Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

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Night shift

When I finally give in and open my eyes, the red numbers staring at me say 2:34. “Cool,” I think and immediately realize that I am irreversibly awake. 

I close my eyes again anyway, willing sleep to return, vainly hoping that my mental state and my physical state will align. They do not. Behind my closed eyes, I begin to mentally re-arrange our English continuum. I imagine a large chart on a chalkboard: one axis shows grades 9-12; the other our four strands: Oral, Reading & Literature, Writing, and Media. I populate each cell with skills we want our students to learn, arranging and rearranging information in the grid in my brain. I can envision the smooth continuum of oral skills: asking good questions, then speaking in groups, followed by recognizing and using rhetorical speech, ending with speaking persuasively with evidence. Satisfied, I start to create this again for other strands.

I know this chart well; I am familiar with the gaps and jumps, the places where we hiccup. The grid dances, taunting, behind my closed eyes as I try to mentally fill the holes, try to create a flow of uninterrupted growth across all the various facets, as if somehow at… I check again, 2:47… I can find the answer that will mean authenticity and growth for each individual student, some magic formula that each teacher can apply and…

I try not to sigh loudly when I realize that I need to get up. Andre is deep asleep next to me. He had a long day and needs this rest. My nocturnal concerns need not wake him. I grab a blanket, wrap it around me, and head to the living room. There, I find my journal and start to write.

One of my colleagues often consoles us when we report middle-of-the-night restlessness. “Normal,” she reassures. “Used to be that everyone woke up in the middle of the night.” She’s right. Psychology Today says, “The historical evidence indicates that people in the Middle Ages were up for an hour or more in the middle of the night and thought of sleep as occurring in two segments: first sleep and second sleep. In many ways, this makes sense because being awake during the night has certain advantages. At that time, one could stoke the fire, check the defenses, have sex, and tell tall tales.” I’ve reminded myself of this more than once.

That “sex” is the only hyper-linked word in that paragraph makes me laugh – I remember it even without the computer. No link to fire? Defenses? TALL TALES? Because stories tell us who we are, don’t they? Surely that is what links us. My mind calls up people gathered around a fire in their small home, warming themselves as someone tells a story in the middle of the night. I can almost see the shadows dance against the orange light while the children snuggle in, drowsy but awake. No one is worried about their 3am wakefulness; sleep will return soon enough, now is the time for parents to weave tonight’s tale out of yesterday’s happenings. The room warms.

What story would I tell, here, wrapped cozily in the folds of my blanket, were my own family to gather round? What if my children were to wander sleepily out? Would I dream up a story like Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys ? Would we giggle? Maybe I would tell something more fantastical, more magical? Oh, the mid-night stories we could tell.

And now, as I slip into storytelling, my own eyes begin to close. My pen slows. Tonight’s second sleep is calling. The curriculum will wait: stories don’t need a continuum to work their magic.

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(For all you non-Canadians out there, Allen Morgan’s Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys  is a riot for small kids (and me). You are also missing out on Phoebe Gilman’s Jillian Jiggs.)

 

 

Present

He’s late to class again, but he comes in with his usual smile and a late slip. He’s got the rules down: late to first period? Swing by the office before you go to class. He never complains; he just does it.

He tries to come in quietly – he always does – but I’d guess he’s 6 feet tall, and he’s two years older than his classmates, so his “quiet” still attracts attention. He puts his finger to his lips and hunches over a little.

Today he has a beautiful bright blue gift bag in his hand. He half crouches as he walks across the room and puts it on my desk. “Happy Birthday” he mouths, then takes two giant steps backward and folds his too-tall body into the too-small desk. My cheeks get red.

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The other students have noticed – how could they not? – and I stammer something about it being my birthday. To explain how he knew when I hadn’t told the class, I babble that his birthday is nearly the same day as mine. The other kids smile, say “Happy Birthday, Miss!” and we get back to the lesson.

I do not tell them that we found out about our nearly-shared birthday only recently when he stayed after class to ask how to deal with his much younger brother. “Miss?” he had said quietly, “You know a little bit about kids, right? I need some advice.” I do not tell them that he is the primary contact for his brother’s school because his parents need to be at their jobs. I do not tell them that he is working, I think, to help his family out. I do not tell them that, despite his near-native accent, he only arrived here a few years ago and that he is the primary translator for his family. I do not tell them that the book he has been reading since September is, likely, the first English book he will finish. I do not tell them how hard he is working.

