Something stinks

Pause for a minute and take stock: we’re 14 months into a global pandemic. While my birth country, the US, has decided the pandemic is largely over, my current home, Canada, has taken a more cautious approach: here in Ontario we are under “stay at home” orders. After weeks of socializing almost exclusively with our immediate family, we have all become slightly feral. The stay at home orders end on June 2, and while many are rejoicing at the small freedoms we will begin to re-experience, teachers, students and parents are still biting our nails. In its infinite wisdom, the provincial government has neglected to decide if the re-opening of the province also means the re-opening of schools. They are, apparently, thinking about it. Nevermind that the re-opening is happening on Thursday. They will come to a decision when they are good and ready.

At any rate, it’s not like they can make this school year any more convoluted than it already has been. Not only have we been teaching in hybrid “quadmesters” (the word “quarters” just doesn’t capture the essence of this school year – and some schools have “octomesters”), but also no two quadmesters have unfolded in the same way: we’ve had fully hybrid, hybrid until the last month, fully virtual…. Quad 4 has been entirely virtual up until now, but with three weeks left in the year we may be randomly shifted back to in-person hybrid. Or maybe not. No one knows. It’s a mystery.

All of this may explain Saturday morning. I was sitting in the kitchen playing a word game when something outside caught my eye. There, just beyond the sliding glass door, a skunk was destroying my hostas.

I. was. livid.

I didn’t even pause. I jumped up, ran to the door, and flung it open. I tore onto the back porch, clad in my fuzzy pink bathrobe and old sneakers, unwashed, hair unkempt, and cried out with all the fury of a teacher nearly at the end of a school year, nearly at the end of a pandemic, nearly at the end of her rope: “DON’T YOU DARE!” I shook my fist. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”

The shocked skunk looked up from its meal.

“YOU LEAVE THOSE HOSTAS ALONE! THAT’S ENOUGH!”

She stared at me. I stared at her. I gradually began to realize that my actions might have been, well, rash. There I stood, a slightly crazed, decidedly disheveled, middle-aged school teacher in a pink bathrobe yelling across the lawn at a rodent on a Saturday morning. Still, we stared. Then she turned around.

Well, let me tell you, I took one look at that skunk’s butt and ran back inside. Behind the safety of the sliding glass door, I seethed. Our cat, Hera, joined me. Together, we glared.

The skunk, clearly worried that the humans of *this* house might be rabid, delicately picked her way out of the yard and left.

The lesson? Do not mess with a tired teacher at the end of an exhausting school year during a global pandemic. The teacher will win.

a trail of half-eaten hostas

Picture this

Mr. 10 had to write a quatrain for school. Not just any quatrain, mind you, this quatrain had to be focused on one topic, have a distinctive rhyme scheme, at least 12 lines and alliteration. Reasonable enough, I suppose, but he was having trouble keeping all those things in his mind at the same time. The task seemed impossible, so he had put it off for several days. Now it was late.

Last night, he reluctantly agreed to let me help him. We looked at the list of potential topics and he chose ocean. “Great!” I tried for enthusiasm. “Let’s brainstorm a list of words that you think of when you hear the word ocean.”

He glared.
“Oh, the ocean,” I sighed. “What does that make you think of?”
Nothing.
“Why did you choose the ocean as your topic?”

By now his arms were folded across his chest and his leg was jumping. He has big emotions, this kid, and when they swell, they can quickly drown his rational brain. I tried to calm him, but the undertow was almost inescapable. When I thought we were on firmer footing, we started again: what are some synonyms for ocean? His eyes shifted; his brow lowered; his mouth pressed shut. He wasn’t really ready to talk, but it was already 8pm; he’d put this off as long as possible. Bedtime loomed and he didn’t want synonyms. He wanted something else, but I had no idea what. Finally he spit out, “shark.” Delighted, I slid into my spiel, “ooh, ‘shark’! What a good choice! Let’s see… sharks are gray…”

“Shark, bird, ocean,” he interrupted, then clamped his mouth shut again.

