Report Cards

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We got our children’s report cards today. One was wonderful. The teachers clearly know him. They wrote kind things, “His contributions to class discussions have enriched the learning experience of his peers” and precise things, “He is happy to practise throwing and catching with accuracy while playing Ethiopian dodge ball” and clear suggestions for the future, he “is still working on socializing less in the hall and in the washroom.” I feel confident that the report card is a reflection of his learning at this moment in time.

My other child’s report card was less effective. There aren’t even really any good phrases to share. Apparently in reading he “interprets context clues and uses several reading strategies.” Well. There you go. I’m an English teacher, for pity’s sake, and I’m not 100% sure what that means for grade 4. The whole report card is general phrases that were almost undoubtedly lifted and used from one child to the next. I know the teachers have a LOT to do, but this report card feels very sterile, and I have no faith that it tells me anything at all about my child.

So… what was I doing today? Writing report cards. Exam period ended this morning; report cards are due tomorrow morning.  It’s a brutal turnaround. For each student, I enter marks for 6 learning skills in addition to a numerical mark for the course and, of course, comments. For the comments, the school board provides teachers with a list of codes, organized by subject, that we are supposed to use. Each code links to a specific approved comment. Every student should have one comment from each of three categories: Strengths, Needs, Next Steps. The comments are grammatically uneven (some use second person verbs, some use third), general to the point of uselessness, and older than our curriculum (“new” in 2007). I hate them.

We are allowed to write narrative comments, but we are strongly encouraged to use the codes. Usually I split the difference, turning the codes into complete sentences, inserting student names, stringing multiple comments into one sentence. I aim for some personalization, some sense of the student on the report card. I want something better than “uses reading strategies”. This semester, for my small class of “Applied” level students, I managed personalized narrative comments, but for the large class I took over 2/3 of the way through, I’ve had to stick with the drop downs. Here’s an example:
Creates superior products
Uses creative thinking skills very effectively
Continue to explore creative ways to apply language and symbols
Continue to increase your personal reading

I know there are real limits to report cards (460 characters to be precise), but I wish I could send students off with something better than “creates superior products.” I wish my report cards could reassure the students and their parents that I really did see them, I really do know what they learned. Maybe next year I’ll get closer, but for now, here’s what I wish I could say instead:

Your child’s eyes light up when she talks about writing. She loves to try new things – once she stops being scared – and she’s learning to be confident that what she says matters. Even when she was half-asleep on her desk because school just started too early, she was still polite and she mostly managed to wake up enough to try the writing prompts. The day she cried, she had friends to comfort her. The day I needed her to step up, she did it. When she writes, she puts her whole self into it, and sometimes what she creates is breathtaking. And sometimes it isn’t, but she’s learning to handle that. There is no numerical score for “this child is doing just fine and my heart swells to think of her growing to adulthood.” Nevertheless that is her final mark.

Last day

Read more slices like this every Tuesday at Two Writing Teachers

I decided to wait until the end of the school day to write this week’s slice because it’s the last day of classes and I wanted to write about the last day. I am kind of terrible at last days – Do we prep for exams? Do we play? Do we reminisce? – and I guess I hoped that if I paid attention I would find the perfect slice and suddenly I would be good at last days. It was all going to come clear as I wrote: this is what I do, and this is what we learn, and it looks simple, but it’s really amazing because, as it turns, out I have this “last day of school” thing down.

Instead I’m sitting in an Adirondack chair on my back porch. I’m barefoot, wearing my favourite blue sundress and, while the late afternoon sun still shines on the rhubarb and the mint in my garden, I am luxuriating in the shade. Birds are calling to one another and it’s that perfect temperature when you can’t quite decide if you should call it warm or cool. Sometimes a gentle breeze blows and sometimes one of the cats comes to rub against my legs. My children are playing together and I can hear them laughing.

It was a good day. I brought Timbits* and freezies for a bit of a celebration, and the students and I mostly laughed and talked. There was some drama in the hallways and such – last days can be stressful – but it mostly stayed out of my classrooms. It’s not the kind of day we will remember, I don’t think.

I was a little worried about that when I sat down to write, but now, with the breeze and the sun and the quiet and the cats, I’ve decided that it’s probably ok to let some things slip away without without a fancy farewell. Exams loom, then the flustery excitement of graduation, and then summer. Today was more of a pause than an end. That’s probably enough – and it’s going to have to be.

