On futons, spiders & memories: Slice of Life 20/31 #SOL20

Today we managed to get the futon frame out of the basement and into the guest room. Our “guest” is our exchange student from the Netherlands. His dad was an exchange student with my family when I was in high school. Given the current state of the world, this exchange is a *little* different than anyone was anticipating. The current state of our house isn’t making things any easier. Luckily, Pieter is very good natured and has not complained about sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor for a few nights. Unluckily, the futon frame – once we found it and got it upstairs – was very dusty and home to more than a few spiders. Pieter and Andre cleaned it up and put it together and then, over dinner, I regaled them with a spider story from possibly the craziest overseas trip I ever led – the time another teacher and I took ten students to Cameroon. 

After dinner and bedtime, I dug up the email I sent from that day, about twenty years ago. Here is a slightly edited letter from my past self to the parents who trusted me (age 20-something – aka *not old enough*) to take their children to Africa for a few weeks. Just re-reading it makes me gasp and smile. (The editing is that I removed the kids’ names, though I doubt any of them would care. We were two chaperones, ten kids from our school in the US, plus five from the local Cameroonian high school.)

Why hello there.  Did you miss us? Have you been sitting at home wondering what in the world your children have been doing?  Well, they are all alive and well and they are not bored.  Let me tell you about it…

As I recall, I left you at the end of the day Saturday – we’d been to the village and the lava flow.  Sunday morning we woke up bright and early and continued our exciting experiences of Cameroonian roads as we headed up to Bimbie, a town not far from Limbe. Our first order of business was hiking the Bimbie Nature Trail which runs through an old growth lowland rainforest – the only one left between Limbe and Douala. We split into two groups and made our way into the dark, humid interior. We walked by fig trees that have adapted to place their fruit on the ground so animals can get it more easily; we saw ebony trees and smelled their wonderfully aromatic flowers – and learned that you can eat the berries inside the flowers, though I found them bitter; we slopped through a mangrove and thanked the heavens once again for hiking boots that the mud couldn’t suck off our feet (though it tried); we saw a tree whose heartwood rots out leaving space for all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of bats; we even saw a four or five hundred year old tree. The hike was lovely and quite a success.

Upon our return to the road, we realized that the car that had been left for us was not big enough for everyone to get back to Camp Saker, the camp where we were staying in the rainforest.  So a LOT of people crowded into the first car, and the other half of us walked. Eventually, the car came back for the rest of us and we all got to the camp, sweaty but happy.

After lunch, we headed back into the forest with researchers from the Botanic Gardens and we learned how to do a wildlife transect to study a forest.  One student got to use the Global Positioning System (super-technology in the middle of the forest) and the rest of us served as recorders, measurers, tapers and spotters. We spotted lizards, caterpillars and birds’ nests as well as lots of crab holes, but we didn’t see much large wildlife because, in addition to the fact that we were crashing through the forest with about 20 people, these forests have been hunted to the point that almost no large wildlife is left.  Sad, but true. A few sweaty hours after we started our transect, we made our way back to the road and then back to camp.

We spent the early evening at the little beach near our camp. The Cameroonian boys all played soccer on the beach and some of our students joined in. Stella, our cook, was supposed to be making us dinner but, unbeknownst to us, our driver accepted a private deal and was, as a result, several hours late. So Stella was stuck in town, and couldn’t get to us. We realized something was wrong as we got hungrier and hungrier, but we really weren’t sure how to cook for 17 in a camp in the middle of the forest with only rudimentary cooking supplies. When I explained to the kids that we didn’t know what was going on, one of the Cameroonian girls stepped up and promptly took over, cooking a delicious bean stew over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen while I made rice (over a gas stove in an indoor kitchen). Let me just say how seriously impressed I was with her ability to take over and cook. Just as we began to serve, Stella arrived with soda (the height of luxury), and even she was impressed that we’d managed a delicious dinner on our own.

After dinner, some of the students organized a coconut feast (the guides had shown them how to get coconut milk on the morning hike). A few kids gathered the coconuts; everyone worked on opening them; one boy even used his baseball skills to throw coconuts at rocks until they burst.  We all loved the fresh coconut meat, which the kids observed tastes nothing like what you get in the grocery store.

