Editing

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, staring intently at my laptop, when my husband walks by. “Editing?” he says, and chuckles. He always knows. He swears that I have a special editing face – different from my writing face or even my crossword face. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s as though you are staring at a very messy room that *someone* is going to have to clean up, and you know it’s probably going to be you. Other times, your face lights up with the glee of someone who just figured out the last pieces of a puzzle.”

This probably explains why I spent several hours today editing other people’s essays. In fact, my last comment ended with “I think I’ve edited until my eyeballs crossed. I have to go.” 

Now, the astute reader may notice that it is early August and school doesn’t start around here until September. No problem. To get my editing fix, I help a friend out with her business; part of the job is editing application essays for top business schools. I like it so much that sometimes I forget to submit my invoices. I strongly prefer editing to invoicing. So, yes, I actively seek out more essays than my own students provide me. I recognize that this is not normal behaviour.

But… let me tell you about the joys of editing. Some essays just need a quick grammar check. Conveniently, I am quite good at grammar. Grammar editing provides a quick hit of rule-following pleasure. Yes, all the subjects and verbs agree, even the complicated ones. No, no modifiers are left dangling. All the commas are in place. I feel like I’ve placed the perfect dab of whipped cream on top of a sundae. “Ah… done!” Then, there are essays that need to be cut down to fit a word count. This is the joy of a complicated word game. Can I find one word that will take the place of two – or, gasp, three? What must stay to communicate information? Personality? If I rearrange this sentence, can I eliminate a phrase? Finishing one of these essays feels like ending a well played Scrabble game – no waste anywhere. Often, I can return the essay to the author with the magnanimous phrase, “You’re now xx words below the limit; feel free, to put a few back in.” True satisfaction. Sometimes, I get essays that are very early drafts. These usually fall into categories like “heartfelt but disorganized” – which I handle with care as I help the author find a way to put structure onto their passion or their strong voice – “wordy” – allowing me to delete with unbridled glee – or “overgeneralized” – where I suggest paragraphs that would benefit from a solid anecdote, and sometimes amuse myself by imagining wild situations just to get their juices flowing. “Tell me more,” I write, “Did you get interested in EdTech over a revelatory grilled cheese? When you got that promotion did you samba through the office? Bring in a pinata? Call your mom?” Occasionally, I giggle as I edit. 

My favourite essays – wait, who am I kidding? I like them all – are the ones where something is just off. These essays are organized and have anecdotes and ideas, but something – something – isn’t working. Sometimes I just sort of know the problem. Essay drift, for example, happens all the time. Aha! I think, they started off talking about feeling lonely in high school and ended up talking about a rafting trip. How are these related? My job is to help the author find their throughline. “Is this what you are trying to say?” I ask, “Or maybe this?” Some writers are nervous about revealing themselves, though that’s what applications require. These essays titillate without ever fulfilling their promise. I finish reading and feel kind of like my date stood me up – or worse, like I’m not sure if my date is a mild mannered accountant or a big game hunter and I’m not sure what to do. Who are you?I want to say. I need something else to know what’s important to you. As I write my comments, I try to discover the sticking points, the places where I think that the author is hiding a little. Passive voice, a sudden dearth of detail, maybe a wonky transition – these clues help me figure out where things are missing.

In the end, editing for me is about growing a story. None of these application essays are headed for publication, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. Each essay, each anecdote is another attempt to put someone’s ideas in order and share them with the world. I find deep pleasure in helping them make their written words match their inner thoughts. 

When September comes, I will offer my students the same care and attention that I offer to the young people applying for business school. I will offer them suggestions, convince them that grammar is a tool, assure them that they can write and rewrite until they are happy with the result. I will tell them it’s okay to ask for help, that all sorts of writers have editors. I hope that this will be part of what convinces them that their stories matter. 

And, of course, I will enjoy the editing.

Come, join us! Writing is fun. (So is editing.)

Ambulance

We spend most of our time in the back part of our house in the kitchen, but this morning, something made me glance out the front door. Across the street – right in front of Pina & Mario’s place – was an ambulance. 

I didn’t really think much of it at first; my in-laws are visiting for the first time since the pandemic began and I had other things on my mind. And yet… Pina and Mario aren’t young. I checked again. The ambulance was still there.

