Because of you #SOL23 31/31

When I woke up this morning, my left eye was swollen shut. A stye, I think, though no amount of hot compresses have brought it to a point, so who knows, really. At least it’s settled down enough that I can see. I had already taken today off sick; I wasn’t quite sick yesterday, but I was far from my best, and I knew my run-down body needed a break. Turns out, I have slept much of the day because I am, in fact, sick.

When I haven’t been napping, I’ve mostly been deep in a giant bean bag accompanied by a book, the puzzle section of The New York Times, and cats. We haven’t done much, and I’m ok with that.

While I’ve rested, I’ve wondered what I should write for the final day of this Slice of Life Challenge. I’ve wondered this every year that I’ve participated. After a month, I’m used to the practice of noticing and holding on to moments, of seeing how what is happening today brings up memories of what happened years ago. I love the way that writing daily makes me pay attention to the world around me (special thank you to Stacey for dreaming this up years ago to help get through March and to the Two Writing Teachers team for supporting this). I’ll miss this, even though doing it every day is hard.

I teach narrative writing at some point every semester, and I often tell my students that the universal lives in the specific. We connect best with friends and strangers when we share our very specific feelings or experiences – everyone has lived moments of joy or fatigue, grief or giddiness. This challenge is about sharing those moments, creating a community through that connection, through those stories.

I started this month with some trepidation: school systems are in a state of flux right now, and teaching is harder than I’ve ever known it to be. We need to have some hard conversations about things that don’t really fit into the “Slice of Life” model. I wasn’t sure I could write honestly for a month without talking about those hard things, but I did it. Mostly.

When I look back over my posts, I can see some of my concerns lurking behind and beneath my words, but that’s ok, I think, because reading and writing for a month with teachers from around the world means that I can also see the ways in which we hold each other up and, more importantly, how we share the dreams we have for schools and the world we’re striving to create. I can see how many teachers (and coaches and retired teachers and people in the world of education) are dedicated to our children and how, even though many of us are really, really tired, we don’t just cling to hope, we create it.

And so I leave March better than I entered it, better able to find the kernels of joy, better able to rest when I need to and fight for what is precious, better able to teach and, truly, to be taught. If you’re reading this, that’s probably because of you.

See you on Tuesdays.

Breaking the fast #SOL23 30/31

I just got home from school. It’s 9:31pm. Why so late? Tonight, for the first time, our school celebrated Iftar together. 

For those of you who don’t know, as I did not until recently, Iftar is the fast-breaking meal that Muslims eat immediately after sundown during Ramadan. People break their fast with dates and water – after neither eating nor drinking (even water) from sunup to sundown – then they pray, then eat their meal.

This year, students asked if we could organize a communal Iftar because Muslims often break their fast in community. I was raised Christian –  in the middle of the Bible Belt in the southern part of the US, no less – so I knew very little about Muslim traditions, but the students at the school where I currently teach are generous with their knowledge. We talked through what Iftar would look like, checked with the Principal, and off we went.

One student really drove things, and another teacher did the work of clearing the path for her. Soon they had chosen a date, organized catering, and started selling tickets. To make sure that all families – even very large families or newcomers who might not yet have a strong financial footing – felt welcome, the school found funds to cover some of the cost of the meal. 

This evening, the cafeteria buzzed as teenagers covered the tables with red tablecloths and white runners. One student’s mother helped out. They strewed traditional candies along the runners and filled “vases” from the science department (“They’re not beakers, Miss, really!”) with water and white flowers. They decorated the hallway and laid out the dates. Soon, a father showed up, and students started shuttling in the meals – rice and skewers and salad. The imam arrived, along with his wife and young children. Before we knew it, the cafeteria contained a community – from babies to grandparents, Muslim and non-Muslim, students and teachers and their families – well over 100 people in all.

Those who were fasting broke their fast and prayed; those of us who were not fasting or praying finished setting out the food. Everyone came together to eat and the room filled with talk and laughter. 

As we cleaned up afterward, I could feel the joy: our first annual Iftar – and another way to celebrate the community our students create. 

Puzzling #SOL23 29/31

I came home tired. Scratch that: I woke up tired, even though I woke up before my alarm went off, which I thought was supposed to be a sign that you’re getting enough sleep. I’m here to tell you: that truism is false. Anyway, I was still tired when I came home. There, that statement is more true.