He is not stupid, my boy; he is, in fact, loquacious. When school is open, he regularly gets in trouble for talking. He reads, tells stories, is enthusiastically goofy. But not now. “Sharks eat birds from the sky?” I guessed. This, of course, made no sense. “Sharks eat birds on the ocean? Like seagulls?” He shook his head. I was really trying , but I had no idea what he was thinking. He stamped his foot and I saw tears brimming in his eyes. As gently as I could, I said, “Lovey, I don’t know how to help you write poetry if you don’t use words.” I lowered my eyelids towards my cheeks. Breathed deeply. Prayed for patience.

On Saturday, Chris Cluff had asked, “What stops you from writing?” My answer came quickly: “No space of my own; Virginia Woolf nailed it. I’m ready for our family to go back into the world! Also: fatigue, fear (of failure, of success, that my ideas aren’t good/original/interesting enough); too much time thinking about commitments to others rather than to myself.” Chris’s response was, as always, interesting: “i love what uwrite with flowers. its a very cool fluency”.

I was taken aback. I mean, I walk every day, and take pictures of flowers, but I had never thought of this photography as writing. Barring a photo essay, what would it mean to write with flowers? Flowers as fluency? I needed time to mull this over, to consider, but it was a long weekend and my brain was full of teaching and covid and family and life, so I hit “like”, put the comment in the back of my mind, and imagined I would come back to it later.

It turned out that later was now. Mr. 10 was still not ready to speak. “I don’t know to help you write poetry if you don’t use words” and as the phrase flitted between us, Chris’s comment came back… what u write with flowers.

“Want to draw a picture?”
No.
“Want to look at pictures?”
No.
“Want to tell me a picture?”
He said, “sharks are birds of the ocean. They fly through the water. Their fins are wings.” And I was momentarily speechless.

I wish I could say that was the breakthrough, but it wasn’t. No line of this poem came easily. Often his rhymes were internal, not at the end of lines. He would get caught up in his pictures and lose his words. He fell in love with ideas that didn’t work. He struggled through synonyms and rhyming dictionaries. At one point, both of us nearly cried as we looked for a rhyme for “depths”, a word he was unwilling to let go of or even move. It would be “depths” and it would be at the end of the line. No discussion. I tried not to lose my cool, not to write it for him, not to let him off this hook.

We finally finished, exhausted. He had used almost no alliteration, but he’d written 12 lines with a clear rhyme scheme and a focus. And honestly, I don’t know what we learned, but we did it, and some day – maybe when this school year ends – I’m going to figure out what it means to be fluent in flowers.

[the poem – the flying, the strings, the hemming – that’s all him. I *did* teach him a little about enjambment, but just to tell him that it was ok.]

Sharks of the Sky

I dream of the deep dark sea
The best place in the world to be
The water around me is the sky
Sharks, like birds of the ocean, fly

By me. They glide with fins like wings
The trails they leave in the water are strings
Hemming patterns in the depths
Accepting creatures’ last breaths

Striking fast and leaving no trace
The shark must race,
A streak of grey
Hunting for its prey.

A year of walking

Yesterday, one of the writing prompts I gave my students was “create a timeline of no more than six moments from your life that tell a specific story; then do it again with different moments.” The idea behind the prompt is to recognize how selection and omission shapes the stories we tell. As I wrote alongside my students, I had a revelation: most of my stories aren’t shaped by specific moments. Instead, a lot of my stories are determined by a series of events or choices that someone – me, my parents, my sisters or friends – made over and over. The story isn’t one test, one class, one dinner, one disaster or one anything: instead, it’s all the swim practices that led to the swim meets that led to one race and then another; it’s the series of dates that led . It’s not one book; it’s all the books.

My timeline was a disaster – so obviously I shared it with my students. Though they nodded as I explained, I can’t guarantee that they really understood my scribbles. Most of them had managed to complete the assignment with some ease. No messy ongoing moments for them.

As of today I have officially walked at least 1.5 km for 365 days in a row. Once I decided to do this, I went about it wholeheartedly. I was so committed that when we foolishly went to a cottage during black fly season, I walked in the lake. I was so committed that I checked the weather and walked around rainstorms – and sometimes in them. I was so committed that I walked in ice and snow and even sleet (but only once), which I do NOT love. In fact, this is now the first year of my adult life (and possibly even my childhood) that I went outside every day in the winter. It’s the first year I went through multiple pairs of shoes. (I got fancy new ones for today.)

