An old friend called #SOL19 18/31

I was online, writing a blog post and commenting on as many Slice of Life posts as possible, when the computer rang. I am old enough that I usually use a phone for conversations, so I was startled. Also, I was still in my pjs because it was the last day of March Break and I was savouring my tea and my morning. When I saw his name on the screen – a wonderful old friend – my mind flashed, “What if it’s a video call? I’m not ready!” but my heart said, “BOBBY!” and I picked up the call.

“Hello Mandy!” I could hear the smile in his voice, and I smiled back because this unexpected call, after – what? five years? – made me happy before we even started talking.

We chatted about families, changes, life. Our conversation was mundane, too particular to us for me to share, too universal for you to need me to share: you already know everything we said. We haven’t seen each other in 10 years – 10! When our oldest children were babies! Where is that picture? – but it mattered little. Time got slippery as we talked – we were there in our youth, we were here in our middle age, we were looking forward to the time that still stretches in front of us. Half an hour passed before I noticed.

As we hung up, my heart expanded to fill my chest. I was completely full of this particular moment, of this friend, of this friendship, and I was happy, just so happy that he called.

I took my cup of tea and my messy hair, walked away from the computer and stared out the back window at the snow-covered ground for a few minutes before I went back to my day.

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The fish & chips that changed my life #SOL19 17/31

If I’d known that the moment was going to change my life, I might have paid more attention to the details. I was in Galway with 11 other high school teachers for a 5-week fellowship on W.B. Yeats and two of us had gone out for fish and chips. I don’t remember which chip shop we went to. The fish was firm, the fry glistened and the newspapers it came wrapped in were soon heavy with oil. You know, a standard Irish chip shop.

I’d left my boyfriend for the summer, off to learn everything I could about the poetry I loved. I had cried at the airport, but now, a few weeks in, I if I were honest with myself, well, I missed him very little. He had many strengths, but none of them were sitting around a table sharing food and passionately discussing poetry. Or, really, passionately discussing any of the things I loved. Still, he was a good man, solid and secure, and I knew he loved me. I knew he would be there when I returned and, since we were approaching 30 and our relationship was stable, I knew he would likely propose soon.

Earl and I must have been talking about this over fish and chips. I didn’t miss my boyfriend, exactly, but he was on my mind, especially since the only other single woman in my close circle of college friends had just announced her engagement. I was the only one left; I was next.

Earl, who loved music, poetry, literature and all things Irish, had white hair that rarely looked combed and a big personality that he rarely reigned in. I remember meandering talks with him as we walked from our dorms into Galway proper, sat in a pub or picked through the poetry that had moved us all across the ocean for the summer. Earl’s laughter drew everyone into the joke and his quick wit often had me choking back giggles. While those are my dominant memories of him, they are not the whole of Earl because by that point in our trip, we all knew that he had lost his daughter in an accident not many years before. His oversized love of Irish music, good beer and all things Yeats couldn’t completely mask this truth. Single, childless, not far from his daughter’s age, I had only the notion of the kind of scar that loss might leave. I knew part of him was hurting, but I also knew that being with Earl was enlivening.

That evening, over dinner, Earl put down his Guinness and paused. And this part of my memory isn’t fuzzy at all. “He has to make you laugh, Amanda. There’s no way you’ll make it if he doesn’t make you laugh.”

Our conversation continued. After we ate, we walked back to the dorm – or, more likely, we met up with others for a pint and maybe some dancing. I laughed a lot. I don’t need the concrete memories to know that I did. I laughed and talked and and read and thought for the whole five weeks. 

Though many of the details from that fellowship are fuzzy now, it changed me deeply. There are more stories I could tell from that trip, for sure, and someday I will. But this one is important because I broke up with my boyfriend – how could I not? – and have since married a man who fills my life with laughter and love. 

Thanks, Earl.

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Why he comes to class #SOL19 16/31

Yesterday, the Ontario Minister of Education announced the government’s plans for education changes in the next few years. Education is, of course, a major line-item in the budget and always the target of cuts when a government wants to save money. While I agree that efficiency is worth looking for and eliminating wasteful spending should be an ongoing process, I fear that some of the impulse for these regular cuts comes from a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or overpaid. Or something. This upsets me because, I promise you, I’m not in education to get rich and no one survives for long in a high school if their main focus is summer vacation. Worse, I believe that some of the changes the government is proposing will, at a minimum, result in worse learning and will, more than likely, harm students, especially our most vulnerable students.