Even though I was tired, I went for a walk because, thanks to Lisa, I have walked at least a mile every day for 1045 days, and a little fatigue is not going to end that streak, thank you very much. While I was walking, it started to rain and, as I got home, the rain turned to snow. I silently railed against the weather. For pity’s sake, it’s the end of March.

I came inside and shook out my jacket. I should have sat down to plan tomorrow’s lessons – the grade 9 class did not even come close to finishing what I had planned for today; the reading class got distracted by – wait for it reading (yes, I did an internal happy dance while I pretended that was totally normal for them to ask to read a news article) – but now I was tired and slightly damp, so instead of working on work, I found myself listening to a podcast and working on the puzzle that has bedeviled me for several weeks.

Hera came to “encourage” me by covering up one of the unfinished spaces.

I persisted. The kids came home. Andre came home. Andre left with one of the kids for a father-son dinner out. I kept puzzling. And I finished. Here it is:

Look, I’m still tired, but I finished a puzzle. Seems like a reasonable outcome.

It was supposed to be funny #SOL23 28/31

“It was supposed to be funny.”

That’s what I told my grade 12 students on Monday when I shared one of my recent blog posts – the one with the squirrel pictures. I pointed out the title and the photographs. “I started with funny, but I ended with sappy.” This was my writer’s dilemma: “So what I’m looking for are ideas for how to revise this to make it funnier – or even just a little funny.”

Cue uncomfortable shifting in their seats. Critique the teacher’s work? Not likely.

Undaunted, I continued. “OK, R has volunteered to be the leader,” R nodded, “so he’s going to tell us our first step.” 

“Um, ok, um…” he shuffled the papers in front of him, trying to figure out the next step. “Oh! You need to read it out loud.”

I did. I had planned two class periods (minus our daily reading and writing time) for the students to share their work and offer suggestions. I was following the Feedback Protocol developed by Peggy Silva and shared with me by Xan Woods and, not surprisingly, when I told students that they would read their work out loud to their peers panic had ensued. Telling them that someone else could read the piece out loud for them was not the balm they had anticipated. So I’d pulled out my next trick and asked them help me with my writing. 

You can imagine the wary looks I got. I explained about the Slice of Life challenge and how I had been writing every day for almost a month. EVERY DAY? They were half impressed, half worried about my state of mind. Those latter concerns were heightened because now I was offering – no, asking – to have them help me. As I read aloud, I found a mistake in my *published* piece. “Oops, I need to fix that,” I said – and I didn’t die or anything. I just fixed it.

“Ok, R. What’s next?” I asked.

“We have to read it again, then offer you ‘warm’ feedback.”

Because I know this is hard, every time we use the Feedback Protocol, I give students a script (also developed by Xan & easily modified to fit our needs) in addition to the general how-to. Now, we continued through the script. The students had plenty of nice things to say about my piece, and they were able to be pretty specific with their compliments. Then came time for cool feedback. 

“Oh, I feel bad about saying this.”
“Miss, are you sure you want to hear this?”
“I just feel kind of mean.”

I reassured the students that I had asked for this feedback, that I wanted to do better. “Look,” I said, “I really wanted this to be funny. I know you can help. You are 100% funnier than I am.”

As they spoke, I took notes in front of them. The more I wrote down their comments, the more confidence they gained. After a few minutes, time for cool feedback was over. I thanked them and reflected on what I had heard and what changes I thought I would make.

Just like that. Like it was no big deal.

Then it was their turn. Tentatively, they moved into their groups. On the first day, only one student from each group was able to receive feedback. As the class left, the mood was less tense, maybe curious.

Today, after reading time, the groups re-formed quickly. Essays appeared out of notebooks and folders. No one had lost their papers. Around the room, students huddled together around papers, their pencils scratching down notes or writing in margins. Laughter, questions, talking… was this the same group that couldn’t quite remember everyone’s names just a week ago? Were these the same students who looked stunned yesterday when I told them they would read their work out loud? 

Yes, yes these are the same students, I promise. As class came to an end, I asked how they felt about the protocol. “So good,” said someone. “Really useful,” said another.

