Who gets the credit?

One week before the end of school, four school days before marks were due, she still hadn’t handed in any work. Not. one. thing. I’d known we might end up here because I’d taught her before. Now, the impending deadline made the reality undeniable: she wasn’t going to pass.

This was her second semester in my class because, after turning in next-to-nothing the previous semester, she had failed. Then her failure had slipped through the cracks, and she’d started the next English class, only to be “discovered” three weeks into the semester and forced to come back to my class. Separated from her friends, publicly humiliated, she had spent the week before the Covid 19 closure showing up late, refusing to work, and taking extraordinarily long bathroom breaks. I’d let her.

Why? Because I know her. She has no reason to trust adults and often barely earns her credits. When she was in grade 9, we’d connected a little after I kept finding her in the hallways. I couldn’t get her through the class she was skipping, but I could sit with her and listen, so I did. Last year, she and another friend, both Inuit, sometimes came to the Spec Ed room to work. She doesn’t have an IEP, but that didn’t matter. Together, we muddled our way through a History class she hated. As I worked with her, I realized that she had very few academic problem-solving skills and little willingness to play the game of school. So when I’d seen her name on my roster first semester, I’d known she would be a challenge, but I’d thought we would get through it. We didn’t. Well, she didn’t. 

She had spent the semester being, frankly, difficult. She brought food and ate noisily, then left the wrappers everywhere. I don’t mind students eating in class, but there was something aggressive about this. Aggressive eating? I swear it’s true. I reminded myself that many students need to eat in class, and I politely cleaned her trash when she had finished. Then, she refused to comply with my seating plan. I don’t love seating plans, but the class was divided and I wanted them to work together, so I used often-changing seats for group work. When she wouldn’t move, I planned around her preferred seat. And, during our twenty minutes of daily reading, she talked incessantly. I found myself increasingly angry, so we did a problem-solving session which ended with a plan that allowed her and her friend several days a week to talk in the hallway during reading time. Anathema to my goals, but she swore that she read “all the time” at home and begged me not to call her parents to confirm. I didn’t love it, but I acceded; it was better than nothing.

I felt like I had compromised everywhere, and still she had produced no work. It was maddening. One of the only things she did last semester was write a thank-you note to a speaker, an Inuit man who came to share his culture – her culture – with our class. He was fascinating, and she listened intently. Her thank you was heartfelt and honest. She earned an A.

And now here we were, the end of the craziest semester I’ve ever seen and our second semester together. She had attended no synchronous meetings and done no asynchronous assignments. I had called her regularly, and we’d had some nice chats, but she never followed up with actual work. Still, we’d talked about the books she was reading – she loves Rick Riordan – and, eventually, about the fan fiction novel she was writing. No, she was not interested in sharing it with me: it wasn’t ready. Sometimes, she called me back after I left a message. (I’d unmasked my phone number early on because I suspected no one would answer if I didn’t.) She hated being stuck at home, longed for fresh air, felt stifled by her family, her situation, her “crappy” internet. She read all the time because there wasn’t much else to do. She missed her friends. She missed school. I laughed, “but you don’t do school!” 

“That’s not true,” she said, “I just don’t do school work. It’s different.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague, Melanie White, who is my accountability partner in anti-racist work. “I feel like I’m failing her,” I said. “I feel like if we were at school, she might be passing. This whole system is stacked against her, and I’m just another person letting her down.”

Melanie was quiet for a minute. “Then pass her.”

Round and round we talked. If I pass her, am I telling her that she deserves pity? Or that she can’t do it? Will she think I have so little faith in her abilities that I will pass her with no evidence? If I don’t pass her, will she learn anything by repeating the course for a third time? Will she even bother? So many of these questions are, at their core, about me not her.

I left the conversation uneasy and undecided. I checked the curriculum document: in Ontario, credits are awarded when a student demonstrates the knowledge and skills mandated by the curriculum. Awarded. Mandated. So many words of coercion. In my heart, I knew that this child’s skills were at least as strong as many of her classmates’, sometimes stronger. The biggest difference was her lack of compliance. True, in class she only rarely talked about books or shared her writing, and true, she had only once done the classwork I assigned, but… Then, a niggle: no, the biggest difference was that she wouldn’t do the work. And then my brain circled back: isn’t that just compliance?

I sat with my discomfort. I thought a lot about Inuit ways of knowing, about systemic and institutional racism, about what it means to honour someone for who they are.

