The Sound of Silence

Today we studied Act 2, scene 2 of Hamlet. I like to refer to this scene as “spying and lying”: the messengers return from Norway, Polonius tells the king that Hamlet is acting crazy because he is “mad” for the love of Ophelia, who has been avoiding him at her father’s order. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern show up and lie to Hamlet, and Hamlet is kind of a jerk to everyone. Then the “players” arrive and there’s a long speech with lots of allusions to Greek myths that none of my students know, and THEN Hamlet has a soliloquy. Whew. It’s a busy scene, and long.

In part because it is jam-packed with groundwork for the rest of the play, this scene is hard and, even after all these years, I haven’t yet figured out an exciting way to teach it. Mostly, we read the lines, and I point out the double entendres and puns. Dry. Even when I show them all the dirty jokes, this is never our most exciting day.

Today was even harder for the students because I recently banned cellphones. Some time last week, I completely broke. After years of futile efforts to “encourage” students to put their phones away, hours of explanations about why phones are not helpful, dozens of shared articles, a few experiments (see how many messages we receive and the like), three strikes policies, phone containers and more – all of which followed years of trying to “incorporate” phones into lessons, I finally couldn’t take it any more. I banned them. I’ve put a sign on the door that says “No Phone Zone,” and I am politely but firmly insisting that any phone that comes out during class time come “visit” my phone on my desk. The other option is for the phone – and the student – to leave the classroom. No warnings. So far, everyone has handed over their phone.

The phone ban made a big difference today because Act 2, scene 2 is so hard. The words matter and the double meanings matter and to get it you have to concentrate. Phones are an easy way out when our brains want a break. I still said no – for all 75 minutes. I know – I’m an ogre.

Then, 7 minutes before the end of class, there was an Amber Alert. All through the school, phones sounded, interrupting class; in our room, not a single phone sounded. Not one! Look, some kids were nearly asleep and one or two were studying for Chemistry and at least one was sneakily reading another book, but ALL THE PHONES WERE OFF. I found out about the alert from notifications after class.

Even better, with all the phones away, we managed to (almost) finish in one class period. Tomorrow, the nunnery scene. I am – quietly – ecstatic.

23 minutes later

The class ends at 2:05 and, let me tell you, the students are out the door before the bell even finishes ringing. It’s a big school, and if you don’t skedaddle, you could easily be late for your next class – especially if you need to stop and chat with a friend on the way. 

I use the time after they leave to tidy the classroom: putting away the last of the material we used, checking that everything is ready for tomorrow, erasing the white board, closing the windows, gathering my own things. I turn off the lights as I walk out, heading towards my office just as the next class period begins. 

As I close the door, I spy my colleague, Christina, standing in the hallway. Fantastic! She works in the Special Education program, and I want to talk to her about a few students in my classes. Midterm marks are due tomorrow, so I’ve been particularly focused on the larger picture of how students are learning in class, and I’ve seen some gaps for some of the students we share. Taking advantage of those few minutes after late students have made it to class and before students start asking to go to the bathroom, we chat about what is and isn’t working and how we might be able to work together. “He needs tasks broken into really small steps to get started,” I observe. “Yes,” she agrees, “why don’t I work with him on that assignment when he’s here next?” Just as our conversation veers away from students and towards more general topics, a young woman comes to the door, asking for help. I excuse myself so that Christina can focus, and I continue to make my way toward my office. It’s been about ten minutes since class ended.

Today, I turn into the hallway with the bathrooms. Rookie move, but it’s physically the most direct route to my destination. Sure enough, a group of boys is exiting the bathroom – together. They are boisterous and don’t appear to have been using the bathroom for its intended purpose…although what do I know? Maybe all teenage boys now use the bathroom in packs. I pause, several meters away from the group, hoping my quiet presence and raised eyebrows will encourage them to move towards their classrooms. This does not work; instead they pause in the hallway, talking loudly. I move closer and, intentionally pleasant, say, “Time to head to class.” One or two of the students recognize me, smile, and nod their heads, saying, “Yes, Miss” or “Gotcha, Miss.” Everyone starts to disperse. Everyone, that is, except one student, who moves to duck back into the bathroom. Hmm… that’s unusual. Wasn’t he *just* in there? I recognize the young man; I know that he does best when he is in a classroom and in the presence of adults. I invite him to make a different choice. He declines. More young men arrive and try to head into the bathroom with him. I suggest that this is unwise. 

More often than we might want to admit, adolescents perceive behaviour that adults consider “polite but firm” to be, well, not polite. I know that I need to be especially careful that these students don’t feel that I’m targeting them. I’ve asked them several times to make a better decision, but they’re not responding. Time for me to get help. I let them know what I’m doing and turn around to head to the Main Office. Before I get far, a young woman stops me, asking to be let into an empty classroom where she forgot something. Though I haven’t taught her, I know her and I know that she often wants her needs to be met immediately; I’m also certain that allowing her into an empty classroom with no supervision and the young men down the hallway watching is a bad idea. I pause. “I have to run to the Office, but wait right here. I’ll be back in no time and will definitely let you in.” She eyes me warily, then nods.

There’s no running in the hallways, and this isn’t an emergency, so I move into a quick walk and make it to the Office without further interruption. There, the amazing Office Administrator, Laurie, is out of her seat and on her way to help almost before I finish explaining. “It’s X?” she queries over her shoulder, “I’m on it. You go tell the VP.” She leaves with a walkie-talkie and I move deeper into the rabbits’ warren that is home to our administrators. I briefly explain the situation, then head back to keep my promise to the young person who wanted to enter the room. By the time I get back to that door, another teacher has let her in. 

I confirm that Laurie and a VP are with the students I originally spoke to (shaking my head that they didn’t bother to leave when I literally told them I was going to get an VP) and start back towards my office. I turn into the next hallway and see a colleague. We exchange hellos, but do the thing where you say hi but keep moving so that you can’t stop to talk. Another turn. Up the stairs, and I turn into my office. As I settle into my chair to start my work, I check my watch. 2:28 My class ended 23 minutes ago. I open my laptop and pull up my planning doc. This is why it’s hard to get much work done at school. 


“Miss, can you explain Easter in Canada?”

I start to nod, then I realize that have no idea what this student is *really* asking. Perhaps, I think, she is not Christian? I check. Nope, she’s Christian, so that’s not it.

I’m thinking about how to answer the question when, “Oh,” says another, “and I thought Ramadan was over? Didn’t you have that dinner on Thursday? Why are people still fasting?”

Y’all. Class has not even started. Correction: English class has not even started.

I begin eloquently, “Um…”

Ramadan seems easiest. I explain that Ramadan is a period of fasting that lasts… how many days? Dang it. My brain can’t find the number. I hesitate and look to the student teacher. He quickly supplies the number of days left. 

“But you had the dinner,” says one astute student.

Yes, I explain, but Muslims break their fast each night after sundown. Now some students are confused. If people are eating, how are they fasting? I explain that people cannot safely fast for 30 entire days, that they fast between sun up and sun down. Some students look askance, but most seem satisfied, and none of the Muslim students disagrees.

This settled – ish – we move on. Next, I share that this week is also Passover. I say something about Abrahamic religions which, upon reflection, is perhaps not my wisest move. I try to explain what Abrahamic religions are, but simplify to “Judaism, Christianity and Islam” and move on. 

Back to Passover. Israelites. Egypt. Blood on the doors. “Wait – what? They put blood on their doors?” Yes, to save their oldest sons. And now I’m trying to remember the whole story, but it’s been a while, and, again, the student teacher (thank goodness!) adds some details – lamb’s blood, Angel of Death – and most students nod along, though a few are clearly still wondering about the blood, and a few are not paying attention at all.

Whew. On to Easter. This one should be the easiest because I grew up in this tradition, but I stumble as I explain that Jesus is the Son of God because I’m trying to explain, not preach, so in my mind I’m wondering should I say that he is the Son of God or just that we believe he is? And somehow I say that Jesus is a prophet. I’m immediately corrected by a student who says Christians do NOT believe Jesus is a prophet, but by now the back of my brain is at work, and I’m wondering if we can think of the Messiah as a prophet – but then what is he prophesying? So probably not ok to say he’s a prophet – and I really need to keep explaining Easter to this class full of students with really good questions which I thought I could answer, so I go with “Messiah.” Of course, most people in the class don’t know that word so I revert to Son of God, and explain Good Friday in about one sentence because, again, this is English class and finally we get to Easter. And on Easter, the third day, He rose again.

“Like, he came back to life?” And, at last, this is a question I can answer without hesitation, “Yes, in the Christian tradition, Jesus died and then he came back to life on the third day.” No one objects. There’s a brief pause, and I feel relieved that I got something right in this impromptu rundown of this week’s holidays.

Just then, the student who originally asked about Easter, the question that started this all, says, “But I still don’t understand. Why are there so many bunnies?”

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. 

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.

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.

Say my name #SOL23 21/31

“Ok, it’s 9:25. Who wants to do the Land Acknowledgement?”

Around the classroom, grade 12 students shift in their seats. No one meets my eye. A few more kids slip in and find spots while I wait. Eventually, someone raises their hand. They choose to read the printed acknowledgement out loud rather than offer their own. We review the meaning of “stewardship” and then it’s time for a quick book talk – Their Eyes Were Watching God – but before we shift into independent reading, A says, “Wait! We have to do names.”

Students begin to chuckle. “Right!” I smack my forehead dramatically, “Names. Surely we can do better than yesterday?” Yesterday was a disaster – it took three tries before anyone could name everyone and apparently no one – including me – was pronouncing one student’s name correctly. (And this after I had practiced!) Eventually she gave up on us, even though we really were trying. Today goes a little better. We get through everyone twice before we move to reading.

Y’all. It is mid-March. And yes, we are a semestered school, and yes the beginning of this term was riddled with weather days, but we’ve still been together as a class for six weeks. I try to say students’ names all the time (mostly because I think it’s polite and friendly, but also because it’s a research-supported way to give people a sense of belonging and increase engagement), but lately (ok, yes, post-pandemic) it seems like quite a few students don’t bother to learn the names of their peers unless they were already friends before the class started. I’m not ok with that.

I have checked in with the teenager in my home; he admits to only knowing some of the names of his classmates. In fact, he is perplexed by my question. “They don’t usually make us work with other people,” he says. When I ask, “But how do you meet people?” because he is in grade 9 and therefore at a new school and therefore has made new friends, he says, “I already have a group of friends I’m happy with” then gives me a look and goes back to his phone. I push and ask how he met his new friends this year, but he only grunts at me. Minutes later he looks up and says, “that’s actually a good question,” but he doesn’t have an answer.

Unfortunately for my students, I’ve come back from March Break with a fire in my belly: I’m determined to help them connect – and if they can’t or won’t or don’t want to connect, I’m determined to at least give them practice in the skills they will need to do this later on. Yesterday, I told them about this article that argues that we should not allow cellphones in school *and* that we need to “rewire classrooms for connectedness.” So I’ve asked students to keep their phones away and I’m insisting we learn each other’s names. I get the sense that some of them think that this is cute but ultimately useless, but so far no one has said no. 

Today, once it seems like many people know most names, I tell the students about the next step in my scheme: I want them to learn something about the other people in the class. In the front row, the same student who had reminded me that we needed to practice names, shakes his head as he opens his book. “Good luck, Miss,” he sighs. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need it.

Starting again #SOL23 20/31

I got to school early enough to print and photocopy a few documents before heading down to the classroom. There, I rearranged the desks while I cleaned abandoned paper and almost-lost books out of the shallow spaces under the table tops. I erased the bits of colour that lingered at the edges of the chalkboard, marks I had missed as we left a week ago, then replaced them with today’s date and quote, carefully leaving out the punctuation so that the students would have a puzzle waiting when they arrived.

T was first. He often is. Then E, who came in then left then came back again. Then N, who sat, self-composed, and waited for class to start. And S slid into place next to T. As I asked them about their March Break, I moved around the room, gathering up the books leaning on the ledge of the front chalkboard – casually labelled “New Books”-  and taking them back to the bookshelves to settle into their long-term home. I replaced them with books I had scavenged during March Break and rewrote “New Books” above them, in a different colour of chalk, hoping that someone might be intrigued.

By now, the classroom was about half full. Sunlight filtered in through the half-pulled shades; the lights were still off. Some students were already reading; others had their heads down; still others chatted softly. A few more students arrived. The classroom breathed quiet anticipation. Then the hands of the clock moved, and Break was over. We were ready to start again.