used to call that homework, but whatever. The next week, we switch to a different course. Apparently, this is a mere pivot from our previous practice.

Now, as 2021 starts, we are “pivoting” again because Ontario is back in lockdown – or at least partial lockdown. First, we’re teaching fully online for three weeks. Because that doesn’t feel quite challenging enough, we are going to teach two classes a day for 112 minutes each (the two classes which we previously taught on alternating weeks for 225 minutes). The instruction must be synchronous for some amount of time that I can no longer remember, and there will still be an asynchronous component at the end of the day for those whose heads aren’t already spinning.

Also, while no one knows exactly what will happen, we’ll probably pivot back (re-pivot? un-pivot?) for the last week of January when we may or may not return to the original 2020 quadmester plan, except that this would give one course a full week of instruction and the other course none – so I may or may not be seeing the students who may or may not need something to learn. I mean, it’s not a problem because when we get there, we’ll just pivot.

But the current pivot means that all I need to do during winter break is cut my pre-planned two weeks of hybrid daily instruction plans in half, spread them over three weeks and – maybe? – two days, download and practice using a few apps (hello, colleagues who have time to practice with me) so that fully virtual learning can go smoothly, convert any planned in-person instruction to a different delivery mode, and get ready to handle any residual upset the students might be experiencing from the last time this happened – when we told them we were extending March Break & then separated them from all their friends & didn’t allow them back in the school for 5 months.

You know, pivot.

As 2020 ends and people suggest various phrases that define the year – “You’re on mute” is a fave – I vote for “pivot.” Oh, how I have come to loathe that word. To me, it implies an easy twist to a new position. Just turn a little and keep doing what you were doing. No biggie. No need to reconsider your pedagogy to take into consideration the trauma adolescents might be experiencing as the world around them goes haywire. No need to think about how that affects their ability to learn. No need to recognize that in-person, hybrid, and online education are, in many ways, entirely different beasts. No need to examine which educational practices are foundational and which are, perhaps, merely habitual. Just pivot.

So I looked it up. Because I’m a word nerd like that. And, while I regularly tell my students NOT to start essays with definitions (Dear Heaven, but they don’t need another way to avoid saying actual things), I’m going to share two of the definitions I found at dictionary.com.

Pivot
– to modify (a policy, opinion, product, etc.) while retaining some continuity with its previous version
– Basketball. to keep one foot in place while holding the ball and moving the other foot one step in any direction.

Suddenly I am back in high school, playing basketball with my athletic younger sister at the top of our driveway. She is on the Varsity basketball team. I am terrible at basketball, and my inexpert play is not helping her improve her game. Frustrated by my inability to block effectively, she sighs, “Just… set a pick,” and she places me between her and the basket. “Spread your feet, bend your knees a little, and stand still.”

I do, and she dribbles around me again and again, her brown hair flying as she finds different ways to create space for her shots. Sometimes – often – she pivots, confusing the imaginary defense before she spins around me and shoots.

Pivot, huh? Keep one foot in place and move the other foot in any direction. Retain some continuity. It sounds easy when the government or our school board assures people that we will simply pivot to online teaching, but I know better. Pivoting isn’t an effortless turn, a round peg gliding smoothly in a round hole. I think of my sister, relentlessly seeking improvement, earning her starting position one afternoon at a time, bouncing and bouncing, turning and turning, intentionally putting obstacles between herself and the basket. She was working.

Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space where teachers can hone their writing skills – and have fun doing it!

Still, even if we had to work at it, we had fun on those afternoons, and we got better – or she did, anyway. I didn’t, but I was mostly just standing still. It wasn’t easy, but, well… I think I need to go try out a couple of new apps. I’ll try to remember to keep one foot in place, but I’m constantly stepping with the other because on Monday, we pivot.