My fancy new shoes for my one-year anniversary.

And now, maybe because I’m deep into studying information with my students – how it is never neutral, how it is shaped & created – I feel like I should, you know, share some life lessons. After all, it’s been a year. Still, I’m not sure that I have any. In ways both literal and figurative, a year of walking is simply about putting one foot in front of another. And then doing it again. It turns out, there’s no earth-shattering moment when all is revealed. There’s just another morning, another day I put on my shoes, another day I head out the door.

And yet, I want to create meaning from this year of walking. I *want* to reflect. Two million-ish steps later, I must have learned something. It’s not a timeline, but…

  1. Have a buddy. (Hi Lisa!) I already knew that having a buddy makes things easier, but I didn’t know that even a virtual buddy would be a real motivator. In some ways virtual was better (story of this year, right?). I had no idea if Lisa had already walked on any given day, so I couldn’t let her down by skipping my own. On days when the weather here was better, I imagined her slogging through snow or muck. How could I not go out when she had faced that? On days when the weather here was worse, I imagined the glory of sharing that I did it anyway. Lesson learned: community counts.
  2. Bite-sized goals. Our original goal was to walk daily from Victoria Day (right before Memorial Day for you Americans out there) until Labour Day. Ambitious but do-able – I mean, walk through the summer? Easy peasy. Then we aimed for Halloween. No problem. I balked a little at the stretch until Christmas – I knew what the weather might do – but once that was done, the rest was a no-brainer. (It was as if I had forgotten February’s existence. It was cold.)
  3. Make it fun. I listen to podcasts, talk to my friends or my sisters, walk with friends, take pictures, find scenic routes. Taking pictures every day has allowed me to slow down & really look at things – no worries about cardio or times. Just walking. I love it. Now, I take pictures every day – and I’m getting better at that, too.
  4. Focus on the basic goal. I am NOT going to run a race – turns out I prefer streaks to competitions. I am not going to sell my pictures. I am not going to walk 30 km. All I’ve committed to is 1.5km each day. Everything else is extra. Extra is fine, but some days 1.5km (and a few snapshots) is enough.

I’m sure there’s more, but there always is. I’m proud of myself in that sort of vague way that comes with milestones I saw coming: I never feel older on the day of my birthday, I found my various graduation ceremonies mostly tedious & I think I was more tickled about finishing a year of walking a few weeks ago when I realized how close I was. A year probably won’t fit neatly onto a timeline for a writing prompt, but as it turns out, I’m not especially good at telling my story through just a few big moments.

Might as well put my shoes on and head out the door again tomorrow.

Classroom Semiotics

I’m trying to teach my 12th graders a tiny bit about semiotics and it’s not going well. Or maybe it is? Honestly, I have no idea. When I pause and use the poll function in the meet to ask if they want to keep talking about this concept or if they’re ready to move on to the next or if they don’t care, the vote is almost evenly split. What does that mean?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. (Forgotten that grad school lecture on semiotics and now you want to remember? No need to rack your brains: this visual essay by Thomas Streeter is a short reminder.) The longer I teach in the purely virtual classroom, the more I realize that a big part of my teaching style involves a minute-by-minute awareness of my students’ signifiers and what they tell me about how the students are learning. In the physical classroom I take in the way the students’ eyes move or their heads tilt; I notice when they shift in their seat or when the second person asks to go to the bathroom. I have made a years-long study of the semiotics of high school students, and reading them has become indispensable to my practice. It determines how I pace my lessons, when I talk and what I offer next. Today, as I talk to a screen of circular icons, I realize that much of teaching is deciding how to answer the questions of when and what next. When do we move forward? When do we linger on a topic? What is the right activity to use to increase thinking in this moment?

