Bedtime by the numbers

“Wait,” he says, pulling my face close to his “are you older than other moms?”

I equivocate: “older than some; younger than others.”

“Why aren’t you younger?”

Oh, the stories. I tell one. Or two.

He’s stalling, wanting bedtime to last just a few more minutes. “Maybe three more minutes,” he suggests.

“Maybe now,” I brush my nose against his.

“Did you sing all three songs?” He’s hopeful.

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should do four.”

“Your bedtime was five minutes ago.”

He snuggles closer. “How old will you be when I am ten?”

We do the math.

“So when I’m 20…” He does the math.

“Will you have a baby when you are young so I can play with my grandchildren?” I tease.

He is serious, “I don’t know about that yet.”

We do the math. If he has a baby when he is 25, I will be the same age as his grandmother is now when his baby is eight, like him. It’s a lot of numbers.

He frets, “I just don’t know.”

Then he brightens, “If you want to be the best, just change the scale.”

“What?”

“Just say, ‘what am I out of two?’ then if you are a one that’s still second from the top. So that’s good. Nearly the best.”

I’m still catching up, but now he’s drifting off.

“Or you could say ‘what am I out of 0?’ and then you would always be the best. Because there’s only one number.” He’s nearly asleep, murmuring over the numbers, measuring something his old mother can’t count.

“You’re the best out of all the numbers. The right boy for me.”

And my number boy has fallen asleep.

 

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A rose, by any other name

This semester I decided to take on Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 class. I’ve described the students before: a mixed group of  kids, some of whom read well, some who really don’t read, a newcomer to Canada whose English is limited, several students with autism, regular attenders, non-attenders, at least one LGBTQ student, backgrounds from around the world – you know, a pretty standard group of kids.

Romeo and Juliet is a traditional choice, of course, but not for this class. Still, six weeks into the semester, we did a brainstorming activity about what we wanted to learn next and how we wanted to learn it, and when I stood back to look at their requests – more motion, group work, talking, a challenge, something about teenagers, something fun – well, Romeo and Juliet fit the bill.

The students were not convinced. Most of them have never read Shakespeare, and they were pretty clear that this was “not going to work,” but they agreed to try it for a week. I promised it was *not* a love story, and we started with a quick participatory summary before we plunged in to Act 1, scene 1. The EA and I brought all the old swords we could find in our houses (ok, we had 6 light sabres, a pirate sword, a dagger and a paper towel tube), and by the end of class, all the students were on their feet, brawling in the street at 8:30 in the morning.

They could get behind that.

I use a lot of lessons from the Folger series Shakespeare Set Free. We also watch film clips and bits and pieces of stage plays. We talk a lot and skip some and summarize other bits. Everyone reads. We mispronounce things without fear and ask questions about everything. We play and laugh and generally have a good time. Twice during the unit, I stopped to ask if we needed to move on more quickly: once after the first week (as promised) – “NO!” they chorused – and once three weeks in, when I was afraid things were dragging. Again, no.

I was delighted by my students’ reactions and regularly shared the high points with colleagues in our office. During one conversation, another person came in. After listening, he chuckled and said something about my “rose-coloured glasses.” Then he left.

Wait. What?

The comment was made in passing, so quickly that I barely noticed it. My response was automatic – what I always say to the doubters: come visit my class. Only after he left did I get really mad. This is how we police teachers, isn’t it? When someone does well, when a class is engaged, when students are learning deeply – even with traditional material – we pull the teacher down. It’s not that the teacher (me) has taken her years of experience and deep knowledge of her subject to put together a learning experience that responds to the needs of the students in front of her. No, it’s that she is overestimating her students’ engagement. It couldn’t be that the kids we’ve relegated to the lower track are actually able to engage with complex language and thoughts. No, it’s that the teacher is exaggerating what the students are doing.

The accusation comes in other ways. The teacher is “easy” or “too nice” or “overly friendly” with their class. And sure, sometimes teachers are all of those things. But sometimes we’re not.

On Friday, my students – my non-readers, my students with autism, my English language learner, my disengaged, darling, wonderful class – performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet. For two days, they rummaged for costumes, rehearsed their lines, and practiced their staging. They wrote about their characters’ motivation and obstacles. They wrestled with original language and cut lines when necessary. In short, they were excellent. One pair played the Nurse and Juliet so well that we were all laughing and everyone stayed the extra minute past the bell when the scene ran over. Everyone. Even the two least engaged students.

