Classroom Semiotics

I’m trying to teach my 12th graders a tiny bit about semiotics and it’s not going well. Or maybe it is? Honestly, I have no idea. When I pause and use the poll function in the meet to ask if they want to keep talking about this concept or if they’re ready to move on to the next or if they don’t care, the vote is almost evenly split. What does that mean?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. (Forgotten that grad school lecture on semiotics and now you want to remember? No need to rack your brains: this visual essay by Thomas Streeter is a short reminder.) The longer I teach in the purely virtual classroom, the more I realize that a big part of my teaching style involves a minute-by-minute awareness of my students’ signifiers and what they tell me about how the students are learning. In the physical classroom I take in the way the students’ eyes move or their heads tilt; I notice when they shift in their seat or when the second person asks to go to the bathroom. I have made a years-long study of the semiotics of high school students, and reading them has become indispensable to my practice. It determines how I pace my lessons, when I talk and what I offer next. Today, as I talk to a screen of circular icons, I realize that much of teaching is deciding how to answer the questions of when and what next. When do we move forward? When do we linger on a topic? What is the right activity to use to increase thinking in this moment?

A good teacher is a master of classroom semiotics; unfortunately, I recognize very few of the signifiers in this virtual world. As a class we haven’t yet developed a culture of significance that we can all recognize. Too often, the one student who regularly leaves her camera on becomes my guide for everything. Does E look engaged? My brain, stuck in the physical classroom, tells me that everyone must be engaged. Did I catch a slight nod? Good, my subconscious accepts that they all understand well enough to move on. Meanwhile, I make up for the lack of signifiers by exaggerating my own body language. I smile and grimace, move my face closer to the camera to give them “the look”, widen my eyes and make giant gestures, as if somehow my body can make up for their disembodiment. It does not work. Or maybe it does.

I am trying to use good online teaching practices – polls, questions, music, quick takes, “waterfall” in the chat and more are all part of my practice – but I can’t figure out how to know what my students know. What are the signifiers when we can’t see?

I keep thinking back to the year I taught in Bulgaria. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Bulgarians use a quick upwards gesture with the head to mean “no” and a side to side motion to mean “yes” – nearly the opposite of the yes and no motions that I took for granted. The students knew North American head movements, and some of them – but not all of them – tried to use my signifiers in English class when I asked a question. Early in the school year, I asked if students understood something, and I found myself bewildered by a chaotic sea of bobbing heads. It was impossible to know who was signifying what. Slowly I learned to stop asking yes or no questions; slowly I learned which students were likely to use which system of nods; slowly I learned to gauge their attention and understanding in other more meaningful ways.

Those lessons came near the beginning of my teaching career; today, older and much more set in my ways, I am struggling to change. For example, right now, our class writing time is nearly over and I have no way of knowing who wrote and who didn’t, who found it difficult to get words on the page today and who would keep writing if we had more time. I don’t know if they read during reading time. In five minutes, I will not know who is watching with the documentary we’re studying. I suppose I could tighten up – insist on reading logs and online notebooks, give content quizzes and call parents – but all those years of reading my students have taught me that those things don’t really work. The students learn best when I offer engaging and important work. Since I can’t read the classroom right now, I’m going to have to trust that the lessons I’ve created are important, that the learning is its own goal. It feels like my four-legged chair has become three-legged: this classroom will still balance, but only if I keep paying attention. Like now, when writing time is over.

100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

Failure

Today was the first-ish day of the last quarter of the craziest year I’ve ever taught. First-ish because yesterday was technically the first day but since we “pivoted” (grr) to online learning during our Spring Break, teachers sort of got a day to regroup. Today was also the day that report cards were due for the third quarter. (You can, no doubt, imagine that prepping for new classes and writing report cards for the day after those classes began did not, in fact, lead to a restful break, but I made do.) I finished my comments last night, quadrupled checked the marks and turned everything in.

One of my students did not pass the course.

I have wrestled and wrestled with this failure. We are in a global pandemic and many teens are experiencing trauma as a result. I am regularly astonished that they can turn in anything, much less the high quality work they’ve often been doing. I’m trying to help them out: I’ve reduced the number of required assignments to the bare minimum – well, ok, a *little* more than the bare minimum, but only so that there is time for practice and improvement. I’m using running records to give credit for learning I observe even when not everything arrives in the format I hoped for. I accept late work with no grade penalty. I nag, I prod, I talk to families, and I offer extra support. In short, I think I do a pretty darn good job of helping students find their way to show me their best self.