In fact, I was chatting with my principal last week and talk turned to one of our most reluctant students. He has years of haphazard attendance in his school records, and all the days of missed school have left him with learning gaps that have caught up with him in high school: he’s currently failing most of his classes. Truth be told, he’s currently not attending most of his classes. In fact, he’s pretty much only attending my class.

“Why do you think he’s coming to your class when he’s skipping everything else?” asked my principal.

Well, I have some ideas. He comes to my class because we as a school have agreed to put our most experienced teachers in classes with our most at-risk students. I am not the school board’s cheapest employee, but when I walk into the classroom, I bring to bear everything I know about classroom management, curriculum, respectful learning environments and reluctant learners. I bring a Masters Degree, 20+ years of teaching, experience working with both at-risk and ESL students, an Honours Specialist in Special Education, and a commitment to ongoing PD and my own pedagogical reading. He comes to my class because I work to implement a pedagogy that meets students where they are and supports them as they move forward.

He comes to my class because our school has decided that at-risk students have the best chance to learn when their classes are small. Currently, the average high school class size may not exceed 22 students. The new Ministry of Education policy increases that to 28. Of course, classes of 28 and even 30 already exist, but with a required average class size of 22, we can work as a team to find the wiggle room that allows students with the greatest needs to be in smaller classes. He comes to my class because the small class size means I have time to get to know every student in meaningful ways.

He comes to my class because I never – not ever – say anything negative to him about his learning. When he returns after missing a day of school I say, “I’m glad to see you.” I don’t even say “I’m glad you’re back” because I don’t want to emphasize that he was gone. I’ve read his school records, and I’ve learned a bit about him. So, I practice positive phrases out loud with others, working to get the right words for this child into my brain and out of my mouth. He comes to my class because I call home every time he’s absent and leave a message saying that I missed him. He comes to my class because I’ve called home to leave a message about how well he’s doing when he comes.

He comes to my class because when he writes a sentence in his notebook, I have something positive to say about it. If he stops at a word, I’m next to him to encourage the next one. If he can’t write today, I’ll help him write tomorrow. He comes to my class because what he says matters.

He comes to my class because the room is full of books he can actually read, books that aren’t dog-eared, yellow-paged and falling apart. He comes because I’ve begged and borrowed in order to provide books that are in reasonable shape to show my learners that they are worthy of good books. I’ve asked what he’s interested in and chosen books that might catch his attention. I check books out of the public library because he can’t get there. I offer him books at multiple levels and chat with him one-on-one about what he’s reading. I never suggest he’s not good enough or reads too slowly. He can put down books he doesn’t like or can’t follow. I never make him read something he’s not ready for. He comes to this small class because I can pay attention to his learning needs.

Not only does the Ministry of Education plan to increase class sizes, they also want to require four e-learning classes for every student to graduate. No doubt this will provide cost savings to the government, and I’m sure there will be benefits for some students, but students like him need every minute of positive human contact they can get. He comes to my class because even though the class is small, I have an EA in the room every day. Between us, we can catch most students before they give up, assignment after assignment. We provide positive support so that they can overcome obstacles that might otherwise stymie them. We can see when they are having a bad day and help them cope with that; we notice when they are having a good day, and encourage them to shine. He comes to my class because we are physically present so we notice him and his peers.

He comes to my class because I was allowed to move to a cozy room with comfortable tables that let him stretch out a little. We have windows for natural light and plants growing along the window ledge; some days the students help water. He comes to my class because I have shelves full of all kinds of books to support learners of all kinds at all levels and walls adorned with vocabulary words, anchor charts and celebrations of reading. He comes to my class because the librarian provides us with a few Kindles so that students who struggle to read the words on a page can listen while they read. That same librarian pulls another student out for 15 minutes a day to provide one-on-one English language support. She comes to my class, too.

He comes to my class because I let him eat. Our breakfast program provides food – Cheerios and raisins or maybe some apples – that I put out most days. Many of my students grab a bag to snack on as they read or write. Some of them, probably including him, don’t get quite enough at home. So they come to class.

He comes to my class because we are a community of learners. Because I use every student’s name every day. Because other students speak to him during our activities. Because we listen when he talks. Because his voice matters.