Finally on Friday, one week before the end of school and four school days before marks were due, I called her and left a message. On Monday morning, she called me back. We chatted about her latest read – a Riordan I’m not familiar with – and why she had decided to go back to the drawing board for her novel. Then I launched into it: “I needed to talk to you because I’ve been sitting with the question of how to figure out your mark for a while now. I feel like there’s a gap between what I know with my soul and what I have evidence for – school evidence. In my heart, I know that you can do all the English things – reading and writing, speaking and listening – more than well enough to pass this class. But my teacher brain knows that you haven’t really done any school work.” She laughed ruefully. “I’ve observed you enough to know that you can do this work. I want you to get this credit, but you need to believe that you have passed, that you are good enough, that this is what you have earned, not what you have been given. This can’t be a pity pass because I don’t pity you. This has to be about what you can do, not what you haven’t done.” I paused.

Silence.

Chewing.

“Yeah,” she said, “I can see that. Like, I didn’t turn much in, but you know I like to read and write. Like you trust that I can do the work when I’m ready.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “I trust that you can do it. And you will have to do it because I won’t be your teacher next year. You’ll have to show someone else what you can do.”

We talked a little more about what mark she had earned and where she saw herself in terms of the curriculum and her own skills. We talked about the summer and how much she longs to see her friends, though her parents won’t let her right now, even with a mask.

After we hung up, I sat in the sun on my porch for a few minutes. I felt lighter – I’d made the decision – but I was still conflicted. Was my choice racist? I definitely allowed this child to pass with scanty evidence; I did not hold her to the highest standards. Perhaps I had sold her short. Anti-racist? I definitely thought about this child as a person harmed by a system designed to oppress Inuit and Indigenous people. I think I did the right thing, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.

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Who’s anti-racist?

I’d been sitting at my “desk” – aka a table that we quickly repurposed into a desk for the now months-long COVID19 work-from-home set-up – for way too long. It’s not quite high enough to be a work space, and when I really settle in, I end up aching more or less everywhere. A quick stretch didn’t do nearly enough to help, so I decided to go for a long walk. After all, those student projects weren’t going anywhere, the day was beautiful, and I had an errand to run: I was picking up the book Unsettling Canada from a local independent bookstore. Colinda Clyne is leading a book group about it on her podcast “Anti-Racist Educator Reads” (listen live Wednesdays at 7:30pm ET), and I was eager to get reading.

I tucked my headphones into my ears and queued up my podcasts. I was finishing up Episode 147,  “Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education” where Jennifer Gonzalez interviews Dr. Sheldon Eakins Cult of Pedagogy podcast. I love her podcast in general, and this episode had already given me some food for thought. When this one finished, I already had Brene Brown’s interview with Austin Channing Brown from her podcast Unlocking Us

The day was warm and sunny, and I relished taking a break when I needed one rather than living by the dictates of the school bell. I meandered out of my (rich, largely white) neighbourhood and into the next (richer and possibly whiter), pausing to take pictures of flowers and giving friendly nods to many people. I noticed some Black Lives Matter signs stuck to various poles and a few chalked sidewalks reading, End White Silence and other slogans. “Wow!” I thought,  impressed to see these in this neighbourhood. That’s great! If someone had stopped me on the street, shoved a microphone in my face and said, “Tell us, how are you feeling right now?” I probably would have said “content.”

I probably would not have said “self-congratulatory” or “complacent” but… the virtue signaling is everywhere: “local independent bookstore,” the book title, the podcast, the book title, the other podcast, and the other one. No one reading this doesn’t know exactly what kind of white woman I am.

As I neared the bookstore, I noticed a gray-haired white woman putting a sign up on a telephone pole. Her body was pressed against the pole, as she held a sign in one hand and tried to unfurl the wrapping tape with the other. It wasn’t working. She moved her hand and I saw the words: Black Lives Matter. Pleased to be part of this, I crossed the street and offered to help. “Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at me, “It’s hard to get this tape to stick to the wood.”

At that moment, I recognized her. We had been friendly when our children were babies, spent some time together in a moms’ group and shared a few playdates. When I went back to work, she stayed home and eventually we lost touch. Actually, that’s not quite truthful. As I followed her on social media, I was overwhelmed by her activism on *everything.* I found her exhausting, even shrill, and I suspect she found me ridiculously naive. Her partner wrote angry opinion pieces in the local paper; she wrote screeds on Facebook. I finally unfollowed her when I realized that just seeing her name was making me anxious. She seemed angry at every injustice, and I couldn’t handle it.