 

*For all the non-Canadians: Timbits are donut holes from Tim Hortons. Freezies are, apparently, called “Freeze pops” in the US – they’re just popsicles.

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The Right Book at the Right Time

On Friday, we unboxed the books. Brand new, hardcover books.

“These are for us?” asked one boy, incredulous.
“Yes!” I laughed, “but you have to give them back.” He made a funny face and shook his head a little, dismissive of my excitement. Why would he keep a book?

“Can I use the stamp?”
“Can I choose the number for mine?”
“Yes!” I said yes over and over. Yes, these are for you. Yes, they are new. Yes, you can stamp them. Yes, you take them home.

“This book sure has won a lot of awards,” marveled a boy near the front.
“How’d you even get these, Miss?” asked another student, turning his brand new book over in his hands.
I laughed again, “I begged, borrowed and stole!”
His face got serious. “You didn’t steal, Miss. Don’t say that.”
I took it back. I should know better than to joke about stealing.

IMG_4832.jpgOn Friday, we started reading Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down. I had offered the class several options for reading – book clubs, individual choice, whole class – and they told me flat out that they would never read a book on their own. “No point in that,” muttered M.

We’ve been reading all semester, but always short pieces. In general, my students are a little wary of my ways, but they were willing to try poetry with me last month, so I knew we were making progress. Still, they were nervous about reading a book, like maybe I’d gone a bridge too far – a whole book. Some of them are enthusiastic readers, but many of them haven’t read a book for years. When I told them that I would NOT read the entire book out loud, one boy looked down at his desk, shook his head and made a loud “tsk” sound. “That is NOT gonna work.”

And then came Jason Reynolds. Actually, first came the discussion about a shooting death in the neighbourhood. I was shocked to learn that gun violence is a part of so many of my students’ lives, then I was surprised by my own shock. (That’s a reflection for another post altogether.) Then I got upset because I realized how little support these students were receiving for their reality (also a reflection for another time). I had a long talk with the (amazing) EA who works in my classroom who insisted, “That book you’ve been telling me about is the right book for this class.” And she issued a challenge: “If anyone can get them that book, it’s you.”

So I begged. I told the principal I would buy half with my own money. I talked about the awards, the subject matter, the poetry. I told him about our progress, the growth, the learning. I found other pots of money. Finally, I said, “I have to teach these kids this book right now. I just have to.” Hats off to my principal and our Student Success teacher: they bought the books.

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That’s their handwriting – and page numbers!

On Thursday I gave the students photocopies of the first few pages. “AW! It’s more poetry,” groaned one kid. But they tried it. We used the same technique we used with Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem a few weeks ago: students wrote back to the text right on the paper. They asked questions, made comments and generally had their say. When we shared, they had made lots of inferences and had plenty of evidence to back them up.

Friday was the new books. After everyone had one, I explained that they could take a few minutes just to read. No set goal, no required number of pages, no plan – just read to see what’s there. My goal was 15 minutes. Boy did I underestimate them.

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They would not stop reading. T looked up after ten minutes and said, “Can we read as far as we want?” I nodded, he gulped some air and dove back into the book. S turned around and said, “Did you get to the part where he took the gun yet?” H nodded and kept reading. Silence. No phones. No sleeping. Eventually, one student lost focus, and I decided to stop them before the magic spell broke: “Hey, let’s take a break and see what we’ve discovered so far.”

They took a break, talked about the book, started to do the activity… and then I noticed that one, two, three kids had snuck back to their books. Then another. I asked if they wanted to just go back to their seats and read. “YES!” So we did.

As class came to an end, I found two kids surreptitiously trying to slide the book into their backpack. “You’re allowed to take it home if you want,” I said.
“For real?!”

One book went right into the backpack, but T hesitated. Finally, he put it back, “I want to make it last a little longer, Miss.”

I have a feeling that, for some of them, this will last for a long time.

 

Sink Holes and Lava Flows

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Join me on Tuesdays at https://twowritingteachers.org where you can read other slices of life – or even contribute your own.

 

On Mondays, if I remember, I ask my class how their weekend was, though sometimes by last period the weekend seems far away. I don’t have any research on this, but somehow it seems like talking about their weekend honors their life outside of school and says that what they experience matters. Also, sometimes I glean interesting tidbits about them, and pretty much always I can get a sense of the class energy from the way the discussion flows. So I ask.