And yet, some fail. In fact, pretty much every year someone fails one of my classes, pandemic or no. And every time I find myself reflecting on what could have gone differently. What caused this failure? What does it mean for the student? For their family? For their peers? Failure doesn’t occur in a vaccuum.

After I finished up my new class – for the record, they are delightful – I went to a meeting where a group of teachers discussed our school board’s plan to destream math and English, at least at the grade 9 level. Statistics and anecdotes both suggest that our current system is racist. More Black children are streamed into lower class levels and, from there, they become less likely to graduate, less likely to attend post-secondary. The numbers are startling and undeniable. Still, teachers in the group worried about failure. For destreaming to work, we will need to change our teaching practices, change the books we teach, change the class sizes and the adults in the room and and and… it feels overwhelming, even though almost no one objects to the idea. As the meeting ends, the unspoken question lingered: “what if we fail?”

I had to call the family of the student who failed to let them know. Their experience of the class, of my attempts at communication, was different than my perception of it. No one was happy. Again, I struggled because I believe that I was very clear about what was happening; I tried to hear their truth. I tried to make sense of it all.

Sometimes, I tell myself that failure is a gift, that the student must come to terms with what is necessary to pass a course or that they need to understand which skills need improvement. I believe that students should be allowed to choose to fail – I really do. Heck, Jessica Lahey wrote a whole book called The Gift of Failure and business people use the phrase “fail forward” so much that it’s cliche. But our school system is allergic to failure, for students and teachers. We sometimes tell students that they need to take risks to really succeed, but there is little wiggle room if a risk doesn’t pan out. Right up until the pandemic, students would occasionally cry on my shoulder after another teacher in the building gave their annual lecture that “screwing up even one test can be the difference between getting into a good university and a mediocre university.” In my class, I try to de-emphasize grades, but at the end of the day, we all know that the mark matters most once you step foot outside of the classroom. No matter how much I reassured them, the students believed the other teacher far more than they believed me.

Teachers are afraid of student failure, too. If a student fails our class, our burden increases significantly. Suddenly administrators and family members want to see our gradebooks (or evidence records, in our case). We have to explain why the child failed (this week I ticked off boxes on a checklist – missing assignments, significant absences – check, check) and call the family to deliver the news. Often people argue. Sometimes students plead. The pressure to change the grade can be enormous. I’ve heard more than one teacher say that they don’t fail students because “it’s just not worth it.”

I don’t know the answer to all of this. I’ve been writing this post off and on for hours – I almost failed to get it published today, but I’ll slip it in under the wire. But if I didn’t, nothing much would happen; my risks are moderated. Still, here’s what I know for sure: somehow, we have to find the balance where failure has enough sting to spur us onward in a system with enough give to help us bounce. We’re not there yet.

Cookies!

I went for a walk and came home to find them both in the kitchen. They can cook, but they have rarely baked entirely on their own. As I took off my shoes, I heard raised voices and then laughter. Andre walked into the front hall and stage whispered to me, “They’re making chocolate chip cookies. They don’t know that we don’t have chocolate chips.” He cleverly retreated upstairs while I tentatively approached the cooking zone. 

“We’re baking!” Their enthusiasm almost bowled me over. My eyes roved over the counter, floor, children.

“Don’t worry!” said my more cautious elder child, “We started with a bowl that was too small and the butter and sugar kind of went everywhere…”

“It made a HUGE mess,” added his brother, gleefully.

“But we’ve mostly cleaned it up. And now we’re using a bigger bowl. But the brown sugar has lumps so we’re smashing them with our fingers.”

“It’s harder than it looks.”

I offered to help and was invited to finish the creaming. “You’re so good at that,” my eldest said wistfully. 

“You’ll get it,” I reassured. Hoping that my help would soften the inevitable blow, I broke the news that there were no chocolate chips.

They hesitated, then rallied. “We can add Nutella!” said the 10-year-old. “That’ll taste great!”