A good teacher is a master of classroom semiotics; unfortunately, I recognize very few of the signifiers in this virtual world. As a class we haven’t yet developed a culture of significance that we can all recognize. Too often, the one student who regularly leaves her camera on becomes my guide for everything. Does E look engaged? My brain, stuck in the physical classroom, tells me that everyone must be engaged. Did I catch a slight nod? Good, my subconscious accepts that they all understand well enough to move on. Meanwhile, I make up for the lack of signifiers by exaggerating my own body language. I smile and grimace, move my face closer to the camera to give them “the look”, widen my eyes and make giant gestures, as if somehow my body can make up for their disembodiment. It does not work. Or maybe it does.

I am trying to use good online teaching practices – polls, questions, music, quick takes, “waterfall” in the chat and more are all part of my practice – but I can’t figure out how to know what my students know. What are the signifiers when we can’t see?

I keep thinking back to the year I taught in Bulgaria. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Bulgarians use a quick upwards gesture with the head to mean “no” and a side to side motion to mean “yes” – nearly the opposite of the yes and no motions that I took for granted. The students knew North American head movements, and some of them – but not all of them – tried to use my signifiers in English class when I asked a question. Early in the school year, I asked if students understood something, and I found myself bewildered by a chaotic sea of bobbing heads. It was impossible to know who was signifying what. Slowly I learned to stop asking yes or no questions; slowly I learned which students were likely to use which system of nods; slowly I learned to gauge their attention and understanding in other more meaningful ways.

Those lessons came near the beginning of my teaching career; today, older and much more set in my ways, I am struggling to change. For example, right now, our class writing time is nearly over and I have no way of knowing who wrote and who didn’t, who found it difficult to get words on the page today and who would keep writing if we had more time. I don’t know if they read during reading time. In five minutes, I will not know who is watching with the documentary we’re studying. I suppose I could tighten up – insist on reading logs and online notebooks, give content quizzes and call parents – but all those years of reading my students have taught me that those things don’t really work. The students learn best when I offer engaging and important work. Since I can’t read the classroom right now, I’m going to have to trust that the lessons I’ve created are important, that the learning is its own goal. It feels like my four-legged chair has become three-legged: this classroom will still balance, but only if I keep paying attention. Like now, when writing time is over.

100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

Failure

Today was the first-ish day of the last quarter of the craziest year I’ve ever taught. First-ish because yesterday was technically the first day but since we “pivoted” (grr) to online learning during our Spring Break, teachers sort of got a day to regroup. Today was also the day that report cards were due for the third quarter. (You can, no doubt, imagine that prepping for new classes and writing report cards for the day after those classes began did not, in fact, lead to a restful break, but I made do.) I finished my comments last night, quadrupled checked the marks and turned everything in.

One of my students did not pass the course.

I have wrestled and wrestled with this failure. We are in a global pandemic and many teens are experiencing trauma as a result. I am regularly astonished that they can turn in anything, much less the high quality work they’ve often been doing. I’m trying to help them out: I’ve reduced the number of required assignments to the bare minimum – well, ok, a *little* more than the bare minimum, but only so that there is time for practice and improvement. I’m using running records to give credit for learning I observe even when not everything arrives in the format I hoped for. I accept late work with no grade penalty. I nag, I prod, I talk to families, and I offer extra support. In short, I think I do a pretty darn good job of helping students find their way to show me their best self.

And yet, some fail. In fact, pretty much every year someone fails one of my classes, pandemic or no. And every time I find myself reflecting on what could have gone differently. What caused this failure? What does it mean for the student? For their family? For their peers? Failure doesn’t occur in a vaccuum.

After I finished up my new class – for the record, they are delightful – I went to a meeting where a group of teachers discussed our school board’s plan to destream math and English, at least at the grade 9 level. Statistics and anecdotes both suggest that our current system is racist. More Black children are streamed into lower class levels and, from there, they become less likely to graduate, less likely to attend post-secondary. The numbers are startling and undeniable. Still, teachers in the group worried about failure. For destreaming to work, we will need to change our teaching practices, change the books we teach, change the class sizes and the adults in the room and and and… it feels overwhelming, even though almost no one objects to the idea. As the meeting ends, the unspoken question lingered: “what if we fail?”

I had to call the family of the student who failed to let them know. Their experience of the class, of my attempts at communication, was different than my perception of it. No one was happy. Again, I struggled because I believe that I was very clear about what was happening; I tried to hear their truth. I tried to make sense of it all.

