Enough

Today is the last day of classes. In 20 minutes the bell will ring, some wild song will play over the PA system, and students will flood the hallway. Right now I’m sitting in the Spec Ed room – nearly empty except for two students who are working right up to the end – and I’m feeling… conflicted.

I’m thinking about the weeks before I left for college – so long ago, now – when my mother and I fought and fought. In the middle of one particularly loud fight, she screamed, “There’s so much more I need to teach you!” and I screamed back, “You’ve had enough time! I’m ready to go already! I know enough!” With the truth suddenly naked in the middle of our argument, we stopped fighting and cried. We didn’t fight again before I left.

We were both right, of course: I had so much more to learn, and I was ready to go.

The end of the school year often feels like that to me. I want to hold on to my students; I have so much more to teach them. There’s more writing, more reading, more that they need. I’ve only just figured out how they fit together. I can imagine one more unit that they might love. And I worry, too: What if they’re not ready for their next teacher or for university? What if it’s not enough?

But it is enough. It has to be. They’re already ready to go. They know what they know and it’s time to move forward.

The bell rings, the music plays and out they stream into the hallway. A few pop into the room. One more hug. One more high five. One more head pokes through the doorway, “Goodbye, Miss! See you in September!”

Exams start tomorrow. Now it’s all on them. They are confident that they are ready for whatever comes their way.

I sit for a few heartbeats more – emptied out by another semester, reminding myself that this is enough.

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Kale and other conversations

If you’ve seen the movie Bull Durham, you probably remember the scene on the pitcher’s mound where catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes out to talk to pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) on the mound. Eventually most of the team is there and it turns out that there’s a lot going on… just not much about baseball. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Bull Durham, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, Robert Wuhl

On Friday, my little grade 10 English class felt a lot like that pitcher’s mound. As I walked in, one student came over and asked for a hug. (I know, I know… some of you will worry; but trust me on this one. This child needs hugs.) Their guardian’s partner had gone into the ICU for multiple organ failure. The student had independently made their way into school but was understandably anxious. They asked if I would make them a cup of tea, and I readily agreed.

While I was turning on the water, another student stepped out of the classroom. “Relationship problems,” whispered my peer tutor when I returned, “you know.” I don’t know, actually, because I wasn’t aware that this child was in a relationship, but I can imagine. She made her way back a few minutes later, eyes a little red.

I tried to start class, but a third student just couldn’t get her head off the table. She was so tired. “There’s a demon in my bedroom.” Say what? I started to chuckle, but she glared at me so hard that I choked it off. “For real,” she mumbled. “It’s been there for two days. I can’t sleep.” Culturally possible, I realized as she put her head back down. I decided not to push.

I tasked the peer tutor with tea-making, took a deep breath and started the class: vocabulary review – after all, exams start in three school days. When everyone is tense, I love using something concrete as a review; all too often my students throw in the towel as they approach an English exam. “You can’t study for English!” they moan. “You can,” I insist. As their nerves fray, there’s nothing like a good game with vocabulary to remind them that they do, in fact, know more than they think they do – and much more than they did when the semester began. Usually this perks everyone right up.

Yesterday, however, the vocabulary game swerved into a discussion of kale. These things happen. Most of my students have never tried kale, as it turns out. Or brussel sprouts.  Just last week our class had bagels a) because several of the newcomers thought that bagels were “just bread with a hole in it” and b) because we were celebrating Eid and four upcoming birthdays. Are kale and brussel sprouts cultural? They will probably be less of a hit, but I am seriously contemplating bringing tastes of both on Monday.

Somehow the kale conversation ended and suddenly one of the boys said, “Miss, I have some advice for you. Don’t ever check your kids’ browser history.” Hmmm. I told him that I probably would not follow his advice. “It will just make you unhappy,” he countered. Do tell. He did and suddenly we were talking about pornography.

At this point we were supposed to be starting our 20 minutes of reading, but there was the ICU and the relationship and the demon. And one student was just generally unhappy because of stress. And maybe because she forgot part of her dance piece during her performance yesterday? Unclear. And I’d already hugged someone and made tea and tried to describe kale. Somehow talking about pornography in English class three days before exams didn’t seem that odd. I gave them 5 minutes and told them *I* was in charge of the discussion. It was far tamer than you’re imagining. They are really good kids.

And then, the bell rang. Two of them took their tea with them, promising to return the mugs at lunch; the rest left them behind. I waited in our room for the moment of silence that comes once they are all gone and then let out the breath I’d been holding throughout the class. It wasn’t what I expected, this final Friday, but it was a gift. One of these students left the classroom in angry tears a few months ago. One was barely speaking to me at one point. Two of them, unbeknownst to me, had been harbouring a long-standing grudge against one another until last week. One was suspended for three days just two weeks ago. And yet on Friday, three days before the end, we were safe in our little room. Safe to talk about guardians and relationships and demons and kale and pornography. Safe to drink tea and study. Safe to tie vocabulary to personal stories. Safe to be who we are.

It took us all semester to get here and, oh boy, I’m going to miss this group.