Writing in front of them

When I teach memoir, I like to model my process for my students. For me – and often for them – one of the trickiest part of writing a personal narrative is coming up with the right story, so we often begin with a list of prompts from the New York Times Learning Network . The students and I all respond to these as quickly as we can, skipping anything that doesn’t call up a memory. My students do this in their notebooks; I do it on the board (or screen):

A time I took a risk:
A time I learned something about myself:
A memory from childhood I think about often:
Something that happened to me that still makes me laugh:
Something very few people know about me:
Something I regret:
A time when I felt rejected:
Something I am really proud of:
Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
How I am different from most people I know:
Some of my fears:
A time I felt truly satisfied:
A time I failed at something:
An object I own that tells a lot about me:

Because I want to model the process from the beginning, I like to come in without preconceived ideas for my list. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I can typically self-censor my stories on a dime – and I tell my students that I’m doing this because I assume they may also have things they wish to keep private. Still, sometimes I surprise myself. Like Wednesday, when, without warning, I wrote “not kissing Torin” next to “something I regret.”

I almost erased it, but some of the students were watching and I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I looked at it again, added the world “don’t” in front of “regret” and brainstormed a few more ideas. No teacher in the universe will be surprised to learn that, when I asked which prompt I should flesh into an essay, the students chose the one about kissing.

So there I was, writing in front of my students about not kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago – which, I suppose, is slightly better than writing about kissing someone in a bar in Prague almost 30 years ago.

I started off a little embarrassed, and I rapidly became very embarrassed. Should I tell them that my friends and I went to an apartment with a man who was standing on the quai as we pulled into the station? Our guidebook said that was a great way to get a deal. Do I tell them about the Russian champagne? Maybe leave that out. I felt obligated to say that my friends were also at the pub that night, dancing and… maybe I shouldn’t mention that Torin was Swedish & very handsome? Dear Heaven *how* did I end up writing about this in front of my students? Why didn’t they choose the nice necklace story from Ireland? or even the time I wrongly accused a student of cheating?

Flustered, I stopped. I was red enough that I probably didn’t need to acknowledge my awkward situation, but I did. “This is not what I expected to be writing about. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable.” I hesitated, “I guess the real question is: why, nearly 30 years later, does this memory stick? What is the point of writing this in an essay?”

That’s when the real work began. “It was my junior year abroad,” I told them. They nodded – as if they know! – and I fumbled forward, “I had a boyfriend in France.” Some eyebrows raised; I was not making this any less awkward and awful. “Maybe I remember this moment because I consciously decided to be loyal?” I wrote that on the board. The 17-year-olds looked unconvinced. They weren’t wrong. “I mean, no one would have known,” I added lamely. No response from my audience. Remind me again why I’m doing this in public?

I stumbled along, writing and thinking aloud, searching for the reason that this particular night stands out for me. My students watched, interested. Finally I hit upon something that felt true, “It was like summer camp inside of summer camp – Spring Break during my junior year abroad – and if I had done this, if I had kissed him, no one would have known or cared – except me. I would have known, and I would have cared. I think maybe that was a moment where I realized how much we are responsible for our own lives, our own values.” I started to scribble – arrows here & there, numbers. This is how I might organize this essay; this is how the details might fall into place.

Moments later my students were hard at work. Despite the fact that school right now is less than ideal, I saw them thinking, writing, sharing with each other. Relieved, my face slowly settling back to its normal colour, I sat down at my computer and considered whether or not this essay was worth actually figuring out. Maybe later, I decided, my embarrassment still too fresh to allow for real focus.

And maybe I’m imagining things, but the essays that particular cohort handed in at the end of the week seemed especially honest. Several of them pulled at my heart. None of them were about kissing or not kissing strangers in bars. Thank heaven.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting the weekly Slice of Life.

Is this graded?

“So, um, Miss? I’m just having a little trouble understanding what we’re supposed to do. Is this graded?”

My jaw muscles tense, and I immediately loosen my posture in an attempt to disguise my frustration. I’m about to launch into my “it’s all graded” monologue, when I take a breath. Pause, I tell myself, Listen. We’re only on Day 3 of 22. We barely know each other. 

I’m standing in front of some students; others are watching me online. What are they really asking? They are confused. They want to do well. They want to manage their time and their workload. This question – this common, annoying, awful question – is not a sign that things aren’t going well. It’s just a question. It’s communication.

I launch into my monologue anyway. After all these years, the response track in my mind appears to be stuck in a rut. I try not to go on.