I thought I’d blown off the comment, but I haven’t. I suspect my colleague’s throw-away line shows what he thinks is really happening in my class. And I suspect others also underestimate my students. But I’ll tell you what, if this is rose-coloured glasses, I’ll take it. Because together we rocked Romeo and Juliet.

 

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Let’s talk about race

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As I was walking towards the VP’s office today, I passed a student putting up a mural. I teach at an Arts magnet school, and every Spring sees another round of grade 12 students painting over wall space and creating a mural as part of their final Visual Arts project. It’s one of my favourite times of year, and I’ve been thinking about writing about it – I have loads of great pictures to share. But when I walked by Mankaasha Umba quietly hanging one gel print after another, mug shot after mug shot, my breath stopped in my chest.

Mankaasha was carefully displaying her critique of our racism in the hallway right by the VP’s office.

I don’t know her at all, but I stopped to say thanks. “This is just what we need. Can you tell me about it?” Oh yes, she could. These are pictures of her brother, a fourth year university student who plans to continue school and work in cancer research. This is not how she sees her brother, but it is how too many others perceive him.

She and I chatted for probably 10 minutes. We talked about racism in the school and in the world. We talked about perception: how when I talk about racism, I am “passionate” but if she brings it up she is “angry;” how her brother had been followed home by police officers who were “just making sure” he wasn’t loitering; how even in this day and age, she’s had English teachers in our school teach books with the “n-word” but  not even bother to discuss it. We talked about how she struggles more with the subtle racism of the every day than the overt racism of the special occasion. She said, “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.”

She talked about how frustrated she gets because White teachers don’t want to talk about race for fear of making mistakes. She said, “other people have a voice, too. I don’t need to be the one calling this out all the time.” I admitted to being scared sometimes – even in our conversation – that I will say the wrong thing, but I’ve decided that the discussion is too important to avoid. She talked about how Black people have no choice but to talk about it whereas White people get to decide whether or not to engage. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales and so much more. Finally I asked her if I could write about this and she said yes.

While we talked, people passed by and stopped. And stopped. And stopped. “Yes,” they said. “Yes.”

“This is great,” they said. “Amazing.”

I think Mankaasha has just changed our school. I am so damn impressed I can hardly stand it. These kids, they are going to change the world. It gives me shivers to think about it. Mankaasha, thanks for starting the conversation.

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Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

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The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

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https://twowritingteachers.org

I wanted a cup of tea

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Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

I finished the last sip of tea from my travel mug as I pulled into the parking lot. I stepped out of my car thinking, “I’d like another cup of tea.”

Of course, I had a morning meeting. Ever optimistic, I ran into my office, turned on the kettle, and hoped the meeting would be short enough that the water would still be hot and I could make some tea before class. It wasn’t short. There was no time for tea.

On my way to class, I thought, “maybe I can make tea during my prep period.” But it turned out that I had an on-call (where one teacher covers a class for a teacher who is absent), so I didn’t have a prep period, so I couldn’t make tea.

After covering the class, I was hoping to make a cup of tea with lunch, but I’d forgotten about about a lunch presentation I’d planned to attend, so I rushed upstairs, grabbed my lunch then headed back downstairs to the library. I figured I would have time after the presentation to make some tea. But the presentation was great, and the discussion ran right to the warning bell, so there was no time for tea.

I gathered my things and headed off to my afternoon classes. These are Spec Ed classes with mostly drop-in students, so sometimes I can sneak out for a minute to make tea, but today started with a desperate phone call: another on-call teacher couldn’t find the lesson plans the regular teacher had left. I could hear the students talking loudly in the background. Since I’m the department head, I ran out to the portables to figure out what the students were supposed to be reading; I also reminded them about being polite to guest teachers. That done, I climbed the stairs back to Spec Ed: one student was struggling to answer questions about Of Mice and Men; another needed one-on-one math help; a 9th grader decided today was the right day to start his first-ever resume; and a fourth student just couldn’t concentrate. Students came and went, needing help, writing tests, asking for favours; the phone rang off the hook with teachers checking on various things. I worked straight through two periods without a break. I hadn’t even thought about tea.