Hearing voices

Today, I asked my students “How do you identify yourself and why is that important to you?” and they said…

“When I was younger, there was a time when people thought I had no future. Now, one of the things I’m passionate about is how different people on the spectrum are. We are not all alike.”

“I like how our generation is different, how being LGBTQ is normal.”

“I hear what you’re saying.”

“If you’re in love with someone, you’re in love with someone.”

“I believe there is a God but not in any particular religion.”

“To be honest, I don’t really know.”

“When I meet someone, I’m not like, ‘I’m gay.’ I never really use the word lesbian to describe myself. There’s still a lot of time for me to figure things out. It’s complicated.”

“I have a friend whose mom remembers her past life, but I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“We need to let H talk.”

“I’m a straight Arab dude…It takes too much effort to hate.”

“There’s a million things better you can do than be racist or homophobic.”

“I’m sorry I interrupted you.”

“You don’t need to be a person of colour to do something about Black History Month.”

“The whole point of a racist slur – any slur – is to offend someone, so if you shake it off, you undo that.”

“We are all different no matter what label you use.”

It’s taken us all semester to get here. Discussion is hard. We’ve used sentence starters and done four corner activities. We’ve talked about social media and parents. We’ve analysed our discussions (not a favourite activity) and listed successes & areas for improvement. We’ve used pennies to limit our contributions (put in your two cents worth) and mapped our discussions with twine and tape. We’ve had guest speakers and informal debates. We’ve practiced.

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Discussion mapping: I’m the one with only one piece of tape – Hooray for learning how to bite my tongue!

The result? They can lift up their powerful voices and tell the world that they are ready to make some changes.

And tomorrow we’ll talk again.

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A rose, by any other name

This semester I decided to take on Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 class. I’ve described the students before: a mixed group of  kids, some of whom read well, some who really don’t read, a newcomer to Canada whose English is limited, several students with autism, regular attenders, non-attenders, at least one LGBTQ student, backgrounds from around the world – you know, a pretty standard group of kids.

Romeo and Juliet is a traditional choice, of course, but not for this class. Still, six weeks into the semester, we did a brainstorming activity about what we wanted to learn next and how we wanted to learn it, and when I stood back to look at their requests – more motion, group work, talking, a challenge, something about teenagers, something fun – well, Romeo and Juliet fit the bill.

The students were not convinced. Most of them have never read Shakespeare, and they were pretty clear that this was “not going to work,” but they agreed to try it for a week. I promised it was *not* a love story, and we started with a quick participatory summary before we plunged in to Act 1, scene 1. The EA and I brought all the old swords we could find in our houses (ok, we had 6 light sabres, a pirate sword, a dagger and a paper towel tube), and by the end of class, all the students were on their feet, brawling in the street at 8:30 in the morning.

They could get behind that.

I use a lot of lessons from the Folger series Shakespeare Set Free. We also watch film clips and bits and pieces of stage plays. We talk a lot and skip some and summarize other bits. Everyone reads. We mispronounce things without fear and ask questions about everything. We play and laugh and generally have a good time. Twice during the unit, I stopped to ask if we needed to move on more quickly: once after the first week (as promised) – “NO!” they chorused – and once three weeks in, when I was afraid things were dragging. Again, no.

I was delighted by my students’ reactions and regularly shared the high points with colleagues in our office. During one conversation, another person came in. After listening, he chuckled and said something about my “rose-coloured glasses.” Then he left.

Wait. What?

The comment was made in passing, so quickly that I barely noticed it. My response was automatic – what I always say to the doubters: come visit my class. Only after he left did I get really mad. This is how we police teachers, isn’t it? When someone does well, when a class is engaged, when students are learning deeply – even with traditional material – we pull the teacher down. It’s not that the teacher (me) has taken her years of experience and deep knowledge of her subject to put together a learning experience that responds to the needs of the students in front of her. No, it’s that she is overestimating her students’ engagement. It couldn’t be that the kids we’ve relegated to the lower track are actually able to engage with complex language and thoughts. No, it’s that the teacher is exaggerating what the students are doing.

The accusation comes in other ways. The teacher is “easy” or “too nice” or “overly friendly” with their class. And sure, sometimes teachers are all of those things. But sometimes we’re not.

On Friday, my students – my non-readers, my students with autism, my English language learner, my disengaged, darling, wonderful class – performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet. For two days, they rummaged for costumes, rehearsed their lines, and practiced their staging. They wrote about their characters’ motivation and obstacles. They wrestled with original language and cut lines when necessary. In short, they were excellent. One pair played the Nurse and Juliet so well that we were all laughing and everyone stayed the extra minute past the bell when the scene ran over. Everyone. Even the two least engaged students.

I thought I’d blown off the comment, but I haven’t. I suspect my colleague’s throw-away line shows what he thinks is really happening in my class. And I suspect others also underestimate my students. But I’ll tell you what, if this is rose-coloured glasses, I’ll take it. Because together we rocked Romeo and Juliet.

 

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Let’s talk about race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I wanted a cup of tea

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Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good cup of tea.

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R&J for the win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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