Afterwards, when the kids at home have signed off and the ones at school have gone home, I close my laptop and allow myself to slump in my chair. “Is this graded?”

I can’t even remember all of their names. I probably won’t recognize them on the street next year if – when – we are done with masks. Semesters have become quadmesters, and every day of class feels fleeting and precious. Though we are supposed to deliver only the basics of the curriculum, there is still so much I want for these students. 

I want them to find joy in reading and writing, to remember what it feels like to create, to know that they can affect the world around them, that they *must* affect the world around them. I want them to take risks and to speak loudly. I want them to ask questions and reject the answers. I want them to be curious and to love learning. I want them to know that they are important. I have 18 days left.

Is this graded? Yes. No. I don’t know how to answer. It’s not graded, but it still counts. It’s all graded, but the grades don’t matter. They really don’t. 

I whisper into the classroom, “What matters is you” and I hope that the echoes of that answer will linger until the students return tomorrow.

Back to class

The night before, I chose my clothes, portioned out my lunch and packed my bags. As I left the house, I double checked everything. I headed out early, earlier than almost any other day this school year. My children, knowing how I felt, wished me good luck as I left.

At school, I pulled books out of the book room and speakers out of drawers; everything went into the classroom. I gathered blackout poems and other decorations from last semester’s classroom and brought them into this quadmester’s room. I washed the blackboard and found my coloured chalk. I waited. Nervous? Excited? Yes.

The bell. And then the students. Slowly, masked and distanced, they arrived. Well, half of them. The other half were at home – but no matter! After months of teaching from home, after a quadmester of teaching Spec Ed (which has its own pleasures, but which is very different from classroom teaching), I was in a room with students, and we were about to start an English class.

We wrote. We read a poem. We talked about it and about ourselves. And, like every single year, like every single class, they blew me away with what they saw, what they said, who they are. Sure, I made mistakes – I talked too much (such a weakness), some students couldn’t find the meet link, my written instructions were too long – and for sure the hybrid portion of the day felt odd. “Can you hear me?” I asked the screen of avatars. The screen said yes.

I know it’s a pandemic & I know this will be exhausting & I know things will probably go sideways (and backwards & upside down) But for now, I’m back in the classroom – the chaotically hybrid pandemic classroom, but the classroom nevertheless – and I am happy.

Studying

My older child is walking around and around the kitchen island, muttering under his breath in French. I am sitting at the island, trying to write. Without missing a stride, he switches to English, “I think I remember better when I walk while I say it out loud.” Then he’s right back to “carnivore: qui se nourrit de chair…”

He has a test tomorrow. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s been studying for DAYS. If you ask me, he’s put in a few good sets of maybe ten minutes here and there. If you ask him, there is SO MUCH to remember that it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE. If you ask me, he would find it a lot easier to learn about ecosystems if he made some attempt to see them as, well, systems rather than a series of definitions to memorize.

I have pointed out that I know quite a bit about study strategies. I’ve offered some direction based on research in cognitive psychology. (FYI: The Learning Scientists have excellent resources for this.) I’ve talked about how we remember things better in context. I’ve suggested that drawing the cycles might make them more memorable. I’ve even remarked in passing that I am quite literally a Special Education teacher who helps students learn better.

I am, nevertheless, still his mom, and moms of 7th graders don’t know much. He is determined to memorize every last word on every sheet of paper.

At last he agrees that I can quiz him. I’ve explained how our brains need practice retrieving the information, not just putting it in there, and that, at least, he understands. “It’s like smoothing down a path for the ideas to get back out,” I said. I think he liked the metaphor. And when he runs into trouble remembering “Les 5 Besoins Fondamentaux” (the 5 Fundamental Needs), I tell him a little story about the racoon who lives in the tree in our backyard. At the end he says, “yeah, that makes sense. That makes it easier to remember,” then he gives me a sly look before he says, “you’re actually a pretty good teacher.”

I ruffle his hair and smile, “I’m glad it helped.” I don’t tell him that the name of that strategy is “concrete examples.” And I bite my tongue as he goes back to muttering under his breath. “décomposeur: défait des plantes et les animaux morts.”

Maybe next year.