Stuck in the middle

Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. My legs burn as I push myself to kick a little harder; my fingertips slide into the water as I try to rotate my arms just a little faster. I aim for the wall, swimming hard all the way in.

About a month ago, I joined a swim team. My kids both swim, and I discovered that the team offered an adult practice at the same time, so I signed up too. Now, I say “team”, but let’s be clear that it’s mostly practice with a coach. I am pretty sure there are no races. At least, I hope there are no races because right now I am slow.

I swam competitively through high school, but the last time I was in the water with a coach was 28 years ago. And it turns out that having a coach is daunting. He creates sets, decides what we’re working on and determines how fast we should go. Last night he insisted I could swim “on the :30” – translation: that I could swim fast enough and rest long enough to start again every 30 seconds. I told him exactly how crazy that was, but he was adamant, and I was pleased and proud when I touched the wall on the last lap having hit the 30 every time. On the other hand, two weeks ago we swam nothing but backstroke, and I took a break when an old shoulder injury flared up. The coach was fine with both results.

On this team, I am precisely in the middle. I am either the slowest swimmer in the fast lane or the fastest in the slow lane. Week after week, I have to choose my lane. And week after week, I hem and haw then pick the fast lane, where I find myself touching the wall just as the first swimmer – significantly faster than I am – starts the next set. I gasp for breath, curse the system that allows the fastest athletes the most rest, and push off from the wall again.

I wonder why I keep choosing this. Am I getting faster? I can’t tell. I feel constantly less-than; I am continually trying to keep up. I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes I have to check my jealous thoughts about the faster swimmers, as if somehow they are to blame for their speed, as if they are less nice because I am less fast. Other times I catch my thoughts drifting to self-doubt: should I be here? Should I move to the other lane? What am I learning? Surely if I swim in the other lane I can work more on my technique? If I just move to the slower lane, I’ll improve my stroke, right?

But it’s not that easy. When I swim in the slower lane, I am also out of place, noticeably faster than the other swimmers. I find myself passing people, and I know that I am not pushing myself as much as I could. I am not, in fact, working on my technique. In the slow lane, I slack a little.

What I want is a middle lane, but there are only two tracks. I have to choose. My choice is to swim up. For me, right now, struggling to keep up is preferable to cruising.

Which makes me think about my students – not the ones struggling to read or the ones who I worry won’t make it to graduation – no, as I swim, I think about the students who have chosen the slow lane. I think about C and about J, both strong readers and writers whom I suspect could succeed in the higher track “Academic” English course but who have chosen the “Applied” course. Often I push them: “try this (slightly harder) novel”, “add another detail to that paragraph,” “I bet you could write that essay.” I want them to keep their options open, to reach higher, to see where they could go. Until this swim team, I was confident that I was doing them a service.

But swimming has reminded me that the faster lane is a lot of hard work and there are plenty of good reasons to slow down.  If I were dealing with an injury or using swimming as down time, or even if I just needed a break, then I would choose the slower lane. There are joys in the slow lane, too, joys in taking your time, in being where you are, not where you might be. I think of C, unhappy in Academic English last year, and I realize that she is happy right now. She reads what she wants, and she has plenty of time for creative writing. When she speaks, others listen. She’s a leader in our class. Perhaps my role is not so much to push her to a different level but rather to make sure that she develops in the lane she has chosen.

It all comes back to why I chose a team this year rather than free swim: the coach. In some ways, the coach sees my potential more clearly than I do – he was right to insist that I could swim that fast set – but he also trusts me to know what I can and cannot do – I was right to take a break when my shoulder ached. This is the balance I want in my classes. For C and J and all of my students, I want to hold onto the vision of their potential while I honour the choices they make (for reasons they may not disclose to me and that they may not even know). There is no middle lane, so we’re all going to need to practice.

 

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Homework

My older son just finished a big school project. He had to research and write a biography of his hero – in French. For reasons beyond my comprehension, he chose George Washington Carver, someone he had never heard of before and whose accomplishments he can barely describe in English, much less French. “Crop rotation” anyone? He is also writing a Halloween story in English and reading a book for a Literature Circle. And he’s supposed to read in French for 30 minutes a day AND he has weekly French worksheets which he regularly does the night before they are due.

My younger child’s teacher photocopies sheets and puts them into a red duotang (one of those 3-pronged folders for all you Americans out there) then sends home things to be learned or reviewed every week. Also, he is supposed to read in French every night. And there are other kinds of homework: the other day, for example, the teacher asked the kids to bring in shoeboxes for a diorama. My child told me not to bother sending one in because “there are loads of kids who will bring more than one.” I was not allowed to explain his decision in a note to the teacher. The 8-year-old told me he would “take care of it.”