He comes to my class because we have decided that he, and others like him, are worth it, even though they require time, energy and resources from our system. In fact, if you talk to teachers, you’ll find that we need more services for these students, not fewer. The changes the Ontario government has put forward – e-learning and larger classes are only two among many – will no doubt reduce the education line-item in the budget, but in the long-run they mean that students like him are less likely to come to class. I’m not convinced that the savings will be worth it.

 

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Ready for routine #SOL19 15/31

Quiet. 10:56 am on the last weekday of March Break and the house is quiet.

I woke up just before 7 and came down to enjoy a little quiet before I wrote today’s slice of life. I fed the cats, put on some water, opened the computer and started to read. I’d read two other posts when the first child joined me and took advantage of our alone time for a long snuggle before he went off to find his ipad. A friend who slept over last night shuffled into the kitchen a few minutes later, bleary-eyed and happy, and was soon followed by my older son, who arrived complaining that a loud noise “like a radio and a crash” had woken him up. I surmised that my husband was also awake.

Before my husband materialized, my mother-in-law came downstairs. She arrived late last night for a week-long visit, and I had been hoping she would be able to get a little more sleep. Unlikely once the kids were up. Hugs and exclamations filled the kitchen. “You’re so tall!” “I missed you so much!” “I’m glad you’re here!”

We settled in for tea and conversation as the children went to play. I adore my mother-in-law and had been looking forward to this morning chat, so we luxuriated a little. Not long later, my husband appeared, dressed and ready to go to coffee with a colleague. More chatting before he left. It was 8.

I made the kids English muffins with cinnamon sugar for breakfast. We finalized the details for a trip to the trampoline park this morning. Our guest’s mother called to figure out when she should swing by with appropriate (and clean) clothes for trampoline jumping. The neighbour from down the street rang the doorbell to ask if he could borrow our ice chopper, and we chatted for a few minutes about the weather, mutual friends, and his impending move to a different apartment.

I called the doctor to set up one appointment and then the hairdresser to set up another. I made a second round of cinnamon toast and harried the kids up to brush their teeth and get dressed. The mother showed up with appropriate clothes and came in for a visit. We double-checked on that whole “brush your teeth and get dressed” request and reiterated its importance as a life skill. Another friend texted to let me know that her son, who recently stayed over, has lice. As I gathered up the sheets from the potentially problematic bed and put them in the laundry basket, I realized that I had not brushed my own teeth; I was already keenly aware that I was still in my bathrobe – I hadn’t been able to get to my bedroom since my husband woke up.

I managed to brush my teeth while checking my son’s head for lice. Looked clear. The other family going to the trampoline park arrived, and everyone tumbled out the door into the minivan. My friend stayed for an extra minute, and we were able to locate her spare keys, which we had recently realized were not hanging on our key rack where they should have been. I transferred them to their proper place, and hugged my friend goodbye.

And then it was quiet. I sat down in the kitchen and looked at the blank document I had opened just before 7 so I could write today’s slice of life. A twenty to thirty minute commitment, more or less. Four and a half hours later, I’m done. I smiled and sighed at the same time: I will find more than a little relief when our regular routine resumes on Monday.  Life just keeps happening, doesn’t it?

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The Chase #SOL19 14/31

Some days, being a Special Education teacher is all about the chase.

The classroom phone rings, “Have you seen…?”
A teacher pops their head into the room,  “I’m looking for…”
The Head Custodian texts “I found this kid in Stairwell C. Do you know he’s there?”
The Vice Principal sends an email, “Do not let this student leave the classroom unsupervised” right after I let the student leave the classroom, unsupervised.

And the chase is on. I casually glance under the stalls of the girls’ bathrooms. An EA checks the boys’ locker room. I call Guidance. I look outside that one door and in the hidden alcove under the other stairwell. I walk through the cafeteria then meander into the far back corner of the library. Most kids have preferred hiding places; most of the time we find them.

There must be a million reasons not to go to class. After all these years of teaching, I think I’ve heard them all, but of course I haven’t. And even if I have, my job is to hear the reason behind the reason. I absolutely believe Ross Greene’s idea that “children do well if they can,” so my burning question is always “why aren’t you in class?”

He says, “There’s no point in going anyway.”

And I slide down to the floor of the stairwell, tuck my skirt under my knees, shoulder to shoulder with a child who should be in class but isn’t, who should be passing but isn’t. “Tell me more.”