She didn’t look at me as I held the paper – she was still fighting with the tape and had colored chalk under her arm – and I quickly turned my face away: I didn’t want her to recognize me. I couldn’t bear the thought of the conversation we might have. She got the tape to stick, I made some comment like “Good luck”  and walked away. Suddenly the Black Lives Matter signs all over the neighbourhood didn’t look so appealing. I found myself thinking, “It’s not even her neighbourhood,” though the truth is that I no longer know where she lives. 

I realized how sweaty I was. It was actually quite hot and the sun was really bright. Why did I decide to go out at midday? I wondered. I noticed more chalked sidewalks, more signs. My stomach clenched. I am NOT like her, I thought. I do not want to be like her. I kept walking towards the store as my mind churned.

What does it mean to be anti-racist? I am reading and listening and talking. I’ve read a lot already but I feel like my reading list gets longer daily. I am learning and learning and learning, but what am I doing? Should I, too, be putting up signs and chalking up sidewalks? Should I be shouting this from the rooftops? Should I be angry? 

One of my black students recently told me that her mom keeps her home when she’s really angry so that she doesn’t get into trouble. Angry black women get in trouble, get arrested, get mocked, get turned into memes. An angry black woman putting up Black Lives Matter signs in that neighbourhood, well… I actually don’t know what would happen because I can’t even imagine it. Maybe I should be using my white privilege to be more vocal, to put up signs and scream about this issue. Maybe when my old acquaintance wrote End White Silence she meant me. In fact, she probably did.

But that doesn’t feel right either. If I am to accuse myself of anything, I suspect that I am far more apt to be complaisant than complacent. I know I need to raise my voice, to be less fearful of others’ displeasure, but surely that doesn’t undo my efforts toward anti-racism. My thoughts are going in circles, and I find myself wanting to enumerate the “things I’m doing” as if to prove my anti-racism to… to whom? To myself? To her? No. That won’t do. My mind, relieved, jumps to vilify her: she *is* shrill; she *is*… what? Wrong? My thoughts circle again.

Then Ibram X. Kendi’s voice fills my ears – I had realized I wasn’t concentrating and switched to a podcast episode I’d already heard: “the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgment, is the willingness to be vulnerable.” This. This I can do. This is the heart of what I am trying to do with my students, how I try to de-center myself, to listen, to believe them. And when my students tell me about the racism they experience… ah, there’s my anger. I feel it now. The urgency I feel comes from their lives, their truths.

I am still walking. I can make myself vulnerable in my relationships with my colleagues, my friends and others, too. I can admit my mistakes and learn from them. I can be relentless. I can share what I learn, act on my beliefs. I can keep learning. My paradigm has shifted, and I can share that shift. There is space enough in anti-racism for her way and mine – there has to be – because in the end, we all need to be anti-racist.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for the space they create for so many voices.

I heard a Fly buzz

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. It’s a new way of looking at poetry for many students. The poems are interesting, the prompts intriguing; I often write from them myself as I teach.

Normally, I would pause here to quote the prompt that I’m thinking of, but today I can’t because my book is in the school, and the school is closed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I’m at home, teaching without most of my books. We’re making do.

Dickinson’s poem begins like this:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –


And the prompt says something like “write a poem where you intentionally set a very big thing next to a very small thing” and it says something like “consider capitalizing some words and using short phrases and dashes.”

I can’t stop thinking about this – the giant thing: death – and the small, everyday thing: the fly. I can’t stop thinking about how often even the most important moments get all wrapped up with the mundane, even the annoying. I feel this intensely as I continue to live a pandemic-normal existence in Canada, watching from a distance as my country, my home, seems to be ripping itself apart. To use another literary reference, I am, like Nick in The Great Gatsby (one of the texts my students have chosen to read) “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

I am repelled by the way President Trump is behaving, how he is inciting increased violence and calling for violence against Americans. I should no longer be shocked by his abhorrent behaviour, but I am. I am repelled by the actions of some police officers, by extremists who take advantage of protests to foment increased discord.

I am even more repelled by the history that has brought us to this moment – though my revulsion itself is a privilege because it implies that I see this racism, this horrible foundation, as something outside myself. I can be repelled because I do not experience racism against me. I can look at this from the outside in not only because I’m in Canada, but also because I am white.