“Excellent,” I said, then added, “Revisions are due Friday.” Good natured groans sounded around the room. As they kids left for their next class, I overheard someone say, “that was really good, wasn’t it? Like, really good.”

Ah yes, pedagogy for the win.

Don’t you…forget about me #SOL23 27/31

Mornings in our house are a tightly choreographed dance of who is doing what where when: Andre is in the kitchen and I am upstairs; Andre is upstairs and I am in the kitchen; Andre is making breakfast and I am waking the kids; the kids are eating breakfast and I am finishing getting dressed. On it goes, each of us weaving around the others, chatting, moving and generally getting ready. By 8:15, everyone is out of the house.

Except for last Thursday. Last Thursday we thought everything was going along smoothly: Andre had run out to the bakery for our breakfast; I had woken the children and then finished getting ready; Mr. 14 was putting his lunch together in the kitchen while Andre dressed upstairs. I left first, and Mr. 14 followed me. Andre was putting on his shoes, about to head out the door, when he noticed a backpack in the corner of the front room.

A backpack? But the kids had already gone to school.

Except that we had forgotten about Mr. 12. He had stayed up LONG after his bedtime finishing a book (Skander and the Unicorn Thief – he highly recommends it and is already desperate for the sequel which has not yet been released) so when I woke him up, he said hello, sat up, then laid back down, turned over and went back to sleep. In the morning chaos (ahem, choreography) no one noticed a missing 12-year-old. Oops.

Andre slipped his shoes off, woke up the kid, made him some lunch, thrust a bun at him for breakfast and got him out of the house so quickly that Mr. 12 wasn’t even late for school and Andre wasn’t late for work.

We have tried to foist this oversight off on the child, telling him firmly that he cannot read until all hours of the night on a school night, but he knows the truth: we totally forgot about him.

We don’t share with squirrels #SOL23 26/31

On Sundays, Andre cooks. He’s been doing this for a couple of years now – planning a menu for the week, shopping on Saturday, cooking for most (or all) of Sunday morning. While he makes a few things designed to appeal to the kids – like a delicious mac’n’cheese – I am truly the lucky recipient of most of his bounty: blueberry scones, carrot-pomegranate-pistachio salad, baked squash with toasted almonds, eggplant parm, Navajo stew, all sorts of soups, and a recently perfected Caesar salad dressing that is just the right amount of tangy and creamy.

After he’s chopped and toasted and stirred and baked, he turns to his final act: dough. He often makes a loaf of bread for the week, then enlists the kids to help make some sort of bread for their lunches – for a while they made cheese buns; lately it’s been bagels – and he almost always makes us pizza dough for Sunday dinner.

Today, he wanted to make the pizza dough early, but he worried that if he left it too long, it might over-proof. So while I went for my morning walk, he was online looking for ideas to keep the dough just right. When I got back from my walk, the dough was rising in a container on the back porch – apparently the outdoor temperature was just what he was looking for.

After that, we spent the afternoon as we often do: catching up on work, tidying, planning. At some point I went into the kitchen for some water, looked out the back door and saw this:

Cheeky thing. This food is NOT for you!

(Fear not, the dough itself was covered with saran wrap & then I covered the whole thing with a large metal bowl that stymied the squirrels – no pizza dough was sacrificed to the squirrels. Now, as I write, the pizza is cooking and the salad is ready.)

I thank Andre often, of course, but it’s not really enough – how could it be? He spends hours every week doing this activity that is largely designed to take care of us, his family. I don’t intend to share his creations with the wildlife.

PS: Tomorrow is his birthday and he says it’s not really a big one for him so he wants to keep things low-key – so I’m writing today to keep things the way he likes them. But in case you’re wondering, he’s pretty amazing.

Marching through the years #SOL23 25/31

I first saw this format on Elisabeth’s post, and she, in turn, got it from Erica. And Molly, too, wrote about how having her phone available has changed how she takes note of the world. If you follow me on FB or Instagram, you know that I have been walking every day since early in the pandemic and that I started taking pictures not long after I started walking, so I was intrigued by photo posts. Today I had the time to go through my photos and choose from all the March 25th pictures available. Talk about a slice of life!