I do not tell them because he lives by his reputation at school. He’s a kid whose cell phone is always on hand and whose absences are rarely excused. Another teacher recently called his friends “the bad kids.” He blends into this group with his brown skin, his slick black hair, his “don’t care” demeanour. He “needs to improve his focus” say his report card comments, his “frequent absences are hindering progress.” This is both true and not true.

Today, he is a very big little boy who has given me a gift. I glance in the bag as class ends; he leaves quickly before I open it. Back in my office, I find a mug wrapped in pink tissue paper and a beautiful birthday card. I briefly hope he did not spend too much. I open the card.

For one second my eyes close as I hover between a smile and tears. My heart contracts for this sweet boy who has come so far and learned so much, for this observant child who is trying so hard. He has figured out all the trappings, but he didn’t sign the card. 

I suspect that he would follow this rule, too, if only he had a card to see how it’s done here – what words do we use? how do we say thank you? What do you write to someone who sees you, even if only in stolen glimpses? 

Conveniently,  I happen to know that his birthday is nearly the same as mine. I think I might need to give him a card.

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Amanda and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad November Monday

Amanda and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad November Monday
(With apologies to Judith Viorst)

I left my office without my binder and then I had to run up to get it. And when I got to Grade 9 English class, no one was in their seat and, to make matters worse, the EA was running late. I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

During sit and read time, students stood and talked. And during stand and talk time, they were too tired to get out of their seats. They went to the bathroom and played on their phones and needed to see me in the hall – urgently. Someone threw a spitball. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

During writing time they couldn’t find their notebooks or their pencils… even when I gave them notebooks and pencils. They couldn’t read the sentence starter on the board and couldn’t think of what to write on the paper… even though we’d just discussed the entire topic. It was definitely a a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

I asked them to sit down. I asked them to put their phones away. I asked them to at least talk quietly. No one even listened. I wished it were a sunny Thursday in May.

I’ve tried teaching Spiderman, but they wanted a different version. I’ve tried graphic novels, but they only want to read them on their own. I’ve even tried letter writing. They don’t write letters. I could tell we’d reached a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

I could tell because I’ve begun doubting my teaching. I’m not planning enough, and I’m moving too fast, or maybe too slowly. I’m only a third-rate teacher and I need to improve my classroom management. “I need you to stop acting like 5-year-olds” I said to the class. “I need you to actually do your work before some Thursday in May!”

In our office, one colleague has finished her report cards, and another has finished her marking. One has evening plans with her family. Guess who has to finish report cards and drive her own children to parkour in the snow? No doubt about it: it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday.

There were late essays to mark, and I hate marking. There were comments to write, and I hate comments. My children were loud and my tea got cold and I had to drive home in the snow. I hate driving in the snow.

It was definitely a a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad November Monday. But I know some days are like that, even some Thursdays in May.

 

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He talks about me at home

Last week we had parent-teacher interviews. I don’t get much uptake on interviews, maybe because I have small classes, or maybe because many of my students – who are responsible for bringing home the information about how to sign up – are somewhat less than enthusiastic about their parents coming to school. This semester was no different: a handful of parents signed up; fewer showed up. It’s too bad, really, because I love parent-teacher interviews. I love meeting parents, talking about the class and their child. I love how as we talk we can become a team, cheering for a child to do well, looking for strategies to make that a reality. Mostly, parent teacher interviews are a good thing.

My favourite interview of the evening came when a mother showed up with all three of her students. Two of them are in my class, and I let them lead the first part of the discussion. One was quite forthcoming, the other, rightly, more sheepish about his work. Their mother looked on, amused. As the second boy stopped talking, she flashed me a full grin.

“He talks about you a lot at home,” she smiled.
“Mom,” he closed his eyes, fingertips on his eyelids, and shook his head.
“He can’t quite figure you out,” she continued, as he slid lower in his seat. “He’s always wondering what you’re up to.”

I gave him a sidelong glance. I thought he might actually turn himself invisible. Across the table, his brothers smirked.

“Oh yeah,” continued his mother, “he even wondered if maybe your partner is black. Apparently you teach a lot of black authors.”