Just before bed, I had to get help from my co-chaperone because a GIANT spider had taken up residence on the ceiling over my bed – not quite as big as my hand, but nearly…  I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep underneath it. He chased the enormous thing about until it gave up and dropped directly into my hiking boot – not my ideal outcome. As you can imagine, this made it very difficult for me to put my boots on the next morning. We decided to keep the spider incident quiet because we didn’t want to tell the kids and “creep them out” (many things “creep people out” around here), but then we learned of the lizard in the boys’ toilet and the various critters in the girls’ room, so we shouldn’t have worried. The night was also stiflingly hot, and Camp Saker doesn’t have air-conditioning – or even fans – so we all had a restless night and people looked a little worse for the wear Monday morning.

Today we are having a symposium (which I am late for as I type, so I’m about to sign off) and this afternoon will be spent at the beach with a beach barbecue for dinner. Tomorrow we have an optional hike to Bomona waterfall. It’s optional because it involves starting at 5 am and a 2 hour uphill hike – but the falls are supposed to be beautiful. As soon as the hike is over, we head to Yaounde. Thursday morning we will meet with the American Ambassador and show him our work painting the education center (which the embassy helped fund) at the Zoo and then we go to Douala. All of this is to say that I will probably email tonight, but after that I can make no guarantees. In addition, please limit your emails to your children to a line or two tonight as I won’t be able to get them the actual text, and this is probably the last time you should e-mail.

Hope all is well in DC and that you are out from under the snow.  More information as I can write.

Amanda

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Social distancing: Slice of Life 13/31 #SOL20

Just for today, I let the grade 10s leave before the final bell officially rang. They had asked all their questions, turned in the memoir they’d been working on, and maintained their composure for 73 minutes. They had even agreed to read at home. It seemed like enough. “Goodbye!” they called, and one or two lingered a few seconds longer than normal.

The period before that, the grade 12 students and I had worked together to make plans for our extended March break – all schools in Ontario are closed until April 5. The students met in their book clubs and planned various ways to meet for discussions: Instagram, Google hangouts Flipgrid and Google classroom will host our synchronous and asynchronous meetings. We talked about the value of journals and documentation during times of crisis, and the students decided to write regularly (I’ll provide prompts) for the next few weeks. They really want to learn, these kids. We watched Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk “How to make stress your friend” and talked about reaching out to each other during our time apart. I reminded them that they could email me anytime, and I created a new Instagram account dedicated to working with them. I had to take a deep breath after we said goodbye.

I gave all the classroom plants extra water, gathered my things, and headed to the English office. There, several teachers were in the process of clearing out the refrigerator. April 5 is only three weeks away, but our unspoken concern was clear: what if this lasts longer? I swang by our Spec Ed room to pick up the avocado tree; it’s not really supposed to live in Ottawa, and it won’t last long without water. Back in the office, we threw things away, rinsed, washed, recycled. We gathered books, found papers, printed student phone numbers, just in case.

Finally, there was nothing left to do. Our goodbyes echoed through the hallways – “Take care!” “Be safe!” “Stay in touch!” – as teachers from various departments turned off the lights and pulled the doors closed.

img_2491

Outside of the building, a strong wind threatened to topple the tiny tree I was trying to shelter home. The car door blew shut and my colleague and I, laughing, had to work together to get the tree safely, if awkwardly, ensconced between my knees.

Training ruck march

Moments later, as we turned onto the street in front of the school, a group of soldiers marched by. We knew it was probably a training march, but it seemed oddly apropos. As we drove away from the school, from our students, from our social interactions, the incongruous soldiers in the rearview mirror, we laughed and laughed, trying to forget what we were leaving behind and how little we know of what lies ahead.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Picture this: Slice of Life 12/31 #SOL20

I’m working my way around the room doing reading conferences. Several students have chosen more challenging novels in the last week or so, and I’m curious to see how things are going. As I sit down next to O, I see that he is on page 177 of Harry Potter. He’s been reading it for less than a week.

“Wow!” I say, genuinely impressed. “You’re making really good progress!”

He glances up, murmurs “Mmhmm” and keeps reading. I hate to interrupt, but I also want to check in on him. This is the first book without pictures that he has ever read (which I talked about a few days ago). I want to make sure he’s getting it.