Now, I don’t know how other teachers fare with this stuff, but I am the WORST about my children’s homework. For the love of all that is holy, I read way too much about pedagogy to be anywhere nearby when the kids pull their assignments out of their backpack. Their teachers are lovely thoughtful people at various stages of their careers. Their expectations are not completely outlandish, and the workload really isn’t over the top. Well, the older one was a *little* overwhelmed this week, but I’ll admit that he rarely does a full half hour of reading in French and it’s not like he began his project early… and, there, I’ve already started.

I’m an American who speaks French for Heaven’s sake. Worse, I’m an American who is qualified to teach English and French in Canada – and my children are doing immersion French. Oh, and I’m a card-carrying member of the helicopter parenting generation – right down to my attempts not to be a helicopter parent. Homework gets complicated.

This year, we decided that it was time for the kids to make their own lunches and do their own homework. Lunches = no problem. Homework = well… the grade 3 teacher wants us to sign off on a chart that says that our son has done his work at least four nights a week. And I know that it’s good pedagogy to get parents involved in what’s going on in the classroom. And it’s not like my kids prattle on about school (I literally relied on the girls down the street to tell me everything until, tragically, this year they are not in my children’s classes), so homework can be a good window into the classroom. Right?

But then we lost the damn duotang. Actually, to be fair to me, I don’t think it’s in our house, so “we” didn’t lose anything. Sadly, the red duotang is also not in the classroom. Nor is the “personal dictionary” or some mysterious orange duotang, and I’m pretty sure those suckers never came home. I’ve read the teacher’s notes home and, sure, the message is in the subtext, but it’s clear that he thinks we lost these things. I don’t dare tell him that I’ve never seen the orange duotang, but I kind of want to send him a picture of our organized after-school system. Then again, maybe I don’t… I mean, I’m doing the best I can, but things around here can get a little hairy between 5 and 7:30. We’re, um, mostly organized. And I have torn the house apart; that red duotang is not here. I’ll tell you what: I know my third-grader, and I will not be at all surprised if these items reappear magically at the end of the school year. In the meantime, until his busy teacher gets around to replacing it, we have no sheet to sign. My child is delighted.

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And the fifth-grader, oh the poor child. It’s gotten to the point where he sometimes bursts into tears upon merely hearing the word “homework.” This would be distressing if he ever ever ever actually did any homework without significant “prompting”. And by “prompting” I mean “threats.” And, as I threaten him, I remember that this is the year he’s responsible for his own homework, so my brain starts up…

“Just let him not do it and see what happens,” hisses 1970s-Amanda-mom.

“What will his teacher think of you if he comes with yet another half-done, crumpled, food-stained worksheet?” fusses the 2010 version of me as a mother.

“Those worksheets are completely inappropriate and in no way promote learning anyway,” counters teacher-Amanda.

“Google translate is the devil,” sneaks in French-teacher Amanda. “Also, check that he didn’t forget any of the accents.”

“You were just like that, and you turned out fine,” the voice of my very own mother echoes in my head, thus confirming that things have really gotten out of control.

Meanwhile, my 10-year-old has snuck in another 20 minutes of screen time and calmed down enough to be able to summon up a fresh round of tears when I remind him that he really does have to do his homework.

So tonight, it was a real victory when he finished a project in French about a man he had never heard of three weeks ago who did something important that he can’t really understand but whom he claims, for the purposes of this project, is his hero. I tried to help him choose a hero (without commenting on how the project was presented), and I didn’t say anything negative as he hand wrote his first draft (because the teacher didn’t want them to type the first draft but required a typed final copy). I didn’t point out that there was no feedback on the draft. I will admit that I typed some of it from his rough draft because he’s 10 and watching him plink keys one finger at a time makes me crazy, but I didn’t make any corrections for him, and I only sort of helped with the French spell check. Also, I let him cry more than once. When he finished, I congratulated him on all the work he did and asked if he felt proud. He did.

I felt proud, too. Because I didn’t email the teacher one single time to tell her what I thought about the assignment. That’s got to count for something, right?

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Tick off

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When the phone rang I was in the middle of giving the “ten-minutes-till-bedtime” warning. But since it was her, I picked up. Because you can tell a real friend hello and goodbye in mere seconds if you need to. Because she doesn’t usually call at almost bedtime. Because I always like to hear what she has to say.

Well, I *usually* like to hear what she has to say. But maybe not when she says, “Hi, um, can you check your texts? I sent you some pictures.” Because, though none of my students appear to believe this, nothing good ever comes from an urgent request to look at pictures on your phone.