What is the difference between nosy and concerned? On our street, I honestly don’t always know. Mike, who lives next door and keeps treats in his pockets for everyone’s dogs, knows everything and often keeps us all abreast of what’s happening. The house on our other side, split into three apartments, has housed a series of delightful young couples – one by one they’ve left to get married and have children, leaving me happy that at least my kids haven’t made them rethink their plans. Two real estate agents live on the block – in different houses – and each of them is enthusiastically nosy in her own way. Across the street, baby V and their parents and grandparents occupy one house. I’ve been trying to teach V to say “truck” whenever we cross paths. So far, all we’ve got is enthusiastic raspberries and grins, but we’re getting there. Alex and Tessa used to babysit for our kids before they went to university, so we keep up with them via their mom. The couple next to Mario & Pina share gardening tips, and this year they gave me four hot pepper plants; the couple next to them has a very energetic dog, which means that they often pause in front of Mike’s. Two doors down from us is a family with two girls, both one year younger than my two boys; three doors beyond that, the corner house includes two boys who are nearly the same ages as my two: our families tumble over each other quite regularly. We live in a neighborhood where I feel comfortable running out to borrow an egg or a half cup of sugar. We don’t necessarily hang out together, but we know each other.

That ambulance had me worried. I decided to knit on the front porch. I settled in, trying not to imagine myself as a nosy middle-aged lady. The baby sweater was mostly finished, so I patiently wove in the ends and pretended not to watch Mario & Pina’s house. Eventually, Pina came out, well-dressed, fumbling with her purse. She passed behind the ambulance and disappeared. My heart dropped: Mario. It was Mario. 

I waited. The ambulance didn’t move and I tried not to wonder too hard if that meant that they were treating him or if that meant something much worse. No way to know. I concentrated on my sweater.

Mario and Pina have lived on our block for 52 years, longer than anyone else. They bought their house for $34,000 when she was 22 and he was 25. They can tell you how much most of the houses on the block have sold for over the years, and Mario shakes his head when he recounts various neighbours’ renovation antics or inappropriate landscaping choices. He may never forgive the couple that turned their front yard into a driveway to a garage under the house. “Under!” He shakes his head with disgust. Mario himself is always on the go and prides himself on his yard. He mows and sweeps incessantly all summer, then comes out with a snow blower and cleans his sidewalk and driveway, day in and day out, all winter. And yet, Pina is the gardener. Last year she insisted on giving me some of her Rose of Sharon; the year before she took me on a tour of her (immense) backyard vegetable garden. They raised their children here; now their granddaughter – one year older than my oldest – visits every Saturday.

The minutes passed quietly. Pina pulled out in her car and drove off. Moments later, the ambulance followed, no siren. I finished weaving in the ends, then went inside to wet and block the sweater. 

After that, my day filled up: there were children to feed and errands to run. I checked things off my to-do list and immediately added others. The baby sweater dried; I spoke with friends.

After dinner, my partner gently said that it was ok to go over and see if they needed anything. I didn’t want to intrude, but I was worried. I decided he was right. We rang the bell and waited, not sure what to expect. After a few moments, Pina’s face appeared at the door. Through my mask, I asked if Mario was ok. “I saw the ambulance this morning,” I babbled, “and then I saw you.” She stared. “I can bring food,” I offered. 

Food. They are Italian. Their family is in town. I suspect that they never, ever lack for food.

Pina’s eyes darted left, right and then opened wide with understanding. The ambulance! She had left! No, no, Mario was fine. She, too, had wondered and worried about the ambulance. She watched it out her living room window: what was it doing in front of her house? Perhaps it was there for neighbours? Maybe the driver needed a rest? She didn’t want to be nosy, so she had waited inside, but eventually she had to leave the house. Flustered, she had fumbled for her keys as she made her way down the front walk. She did not know that the ambulance had followed after her. Mario, whose knee was bothering him, had uncharacteristically spent most of the day inside. 

They are both fine. 

We looked at each other, and our eyes filled with tears. “Come in! Come in!” Pina insisted. I did. We sat at her kitchen table and talked about our neighbors: is Mike well? Isn’t it a shame that the neighbours don’t sit on the porch anymore? Have I seen how her granddaughter has grown? My son is so tall! I declined the offer of coffee. Mario insisted on showing me around the house because he was fine – fine, except for his knee, but what can you expect? This is what it means to get old. There was their wedding picture, Pina’s train spread out forever and ever. They were so young. “Do you know when we bought this house?” asks Mario, full of good spirits, laughing because I thought he was sick (or worse) and he is not. “We were so 22 and 25! Let me tell you about the neighbourhood…”

And I listen to his stories again. Nosy? Maybe. But at least for tonight, everyone on our street is ok. 

Confessions of a former mermaid

Getting this cottage for the week was pure luck, a bonus in a summer that we’ve otherwise spent far too close to home. It’s rustic (read: bring your own drinking water; wood stove for heat; don’t even think about a dishwasher or laundry), but the screened in back porch might be the most perfect place in the world: We’re practically inside the trees, their branches swaying and soughing around us, the lake glimmering up through their trunks. I could stay here forever.