“What do you like about the story?”

He places his finger on the line he was reading and looks at me, eyes wide with wonder. “It’s like I can see the pictures in my mind while I’m reading the words. That never happened before.”

My heart nearly bursts. Elementary teachers often get see students learn how to read; in high school these moments are few and far between. Often if students arrive in high school reading poorly, they leave the same way. For so long, I have worked to help kids learn, I have tried to believe they are “at promise” as much as “at risk,” but it is only now, more than twenty years into my career, that I think I might have hit upon a method that works. I am almost embarrassed to say what it is: meet them where they’re at; let them choose their book; give them lots of time and encouragement; believe in them; wait.

But, oh! He can picture what he’s reading. I could write about this every day forever and ever.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

All they want is to change the world: Slice of Life 10/31 #SOL20

My Grade 12 class is writing personal narrative essays for the first time in their lives. Because the form is new to them, I’ve been flooding them with mentor texts from real life sources, mostly The New York Times “Lives” column and The Globe and Mail “First Person” column. We study structure, imitate style, consider topics and then work on our own essays. Yesterday, we were looking at an essay called “In this age of #MeToo, my daughter needs to know there are good men out there” so that we could study the way the author used multiple short anecdotes to make her point.

My students, ever willing, examined the structure and noticed the chronology, the transitions, the implied thesis, but eventually the discussion turned to the content of the essay itself.

“I really noticed the silencing of women’s voices in this essay.”
“Even her daughter doesn’t have a voice.”
“I appreciate that she trying to point out that there are many good people in the world, but she’s not addressing the bigger picture.”
“Do you see where she credits her partner with being the primary caregiver but then she’s the one with the playpen in her office? I wonder about their definition of primary caregiver.”
“In the end, all of her examples imply that, as a woman, she is a problem and the men are kind for helping her with this problem. They don’t change the way things work, they just make space for the problems she encounters.”

Snapping – our form of quiet clapping – broke out spontaneously around the room at that last comment.

I wish I had recorded the discussion. These young people were understanding of the author’s perspective; they knew what she was trying to do and they sympathized with her. They didn’t disagree that many men are helpful and supportive – and let’s be clear that this discussion included male, female, and a rainbow of LGBTQ+ students – but they were absolutely unwilling to concede that “good” is good enough. They don’t want men to help them lift things, and they don’t want men to change their work schedules to walk them home so they feel safe. They want a world where it actually is safe for them to walk home and where equipment they use to do their jobs is designed so that they can move it without asking a man to help.

I stood in awe of them. My generation owes them more than reminders that many people are kind and that sexism is inevitable. We owe it to them to change the world – and if we don’t, they intend to do it themselves.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Stupid is as stupid does: Slice of Life 9/31 #SOL20

“This is going to sound, well…” she hesitates, turns her head away from me, “I mean, I know it’s silly, but Idon’twanttolookstupid.” Her head comes back around, chin a little up, glistening eyes meeting mine.

I suspect that she’s only meeting with me because her mom – a friend of mine outside of school – made her. I know she wants help, but I also know she doesn’t want to ask for help. No, it’s more than that: she doesn’t want to have to ask for help. But here we are.

*******

Another student stands in front of her class to give a quick presentation. She is well-prepared but visibly nervous. The first thirty-seconds go well, but once she misses a word her colour rises and suddenly she cannot go on. I encourage her gently and she tries again, but she can’t do it. Tears spring to her eyes.

Later, after the others have left the room she apologizes and says, “I just felt so stupid.”

********

“Is he using his computer accommodations?” his mother asks on the phone. I’ve called home because he’s having a lot of trouble writing in class. He just can’t seem to get pen to paper, just can’t seem to get the words from his brain to the end of his fingers.
“No,” I admit, shaking my head, though I know she can’t see me. “He absolutely refuses. He says he doesn’t want to seem stupid.”

********

Look stupid! I want to yell. I want to scream it down the hallways. Look stupid! Just do it! Go out on the limb, take a guess, ask the question! Try the hard way, make a fool of yourself, share your first drafts. Let it all hang out, be yourself, be human. Stop

In class I catch myself saying, “Well, that was stupid” when I make yet another mistake. I look up at a group of soon-to-be graduates, realize what I’ve done and correct myself, “Guess stupid is as good a starting point as any. Might as well keep going.”