Sure enough, I checked my phone and yelped, “That’s a tick! Why are you sending me pictures of ticks?”

As it turns out, the tick had decided to take up residence near her daughter’s armpit.

“Um, that tick is already embedded,” I observed helpfully. Unsurprisingly, they knew that. They had actually called to see if I knew how to get it out. In theory, the answer was yes; in practice the answer was not yet

Since nobody wants to pull a tick out of their child on their own – at least not the first time – and since apparently not yet is better than not ever, they hopped in the car and headed over to my place. Meanwhile, I cleverly googled “how to remove a tick” (pro-tip: pretty much everything except “pull it out with tweezers” is an old wives’ tale) and then called my father.

Now, before you judge me for making an international phone call to a 73-year-old man to talk about a relatively common and seriously tiny creature, I should mention that my dad is an infectious disease doctor. Ok, and I should also mention that I was really just calling for moral support because he and my stepmother basically live in the woods, and I am decidedly a city girl. They have tick experience. Dad told me to pull the tick out with tweezers, but he added some extra things like “watch for fever for the next ten days” to make me feel like the call was worthwhile.

When my friend arrived, we left my boys downstairs, supposedly making their lunches but really listening carefully at the bottom of the stairs to hear if there was any screaming. My friend, her daughter and I headed up to the bathroom with the good lighting to look at the tick.

It was a tick, alright. It  was also very contentedly settled in under the 10-year-old’s arm. With more bravado than bravery, I held the tweezers, her mom held her hand, and I pulled the tick out. That was it.

This result seemed all-too-easy for such a dramatic situation, so we fretted for a while about whether or not we’d gotten the whole tick. Our concerns mostly led us to poke the poor child’s tick bite repeatedly with the (sanitized) tip of a safety pin. She was surprisingly patient with our ministrations, possibly because she was convinced that if we left any of the tick behind undefined but horrible things would happen, possibly because she guessed that her friends were downstairs listening for screams.

Finally, we declared her tick-free, swabbed just about everything we could reach with rubbing alcohol (because that’s what the website said to do), and headed back downstairs. The boys pretended that they had spent the whole time packing their lunches, the girl grabbed the dinner she had brought along (we had rudely interrupted with our concerns about her potentially imminent death-by-tick), and her mom put the bottle with the tiny tick corpse into her pocket – “just in case it has Lyme disease,” she said, though I’m not sure how having the tick body will help. We hugged, they left, and just like that the drama was over.

New definition of friendship: will remove a tick from your child’s body, during dinner and/or at bedtime.

Celebrate Book Love!

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Today I bought my class pizza. They were delighted – and so was I. This year I have fully committed to daily free reading in my Grade 10 English class. I am teaching the “lower” track English class, and not all of my students see themselves as readers. (To be fair, some do – some read a lot – but others do not read at all.) I am determined to give them enough reading time that they have a chance to experience what reading is like. I am determined to meet them where they are without judgment and to guide them forward with joy.

Now, I’ve tried choice reading before, but I never quite figured out how to make it work. Usually some kids loved it and some kids hated it, and eventually we gave it up. This year, I came to class full of ideas and strategies from Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher. Book Love and 180 Days are my inspiration (even though – full disclosure – I haven’t yet finished all of 180 Days yet.) I don’t have a real classroom, so no classroom library, but I gained an ally in our school librarian and we have free reign on a daily basis. And I’m really working to find the right book for each kid.

Last week marked 5 weeks of school, 1/4 of the semester – and it also marked the day we reached our first class goal of 10 books read. TEN. They thought I was crazy when I first suggested that. And today we hit 11 – and two are nearly done with another book apiece! This is practically a miracle. First of all, until last week we only ten students were attending class (an eleventh has joined us now). Second, when I surveyed my students at the beginning of the year, I found out that most of them read either one book (for English, and not entirely on their own) or none last year. Now some of my students are on their second or even third book. Our revised goal is 40 books, and the students are excited.

So today I ordered pizza to arrive during the last 15 minutes of class, and we celebrated. Because reading is joyous and milestones are worth noting. I let you know when we hit 40 – bet we get there faster than they think we will.

Let’s celebrate!

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I do believe… I do. I do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“The word ‘believe’ is rooted in an old English word meaning to hold dear, esteem, trust; it has the same origins as the word ‘love.’ To ‘believe’ is not to agree with particular ideas or concepts, but it is make a commitment of the heart.” – Rev. Bryant Oskvig

 

Last year, I overheard a colleague complain that “everyone” has autism these days. My first reaction was disgust – how could they!? – but my second was compassion. After all, haven’t we all had times when we didn’t believe?