In fact, I was just thinking about making that cup of tea when the phone rang one more time: a student with autism had not left class when the final bell rang. She was sitting, unmoving, ears covered, head down. I hightailed it directly to the classroom where the teacher realized, sheepishly, that the young woman had fallen asleep during his class. We woke her gently. Problem solved. But now there wasn’t enough time to make tea before the staff meeting after school.

The staff meeting was mercifully short. I was giving some colleagues rides home after school and we were a little rushed, but, because they are teachers, they waited patiently while I finally made myself a cup of tea, eight hours after I first thought “I’d like another cup of tea.”

It was a good cup of tea.

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R&J for the win

I missed every day of school last week. The flu did not care that we were in the middle of Romeo and Juliet or that I really needed just *one* more assignment to feel extra confident while writing report cards.

I sent in approximately a million movie clips to show. I lay on my couch, feverish, while Benvolio and Mercutio teased Romeo about the girl he loved yesterday. As I flicked aimlessly through Netflix, Romeo wandered through the Capulets’ gardens, then climbed up to Juliet’s balcony. I didn’t get to see the students’ shock when they first saw Olivia Hussey as Juliet (“But she’s so young!”) or hear the intake of breath when they realized that guns and “Verona Beach” have replaced swords and Verona in Baz Luhrman’s movie. I didn’t get to watch their eyes widen at a passionate Black Romeo from BBC or narrow at an almost-empty stage in the RSC’s version.  I missed a lot, but I was really sick.

I did get some perspective. I realized that my number one goal for R&J with this class is that they don’t hate it. Or at least that they don’t hate it because they find it inaccessible.

So I was nervous when I went back to class today. What did they think of last week? Did my movie clip gambit work? Did they understand? Did they hate it? Well… one girl greeted me with a disappointed, “Oh. It was so nice last week when you weren’t here and we didn’t do anything.” But she grinned a little as she said it, and her friend elbowed her under the table. I know they did work; I have the class notes. And then, as we talked, two students revealed that they had watched THE ENTIRE MOVIE over the long weekend. Well, hello there. (One chose Zefferelli, one chose the 2013 version – don’t judge.) When I said that since they clearly knew what was going on, we needed Mercutio to die by Friday, there was laughter and a ripple of anticipation. Of course, the two students who hated it before haven’t shifted their position at all, street brawls and dead bodies or no, but they are tolerating things.

A few have a field trip tomorrow. As they were leaving, one said, “Just fill me in on what happens, ok?” Yeah, I think I can do that.

R&J for the win. If all goes well, everyone will be dead by late next week and we can move on.

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Book magic

Elisabeth recommended it, and Catherine had a copy. I committed to exploring graphic novels this year, so I read it. I liked Hey, Kiddo a lot – well enough to recommend it – but it didn’t knock my socks off. Still, I decided to book talk it in my class because many of my readers are either artists or are reading lots of graphic novels right now: It seemed like a good fit.

Hey, Kiddo

Some books get immediate love in my class – two or three sets of hands reach for them as I finish talking, and the kids have to work out who gets to read first; others languish – I set them near their intended target, but the book stays firmly closed; this book snuck away from me – a student picked it up when I wasn’t looking, and I had to glance around the room to see where it was.

I wish I could say that I was thinking of this student specifically when I gave the book talk, but truthfully, I had a few kids in mind. Only after I saw J caress the cover as he slipped the book into his backpack did it occur to me that this book might be the right book.

He savoured it over the next few days, lingering over some of the images, writing about it during a free write, rereading certain sections. The book was clearly speaking to him. At the end of the week, I swapped out my friend’s copy for a copy I’d picked up from the public library. After all, I needed to return the book to my friend. J was fine with this so long as he could keep reading.

This weekend, as I was returning the book, I told my friend Catherine – who is also a teacher – how much J loved the book. I told her about the journal and the careful attention. Her response was immediate: “Give it to him.” I was startled – graphic novels aren’t cheap – but Catherine insisted, “If it’s changing his life, he should have it. It’s too mature for my students anyway.”

I gave J the book today. Busses had been cancelled because of freezing rain so only three students made it to class. J was astonished when I told him it was his, “Really? For me?” He held the book tightly for a moment before slipping it carefully into his backpack. And then, he told us his story. Just us, in a small circle in our little room in the library, drinking tea and sharing truths because of a book that made someone feel a little less alone in the world. One magic book.

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