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

When English goes to Math: Slice of Life 7/31 #SOL20

“Amanda! Just the person I wanted to see! I have a story you’re going to love.” Mr. W pops into the English office on his prep. We are both pedagogy nerds, and we love the Applied classes we regularly teach. Mr. W teaches math and I teach English, so we often have many of the same students. We like to swap stories and have even managed to create a couple of lessons that overlapped, much to the shock/horror/delight of our students. I’m grinning before he even starts talking.

“So, you have O, right?”

I nod. I have O and four other students for the second semester in a row.

“So, this week has been nothing but trying to get him to pay attention.” Oh, yes, how well I know this. “It’s been his ipod, phone whatever. All week long.”

I am still nodding when Mr. W delivers the twist. “But yesterday, I look up, and what is he doing? He’s reading. I couldn’t believe it. There he is with Harry Potter under his desk. I couldn’t get him to stop. He read for most of the class.”

I wince. “Sorry?” Then I pause, “Actually, sorry not sorry…”

Mr. W gets it. He grins and his eyes twinkle. “But wait! Then, at the end of class, he comes up to me and says, ‘Sorry I wasn’t paying attention, sir, but I’m reading Harry Potter and it’s the first book I’ve ever read without pictures and it’s really good.’ And what could I say? So I agreed. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”

I am speechless.

Mr W pauses, letting me take this all in, then says, “But to get you back, next week I’m sending him to English with math worksheets…”

I have to laugh, “You can’t fool me. I know you don’t do worksheets.”

He chuckles, “Drat! You know me too well!” Then he leaves the office, and I sit, quietly stunned.

How lucky I am. How lucky to have a colleague who also loves these students, who knows the value of reading, who takes the time to tell me this story, even though he could have seen this as a disruption

How lucky I am that I get to teach so many of these students for a second semester. Having them all year is a real treat for me. I love how we can move past the routines of the classroom and start to reach for deeper learning. They trust me more: they’re more willing to try a new form of writing, knowing that I’m there to support not judge; they’re more willing to let themselves try a new book. I am so lucky to watch this unfold.

I know that reading is really tough for some of my students; the words on the page just don’t quite come together in their minds for various reasons. Daily independent reading is a hard sell. It takes us weeks (months, for some of them) to fall into the rhythm of regular reading. I have to be extremely consistent and firm. I have to really believe that they need to start where they are and that, for some of my students – grade 10 students – that means spending a semester reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Amulet and Bone. These are all good books, and I’ve read the research about reading & graphic novels & developing readers, but I will admit to moments where I wonder if they will*ever* move forward.

And here we are. O is reading Harry Potter in math class. His mother told me that she went out and bought him the whole series. And J has finished his first chapter book and started The Ranger’s Apprentice series; his mom bought him the series, too. And V is on book 5 of Percy Jackson. M has a favourite author (Jason Reynolds!!).

And me? I’m just going to spend this Saturday morning basking in the feeling that I work in a school where we – students and teachers alike – celebrate our work and our success. What could be better than that?

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

#BlackJoy: Slice of Life 4/31 #SOL20

AleciaShe walked onto the stage wearing a blue dress and attitude. She owned every bit of who she is – bold, bright, and black. Who could take their eyes off of her, suddenly beautiful? She paused, posed, and moved on.

Black student after black student followed, the bright colours of their outfits matched their smiles as they claimed their share of the spotlight. On this day, black students were the hosts, the performers, the designers, the readers, the models. At this assembly, everyone in the school saw them.img_0563

My heart nearly burst with happiness. They did this themselves. They applied for and won $1000 grant. They made many of the clothes from fabric they chose. They booked speakers and artists and prepared their own artistic performances. When a strike day forced us to move the date of the assembly and all – all! – of the guests couldn’t make it, the students planned the whole thing again in less than a week.

Working with these students has shown me their determination and their awareness of what they face because of their skin colour, has made me a better ally, has changed me in ways I never expected. The world had better get ready for these kids. They are coming and they are not interested in anyone trying to hold them back.

img_2313-collage3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm