R&J for the win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book magic

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

Hey, Kiddo

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

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

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

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

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

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She walked out

She walked out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s your comment? #SOL19 30/31

A few weeks ago I read the article The Feedback Fallacy in the Harvard Business Review. (Before you click on the link you should know that you only get three free articles from HBR every month.) The article is about providing feedback in a business setting, but it seemed immediately relevant to the classroom – in fact, it even uses examples from school settings. Much of the article resonated with me, and this really stood out:

Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it. By helping your team member recognize what excellence looks like for her—by saying, “That! Yes, that!”—you’re offering her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning.

Isn’t that just what we do in this March Slice of Life challenge? We comment on each other’s work and point out the bits and pieces that make us stop and go “yes!” I know that the heart of the challenge is writing, but, in many ways, this month is a commenting challenge, too. Last year, my first, I didn’t quite understand this. I commented on the required three a day and was proud when I commented on five or six. This year, I comment on as many as I can get to, and I aim for twenty if I can keep my eyes open long enough.

Why? Why all the comments? Well, I’ve now been blogging and commenting for one year and one month (minus one day), and one of my biggest surprises is how giving and receiving comments has changed the way I write AND the way I respond to student work. Two for one! Here are some of my observations:

Receiving comments

  • I love receiving comments. I mean, I really love it. Knowing that someone is reading what I wrote and thinking about it is incredibly powerful. It motivates me in ways I did not expect when I started.
  • I love it when people notice something that I did on purpose or notice something that really worked in my writing when I wasn’t even thinking about it.
  • I love it when people connect to my story or relate my story to their own. I love the feeling of interconnectedness comments can generate.
  • I like getting comments anytime, but in the hours after I publish something, I sort of hover around, waiting to see if anyone says something.

Commenting

  • I never tell another blogger that their grammar is wrong or that a particular area of their writing needs improvement. I would never even think about doing this.
  • I use my comments to tell bloggers what I like about the structure, details or content of what they’ve written.
  • I often use comments to connect to posts, to share my reaction or relationship to the post.
  • I typically respond to posts from that day. When it’s not the March challenge, I try to respond to posts in the first day or two.
  • Commenting makes me read and re-read. Commenting helps me recognize the wide variety of ways to be excellent.

My own writing is better because of all of this. I am able to see what is working and what people are responding to. My use of structure has improved, and I have a wider range of posts. Sometimes, I realize that something I’ve written is unclear. I’m still not great at predicting which blogs will be most read (though sometimes that’s a question of luck), but I am getting better at knowing when my posts are done. 

Commenting on blogs has also changed my responses to my students’ work, especially on quick writes and early drafts. No longer do I point out what they are doing wrong; I try to extend to them the courtesy I extend to writers here. These days, I’m much more likely to tell them what I like about their writing or how I’m responding to it personally. The result seems to be that my students are now producing a greater volume of work and some of my struggles to get them to elaborate (such a hard skill for reluctant writers) are fading away.

img_8493-collage

I still have challenges, of course, like making sure that I provide feedback as quickly as possible, but I’m getting better at using class time to provide oral – and even written – feedback as they write. This also lets me see patterns of mistakes which I can address with mini-lessons. These seem to help more with structure and grammar than the endless corrections I used to put on their essays. It remains to be seen if I can do this with a larger class – this semester’s is mercifully small – and if it will work with more formal essays, but I suspect I will be able to pull some aspects of this forward.

Commenting every day all month is challenging, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting out of it at least as much as I put in. So… time to post this and go write some comments.

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The wrong choice #SOL19 29/31

Earlier this month, Sherri over at Sherri’s Slice of Life Project asked if any of us were thinking about race and, if we were, challenged us to write about it during the month. I think about race a lot for various reasons, but I’ve struggled to find the right story to tell. Today, I’m sharing one. I have others that I will share over time. I share this one with a pounding heart and the sincere hope that others will recognize that I am striving to do better.

I found my former student in his English class. He knew why I was there. So we walked.

I said, “I heard about X’s class. You want to talk about it?”

Pause for a moment: I am a White woman from a privileged background; he is a young biracial man whose single mother works hard to make sure they have what they need. I probably wasn’t the ideal person for him to speak to. But I’m all he’s got in this school. It’s me or someone like me because in a school with about 80 teachers only two are people of colour. Neither of them chooses to emphasize that part of themselves in the school. Neither of them is Black or biracial, either.

“It’s just… we don’t even talk about this stuff in class. I feel like we should at least talk about it…” His voice trailed off.

The “stuff” was racism. His mother had called the school to complain about racism in his English class. The teacher had shown two movies with images of lynchings, images of the KKK, and White characters using “the hard R” (I had to look it up), and had not discussed or contextualized any of it. The images and the words were not central to either film, but they were present. During the second movie, this student walked out. No one else did.

My student was frustrated. “It’s just… no one else cares about this. And this is the only time we’ve even seen Black people this semester. And it’s like it’s not even happening, like it’s just normal or invisible. And…”

After a long conversation, I asked him what he would like to see happen next. He said he just wanted to talk about these things in the class. He wanted the teacher to acknowledge what they were seeing and hearing. I asked who he would like to lead this discussion. His teacher? Absolutely not. We cast about for the right person. Finally he said, “Well, you could do it.”