And he does. So much more. I’ve been listening to him for a while now – years, really – and things aren’t good. Some days I’ve lost my patience with him. I’ve told him to make a choice, to stop blaming others, to just go to class for Heaven’s sake. He’s walked out on me, come back, talked and even cursed. I’ve sat next to him during tests, made him take out his ear buds so he has to listen, even set my hand on his shoulder to help him settle down while we breathed in and out together. I’ve spoken to his father, to his mother, to his teachers. I’ve chased him before.

Today I’ve found him. Today he can’t see any way out. Today he can’t imagine that things will change. Today we talk about his dad and his mom and his brother and rehab and rehab and rehab. I tell him what I know – which is not much – but I know that things are always changing, that six months from now will not look like today. That he is changing, that life is change and that sometimes crisis leads us to new opportunities.

I’ll chase him again another day, I know. And if not him then another student, another child who needs to be found and needs to be heard. Because I’ve learned that the trick to the chase is not to know where a student is going, but to recognize where they’ve been.

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Radiation Playlist #SOL19 13/31

When the radiologist told her she could choose her own music during the treatment, she immediately wanted American Pie. Her mother said no. Don McLean’s classic is about nine minutes long, and each treatment will only last three minutes. She suggested that the doctors could just leave her in the machine until the song ended. Her mother pointed out that they might need to treat other people after her, so she could not stay three times as long as necessary simply to hear the music. She was unimpressed with this logic. She is 5.

When they came by my house after this particular visit to the hospital, she was in a good mood, despite her American Pie plans being thwarted. She actually ate some lunch – a good thing because the last round of chemo left her unwilling to eat and far too thin – and let me kiss her a million times. She likes being kissed a million times, but sometimes her skin is too sensitive and sometimes even kisses hurt.

We snuggled up on the couch while I heard all about the music disagreement. She was back to arguing for American Pie. She may be thin and fragile right now, but she is not easy to push around. I suggested that we create a “radiation playlist,” and we began perusing the music on my phone. She has twelve rounds of three-ish minutes ahead of her. She has to lay completely still so that the radiation hits the exact right spot because, like so much of the treatment, killing the cancer has to be balanced against damaging the rest of her body. If she moves, the radiation might harm her one remaining kidney.

I aimed for quirky. She listened intently – you should see how this kid can concentrate! – and her mother and I laughed to think what the radiologists will make of her choices. Riptide by Vance Joy earned an immediate yes. The line “all my friends are turning green” made her laugh. I don’t think it means the same thing to her as it does to me.

We went through a lot of music. She rejected Adele’s Hello as “too slow”, and I didn’t even bother with typical kids’ songs because she’s not a typical kid. Luckily, we have mostly similar tastes in music. Her current playlist includes

Cantaloop: Flip Fantasia by Us3
Royals by Lorde (because who doesn’t want a tiger on a gold leash?)
Shake It Off by Taylor Swift
Demain by Les Nubians
Dream in Blue by Los Lobos
Banana Pancakes by Jack Johnson
Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves
I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by the Proclaimers

I woke up this morning thinking about her, and I immediately knew we should add Cecilia by Simon & Garfunkel. It will have to meet with her approval, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got her number. We’re still two songs short of the dozen we need, so I’m working on some options. My bet is she’ll make her own decisions. That’s just the kind of kid she is.

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Photo by her mom; outfit the result of falling into a mud puddle on the way into the hospital; attitude all hers.

PS – Her mom reports that she was a little scared to go alone into her CAT scan today, but  she requested Shake It Off and aced it.

 

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Listen – grrr #SOL19 12/31

We have a multi-part problem in our house and it is driving me crazy.

Part 1: I am sensitive to noises. I can’t stand repetitive music from the on-line games the kids play, music played on a loop in a restaurant, or slow drips and other ongoing pings and dings. They make me a little nuts. I also startle easily at loud sounds, a truth which delights both my children and my students.

Part 2: Our adorable cat Tippy *loves* drinking from running and fresh water of any sort.

 

Part 3: I believe that we should be conserving resources of all sorts. You know, environmentalism and all that.

Part 4: My husband, in particular, is a sucker for making creatures happy.

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He even takes care of the hamster.

This is generally a wonderful trait, but…it leaves us, all to often, with this:

And now it’s March break, so we’re all home together and it’s happening all the time. Help! We need a solution asap.

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