I paused to take this all in. No one in my class has so much as mentioned my overt choices about which books I introduce. No one commented when we read picture books filled with stories of people with all different backgrounds as we started our memoirs. No one breathed a word when Jacqueline Woodson’s This is the Rope became a touchstone mentor text for that same assignment. No one has remarked that the authors whose videos we watch are almost all people of colour. No one has pointed out that I intentionally present diverse voices during book talks, that I often read own voices texts for first-chapter Fridays, that I presented Autumn Peltier alongside Greta Thunberg. If anything, when I mention that I am doing this, everyone looks away.

I had almost stopped. I have been wondering if maybe I am reacting to a problem that isn’t theirs. I’m a white female teacher. Many of my students are BIPOC boys. What do I know of their experience? Trayvon Martin was shot in another country seven years ago when they were only seven or eight years old. They don’t know the names Tamir Rice or Michael Brown. Heck, they can’t remember who ran for Prime Minister and that election just ended last week AND we talked about it in class. Their world is immediate in both time and place. They are 14. I had started to wonder if maybe my intentional move towards equity was more for me than for them.

And then I found myself sitting with three mixed-race students and their white mother. I heard the question in the statement, “He even wondered if your partner is black.”

“No,” I smiled, “he’s not. I really believe that our curriculum should be diverse. There are a lot of people with a lot to say, and we don’t always hear their voices.

We kept talking for a few minutes. I shared some of my story; she shared some of hers. The kids perked up a little and even joined the talk again.

The interview ended. My work with equity and diversity continues.

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What to write in a rough patch

I’ve been having a bit of a rough go of it these past few weeks. I’m a teacher and it’s mid-October, so this is not really a surprise. But it does mean that I’m having trouble deciding what to write. I skipped posting last week in the hopes that sometime this week a post would magically appear. And one did – then another and another. Each day offers me another opportunity to catch a moment and pin it down. Still, I’m having trouble choosing: each one feels like I’m lying a little. Do I tell you how hard things feel right now? Do I talk about my students and our struggles? Or do I capture the ephemeral grace of a moment of connection? Where do I focus? The positive or the negative? Each day, each class period, each activity, each minute is full of ups and downs. Teaching is astonishingly emotional work. 

I try to count my blessings – I really do. My classes are small, my colleagues are supportive, my family is amazing. My students are doing their very best (even when it doesn’t look like they are). I have so much.

But sometimes counting my blessings feels like ignoring the complicated reality of my life. For example, I am overwhelmed by the literacy needs in my classroom and the trauma so many of my students have experienced in their lives. What happened to result in these children reading and writing at these levels? How is it that they have come this far and cannot visualize what they read? How is it that reading and writing are chores they do only when forced, things that are completely unrelated to their lives? At what point did we decide that these children – their unique thoughts, their singular purpose – were expendable? Because I’m pretty sure that someone gave up on them a long time ago. And it wasn’t their parents. How can I possibly convince them that they are important to our world when all I have are 90 days?

Can I be grateful for my colleagues and appreciative of the good will of those who run our school board while still being disappointed when our precious professional development time is sliced and diced into pre-chosen bits that don’t nourish our actual professional lives? Can I be a critical friend to my employer? Who do I ask for the support that we desperately need in order to become the educators our students deserve?  

Even outside of school things are complex. My family lifts me up, but I need space to talk about the complicated bits of my home life – like the four of us (plus the cats) living in a two-bedroom apartment for months while our home is being renovated. 

I know I will look back and laugh. I can even tell you some of the things I will laugh about because there is humour in all of this. I could tell you about the amusing conversation I had with a student about a book (let’s just say that he does NOT know what he’s reading), about the staff’s subtly terrible behaviour during an unproductive PD moment (we really are worse than our students), about how a sex worker buzzed our apartment door repeatedly last night because her client was not picking up. Sometimes laughter is all I’ve got.

But I’m so tired. I’m tired. And I guess that’s my slice of life right now.

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[Post-script, added by husband:  What Amanda has neglected to mention and which I view as highly relevant to this post is that, up until last week, she was taking four courses simultaneously.  She’s down to one, but it involved a super-human push. Picture the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman, but with less armour and combat and more research and writing.  This, on top of all of the above. And still she’s there 100% for her students. I would tell you she’s amazing but she would be too shy to include it in her post.]  