Today, before I even finished the question, one girl was shaking her head and making a face. It was not a good weekend. She wants to move. Uh-oh.  I looked at her hard – I know of several reasons why she might want to move, so I wanted to tread carefully, but I also knew that if she spoke up, she might make connections in the classroom, and she might find support, so I took the plunge: “Anything you can share?”

There was a shooting just four doors down from her house; she had heard the shots. She didn’t feel safe. “It was a homicide!” called in a boy across the room. Then he added, almost casually, “I live around the corner. A guy got killed.”  I was shocked, but my students were not. Most of them live in the neighborhood, and they had lots to share. They talked about gun violence in their lives: they have heard it, seen it, been affected by it. I wanted to ask questions, find out if they were scared, know what they have seen, but I also didn’t want to push them or puncture the fragile veneer of safety they had created. One boy said he was not afraid because he wasn’t home when the shooting occurred. One girl said most of the shootings are on the 8th floor of her building, and she doesn’t live on that floor. As they talked, I realized that I didn’t know what to do.

I struggled to figure out my next steps, but my students didn’t hesitate. “Miss, did you hear about the sink hole in New Zealand? It’s GIANT!” “Yeah, and the volcano in Hawaii – you can see the lava!” I shook my head – I hadn’t followed any news this weekend, so I knew nothing. They were really proud that they knew things I didn’t. And just like that, we were talking about the changing world. We searched for articles, collected interesting words (“gigantic cavernous void”), talked about potential found poetry, watched videos. I complimented them for being so aware of the world – they weren’t doing this when the semester started. Most students participated in our discussion; everyone looked at the sinkhole video over and over. We couldn’t believe that it just opened up overnight, that the farmer just happened upon it. We couldn’t imagine having lava flow down our street. We decided that if we were in Hawaii we would NOT be dumb enough to go near the flowing lava to try to take pictures (though I’m pretty sure some of the boys were lying). And then we moved on to the rest of the lesson.

Now it’s evening, and I can’t shake off the shots that my students buried in that sink hole, that they burned beneath the lava flow. In case I had forgotten, my students reminded me today that they lead real lives that can sometimes make school seem beside the point. As we talked in class, we tried to imagine what it would be like to walk somewhere we knew well and happen upon a giant sinkhole in ground that had seemed solid just the day before.  I think that actually happened to me today. Their world is not mine. I am shocked, overwhelmed, embarrassed again and again that I can think that I know who they are. I love them, but I know nothing.

I Lost My Talk – FNMI PD

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From a slideshow by Justin Holness of Tr1be Academy

Today I attended a PD day focused on FNMI learning. For those who don’t know, FNMI stands for First Nations Metis Inuit and is the acronym we are currently using to talk about peoples who are indigenous to Canada.

“In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada began a multi-year process to listen to Survivors, communities and others affected by the Residential School system. The resulting collection of statements, documents and other materials now forms the heart of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.” (from The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation) In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Report included 94 “calls to action” urging all levels of government to work together to change policies and programs in Canada in order to repair the damage done by residential schools and help our country move forward with reconciliation. One of the main calls to action is to change education to include FNMI history and culture in all parts of the curriculum. This means educating teachers as well as children.

Today, teachers heard from elders and youth and everyone in between. We listened to talks, singing, drumming. We ate food with a traditional flavour. We experienced cultural activities from sports to drumming to beading. We even sang. We tried to be open; we were open. Tomorrow, and for many tomorrows, we must continue to educate ourselves so that we can share these vibrant cultures with our students. To that end, I’m including two poems here. The first, I Lost My Talk, is well-known in Canada, but I’m not sure non-Canadian readers will have read it. The second is my own creation, a found poem from the words I heard in our PD sessions today. To all those who shared their knowledge with me today, thank you. Migwech.

I Lost My Talk

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

 

FNMI PD Found poem 4/27/2018

I Reflection
How did you get here?
A brief centering of self where
your knowledge comes from where
you look to know that
knowledge is real.
Connect the words
to your embedded
knowledge.

II Meaning Making
Life requires sacrifice.
Everyone has value
regardless of physical attributes.
The land tells us what is real.
Expand your ways of knowing, being and doing
Evolving while you learn.