“And the Dutch sprinkles!” added the 12-year-old, “We still haven’t used them.”

Disaster averted, they pushed forward. “Wait!” Mr. 10 is suddenly nervous, “is it ok that we’ve had the oven on for a kind of a long time? It’s empty! It’s not like the microwave, right?” I nodded and moved away from them. They were on their own.

His brother started to raz him about the time he turned the microwave on instead of using the timer. As they cracked the eggs, they discussed something that had billions of something. They were laughing again. One of them added a healthy dollop of Nutella. The other suggested more. The open laptop was immediately next to the bowl where they were mixing the batter. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the beaters to mix in the flour. 

I stayed near enough to watch without interfering, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open.

When the beaters got stuck in the batter, they both left the kitchen in favour of the backyard and the hammock. The batter waited. They returned.

In went the sprinkles. They mixed with their hands because the dough was “too hard”. More laughter. They dragged out the cookie sheets & argued about how big to make the cookies. Then they talked about how much they might spread and how many could go in each row. I managed to say nothing and laugh inwardly.

And now the cookies are baking. They look pretty darn good – and I have a suspicion that the boys might declare them the best cookies ever. They’ll probably be right.

Update #2: 36 hours later, I found some creamed butter and sugar nestled in the leaves of a plant that lives several feet from where the original creaming took place. Luckily, it’s easy to clean

Update #1: The cookies were, in fact, delicious.

Three more days

The classroom is dim as the students trickled in.
One.
Another one.
A long pause.
Two together.
By the time the bell rings, seven students are in the room. There should be 14. I suggest that they can spread out a little, these seven, but they are unwilling to leave the small square of space that has been theirs these past weeks. I can understand: they’re not six feet apart, but it’s been safe so far. Might as well stick with what works.

Several students had emailed me ahead of time; one posts in the chat.
“I won’t be coming in person this week, Miss. I’m sorry.”
“My mother doesn’t think it’s safe this week. Sorry.”

Yesterday as another school board in Ontario made a last-minute switch to online learning for this week, Ottawa’s chief medical officer, Dr. Vera Etches, wrote on Twitter, “We are not dealing with the same virus that we started out with a year ago. The risk of ICU admission is 2 times higher and the risk of death is 1.5 times higher for the B.1.1.7 variant (UK). The virus has changed, and so must our behaviours… I am asking the Province to implement further restrictions, including a province-wide Stay at Home order. My team is in the process of reviewing the COVID data in schools to advise on an approach to take for schools in Ottawa.Mask up. Keep your distance. #StayHome

But our schools stay open.

Dr. Etches is trying to keep our schools open because she thinks kids learn best in schools – and I agree, but case numbers are climbing and a teacher who caught covid at school is intubated and in the ICU. Today Dr. Etches sent a letter to teachers and parents, reassuring us that “The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as 73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and 98% of schools are free from an outbreak.

The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around.

Today, Toronto schools moved to online learning.

I hear rumours of vaccines sitting unused in freezers. The province says that people over 60 are eligible, in some places it’s 50. The clinics are empty – or full. My husband’s friend says we are “only” five weeks behind the US. A pharmacy creates an online “waitlist,” promising to contact us when we are eligible for vaccines. Teachers flock to the website. I share it with my students because many of them will be eligible, too: almost half of them work, many as essential workers in grocery stores or food services; at least one is bringing in money for their family. The vaccines are safe or not safe. We have enough vaccine or not nearly enough. I can’t sift through the fog in my brain.

The Premier says he has “made a massive move…by basically shutting down the entire province” then complains that malls were “jam-packed” this weekend. He scolds and threatens “We’re going to have further restrictions moving forward very, very quickly” like an angry father wagging his finger and telling us to be good.

My friends complain about their children not being in schools. “The unions have too much power.” “Teachers need to get back to work.” “My kids have been at home for too long.” “This is their job.”We’re going to private school next year; these public school teachers will be sorry.”

I think about my students, staying home to stay safe, staying home to protect each other, staying home so they can go to work to serve the people working from home. I think about them showing up online, trying to learn. I think about myself, standing, unvaccinated, in a room full of almost-adults. We are all trying so hard to do the right thing. I want to hug them, and I know I will not recognize them without their masks. If we pass in the street one day, I will not know who they are.

The anthem ends; we acknowledge that the land we stand on is unceded Algonquin territory. We are quiet in the dim heaviness of the room. We will get through this, too – we will. I take a deep breath. I tell them about books. “You can read this during break,” I say, “You should keep reading.” The quarter will end in three days.

We read. We write. We try to create poetry out of the words we have written this quarter – found poems, shadow poems, blackout poems. We try to create sense from what we have learned, from what we have done.

What have we done?

This is the end/beginning #SOL21 31/31

This is the last day of my fourth year of writing (and publishing!) every day in March. This is the end of the 2021 March Slice of Life Challenge – an amazing idea and community supported by Two Writing Teachers. I can’t lie: this year was a slog. I didn’t have much of a plan when I started this month – I usually have *some* ideas before I dive in; I didn’t have many hidden, half-written pieces that I just needed to tidy up and publish – I usually have half a dozen, even if I don’t use them all; I didn’t have any sort of available time – I usually have a schedule with daily quiet moments and a March Break. This year, I was constantly scrambling. There were nights when I posted at 10pm (or later), days when I sincerely wished that my children were younger so I could write about them with impunity or that I could tell everyone else’s stories without telling mine. I barely knew my students when we began and didn’t feel comfortable writing about the classroom most of the time. I didn’t join the Welcome Wagon ,and I didn’t have time to read and comment on nearly enough other blogs. (I tried; I honestly did, but there are only so many hours in the day.) As we come to an end, I am relieved.

So why did I keep writing? Well, first of all, I hate leaving things incomplete – even self-imposed things – and I love the community of writers. I know that daily writing – pushing past the point of frustration, letting go of my need for perfection – makes me grow as a writer. Most of all, I feel nourished as I read other people’s work and as they read mine. I learn and think, learn and grow.

This year I end at a beginning, as though I spent a month (or a lifetime) clearing away the underbrush and then am surprised to discover insistent green shoots poking up here and there. This year, I have a sense that some of these shoots are ready to grow. I have ideas that are ready for a little fertilizer, a little sunlight. I’ve found writing under my writing and, while I couldn’t write everything in the rush to write daily, I think I can nurture some of these shoots into something bigger. I have things to say that will take longer than one day or twenty minutes, things that need time. We shall see.

I guess I had to write every day for a month, every week for four years, to realize that I am ready to write, but I think I am. If nothing else, here I am, writing – always writing – at the end of the day, at the end of the month. So, look for me here. Even I’m curious to see what I come up with!

I can’t wait to read other people’s beginnings that stem from the end of March – see you on Tuesday!

Come, begin with TwoWritingTeachers and the supportive community they have grown.

“You want too much” #SOL21 30/31

Today is the second-to-last day of this year’s challenge. It’s been, well, a challenge and yet… I have an awful lot bubbling up – but that’s tomorrow’s post. Today, I want to try my hand at poetry one more time because it’s my blog, so I can.

First, I jumped onto the Golden Shovel theme that started a few days ago, I think, when Fran wrote about it and then Sherri picked it up. Next thing I knew, Peter tried one (in one of his quintessential two-for-one posts) and on and on it went. Heck, something must have been in the air, because even the New York Times got in on the game. The Times article explains the origin of the form, but the quick version is that poet Terrance Hayes created it in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. He used the words from epigraph of her poem “We Real Cool” as the final word in each line of his own, new poem, “The Golden Shovel”.

Basically, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve tried these before and don’t know that I have any particular gift for them, but they definitely get my brain going.

First, I took one of Sherri’s six-word stories and tried that: Tell me a sorrow you’re hiding.

Don’t tell.
It’s mine. Leave me.
Let me share a
Version of my sorrow
Even when you’re
Sure I’m hiding.

Hmmm…ok. Then I started thinking about a line that’s been echoing in my head a lot lately, “Oh, you want too much!” Yup, that’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

We sit in Mrs. Burch’s class and – oh,
how we are bored. “You
must realize that the rose bush represents…” when all we want
is a single red rose or a dozen or a garden because the world is too
alive, too present, too redolent of our sweaty desires. We are too much.