I was teaching 7th grade math. Math! Of all things. And middle school. I had wanted to teach either 3rd grade or high school English – middle school was on my “never will I ever” list. But here I was, in an oddly-shaped room with creaky wooden floors in an old house in downtown Washington, D.C. The school had as much  personality as its location and the students, well, they matched their surroundings.

To be fair, the teachers were equally unconventional. I was one of the few teachers with any formal education credentials, and all of us were impossibly young and unmistakably dedicated to teaching well. We used to joke that we should just put beds in our offices and move in: it would save us the charade of having a life. I was trying to learn the craft of teaching, but 7th grade math in a quirky little school was a far cry from anything I had studied or practiced in grad school. So I was reading a lot about teaching and doing a whole lot of thinking on my feet.

My classroom was full of squirrelly 12-year-olds, and I was full of crazy ideas. We kept math journals, created math skits, and learned statistics with M&Ms. My fellow teachers and I shared successes and failures daily. We dissected education trends and talked about various ideas for hands-on learning. And we complained. Not a lot, but plenty. Often we complained about how “all the kids” had “some diagnosis” that prevented us from using our fancy, researched techniques.

One of our favorite targets was ADHD (though it was ADD at the time). We were virtually all single 20-somethings, but that didn’t stop us from harrumphing about “kids these days” and speaking knowledgeably about parenting trends and over-medication. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I firmly believed that ADHD was a fad and that most medication was just to settle down normally active children.

In my classroom, students sat in a semi-circle. That is, when they sat. Memory tells me that “a bunch” of them were boys, but I can’t vouch for that. I can say that they lacked a certain focus every day after lunch. They were sweaty, talking, moving, tapping, crazy creatures who occasionally learned some math almost as if by accident. And then there was Alex.

Alex was in constant motion. He talked a mile a minute and had incredible eyelashes that framed big hazel eyes. He could make me laugh in about half a second, and I was pretty sure that he actually wanted to learn math. That said, he had physically fallen out of his desk more than once… Oh, and he “supposedly” had ADHD. He was pretty much always in some sort of trouble.

For a while, I had tried putting students who misbehaved into the center of the semi-circle. Only belatedly did I realize that a) I was shaming them, and b) many of the boys took complete advantage of having all eyes on them. I needed a new plan. One of my books suggested a “three-strikes and you’re out” policy. I went with it.

I’ve forgotten the lesson that day, but I know it was a fun one. I know this for sure because Alex really wanted to take part. He was leaning forward in his desk, straining and stretching, tilting the whole thing at alarming angles. He had mentioned that he hadn’t taken his meds that morning, but since I didn’t really believe he had ADHD, I didn’t take much notice. I gave him his first warning about 5 minutes into class.

He looked chagrined. “Sorry. I just can’t focus.”

I gave my best stern look, “Well, give it a little more effort.”

He did. I could see he was trying to watch only me. But he just couldn’t. He was trying to watch everyone in the whole class at exactly the same time. Sure enough, minutes later I gave him his second warning and sent him to cool down in the hallway.

He came back in quickly. He was so excited to be in the room. He sat on his hands. He held his beautiful eyes wide open. He squirmed and he wiggled. And he fell out of his desk. Somehow, this time, I knew it had been an accident. But the whole class was laughing, and I had this three strikes policy.

“Alex,” I said, “you have to go to the office.”

“I know,” he replied, and his little head hung low. His whole skinny little body was the picture of despair. “But I was trying to be good.”

My heart broke as I asked the question: “But were you good?”

“No,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. He looked up through his long lashes as tears started to fall. And he went to the office.

Because, you see, he had ADHD. And he hadn’t taken his medication. So he couldn’t focus, and the whole exciting classroom was one giant distraction for him. I knew it in that moment as surely as I knew anything.

I wanted to shout after him, “Wait! No! I was wrong! I believe!” But I didn’t. And since I wasn’t the only non-believing teacher, that wasn’t his only trip to the office. Happily, we had an incredibly kind principal and a deeply connected community. I taught Alex again, and I was privileged to watch him grow up. Today, I see him on Facebook and I marvel at the compassion he has for his own students. He was an outdoor education instructor and now he teaches science. He seems to be a fantastic teacher, but I could be a little biased.

And I believe. I believe in ADHD and autism and so much more. I worry sometimes about labels, and I know that these things are complicated. But mostly, I look at the children who come into my room and I think, “I believe you. I believe in you.” And I wish for my non-believing colleagues a moment that helps them believe, too.