I *am* white and I am in Canada, so despite the pit in my stomach, I am dealing with every day things: the cats want to their food, the children have school work, the bills must be paid. The persistent buzz of every day of life interposes between me and this larger moment. And I can’t ignore it. Thus it is, with rueful gratitude to Dickinson, who understood that the sublime and the mundane are never entirely separate, I offer this:

I mark Essays – as they Protest
As their Voices plead for Air –
Their Silence – it surrounds me –
As I comb – my youngest’s hair

Police have turned on protesters –
Though Some strive to protect –
We all breathe in the tear gas
Of a President – unchecked

Our racism goes back – Centuries
Though now – the White man cries –
“Not me! I’m anti-racist!”
Without Action – it’s a lie.

And here I sit – in Canada –
My White skin – lets me choose –
How much I want to be involved
I sit – and watch the News.

Here’s Dickinson’s whole poem:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Emily Dickinson

A little extra understanding

The email caught me by surprise. Maybe if I’d woken up earlier, or if I hadn’t already had to help one of my kids with math – before breakfast! – or even if I’d felt more on top of things, maybe then I would have been more prepared, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I wasn’t cooking breakfast and checking work email, navigating my children’s schooling, my partner’s morning meeting for work, and my own job – maybe if I’d been in the school building, I would have remembered to check the timestamp before reading, remembered my personal rule of thumb that middle-of-the-night messages tend to be more emotional and less filtered and are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. But I was at home, managing all the crazy, and the email was unexpected.

I know the student who wrote, know that the parents are often more worried than the student, know that the student is doing fine – even well! – during this time of remote learning. I can imagine the student’s frustration at being stuck at home with parents and the parents’ frustration at being stuck at home with children. I could hear all of this in the words on the screen. I could guess that the parents, not the student, had laid out the phrases that I was reading.

But it still hurt to read a even a short diatribe about how I’m not doing my job properly. Welcome to Monday morning, the beginning of week 10 of emergency online instruction.

SIGH

To be honest, I’m behind on basically everything, constantly scrambling just to stay near the crest of the growing wave of “things to do.” I’m behind on marking, on providing feedback, on creating new assignments for this new reality, on playing the video game I assigned as text. (Walden, A Game – it. is. awesome. for right now. The grade 12s who chose it are really enthusiastic about it.) I’m behind on navigating the apps and programs I suddenly need to do my job. (Look, I *know* that Screencastify is easy, but I haven’t had time to use it yet.) I’m so far behind on email that sometimes I just scratch the old ones off the list because they’re no longer relevant. At home, I’m behind on blogging, on commenting, on laundry – actually, we *just* caught up on laundry.

Still, I know that I’m doing the best that I can, and that my best is good. I’ve read a BUNCH about online learning and teaching; I’ve been focussing on building and maintaining relationships with students where I can, calling “missing” kids at least once a week; I’ve started a weekly lunch hangout with the English Department, just to chat. I’ve been attending webinars on best practices for online teaching and anti-racist education. I’ve even created a website for Grade 12, just to have a central space for information. I’m really proud of it – even if, to be honest, the students are working in three interest-based streams, and I’m having trouble keeping all the streams up-to-date. Sigh. I know that I’m focusing hard on creating and co-creating work that the students find both interesting and important. And I’m letting my home life fill me up (well, except when I’m negotiating the endless fights about screen time), remembering the importance of time away from work

So after I read the email, I stepped away from the screen. I went for a walk, talked to my children, tried to work. I allowed myself to imagine some *perfect* responses that were cathartic if not especially kind; sadly, neither sarcasm nor lecture are effective responses if learning is the goal. I wrote a nice email to one of my children’s teachers. (They have so many from me at this point that they probably don’t read them anymore.) In the afternoon, when I recognized that the negative words were still a heavy pit in my stomach, I called a colleague. I read her the email, and we laughed and talked. We chatted about this & that, swinging from work to everything else and back again. I was able to focus on some of the more enthusiastic responses I’ve received from students. I loosened up, then used my newly-restored good mood to write a supportive response to the student.

After all, change is overwhelming, and we each deserve a little extra understanding right now. Maybe my response will help my student remember that; it definitely helped me.

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Be. Here.

It’s New Year’s Eve and we are in a plane again. This time we’ve left Grandma’s and are heading home. All around me, people are looking backward – it’s the end of the decade! – and forward – let’s make some resolutions! Me? I had a big plan to write a “Slice of Life” that wasn’t, strictly speaking, a slice of life at all, but was going to be very reflective and profound AND look forward to what comes next. I was going to include my “One Little Word” and even reference a book I just finished.