Meh… not terrible, but…now I’m thinking of the prose poem that Kimberly Johnson introduced in EthicalELA’s Open Write challenge earlier this month. So, on the second-to-last day of this challenge, I offer a slice as a list poem, still working from “Oh, you want too much”

Oh, you want too much

Some of the things I had not yet tasted when I was 14 and 120 pounds and my mother said I should probably weigh about this much for the rest of my life
Carrot cake
Caesar salad
The hint of apple on left on his tongue the first time we kissed
Brie cheese
Sea salt
The dirty salty flavour of cuts, kissed better on my children’s fingers
The slippery sweetness of fresh papaya
Soft boiled eggs
Tiramisu
Cum
The heavy warmth of Belize’s damp jungle air
The chalky morning realization that he did, in fact, just want sex
Truffles
Macarons
Sacher torte
Fresh eggs and tomatoes, scrambled in a shallow metal bowl over an open fire in China
The metal tang of rage
Coconut water
Lemon souffle, impossibly light, tangy and sweet, a little like heaven


I feel like this one could go somewhere, but not right now. Right now, it’s going to have to marinate a little (hahaha) and I’m going to bed.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for giving teacher-writers a safe place to experiment and learn

Bye-bye books #SOL21 29/31

I’ve been at my current school for almost eight years. When I arrived, I was awed by our book room: a cavernous space filled with rows and rows of giant, heavy, rolling bookshelves, mostly full to the hilt. That first year, I went down to the book room just to revel in all of the books.

Of course, I never stayed long because the room was centimetres deep in dust and smelled strongly of book mold. Most of the time, my revelling was quick: I scurried in, got a class set of books, and scurried back out, largely leaving the books to other scurrying creatures. Then, at the end of the year, part of my job was counting the books.

That proved to be nearly impossible – books were everywhere and, while they had clearly been vaguely alphabetized at some point, they now appeared to have been organized by someone whose preferred writing system veered more towards the arcane than strict alphabetic. Books were stacked haphazardly on the counters near the front, squirreled away on back shelves so no one else could find them and left, lonely, in the classrooms where they had landed. That summer, I spent sweaty hours trying rearrange the books into some order – any order – struggling to stay in the room long enough without being overwhelmed by the dust. I got somewhere, but not far enough. The work would have to continue into the next year.

As I reorganized, I began to purge. We had set after set of books that were falling apart or mildewed beyond use. We found books that no one in the department recognized. One school year, I declared that no one should leave the book room without throwing away at least three old books. We barely made a dent in things.

Over the years, we’ve used part of a PD day to purge (just 30 minutes to stretch our legs, I swear!) and one teacher even came in with his wife and spent hours rearranging books into a *much* better system than the original. At first, I kept track of the books we threw away, but eventually that seemed both fruitless and depressing. Still, we found some great things: an old textbook that had been signed out to one of our current teachers – although he had attended another high school; a book once used by a parent of one of our students; and an entire set of books published in 1943, before our school was even built, before our school board even existed. Each time, we marveled, shared, and threw them away.

Throwing books away is emotionally exhausting, so I tend to do it in fits and starts. Sometimes it makes me sad: I have thrown away books I love as their pages flutter out, falling to the floor in an attempt to escape; I have thrown away books I hated in high school, their spines stuck together by duct tape until they form one big clump of unreadable print; I have thrown away books I’ve never read whose covers whisper of bygone eras and stories I don’t yet know, but whose brittle yellow pages actively prevent me from reading them. Sometimes I go in excited to purge: we need to make space for new books! The new books rarely come – our budget doesn’t buy much – but the idea of making space is invigorating. Sometimes I’m wistful: why don’t we read these anymore? Once upon a time, I loved this book. And sometimes I’m angry: why are we still handing out these books? What must the students think when we hand them such damaged material? They certainly know what we value.

Throwing them out is physically exhausting, too, and no matter how much I clean and toss, the dust never seems to dissipate much. I can only spend so much time in the book room, even with a mask on for Covid, before my eyes get red and I start to cough. Then I have to leave.

Today I dragged a colleague in with me, and we threw away three bins of books. Yes, I have been doing this off and on for eight years and I can still fill three bins in a day. (Our bins are biggish trash bins on wheels – not huge ones.) I shuddered as I threw away Fahrenheit 451 – I whispered a silent apology to Bradbury, but the pages were no longer attached to the cover – and Brave New World – but even Huxley would have had to acknowledge that a mouse had eaten through a fair bit of several of his books. I threw away copies of books that haven’t left the book room since 1976. I found books that had last been signed out before I was born. I threw them out. I let go of some Jane Eyre (sigh) and a media textbook from the early 80s. I didn’t feel very bad at all about throwing away some Hemingway short stories, though I had a small pang about the really old Steinbecks. I imagined blackout poetry projects and repurposed book projects and collages and… I threw them out. I checked the contents of poetry anthologies, sighed over my favourites, and tossed them and their cracked spines and missing covers in the bin. It was cathartic and awful and it had to be done.

Somehow, this feels like my last stand: I can almost see the end of the purge. Surely, surely by the end of this school year, we will have a book room that represents what we actually teach (or what we might legitimately teach). The books in there will not be trashy things with yellow pages that creak and smell and fall out as we touch them. Our students will have books that honour them – at least that’s what I hope. Once this round is over, I can give the principal a tour of our near-barren shelves and then I can ask for new books. Right? Right? (Cross your fingers for us!)

When you write with https://twowritingteachers.org/ in March or on Tuesdays, you’ll find lots of people who love books as much as you do.

Getting better #SOL21 28/31

314 days ago, Lisa Corbett over at A Little of This, a Little of That started a walking challenge and invited me to join in. The goal was to walk every day from Victoria Day (May 18, the week before Labor Day in the US) to Canada Day (July 1) – at least, I think that was the initial goal. It seemed like a fun idea and something to do during those early days of the pandemic, so I joined in. Once we’d finished that, someone suggested extending the goal until the end of the summer, and then until Halloween, and here we are, 314 days later, still walking every day.

When we started, I set myself a minimum goal of 1.5 km (ok, secretly 1.6 because that is a mile and I am, still, American in so many ways and apparently because I also like rules) and I walked. Mostly I walked around my neighbourhood and the more I walked, the more I started to notice things. By May 24, I was taking pictures on my phone as I walked. By June 3 I started posting them because I thought they were pretty. Soon my walking challenge was a walking & photography challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this during March because, obviously, I’m doing another challenge. Given that I’m doing three challenges at once, and one of them is *entirely* self-imposed, apparently I am a challenge person. This is not something I knew about myself. I am not a race person: I’ve tried a few and mostly find myself on race day annoyed that my walk or run is so crowded and that everyone seems to think that a timer is a reasonable motivator. I’m a selective group-joiner, often preferring groups that allow me to attend or not attend based on my own needs. So, basically a selfish group member. Sigh. I *am* a perpetual class-taker, though I often end up frustrated in the middle and regularly swear never to take another – and then I sign up for another one the next summer.

Doing the Slice of Life Challenge got me started with regular writing four years ago, and every year March makes me dig deep to write through whatever comes at me. I have signed up for this challenge even when it made no logical sense and I have always written & commented every day for a month (and almost every Tuesday the rest of the year). As a result, I am a much more confident writer than I was four years ago. I am more comfortable writing in front of my students; I am more versatile (hey, I’ve written poems!), and I think I am more effective. I can’t say that the walking challenge has made me a better walker – what would a better walker be? – but I can say that it has gotten me out of the house every day this year, something that has *never* happened in my previous 13 winters in Ottawa.

I’m thinking about all of this today because today’s walk was in a cold gray rain. Days like today make me a) not want to walk and b) not want to take pictures. What sort of beauty can I find in late March muck in the middle of the city? After 314 days, you’d think I would know better, but I don’t. Even as I headed out the door, I had the same conversation with myself that I’ve had dozens of times this year, “There aren’t going to be any good pictures today, so you might as well capture what you can. You realize how often you think this? There’s always something. Sure, sure, but today… today’s going to be just like yesterday. Might as well just use something left over from yesterday’s batch…”

But there’s always something if I’m looking for it. Always. Today, I found myself fascinated with droplets, entranced by rain and the minutiae of the leaves pushing through the soil. Sure enough, I took pictures; when I got home and looked at them, I had a realization: I have gotten better at photography. This is improvement I can see. And you know what? I’m proud of my pictures and I’m really proud of my growth. That goes for all of these random challenges and maybe this is why I like a challenge – for me, the consistent practice that comes with a challenge helps me get better.