March 25, 2023 (today)

I walked 5km this morning & took a few pictures. There are a few green shoots here & there, but mostly we still have a lot of snow & ice on the ground. Yesterday, I wrote a haiku that matches today’s picture.

Ice stretched thin across
the mud puddles in the road.
Crystalline beauty.

March 25, 2022

Reflection – tree & wires in a piece of glass on the ground. I remember this being one street over and near our friend Laura’s place. Today (2023) she has an article in the Globe and Mail. I can’t get over how lucky I am to live in this neighbourhood with these people.

March 25, 2021

This makes me laugh because I took a picture almost exactly like this yesterday. Apparently I often spend March looking for colour.

March 25, 2020 – pandemic March

We had spent 8 months in a two-bedroom apartment while our house was being renovated. We finally moved back in the weekend of March 13. (Yes, the weekend things started shutting down – how lucky were we?) The boys were happy to be home & very close after spending a long time sharing a small bedroom.

March 25, 2019

Sometimes, you get home from school, throw your backpack on a pile of snow at the end of the driveway, and go play in the backyard with your friend – just because you can. (Squint & you can see two boys playing in the background.)

March 25, 2018

On the move. Mr. 7 was ecstatic about his newfound ability to get to the top of the doorway. Both boys started parkour classes (and one is at parkour right now as I write!).

March 25, 2018

Meeting our friend’s baby. Just got a hilarious video of that baby – now a kindergartner! – doing a butt wiggle yesterday.

March 25, 2017

Mr. 6 snuggled up with his buddy. Little did we know that the ipad was prep for the pandemic to come.

March 25, 2012

I can do it myself!

Friday #SOL23 24/31

I’m writing this on Friday afternoon, the day after parent-teacher conferences, which means I’m writing this on a Friday following an 11-hour workday most of which involved talking to people, which means I’m writing this when I am really tired.

I’m writing this on the second day of Ramadan which is not a part of my religious tradition but is a part of many of my students’ religious tradition which means many of them are fasting and this is only the second day and they say the beginning is the hardest which means I’m writing this on a day when my students were really tired.

I’m writing this on a Friday afternoon, the day after parent-teacher conferences, the second day of Ramadan and the end of the first week back from March Break, a week which has been gloomily gray and chilly. Snow is predicted for tomorrow. We are all tired.

And yet…

Yesterday, a grade 9 student wore a frog headband during the parent-teacher(-student) interview, so today I shared thirty translations of Basho’s frog haiku and then we wrote haikus even though not everyone knew what a syllable was and lots of students shared and it was pretty great.

Yesterday, the grade 12 students mostly didn’t write at all during the time I’d set aside for them to work on the assignment due Monday, so today I gave very specific instructions and used a five minute countdown timer with very enthusiastic music and – guess what? – they all wrote through several rounds and many left class with 200ish words done and it was pretty great.

And then, the reading class finished our decoding work early and we switched to word games and somehow they asked for a spelling bee even though they are, frankly, terrible spellers, and they all stood at the whiteboard trying to spell words like degenerate and altruism and wheelwright and then, when I said, “Oh, this one is waaay too hard, I’ll skip it,” the kids insisted that they wanted to try it and kept insisting even after I admitted that I didn’t even know it and then, shocking everyone, even her, Sarah spelled glaucescent correctly just before the bell rang and it was glorious.

And now it’s the weekend and we’re all tired, but you know what? I think we’re going to be ok.

What happens in Arizona… #SOL23 23/31

Today is parent-teacher conferences. As I got dressed, I put on a particular necklace – not a necklace, really, more an amulet, maybe – and I immediately felt a little stronger. Let me tell you a story that I don’t quite believe…

About six years ago, we were visiting my in-laws in Tucson, and my mother-in-law scheduled our whole family for an energy work session with someone she knew. I didn’t really believe in energy work, but I did (and do) really believe in my mother-in-law, and I pretty much always believe in spending time lying down and letting people try to make me feel better, so I said yes.

I’d never tried anything like this before, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything. The kids went first, and I was frankly astonished when the therapist (? energy worker? I have no idea) hesitated and then focused on a place on my child’s body that did, indeed, require healing, but that he could not possibly have known about. There was more, but afterwards, when he explained what he had felt and done during the session, he commented about that part of his work. I was intrigued. Nevertheless, when it was my turn for energy work, I wasn’t expecting much. I lay down, assuming I would feel nothing, anticipating thirty minutes of quiet.