It was a good plan.

The thing is, of course, that we were on vacation. And the Santa Catalinas were right outside the window. And it rained – in the desert – so I had to get outside. And then we needed to paint and talk and read and snuggle and laugh and watch TV and hike and so much more. On one hike, our youngest insisted – spur of the moment – that we veer off our planned trail and head straight up another to the top of a mountain. We would have made it, too, if sunset hadn’t chased us back down. Our oldest remembered the neighbor who’s an astronomer/ professor/adventurer and an animated story-teller. He convinced him to take us stargazing in Sabino Canyon. And my mother-in-law cooked for us and cared for us and allowed us to settle in to just being for a while.

So I didn’t write that blog post. I’m not worried – I’ll get to it. All those ideas are still there, percolating away in the back of my head. And I didn’t get around to looking back over the past decade – or the past year – or even the past month – which was kind of my plan, what with a “last week of the decade/year/month” vacation. I didn’t get around to planning for next year – or month – or even week – either. I just texted a friend this morning to ask if I could let her know more about plans for Jan 2, well, tomorrow. Which, you might note, is Jan 1st. Ah well.

Instead, I have been busy being here. That’s my mantra during savasana at the end of yoga and what I repeat when I try to meditate. Breathe in – be; breathe out – here. I don’t know if it’s what I’m supposed to be doing at those times, but it’s what I started thinking years ago & it has stuck. And it’s what I’m doing now, at the end of this year, the end of this decade. I’m being here, on this airplane with my family on our way home,. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be. Here.

Happy New Year!

 

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Equinox

This year there was a harvest moon on Friday the 13th. Someone knew that in one of my classes, but no one was really sure what a harvest moon was. There were a lot of theories – when there are two full moons in one month? when the moon looks really big? or maybe orange? or maybe that’s the sun? Once the guesses got wilder, I suggested we look it up.

A harvest moon, it turns out, is the full moon that occurs nearest to the Autumn Equinox. Everyone knew what autumn meant, but equinox presented another conundrum. (Groans.”Stop with the big words, Miss. If you mean problem then say problem.” I mentally added conundrum to our list.) Equinox is when day and night are equal. (Ok, it’s technically the instant of time when the sun crosses the equator, but we stuck with the equinox/equal idea.)

The autumnal equinox this year occurred at 3:50 am on Monday, September 23. I’m not sure if that means that day and night were equal on Sunday or Monday, but Sunday was my equinox. I spent the weekend at a cottage with friends. On Saturday, we spent the morning floating on the lake and laughing. Sunday morning was different. I woke up early and tiptoed out of the house in my pajamas. From the tiny dock – really just a few pieces of wood and a narrow ladder – I watched the sun rise. A loon called, long and lonely. I expected the sun to bring warmth, but instead a breeze came, insistent. I could imagine that the trees across the lake, backlit by the sun and mostly dark, were deeply green, but the trees near me revealed the truth: their leaves were already showing gold and red. I relished the moment between morning and day, the last bit of vacation that reminded me that the school year was well underway. It felt like a moment of balance.

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Then I remembered my tea was waiting, probably already cool. I tried to memorize the moment, to catch what was already behind me, really, then I went inside to read.

On Monday I asked “Who remembers equinox?” Most of them raised their hands.

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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.

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Phone home

“Da-an’s in trouble!” A young girl’s voice echoed through the phone on my end; I could only imagine how it echoed through the house on the other end. There was a brief rustle as someone else picked up the receiver, and I overheard a muffled curse.

“Hello?” His mother’s voice was wary.

I launched into my spiel. I was so nervous that I talked without pausing until I finished with “…so that’s why I called.”

Silence. Then she muttered, “Well, thanks.” I hung up.

I was doing my student teaching. In our Classroom Management class – a label, by the way, which I dismissed as euphemistic. “Just call it ‘discipline,’” I groused. – one suggestion was the “positive phone call home.” I can’t remember if the professor suggested calling about the hard kids or if I dreamed that up, but that’s what I decided to do: I decided to find something good about the toughest kids in the class and call home. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Dan was in my French class and he had approximately zero interest in learning French. In fact, given that we were in a poor neighborhood in Portland, OR, I would guess that most of the students were in that class because Spanish didn’t fit in their timetables and the teacher was relatively new. Dan was a big, athletic kid who came to class most days sweating and heaving from his lunchtime basketball games. He could not sit still, talked constantly and was mostly a royal pain in the tuchus. On any given day, Dan could easily send the whole class sideways.