Here, enjoy a few of today’s pictures. Not bad, eh?

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who host this challenge every year. Imagine what might happen if you joined!

Words can never hurt me #SOL21 27/31

This week, the end of week four, one of my students turned in her first major assignment. In a quarter that lasts only four and a half weeks, her piece was two weeks late. I was delighted.

The first week of class was, I think, a shock to many of my students: they read every day & chose their own books; they wrote every day, too, in quickwrites, freewrites, prompted writes. The rhythm was unfamiliar, not least because of our compressed and off-kilter pandemic scheduling. By the end of the week, they had written a short memoir.

Not every student, of course, slides easily into memoir. She was one of these. No matter how many mentor texts or brainstorming sessions, no matter how many small group or large group discussions, when it came time to write something “important,” she shut down. I managed to finagle a 100-word mini-memoir out of her, but she steadfastly refused to consider the longer piece.

In a normal school year, I would have waited her out. Slow steady relationship building goes an awfully long ways, and I know how to use daily interactions to learn about students. This year, I don’t have time. Of course, the thing about trust is that it can’t be rushed; trust comes when it comes. The best I could offer this child was conversation and genuine curiosity, so I started talking to her during the walk breaks I’d built into our 4-hour-long classes. Every other day, every other week… and I didn’t realize there was a problem until near the end of week one.

But there is something about that memoir unit… I swear she wanted me to know her story. During week two she confessed: she had never – not once – submitted an essay for a high school English class. She shrugged, “My mark is always good enough that I can afford to take the hit.” The hit? The zero she would get for not writing the one assigned essay. I must have looked physically ill because the poor child rushed to reassure me, “It’s ok, Miss, my mark doesn’t go down that much.”

My mind reeled. Where to start? One essay? Just one? No other writing? “No,” she told me simply, almost quizzically, “not usually.”


“And no one said anything?”

“Well, I mean, they are definitely disappointed with me.”

I closed my eyes, and then, just to be sure, I repeated, “So you really haven’t written any long essays in all of high school? None?”

“No.”

Something lurked under that word: fear? or hurt? defiance? anger? I didn’t know, but I had to ask. “Why not?”

The story came out over a few separate discussions – the teacher, the public reading of her work, the shaming; the demand that she re-write or take the zero; the twin feelings of impotent fury and mortification; the decision not to write again.

And now I wanted her to write. She told me, frankly, that she couldn’t do it. Oh, we brainstormed together on Google Meet; she acknowledged that ideas were not her problem. I did my trick of scribing what the student says and giving it back to them; she said it looked better than she’d expected. Still nothing. And the quarter raced forward. During our class walks, every other week, every other day, I made sure to chat with her. She completed an infographic and participated in book club discussions. I praised her liberally. Week two ended and still no essay, though she wrote happily in her journal.

Week three, I kept looking for strengths, but she was keeping her head down. She still was reading, freewriting, participating in class… It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a piece done from beginning to end.

Week four and the class working on another essay, this time analytical. And there she was. “Maybe,” she said, “you could help me with a checklist for the essay?”

I looked up, trying to keep my breathing even. “Sure. The analytical essay?”

“Oh,” she said, “yeah. I turned that other one in just now.”

I used all my strength not to open it right away. We made a checklist. Two steps at a time. She went back to her desk. I did not read her essay until after class.

It was excellent.

And then, suddenly, I am angry. I am angry that a teacher decided to humiliate this child. I am sure that the teacher didn’t *intend* to humiliate her, but it happened nonetheless. I want to scream. I want to yell at the universe. This child has missed three YEARS of writing. Three years. I imagine where she could be now if someone had said something kind instead of something hurtful.

Nothing I do in the classroom is magic. Nothing I do is shocking or wild or inexplicable. I look for their strengths. I try to help them see the possibilities that exist. I insist that all of the students are capable, even when they tell me they are not. That’s it.

She turned in an essay. I told her all the good things about it. Now maybe she can write again.

(For more on the power of a teacher’s words, consider reading Melanie White’s post Journals or Molly Hogan’s post Thank you, Mrs. Minzy!)