III Acting
No idea is too
small
to make a difference;
No idea is too
big
not to get started.
Bring unity to the community.
Acknowledge, Learn, Celebrate
Indigenize.

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Irene at Live Your Poem

 

Blooming

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Ready or not: time to bloom

When I woke up this morning, my job description included teaching Special Education and Grade 10 Applied English. We’re six or so weeks from the end of the semester, so I assumed I would continue apace through June. Not so. By the time school started this morning, I had become a Literary Arts (aka Writing) teacher. (And also, of course, because teaching is a little crazy, I’m still a Special Education and Grade 10 Applied English teacher.) I teach at an Arts Magnet school, and one of our teachers can’t finish out the school year with this class. I have been asked to step in.

Am I ready? I’ll admit that I’m nervous and also pretty darn excited. To think: I started this blog a mere two months ago. Two months ago I challenged myself to actually start the writing I’ve dreamed of doing; two months ago I started sharing my thoughts in public; and today here you are, reading this. And here I am, getting ready to teach writing. Is two months (plus umpteen years) enough time to call myself a writer? It’s going to have to be.

Here’s what I know: Yesterday, the crocuses in my yard bloomed. They’re sneaky ones, those crocuses. We’re on the shady side of the street, so things take their time coming out. One day, the yard is completely brown and dead-looking; the next, purple and white blooms appear, fully-formed, seemingly out of nowhere. I know that they did not spring from nothing: they’ve been pushing up through the warming earth, making their way skyward long before I am able to see. They’ve put up tiny green tips under the leaves, sheltered from the cold, testing the air. And when it’s finally time to blossom, they have no reason to hide. The blooms are exuberant, wholehearted, and suddenly it is Spring.

Here’s what I think: I’m a shady side of the street sort of writer, coming along in my own time, tentatively testing the air. Am I ready? Not sure I have the choice. Once Spring arrives, it’s time to bloom.

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Just about every Tuesday I blog for the Slice of Life challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. You can read more posts on that blog.

And we’re writing!

IMG_1077I am excited to take part in Poetry Friday, where writers share their love of all things poetry. Tabatha hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at  The Opposite of Indifference.  She is celebrating the release of Imperfect, an anthology of poetry about mistakes for middle schoolers. Drop by and see what poetry morsels are offered this week.

In my last post I wrote about some poetry lessons that had started well but ended flat. I was worried that the learners I work with might not be willing to stick with me if I didn’t get it together. Several people shared ideas about things that might work to help keep my students engaged; one that really resonated with me was that I don’t need to separate assessment from the play we’re doing. I could go on – and I probably will at some point – but I honestly think part of our success today is because I said, “Hey, you have all these great ideas in your writer’s notebooks & it’s Friday, so let’s just play.”

I showed them some cool thing – sijos and kimos; nonets and golden shovels – things they’d never dreamed of. They loved it! They wrote for at least 30 minutes – and when I said it was Poetry Friday and I could share some on my blog… FIVE asked to be featured. Then, we ended the class by starting a group “I am from” poem. They’ve asked to finish it on Monday. My students never cease to surprise me.

Golden Shovel poem by J (Party in the USA)
So Emily and I said, “Yeah
the song is old, but it’s
a fun song to sing, a
good jam to dance and party
to, especially when you are in
the basement alone, or in the
room and partying in the USA.”

Golden Shovel poem by T (based on his own I Am From poem)
When I was young
The very best food was my mom’s chili
Then going to my uncle’s to play hockey
Those were the best days

 

Lost Home Nonet by S
A place that felt like home is gone now
Here in Ottawa is uneasy
It feels like something is wrong
Where is my freedom now?
Will I find it soon?
Sweet potatoes
With sweet peas?
Teddy Bear?
Home.

The beginning of our “We are from” poem
We are from long cold winters
Icy roads, I almost got hit by a car,
Snowball fights that last all day.
We are from snowflakes that fall with the maple leaves,
Skating on the Rideau Canal for beaver tails,
Skiing and snowboarding down the hills.
Skating on rinks, hitting the puck, cheering our teams.
Yet we live for the months of summer
Expired Ferry Express tickets,
The days we spend outside, the nights we spend with our families.
(More to come – the bell rang!)