First I said ok. Then I said no. I know the kids in the class, and I love talking with them and listening to them and helping them think about things. But how could I place myself in front of them as the right person to lead this discussion in a room where race was being ignored? It felt wrong to me. That said, who else could speak to the issue of racism?

And this is the crux of it: I could only think of one Black man who might be able to talk to the class. So I got in touch with him. It still makes me feel sick.

I asked a well-known Canadian spoken word poet to come to our school – not because of his incredible work but because of his skin colour. I told him that this is what I was doing. I told him that I was asking because I really wanted to honour my student. I really wanted him to know that someone was listening, that someone was trying.

This wonderful poet agreed, then declined, then agreed again. I think he and I were having similar misgivings. At best, his presence – the presence of an award-winning poet with black skin – would be a band-aid. Neither of us thought that anything in the school would change. Neither of us thought that what we were doing was a solution or even an adequate response. In the end, I think I asked and I think he came because we wanted that young man to know someone cared.

I think it was the wrong choice.

Oh, the presentation was wonderful. He said things that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t know. He said things that I couldn’t say. He was honest and open and thoughtful. He engaged many of the students in the classroom, not just the one who had complained, not just the students of colour. He was great.

I had asked that both the teacher and the Vice Principal attend and they did. For a brief moment I thought maybe they had heard, maybe this wasn’t just a band-aid. But in the end, the teacher neglected to mention the presentation the next day, and continued on with class as usual. The payment for the poet was inexplicably delayed. The student’s mother ended up calling the board office to complain.

And me? I had used a man for his skin colour rather than for himself. No wonder there was no change.

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Dress up #SOL19 28/31

First, I put on a navy Land’s End dress. You know the type: knee-length, wide neck, 3/4 sleeve, tasteful pattern, ties around the waist. I wear this dress often and it is very teacherly. I check my reflection then go downstairs. “Do you think this looks ok?”

My husband is perplexed. “Umm… yes?”

“It’s parent-teacher conferences,” I remind him.

His face lights up with comprehension. “Oh! Right! Yes. Yes, that’s perfect for parent-teacher conferences. You’ve worn it for them before, I think. Great choice.”

We eat our breakfast, he heads up for a shower, and I get the kids out the door. After they leave, I smooth down the dress and think, I never know which tights to wear with this. And what about shoes?

I head back to our bedroom and check the mirror. The wide neck shows a bit of my bra strap. That’s the end of it. No. Not this dress. I take it off, turn to my closet and start moving the hangers.

Too dowdy. Too short. Too revealing. Maybe pants? No, not pants.

The people who come to meet me at parent-teacher conferences tonight will be diverse. They will be newcomers to Canada or born here. Some will be native English speakers; some will bring children to translate for them; some will struggle through this important conversation in a language that is not their own. Some will be White; many will not.

Some of the “parents” coming tonight will be guardians rather than biological parents. Some are single. Some will come with a partner, but the status of their partner will vary: spouse, significant other, stepparent.  They will be artists, business people, bureaucrats. Their wealth will vary. 

Some of their children find school easy, but many do not.

Each of them will walk into my room with their own cultural expectations of “teacher” and I will or won’t live up to that pre-formed image. But – and here’s the crux of the matter – I really want our talk tonight to focus on their children: on what their child is achieving and what their child can achieve, on how we can work together to help their child reach new goals. I do not want my clothes to challenge anyone’s notion of teacher. I don’t want them to notice my clothes at all.

Hmm… I stare at my closet, perfectly adequate on almost every other day of the school year.

My thoughts cycle through my various students, culling what I know about them, trying to imagine what their parents see in their mind’s eye when they hear “teacher.” How can I honour my students and their parents tonight? How can my presentation of myself speak to them of respect?

Finally, I choose a knee-length black skirt, blue Oxford shirt and black tights. I hesitate between boots and pumps. Pumps are culturally safer but it’s going to rain. I glance at my watch. I really need to get to school. Practicality wins: boots it is.

I check the mirror. “Honey?” I call, “How do I look?”

He comes in, looks at me and smiles: “Like a teacher.”

Perfect.

Now I’m ready to spend the evening not talking about me.

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Curses #SOL19 27/31

Today was our big standardized test: the OSSLT, fondly known as the Literacy Test. In Ontario, this is the test all students must pass in order to graduate. They take it in grade 10 (and again if they fail). I more or less hate it, though when I look at my American colleagues, I know I should be grateful that this is the only standardized test we do.

While I was proctoring (well, during a bathroom break), I saw this post from a friend (hi, Katie!):

An itchy curse: May Poison Ivy grow on your grave.

poison ivy
This is the picture Katie took

There’s not a lot to do while you proctor a standardized tests. Some years I try to write haiku or other short poems about students, but I can usually only keep one or two in my head at a time. This year, I made up curses, and let me tell you, I had a hard time not giggling as I “wrote”. Here are the ones I remember:

May your colleagues be chatty.
May your partner be taciturn.
May you read only 5-paragraph essays.
Worse, may you write only 5-paragraph essays.
May your pizzas all be gluten-free.
May your ice cream be ice milk.
May your coffee be lukewarm.
May all your white t-shirts have yellow pits.
May your hairdresser retire.
May raccoons nest in your roof – over your bedroom.
May your children be precocious.
May your library books come due two chapters before you finish.
May your pencils be dull and may your ink pens leak.
May you write standardized tests every day for a year.
Worse, may you proctor standardized tests every day for a year.

Heeheehee. First thing I’ve found in a while that made me smile during testing.

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