Now, the thing is, that I’m not in Arizona anymore and this happened a while ago and I’m still largely a reading/science type of person, so when I talk about this it all feels like a bunch of hooey. If I were reading this, I would probably not believe it, and if you don’t believe this, I’m ok with that, but let me tell you, whatever that man did, I could feel it – and he never even touched me. It was intense. At the end, he told me that he had pulled a sword out of my gut (which, again, is ridiculous) and I shocked myself by looking directly at him and saying, “Give that back. I need it.” Well.

He did not give it back – because even an energy-work-person will not put a metaphorical energy sword back into your belly because that sounds like a terrible idea, even if it had previously been metaphysically there – and I felt oddly bereft for the next day or two. Finally, my mother-in-law (who, as I said, I fully believe in) found me and offered me a necklace-type thing: a green and white spheroid stone set in an odd elaborate metal bezel and fixed to a brown cord. She told me that she had bought it years ago; it had been sold to her as an amulet of protection and she felt that it had called her. Now, she said, she thought it was mine.

I wore it for days and, placebo or not, I felt better. Eventually, I put it away and only pulled it out every now and then. Even today, when I put it on, I feel powerfully protected – and I know for sure that whether that protection comes from the universe, or the stone or the depth of my mother-in-law’s love for me, it doesn’t matter. One way or another, the energy is there.

The Hard Way #SOL23 22/31

The students in grade 9 were seriously squirrely. I moved around the classroom, reading aloud from a children’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk, trying to teach plot development and elements of a narrative through a familiar structure (fairy tale) in a (potentially unfamiliar) story, but the minute I moved away from a set of desks, chatter began behind me. Phones came out. Once, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wad of paper fly at someone’s head. Nothing mean, mind you, but the students were obviously bored.

Harumph. This was a good lesson. I knew it. A) I’d done it before and B) I knew these kids well enough to know that they needed practice before they would be able to analyse a story on their own. On the other hand, I had to admit that it wasn’t working. At all.

We slogged through the plot analysis. I did the character voices. I highlighted vocabulary that would help them effectively discuss texts. I had them create their own diagrams. Nothing. The low-level “behaviour” continued and an oppressive sense of fatigue permeated the room. At the end of class, I asked what was up? They hesitated; I prodded – was this too easy?

YES, they said. Yes. Too easy, too boring, too baby-ish.

Harumph again. At home that evening, I stared at my lesson plans. Clearly they needed to change. But how? Well, I thought, if they think they can do something harder (internally I rolled my eyes), I’ll give them something harder. I wish I could tell you that I was doing this because I thought it was right, but the truth is I kind of wanted them to realize that they needed guidance.

I chose two short stories and found excellent versions online, pdfs that offered support for students who needed it (vocabulary, questions, pauses for reflection) and extensions for others. I deleted the lesson I had planned for the next day, the careful scaffolding of ideas and thinking, and moved straight to the big ideas in the unit. I didn’t bother with the extra vocabulary glossing I would have usually done. “Too easy,” I grumbled. “Well, this will be hard enough to fix that.”

The next day I explained the assignment briefly, handed out the stories and stood back, ready to watch the students struggle a little. They didn’t – at least not really. They formed small groups, found audio versions to support their reading, read out loud to each other or read silently. They used the vocabulary and questions provided as support. One student read quickly to the end of his story, then called me over, irate: “Seriously? Is this the end? Why would they leave us on a cliffhanger?”

I protested, “It’s not a cliffhanger. You know exactly what happened.”

Wolves,” he spat, turned back to the story, and started writing. I almost laughed out loud.

As I watched them working, I knew the joke was on me. The day before had been all about me, even though I would have told you it was about them. I had done this; I had done that; they had done very little. Today, given a desirable challenge (how many other students rushed to get to the ending that had so infuriated their peer?), they were (mostly) hard at work, leaning on each other and moving at the pace they chose. They laughed and gasped and, sure, they didn’t actually finish the assignment, but they were engaged. So now I knew: this class needed more challenge and less scaffold and I needed to revise the rest of the lesson plans for the week. I guess sometimes I still have to learn things the hard way.