Sometimes, I tell myself that failure is a gift, that the student must come to terms with what is necessary to pass a course or that they need to understand which skills need improvement. I believe that students should be allowed to choose to fail – I really do. Heck, Jessica Lahey wrote a whole book called The Gift of Failure and business people use the phrase “fail forward” so much that it’s cliche. But our school system is allergic to failure, for students and teachers. We sometimes tell students that they need to take risks to really succeed, but there is little wiggle room if a risk doesn’t pan out. Right up until the pandemic, students would occasionally cry on my shoulder after another teacher in the building gave their annual lecture that “screwing up even one test can be the difference between getting into a good university and a mediocre university.” In my class, I try to de-emphasize grades, but at the end of the day, we all know that the mark matters most once you step foot outside of the classroom. No matter how much I reassured them, the students believed the other teacher far more than they believed me.

Teachers are afraid of student failure, too. If a student fails our class, our burden increases significantly. Suddenly administrators and family members want to see our gradebooks (or evidence records, in our case). We have to explain why the child failed (this week I ticked off boxes on a checklist – missing assignments, significant absences – check, check) and call the family to deliver the news. Often people argue. Sometimes students plead. The pressure to change the grade can be enormous. I’ve heard more than one teacher say that they don’t fail students because “it’s just not worth it.”

I don’t know the answer to all of this. I’ve been writing this post off and on for hours – I almost failed to get it published today, but I’ll slip it in under the wire. But if I didn’t, nothing much would happen; my risks are moderated. Still, here’s what I know for sure: somehow, we have to find the balance where failure has enough sting to spur us onward in a system with enough give to help us bounce. We’re not there yet.

Cookies!

I went for a walk and came home to find them both in the kitchen. They can cook, but they have rarely baked entirely on their own. As I took off my shoes, I heard raised voices and then laughter. Andre walked into the front hall and stage whispered to me, “They’re making chocolate chip cookies. They don’t know that we don’t have chocolate chips.” He cleverly retreated upstairs while I tentatively approached the cooking zone. 

“We’re baking!” Their enthusiasm almost bowled me over. My eyes roved over the counter, floor, children.

“Don’t worry!” said my more cautious elder child, “We started with a bowl that was too small and the butter and sugar kind of went everywhere…”

“It made a HUGE mess,” added his brother, gleefully.

“But we’ve mostly cleaned it up. And now we’re using a bigger bowl. But the brown sugar has lumps so we’re smashing them with our fingers.”

“It’s harder than it looks.”

I offered to help and was invited to finish the creaming. “You’re so good at that,” my eldest said wistfully. 

“You’ll get it,” I reassured. Hoping that my help would soften the inevitable blow, I broke the news that there were no chocolate chips.

They hesitated, then rallied. “We can add Nutella!” said the 10-year-old. “That’ll taste great!”

“And the Dutch sprinkles!” added the 12-year-old, “We still haven’t used them.”

Disaster averted, they pushed forward. “Wait!” Mr. 10 is suddenly nervous, “is it ok that we’ve had the oven on for a kind of a long time? It’s empty! It’s not like the microwave, right?” I nodded and moved away from them. They were on their own.

His brother started to raz him about the time he turned the microwave on instead of using the timer. As they cracked the eggs, they discussed something that had billions of something. They were laughing again. One of them added a healthy dollop of Nutella. The other suggested more. The open laptop was immediately next to the bowl where they were mixing the batter. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the beaters to mix in the flour. 

I stayed near enough to watch without interfering, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open.

When the beaters got stuck in the batter, they both left the kitchen in favour of the backyard and the hammock. The batter waited. They returned.

In went the sprinkles. They mixed with their hands because the dough was “too hard”. More laughter. They dragged out the cookie sheets & argued about how big to make the cookies. Then they talked about how much they might spread and how many could go in each row. I managed to say nothing and laugh inwardly.

And now the cookies are baking. They look pretty darn good – and I have a suspicion that the boys might declare them the best cookies ever. They’ll probably be right.