I was ridiculously young and enthusiastic, so I had made a few changes since I took over – thank you, Classroom Management class – and Dan was responding well. We’d redirected his unending comments into French and he was leading the class in actually speaking French. So, I called home.

After his mom hung up, I was stunned. That had not gone as I had planned. Chagrined, I turfed my plans to call a few more kids and reflected that not all good theories work well in practice. Boy, was I wrong.

The next day, Dan came bounding into class and gave me a big sweaty hug. “I GOT ICE CREAM!” As it turned out, no one had EVER called home to say something good about Dan. His mom had called his Dad, a trucker, on the road and had taken him and his siblings out for ice cream. He was one of my best students and a class leader right up until my student teaching ended.

And I was hooked. Since that day the “positive phone call home” has been one of my secret weapons. I use it all the time. Knowing that I want to call home and say something nice about each of my students means that I watch them differently. I actively and regularly look for what they do well. When I see it, I call. I can always find something good. Always.

Parents are regularly stunned by this call. Even parents of the best students rarely get positive feedback outside of report cards. Almost never do they get a call to tell them something kind, proactive or thoughtful that their child has done. I am regularly greeted by stunned silence, though by now I have learned to slow down while I speak. One father cried because his son – who, to be fair, was *really* struggling with all things related to school – had never heard a teacher say something nice about his child. One mother whooped and laughed, “You made my day! Heck, you’ve made my week! This is the best.” Most just say thank you.

And the kids? Well, like Dan, a few mention the call. Monday comes (because I love calling home on Fridays and making the whole weekend start well) and a quiet voice will say, “I can’t believe you called my mom. That was great.” But many – often the least engaged – never say a thing. Still, they keep coming back to class. They keep learning. And someone somewhere in their life knows that I am trying to really see their child.

We all want to be seen.

When should you call home to say something nice? Here are a few suggestions…
Call in the first few weeks.
Call when you’re upset with your class. You will remember what they do well.
Call when you see something good happen. Call that day: at lunch, right before you head out the door to go home, whenever. The calls are rarely long.
Call on a Friday. Or a Monday. Or whenever. It does not matter: just call. It might just change YOUR life.

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Slice of Life: #sol19 1/31

I am in a Starbucks somewhere on Long Island. It was bustling when I walked in, maybe 20 people in this coffee shop in a strip mall  in the middle of the morning, but now it is quieter. Calming, folksy music swirls around me, the kind of music I feel like I should be able to identify but can’t quite place. A copy of the New York Times lays, untouched, on the long table next to me. A man wearing a smart charcoal pinstriped suit just sat down, hitching up his pants and revealing black socks with large pink polka dots. The woman with the four tiny paw prints tattooed behind her left ear has already left.

I woke up at 4:10 this morning with my youngest child’s body snuggled against me. He had nightmares last night and ended up in my bed; I had to get up early, so I didn’t take the time to get up and put him back in his own. I was at the airport by 5 and touched down in Laguardia by 8. A light dusting of snow seemed to have surprised everyone, or so said the shuttle bus driver as he ferried me, alone, to the car rental.

I’ve driven for an hour and am now sitting in Starbucks, sipping tea and waiting in the gray morning to go my friend’s father’s funeral. A year ago, on March 4, I was also writing about attending a funeral of a friend’s father.

As I started to write, I expected to feel morbid or to be reflecting on mortality. I expected to feel more…sad. Instead, I feel lucky. The crowd is picking up again and now I recognize the song they’re playing. The hum and buzz of conversation, the dance of patrons coming and going, sitting with one another and alone, the knowledge that soon I will see my friend – even if only briefly… all of this combines with the slight uptick in spirits that I often feel at the beginning of a new month and the excited butterflies in my stomach knowing that I have committed to writing – and publishing! – every day for a month. I am not sad. Life is so generous, and right at this minute I am committed to soaking up all of that generosity.

In a few minutes I will leave. I know that I will, indeed, feel sorrow. Tonight, after driving an hour back to the airport and flying all the hours home, I will be exhausted. Tomorrow I may be crabby.

But right now, in this slice of my life, I feel momentarily expectant. And… it’s time to go.

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Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this inspirational month of writing

I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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