Let’s talk about race

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As I was walking towards the VP’s office today, I passed a student putting up a mural. I teach at an Arts magnet school, and every Spring sees another round of grade 12 students painting over wall space and creating a mural as part of their final Visual Arts project. It’s one of my favourite times of year, and I’ve been thinking about writing about it – I have loads of great pictures to share. But when I walked by Mankaasha Umba quietly hanging one gel print after another, mug shot after mug shot, my breath stopped in my chest.

Mankaasha was carefully displaying her critique of our racism in the hallway right by the VP’s office.

I don’t know her at all, but I stopped to say thanks. “This is just what we need. Can you tell me about it?” Oh yes, she could. These are pictures of her brother, a fourth year university student who plans to continue school and work in cancer research. This is not how she sees her brother, but it is how too many others perceive him.

She and I chatted for probably 10 minutes. We talked about racism in the school and in the world. We talked about perception: how when I talk about racism, I am “passionate” but if she brings it up she is “angry;” how her brother had been followed home by police officers who were “just making sure” he wasn’t loitering; how even in this day and age, she’s had English teachers in our school teach books with the “n-word” but  not even bother to discuss it. We talked about how she struggles more with the subtle racism of the every day than the overt racism of the special occasion. She said, “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.”

She talked about how frustrated she gets because White teachers don’t want to talk about race for fear of making mistakes. She said, “other people have a voice, too. I don’t need to be the one calling this out all the time.” I admitted to being scared sometimes – even in our conversation – that I will say the wrong thing, but I’ve decided that the discussion is too important to avoid. She talked about how Black people have no choice but to talk about it whereas White people get to decide whether or not to engage. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales and so much more. Finally I asked her if I could write about this and she said yes.

While we talked, people passed by and stopped. And stopped. And stopped. “Yes,” they said. “Yes.”

“This is great,” they said. “Amazing.”

I think Mankaasha has just changed our school. I am so damn impressed I can hardly stand it. These kids, they are going to change the world. It gives me shivers to think about it. Mankaasha, thanks for starting the conversation.

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Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

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The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

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https://twowritingteachers.org

I wanted a cup of tea

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Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

I finished the last sip of tea from my travel mug as I pulled into the parking lot. I stepped out of my car thinking, “I’d like another cup of tea.”

Of course, I had a morning meeting. Ever optimistic, I ran into my office, turned on the kettle, and hoped the meeting would be short enough that the water would still be hot and I could make some tea before class. It wasn’t short. There was no time for tea.

On my way to class, I thought, “maybe I can make tea during my prep period.” But it turned out that I had an on-call (where one teacher covers a class for a teacher who is absent), so I didn’t have a prep period, so I couldn’t make tea.

After covering the class, I was hoping to make a cup of tea with lunch, but I’d forgotten about about a lunch presentation I’d planned to attend, so I rushed upstairs, grabbed my lunch then headed back downstairs to the library. I figured I would have time after the presentation to make some tea. But the presentation was great, and the discussion ran right to the warning bell, so there was no time for tea.

I gathered my things and headed off to my afternoon classes. These are Spec Ed classes with mostly drop-in students, so sometimes I can sneak out for a minute to make tea, but today started with a desperate phone call: another on-call teacher couldn’t find the lesson plans the regular teacher had left. I could hear the students talking loudly in the background. Since I’m the department head, I ran out to the portables to figure out what the students were supposed to be reading; I also reminded them about being polite to guest teachers. That done, I climbed the stairs back to Spec Ed: one student was struggling to answer questions about Of Mice and Men; another needed one-on-one math help; a 9th grader decided today was the right day to start his first-ever resume; and a fourth student just couldn’t concentrate. Students came and went, needing help, writing tests, asking for favours; the phone rang off the hook with teachers checking on various things. I worked straight through two periods without a break. I hadn’t even thought about tea.

In fact, I was just thinking about making that cup of tea when the phone rang one more time: a student with autism had not left class when the final bell rang. She was sitting, unmoving, ears covered, head down. I hightailed it directly to the classroom where the teacher realized, sheepishly, that the young woman had fallen asleep during his class. We woke her gently. Problem solved. But now there wasn’t enough time to make tea before the staff meeting after school.

The staff meeting was mercifully short. I was giving some colleagues rides home after school and we were a little rushed, but, because they are teachers, they waited patiently while I finally made myself a cup of tea, eight hours after I first thought “I’d like another cup of tea.”

It was a good cup of tea.

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R&J for the win

I missed every day of school last week. The flu did not care that we were in the middle of Romeo and Juliet or that I really needed just *one* more assignment to feel extra confident while writing report cards.

I sent in approximately a million movie clips to show. I lay on my couch, feverish, while Benvolio and Mercutio teased Romeo about the girl he loved yesterday. As I flicked aimlessly through Netflix, Romeo wandered through the Capulets’ gardens, then climbed up to Juliet’s balcony. I didn’t get to see the students’ shock when they first saw Olivia Hussey as Juliet (“But she’s so young!”) or hear the intake of breath when they realized that guns and “Verona Beach” have replaced swords and Verona in Baz Luhrman’s movie. I didn’t get to watch their eyes widen at a passionate Black Romeo from BBC or narrow at an almost-empty stage in the RSC’s version.  I missed a lot, but I was really sick.