Update #2: 36 hours later, I found some creamed butter and sugar nestled in the leaves of a plant that lives several feet from where the original creaming took place. Luckily, it’s easy to clean

Update #1: The cookies were, in fact, delicious.

Three more days

The classroom is dim as the students trickled in.
One.
Another one.
A long pause.
Two together.
By the time the bell rings, seven students are in the room. There should be 14. I suggest that they can spread out a little, these seven, but they are unwilling to leave the small square of space that has been theirs these past weeks. I can understand: they’re not six feet apart, but it’s been safe so far. Might as well stick with what works.

Several students had emailed me ahead of time; one posts in the chat.
“I won’t be coming in person this week, Miss. I’m sorry.”
“My mother doesn’t think it’s safe this week. Sorry.”

Yesterday as another school board in Ontario made a last-minute switch to online learning for this week, Ottawa’s chief medical officer, Dr. Vera Etches, wrote on Twitter, “We are not dealing with the same virus that we started out with a year ago. The risk of ICU admission is 2 times higher and the risk of death is 1.5 times higher for the B.1.1.7 variant (UK). The virus has changed, and so must our behaviours… I am asking the Province to implement further restrictions, including a province-wide Stay at Home order. My team is in the process of reviewing the COVID data in schools to advise on an approach to take for schools in Ottawa.Mask up. Keep your distance. #StayHome

But our schools stay open.

Dr. Etches is trying to keep our schools open because she thinks kids learn best in schools – and I agree, but case numbers are climbing and a teacher who caught covid at school is intubated and in the ICU. Today Dr. Etches sent a letter to teachers and parents, reassuring us that “The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as 73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and 98% of schools are free from an outbreak.

The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around.

Today, Toronto schools moved to online learning.

I hear rumours of vaccines sitting unused in freezers. The province says that people over 60 are eligible, in some places it’s 50. The clinics are empty – or full. My husband’s friend says we are “only” five weeks behind the US. A pharmacy creates an online “waitlist,” promising to contact us when we are eligible for vaccines. Teachers flock to the website. I share it with my students because many of them will be eligible, too: almost half of them work, many as essential workers in grocery stores or food services; at least one is bringing in money for their family. The vaccines are safe or not safe. We have enough vaccine or not nearly enough. I can’t sift through the fog in my brain.

The Premier says he has “made a massive move…by basically shutting down the entire province” then complains that malls were “jam-packed” this weekend. He scolds and threatens “We’re going to have further restrictions moving forward very, very quickly” like an angry father wagging his finger and telling us to be good.

My friends complain about their children not being in schools. “The unions have too much power.” “Teachers need to get back to work.” “My kids have been at home for too long.” “This is their job.”We’re going to private school next year; these public school teachers will be sorry.”

I think about my students, staying home to stay safe, staying home to protect each other, staying home so they can go to work to serve the people working from home. I think about them showing up online, trying to learn. I think about myself, standing, unvaccinated, in a room full of almost-adults. We are all trying so hard to do the right thing. I want to hug them, and I know I will not recognize them without their masks. If we pass in the street one day, I will not know who they are.

The anthem ends; we acknowledge that the land we stand on is unceded Algonquin territory. We are quiet in the dim heaviness of the room. We will get through this, too – we will. I take a deep breath. I tell them about books. “You can read this during break,” I say, “You should keep reading.” The quarter will end in three days.

We read. We write. We try to create poetry out of the words we have written this quarter – found poems, shadow poems, blackout poems. We try to create sense from what we have learned, from what we have done.

What have we done?

This is the end/beginning #SOL21 31/31

This is the last day of my fourth year of writing (and publishing!) every day in March. This is the end of the 2021 March Slice of Life Challenge – an amazing idea and community supported by Two Writing Teachers. I can’t lie: this year was a slog. I didn’t have much of a plan when I started this month – I usually have *some* ideas before I dive in; I didn’t have many hidden, half-written pieces that I just needed to tidy up and publish – I usually have half a dozen, even if I don’t use them all; I didn’t have any sort of available time – I usually have a schedule with daily quiet moments and a March Break. This year, I was constantly scrambling. There were nights when I posted at 10pm (or later), days when I sincerely wished that my children were younger so I could write about them with impunity or that I could tell everyone else’s stories without telling mine. I barely knew my students when we began and didn’t feel comfortable writing about the classroom most of the time. I didn’t join the Welcome Wagon ,and I didn’t have time to read and comment on nearly enough other blogs. (I tried; I honestly did, but there are only so many hours in the day.) As we come to an end, I am relieved.