View from the porch

I won’t of course, because my children choose a different definition of perfection: the dock and anchored floating platform mere metres below this porch. I could sit here, away from the sun and the bugs, all day, but their bliss is the water. 

I, too, love the water. We lived in Panama when I was a toddler, so I grew up swimming in the ocean. In early elementary school in Texas, after I passed the deep water swim test, I decided to walk to the pool by myself. After all, I reasoned, I was now allowed to swim alone and the pool was just down this street…somewhere. I made it to the pool, but the lifeguards, unimpressed by my bravado, called my mother to come get me before I got to swim. Years later, as we drove from Texas to California, our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean filled me with glee. Our parents, probably tired of driving with three little girls and a dog, stopped the car almost immediately, and I stripped down to my underwear and ran into the ocean. 

Soon enough I joined a swim team and, when we moved again, another. Summertime saw me in the water for hours every day, often heading home only long enough to eat lunch and go back. I swam so much that one summer my blond hair turned chlorine-green. For a while, I even swam on a year-round team, waking in the wee hours of winter to dive into a pool and swim before school. By the end of high school I was a lifeguard and a swim coach, a job I continued into college. I scuba-dived on vacations and snorkeled while pregnant with my eldest. I once joked that I was half-mermaid, as at home in the water as I was on land.

These days, I’m no mermaid. We’ve been at this cottage for three days, and I have yet to go in the water. Oh, I’ve let my feet hang over the edge of the dock and wiggled my toes as fish swim by, wondering if they should risk a nibble. I’ve kayaked the entire perimeter of this small lake. I even tried stand-up paddle boarding. But actual swimming? Nope.

Yesterday our friends came for a visit and, as the fathers splashed and swam with the kids, my fellow mom and I sat and watched. I was wearing my bathing suit, but I declined even a direct invitation to join them in the water. I was completely content on land.

When did this happen? When did I become one of the moms who sits and chats instead of playing? Was there a day? A month? If I looked back carefully, could I pinpoint the last summer that I went into the water willingly? When did going into the water turn from joy to job? It’s not like I’m worried about my hair (it air-dries just fine) or my makeup (I stopped wearing it during covid, in part to encourage my students to turn on their cameras regardless of their concerns about appearance). I tease my family that I cannot trust Canadian-born people to accurately assess water temperature – their warm is not the same as mine – and it’s true that Canadian lakes, even small ones, are not as warm as South Carolina lakes, but I can tell that this one is not especially cold. So why don’t I go in? I honestly don’t know, but even thinking about it, recognizing the change, I’m not tempted. To be fair to myself, I’ve already swum across one lake this summer, and I have every intention of swimming across this one before we leave. Maybe tomorrow, I think, maybe then I’ll go in.

I might, but I’m not sure. Even as I sit here, remembering my former mermaid self, I feel no sense of loss. I’m happy on this perfect porch, letting the wind caress me, feet up, hair down, appreciating the smooth silver surface of the lake from a place of quiet.

With gratitude to Two Writing Teachers for creating this place where teachers can practice the craft of writing.

Advice when I can’t quite write

“You should write about writer’s block,” says Mr. 13 as he shoves more popcorn into his mouth.

“Nobody wants to read about that,” I reply.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I mean, you’ve been trying to write for a long time today. Aren’t you supposed to write about your life?”

In the not-at-all distant background, Mr. 10 is experimenting on the piano that hasn’t been tuned since before Covid. He has not yet found his way to a tune; I’m not convinced that’s his goal. The random notes are not helping me concentrate.

“You could just publish what you already wrote.” Mr. 13 is still trying to help.

I make a face. “It’s not good enough.”

“Mom,” he is exasperated, “you wouldn’t let me say that. Maybe you need to just publish it and be done.”

But I can’t. The funny story about how today I left the pan of oil on a warm element and set off the fire alarm just isn’t that funny. The Golden Shovel poem about being lonely isn’t that poem-y. The lines I’ve captured in my notebook have potential, but they seem intent on remaining kernels of ideas rather than full-fledged pieces.

The piano continues in the background, discordant, unpredictable, distracting.

Shall I write about being 13? Missing my family? Waiting and waiting for the Canada-US border to open? I could write a memory. I want to be funny, but I’m not feeling funny. I’m just feeling off and this house is full of noise.

Maybe today I can give myself grace. It’s summer. I am taking things in, noticing, walking, being. Maybe today I can accept that what I’m writing is what I’m writing which is this. This is what I’m writing. And it is enough.