I did get some perspective. I realized that my number one goal for R&J with this class is that they don’t hate it. Or at least that they don’t hate it because they find it inaccessible.

So I was nervous when I went back to class today. What did they think of last week? Did my movie clip gambit work? Did they understand? Did they hate it? Well… one girl greeted me with a disappointed, “Oh. It was so nice last week when you weren’t here and we didn’t do anything.” But she grinned a little as she said it, and her friend elbowed her under the table. I know they did work; I have the class notes. And then, as we talked, two students revealed that they had watched THE ENTIRE MOVIE over the long weekend. Well, hello there. (One chose Zefferelli, one chose the 2013 version – don’t judge.) When I said that since they clearly knew what was going on, we needed Mercutio to die by Friday, there was laughter and a ripple of anticipation. Of course, the two students who hated it before haven’t shifted their position at all, street brawls and dead bodies or no, but they are tolerating things.

A few have a field trip tomorrow. As they were leaving, one said, “Just fill me in on what happens, ok?” Yeah, I think I can do that.

R&J for the win. If all goes well, everyone will be dead by late next week and we can move on.

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For Mrs. Barkman

The space shuttle exploded sometime between the end of Algebra 1 and the beginning of English. We were at lunch, eating sandwiches and flirting madly as the shuttle burned. I found out in the hallway on the way to class. “Did you hear?” “Have you heard?” The news was almost gossip. When our English teacher – Mrs. Barkman, impossibly old – let us in, her eyes were red-rimmed and glistening.

“I imagine you’ve all heard,” she snapped. We watched the fiery footage, then she promptly told us to spend the period writing about the disaster. If memory serves, Mrs. Barkman just sat at the front of the class, stunned.

I was 14. During what remained of our 53 minutes, I wrote a well-reasoned piece about how the astronauts knew the risks they were taking and how sometimes progress requires setbacks. I explained that while it was sad, it wasn’t really *that* sad because, you know, space travel is dangerous.

I wasn’t unmoved, exactly; I was more caught off-guard. The disaster felt unreal and distant. The space shuttle was so much bigger than me that I couldn’t really see it.

Today, as Notre Dame de Paris burned, I could see all too clearly. I remembered my moments there: climbing the bell towers with students; savoring ice cream nearby with friends; exploring the interior with family; kissing lovers in the shadows of the buttresses; sitting in quiet awe of the hushed silence that kept the space holy even as tourists paraded through. Today, I felt the history in the stones as they tumbled, knew the destruction of the stories, understood the devastation of a people. Today, the fire at Notre Dame rose in me until my tears flowed for what we have lost, for what we can lose, for what we will, inevitably, lose.

Today, 33 years after Mrs Barkman wept, I mourn with her. Together, across the years, we weep for the unflagging courage of our dreams and for the devastation of their loss.

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Book magic

Elisabeth recommended it, and Catherine had a copy. I committed to exploring graphic novels this year, so I read it. I liked Hey, Kiddo a lot – well enough to recommend it – but it didn’t knock my socks off. Still, I decided to book talk it in my class because many of my readers are either artists or are reading lots of graphic novels right now: It seemed like a good fit.

Hey, Kiddo

Some books get immediate love in my class – two or three sets of hands reach for them as I finish talking, and the kids have to work out who gets to read first; others languish – I set them near their intended target, but the book stays firmly closed; this book snuck away from me – a student picked it up when I wasn’t looking, and I had to glance around the room to see where it was.

I wish I could say that I was thinking of this student specifically when I gave the book talk, but truthfully, I had a few kids in mind. Only after I saw J caress the cover as he slipped the book into his backpack did it occur to me that this book might be the right book.

He savoured it over the next few days, lingering over some of the images, writing about it during a free write, rereading certain sections. The book was clearly speaking to him. At the end of the week, I swapped out my friend’s copy for a copy I’d picked up from the public library. After all, I needed to return the book to my friend. J was fine with this so long as he could keep reading.

This weekend, as I was returning the book, I told my friend Catherine – who is also a teacher – how much J loved the book. I told her about the journal and the careful attention. Her response was immediate: “Give it to him.” I was startled – graphic novels aren’t cheap – but Catherine insisted, “If it’s changing his life, he should have it. It’s too mature for my students anyway.”

I gave J the book today. Busses had been cancelled because of freezing rain so only three students made it to class. J was astonished when I told him it was his, “Really? For me?” He held the book tightly for a moment before slipping it carefully into his backpack. And then, he told us his story. Just us, in a small circle in our little room in the library, drinking tea and sharing truths because of a book that made someone feel a little less alone in the world. One magic book.

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She walked out

She walked out.

I’ve been asking her and her friend to stop talking, get to work, put your cell phone away for a while now. Today, I tried to nudge them by saying, “I need you to be part of this class.” She bristled in response and said under her breath, “We *are* part of the class.”