Hats off

Somewhere in the middle of the assembly, I realized that I had become someone I didn’t want to be. I was fuming, so angry I couldn’t appreciate the talented students that I was supposedly watching. I had spent more minutes than I care to count glaring at the back of my students’ heads, wishing that there was some way I could get them in trouble.

Oh, I had every right to be angry: their behaviour was terrible. This was the first big assembly of the year – at our Arts School we have four talent shows each year – and I was responsible for bringing my class. In the precious moments before we were called down to the auditorium, I had quickly tried to review assembly etiquette: we sit together as a class, no hats, no catcalls or whistling, no phones, leave your bags in the classroom. The rules seemed so simple to me that I hadn’t even bothered to plan how to introduce them. I just sort of reeled them off. That’s when the trouble began.

Or, wait. The trouble had begun the day before. Thursday. That was the day that one of the students in this class had been at his worst – disruptive and angry, almost trying to get himself sent out. But I had expected this from him because… well, maybe the trouble had begun the day before. Wednesday. 

On Wednesday during reading time, I began using an informal version of Collaborative Problem Solving to talk with him about why he hadn’t been reading for the past week. I ignored the other students (all reading quietly!) and focused on him. Nine minutes and thirty seconds into our conversation, he said, “Why do you keep asking me questions? I feel like you know the answers already.” I assured him that I was asking the questions because I really had no idea what his answers might be. He asked if we could talk in the hall. There, much to my surprise, he opened up – briefly – about reading and school and how much he hates it all. At one point I thought I saw his eyes well up. He looked away and said he needed to get some water. He was quiet(er) for the rest of class.

We’ve been together for over a month now, so I knew what to expect next: Thursday’s angry outbursts were no surprise. Every breakthrough is followed by a day or two of bad behaviour. Which I guess means that this all started well before last week because he and I have been in this cycle since the second week of school. And from what I have gathered, he’s been in this cycle since, well, forever. He says he has never read a chapter book. His school records are full of drama and bad grades. It’s not a pretty picture.

In so many ways, then, Friday is on me. I thought he would have settled down, but he is nothing if not mercurial. Why on earth did I think I could just list off a bunch of rules and have him comply? Why didn’t it occur to me that I was asking him (and others) to do something hard? These assemblies are effectively theatre. Students sit for an hour and we ask them to adhere to social norms that may not be familiar. I didn’t introduce these ideas ahead of time. I didn’t  explain why we take off our hats or why we can’t use phones or whistle. I just said this is how it is and expected compliance.

In case you are wondering, he did not comply. He wore his hat. He tried – twice! – to sit with others in another part of the auditorium. He talked during every act. He used his phone. Worse, his behaviour and charisma were such that other students followed suit. My class, right in the middle front section of the auditorium, was terrible. (Moment of recognition: not all of them. Not even most of them. But enough to be noticeable. Plus, did I mention that I was angry?)

I know I know – my expectations were reasonable in many ways. If nothing else, we expect students to do what teachers ask. But, here’s the thing: I know better. I know these expectations are cultural. I know that some students need to understand the reasons behind rules. I know that our students are children who need to practice – and that an assembly is a great place to practice. And I tell the students that I value their engagement over their compliance, that I want them to ask questions, that we’re all here to learn. I also tell them that they are responsible for their own emotions. If I had really thought about this particular student’s needs, I would have realized that I needed to let this go. That the young women behind him who told him to be quiet were far more effective than I could ever be.

Instead, I was angry for most of the assembly. About a hat and some talking. That’s not what it felt like – I felt *very* justified – but that’s what it was. My emotions are on me. He just wanted to know the parameters and to have some control. He wasn’t angry. He had a great time. I think he actually enjoyed the show. 

On Monday he was his normal ebullient self – too loud, too active, too much. But he had forgiven me. And he will forgive me over and over if I can keep *seeing* him. By the end of the year, he probably won’t wear his hat to assemblies, especially if I remember that I am the kind of teacher who cares more about the student than the hat. Sometimes that is incredibly hard, but I can get better.

PS – Over the weekend I re-acquainted myself with strategies for dealing with ODD in the classroom. No diagnosis here, but I’m betting the strategies won’t hurt. Number one strategy? Don’t get into power struggles; ignore unwanted behaviour whenever you can. I’m on it.

 

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