So why did I keep writing? Well, first of all, I hate leaving things incomplete – even self-imposed things – and I love the community of writers. I know that daily writing – pushing past the point of frustration, letting go of my need for perfection – makes me grow as a writer. Most of all, I feel nourished as I read other people’s work and as they read mine. I learn and think, learn and grow.

This year I end at a beginning, as though I spent a month (or a lifetime) clearing away the underbrush and then am surprised to discover insistent green shoots poking up here and there. This year, I have a sense that some of these shoots are ready to grow. I have ideas that are ready for a little fertilizer, a little sunlight. I’ve found writing under my writing and, while I couldn’t write everything in the rush to write daily, I think I can nurture some of these shoots into something bigger. I have things to say that will take longer than one day or twenty minutes, things that need time. We shall see.

I guess I had to write every day for a month, every week for four years, to realize that I am ready to write, but I think I am. If nothing else, here I am, writing – always writing – at the end of the day, at the end of the month. So, look for me here. Even I’m curious to see what I come up with!

I can’t wait to read other people’s beginnings that stem from the end of March – see you on Tuesday!

Come, begin with TwoWritingTeachers and the supportive community they have grown.

“You want too much” #SOL21 30/31

Today is the second-to-last day of this year’s challenge. It’s been, well, a challenge and yet… I have an awful lot bubbling up – but that’s tomorrow’s post. Today, I want to try my hand at poetry one more time because it’s my blog, so I can.

First, I jumped onto the Golden Shovel theme that started a few days ago, I think, when Fran wrote about it and then Sherri picked it up. Next thing I knew, Peter tried one (in one of his quintessential two-for-one posts) and on and on it went. Heck, something must have been in the air, because even the New York Times got in on the game. The Times article explains the origin of the form, but the quick version is that poet Terrance Hayes created it in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. He used the words from epigraph of her poem “We Real Cool” as the final word in each line of his own, new poem, “The Golden Shovel”.

Basically, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve tried these before and don’t know that I have any particular gift for them, but they definitely get my brain going.

First, I took one of Sherri’s six-word stories and tried that: Tell me a sorrow you’re hiding.

Don’t tell.
It’s mine. Leave me.
Let me share a
Version of my sorrow
Even when you’re
Sure I’m hiding.

Hmmm…ok. Then I started thinking about a line that’s been echoing in my head a lot lately, “Oh, you want too much!” Yup, that’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

We sit in Mrs. Burch’s class and – oh,
how we are bored. “You
must realize that the rose bush represents…” when all we want
is a single red rose or a dozen or a garden because the world is too
alive, too present, too redolent of our sweaty desires. We are too much.

Meh… not terrible, but…now I’m thinking of the prose poem that Kimberly Johnson introduced in EthicalELA’s Open Write challenge earlier this month. So, on the second-to-last day of this challenge, I offer a slice as a list poem, still working from “Oh, you want too much”

Oh, you want too much

Some of the things I had not yet tasted when I was 14 and 120 pounds and my mother said I should probably weigh about this much for the rest of my life
Carrot cake
Caesar salad
The hint of apple on left on his tongue the first time we kissed
Brie cheese
Sea salt
The dirty salty flavour of cuts, kissed better on my children’s fingers
The slippery sweetness of fresh papaya
Soft boiled eggs
Tiramisu
Cum
The heavy warmth of Belize’s damp jungle air
The chalky morning realization that he did, in fact, just want sex
Truffles
Macarons
Sacher torte
Fresh eggs and tomatoes, scrambled in a shallow metal bowl over an open fire in China
The metal tang of rage
Coconut water
Lemon souffle, impossibly light, tangy and sweet, a little like heaven


I feel like this one could go somewhere, but not right now. Right now, it’s going to have to marinate a little (hahaha) and I’m going to bed.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for giving teacher-writers a safe place to experiment and learn