Moments later they were talking again, so I walked back to them and said, “I need you to work.”

She shook her head and her eyes glistened. She muttered, “When you keep telling me to stop, it makes me not want to work.” Then she closed her laptop, put it away, grabbed her things and walked out.

I took a deep breath. I nodded to the EA in the room who quietly followed her make sure she was safe. The EA returned a few minutes later and whispered, “She’s in the bathroom. I think she just needs a few minutes.”

She was texting her friend, who was now on her phone full time, texting her back. I let this continue for a few minutes, sensing that she might need support, then quietly but firmly told her friend to say goodbye and put her phone away. I chatted briefly with her friend because she had also played a role in the incident.

When she returned – right before the end of class – she didn’t want to speak with me. She had only come for her friend. I tried to talk, then acknowledged that she was still upset and suggested we try again later. I said, “think about what you’re asking for. We need to talk about this because it’s not just going to go away.” She retorted, “I’m not a robot.” I honestly did not know what she was talking about.

She’s an excellent student in my class. She loves to read and writes with some ease. She comes every day, participates in discussion and generally seems engaged. Over the last week or so, she’s been a bit less forthcoming, but I did not expect today’s events.

I gave myself a few minutes after class to feel upset and vent. I am allowed to expect students to pay attention. I am allowed to make polite requests, even if they don’t want to do what I’m asking. I’m not asking anything outrageous… Any teacher can probably recite my list of grievances. Most of it came down to “I get to do this and I am right and she is wrong.”

By the end of lunch, I had settled down and started to gather information. First, I checked in with our EA. She, too, had noticed a change in behaviour and she didn’t think it was getting better. Then, I emailed her other teachers to see if they had any concerns. Two of the three emailed back immediately: yes, they were worried. She had been skipping classes and not handing in work. Uh-oh. Finally, I called her Period 3 teacher and asked if she could invite her to come talk to me at the end of classes. She did, but she was still so upset that she nearly cried and she couldn’t articulate her problems. I offered to write her a note to get into her next class, but she said her teacher wouldn’t care. Then she skipped the class.

I hesitated about calling home. At this point I was worried about her, but I did not want to get her into trouble; I wanted to find out what was wrong and to alert her parents that something had changed. In my office after school, I talked it over with another teacher. The final decision came down to this, as it so often does: “If your child was behaving this way, would you want to know?” Absolutely. I called her mother.

I opened the conversation by talking about how much I enjoyed having her in my class. I told her mother that her grades were good and she was generally an excellent student. Then I said that I was worried, that her behaviour had changed recently and that today had seemed really unlike her. I said directly that I was not calling to get her in trouble but rather to make sure that everything was ok.

I don’t think it is. Her mother did not know about any of the skipping and was immediately worried about her courses. Mom said things seemed fine over the weekend but wondered aloud about some other issues. We made a plan that involved mom talking to her tonight over ice cream and mom-time and me trying again tomorrow.

Now, I’m replaying the class in my mind and wondering what role I played in this moment. What has changed over the past two weeks? We’ve finished our preparation for the big standardized test and the students wrote the test on Wednesday. Could that have been more stressful for her than I realized? Maybe, but it doesn’t feel quite right. Hmm… No one has changed seats – and while I don’t love the seat she and her friend have chosen, it has remained consistent all semester – so I doubt that’s it. What else? I have tried, with depressingly little result, to implement a “no cell phone” policy. I’m not especially good at taking the phones away, unfortunately, because I am reluctant to introduce extra conflict into the classroom. I’m usually grateful that the worst offenders show up, so sending them out seems like a bad idea.

Still… I wonder if the cell phone thing isn’t playing a role. There are two kids in the class who have pronounced struggles with behaviour. I’ve been really at a loss about how to get them off of their phones. In fact, one of them left class last week when I asked him to put his phone away. (That’s a whole different story. I was actually pleased by his good decision making in that moment – though I still wish the phone wasn’t a problem.) I’m wondering how she views my behaviour. I’m pretty sure she sees herself as a good student who just wants to chat a little with a friend I wonder if my student believes I am treating her unfairly?

And now that I’m thinking about that, I realize that I have curtailed the amount of pair and group time for the class because I’m worried about behaviour issues and about the way the class is interacting. The last few class periods have been largely teacher-centered. Harumph. That’s not good. Why am I taking over? It’s a tiny class, but despite my efforts, I am virtually certain that at least some of the students would not define it as a safe space.

And there’s the crux of the problem: I suspect it’s safer for a student to leave, knowing we will talk when they have settled, than to stay when things aren’t going the right way and others might judge them. When I asked the girls to be “part of the class” they reacted badly because I had put my finger on the pulse of it: our class isn’t a cohesive group right now. It needs to become whole again.

This isn’t the entirety of the problem, of course, but it does give me a starting place. I would like our little class to serve as a safe space when other classes are tough, not to be the tough place. She’s good at English. This should be where she shines. So we need to figure out a way to make our class safe again. Might as well start tomorrow.

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