“I think you were right,” I say to my son as he heads to bed. “I wrote about writer’s block. It was good enough.”

He smiles. “Good night. Love you, Mom.”

How to make banana bread

It’s a lovely quiet summer morning. The kids are still asleep and your partner is somewhere in the house. You shuffle into the kitchen, put some water in the tea kettle and turn it on. While you wait for the water to boil, realize that you could might as well mash the four overripe bananas on the kitchen counter. Find a bowl (just under the cupboard with the mugs) and mash. 

Mashing bananas only takes a minute, so the water is still not ready. Turn the oven to 350 and add an egg to the bananas. Decide to replace the sugar with honey because you have an awful lot of honey right now. Check quickly to make sure that honey is a one-to-one substitute for sugar. It is! Add ½ cup of honey and – because the water is almost ready – use ⅓ cup canola oil instead of butter today. 

The water has boiled. Spoon out the tea leaves and set the tea to steeping.

Put a dash of vanilla in the mix. Oh, and maybe a dash of salt. Add 1½ cups of flour right on top of the wet mixture. Sub in some whole grain flour for some of that because it’s healthier, right? Um… double-check the recipe on the post-it on the fridge. Where is it? There! Behind a receipt. Receipt… recipe… receipt… recipe…

Our time-tested banana bread recipe – more or less

Yes: 1 tsp baking soda. Dump it on top of the flour. Go ahead and add 1 tsp of baking powder, too. Gently stir those two into the flour so they don’t clump, then give thes whole mixture just a few strokes so it’s moist

The tea has steeped plenty long enough. Take out the tea leaves and set them aside.

Check the cupboards for extras. Today you will throw in some unsweetened coconut, a generous handful of walnuts and another of chocolate chips. Grease a loaf pan, pour the batter in, and pop it in the oven.

Add some milk to your tea. Start to sit down and realize that if you don’t set a timer, the bread will burn. The recipe says 50 min but the honey is sticky… Go for an hour.

Pour a cup of tea, sit down and read.

When the next person comes into the kitchen, agree that the bread does, indeed, smell wonderful.

(I love this banana bread recipe. I’ve made it a million times and it’s both easy and flexible. It makes great muffins, too – though do NOT cook those for an hour! The honey in today’s bread made for a really sticky loaf, so I can’t call it a resounding success, but it still tastes pretty good.)

Reflection-ish

The three of us sit around a small table near the windows in the back corner of Peter’s French classroom. It’s the middle of the school year, so the afternoon light is dim. Peter, my “cooperating teacher”, and Bev, my Masters supervisor, and I have each filled in a questionnaire about my strengths and areas for growth after my first semester of student teaching. So far, we’ve all agreed on the ratings and the whole meeting has been lovely, but now we’ve discovered an area of where Peter and Bev agree and I am the outlier: reflection.

Peter and Bev have rated me as not especially reflective; I’ve given myself the top rating. No-nonsense Bev is almost incredulous. “I just don’t see it,” she shakes her head. Even Peter, always calm and quiet, looks perplexed. My own expression must mirror his. I struggle for words. I am always, always reflecting. How do I explain? Maybe always reflecting doesn’t count. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. 

We talk for a few minutes, compromise on a midway point for the question, and move on. 25 years later, I’m still reflecting on that moment.

What I’m not reflecting on is this school year. I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. 

Even as I write this I realize that I taught my last class one week ago today. Is that even possible? I have to check the calendar to be sure. Yes. One week ago. Surely that was a lifetime ago? Or at least a few weeks? I knew that time was spooling out unevenly during the school year, but I had honestly hoped that it might straighten out once the chaos of classes ended. Perhaps, I tell myself, this is merely summer time, delightfully different than school-time…but no. I know it’s not. My thoughts spin.

Reflect! I tell myself sternly. It’s important to reflect. I try the exercise Kate Messner suggested for Teachers Write this week: I go outside and breathe deeply. I close my eyes and try to remember a time when I felt peaceful and whole. Just when I am about to give up, the loud voices from my neighbours’ backyard fade and the oppressive heat lifts just a little.

I am on a cliff on the Aran Islands. I am alone. Though I am nervous about it, I have inched my way to the edge and now only the slate gray ocean exists beneath my dangling feet, only the limestone cliff walls fill my peripheral vision. I have never been so completely alone. I breathe with the sea. I breathe in the sea and the wind that slides up beside me. I am alone alone alone. I think of nothing for as long as I can and I watch the water.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org without whom I might be tempted to skip writing altogether.

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.