The First Time #SOL23 2/31

One of the prompts I offer during our memoir unit is “The first time I…” (NB: when working with high school students it is best to *immediately* complete the sentence with a few mundane firsts, otherwise minds tend to wander in directions that are, ahem, not compatible with the classroom.) It’s a funny little prompt because first times are, I have learned, simultaneously memorable and hard to remember. This is one of those prompts that sees students’ pens hover above their notebooks before they drop, scribbling furiously; their writing stops and starts then stops again; sometimes the ideas don’t come until the next day or even many days later. 

Around the time I use this prompt, I often share a short memoir by Willy Conley which opens with a question about when he first realized he was deaf. This ‘first’ can perplex students. “How did he not know he was deaf?” they ask, and I have no ready answer. “How did you realize things about yourself?” I offer as a response, and we often physically look at ourselves. As I ask probing questions, students respond, “But I’ve *always* known I was a boy. I never realized it” or “I just *knew* I was Canadian; I didn’t have to think about it” and on we go, the discussion touching on aspects of their identity that they take for granted. Sometimes we are able to dig in; other times, I gently move the discussion back to riding bikes or ice skating. Physical firsts, it turns out, often stick in the memory.

Each semester, after the discussion, my mind inevitably turns to Zora Neale Hurston and the line in Their Eyes Were Watching God when, as a child, Janie sees a picture of herself and realizes she is Black: “Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!” she exclaims. The first time I read that line, I had to pause just like my students do now when confronted with Conley’s realization of deafness: How did she not know? And, of course, when I asked that question about Janie, I had to turn it on myself and ask “When did I first realize I was white?” 

The first time I realized I was white was in high school Spanish class. Even though my southern school was intentionally integrated (by bussing), almost no Black students were in any of the “Honors” classes I took. I had finished up all the French classes the school offered and switched to Spanish my junior year. There I met Kiki, who was Black. Spanish was easy for me as it was not for her, and our teacher asked if I would help with her. Ever a teacher, I was delighted. We got along famously, but things were the way they were and there was no moment when getting along well would have had a chance to veer into true friendship. One time, as we worked, she said something about me being a “white girl.” I was surprised. I had heard people talk about “the Black kids”, but never “the white kids”. I had never really thought of myself that way, but clearly she did. My mind lingered on that thought for a minute, then Kiki and I went back to the Spanish work in front of us, a white girl and a Black girl, trying to figure out new words in a world that saw our skin color before it saw us.

Biting my tongue; watching my words #SOL23 1/31

Here I sit on Day 1 of the March Slice of Life Challenge: once again, I have committed to try to write & publish every day for the next 31 days. I’ve done this for a few years now, so I know some of the ups & downs, but this year brings a new challenge beyond writing: I need to bite my tongue. 

Biting my tongue does not sound like fun. I pause to consider this. Literally biting your tongue hurts a lot – there’s a moment of disbelief, followed by the warm taste of blood, and then the pain that lingers while your tongue heals. Worse, once you’ve bitten your tongue, you often bite it again, its unexpectedly swollen shape catching in your teeth over and over. No wonder I do not want to write for a month if I need to bite my tongue. That sounds awful.

**Some minutes pass in which I fruitlessly attempt to remember times when I have or haven’t bitten my tongue, literally or figuratively. I remember nothing despite knowing that I have done these things.

In an attempt to re-frame, I have decided that I will not, in fact, bite my tongue this month. Instead, I will watch my words. This catches my imagination. Here I sit, writing about this moment in my life, and I can literally watch my words come into being. Look, there’s another one. And another! In class, I tell students to keep their pencil moving or to keep their fingers typing. Watch those words multiply! Look at how much you’ve written! 

Now I imagine my words multiplying, then beginning to peel off the page. They grow bigger and bigger, each word breaking free and flying around the room until the room can no longer contain them and they slip through cracks and imagined spaces and – there! – off they go, out into the world until I am no longer able to watch them, no longer able to see who they meet or how they meet them. I feel lighter already. Yes, watching words is doable.

Friends, I may not make it through all 31 days, but I might, and I won’t if I don’t start. I will not be able to write the whole truth all of the time, but I will be able to write a slice of the truth. I will be able to capture a moment – maybe a moment like this one that exists only because I have embraced the uncertainty that comes from watching my words grow. This month, I will share those words with you, acknowledging from the beginning that each slice of life is only one part of a sometimes nearly invisible whole.

I will not bite my tongue, but I will watch my words. That seems realistic. Watch with me?

Join us at After all, you never know what you might write until you write it.

Need a hug?

Two days before Winter Break, I asked a student to switch seats to mitigate disruptive behaviour. Instead, angry, they ran out of the room and left the school. The next day ice and snow closed schools, so we didn’t see each other again until January.

This gave me plenty of time to reflect. In my twenty-some-odd years of teaching, I’ve only rarely experienced something like this. I know enough to know that it’s not usually about the teacher, but I also know enough to know that there are always things I could have done differently and better. Without beating myself up, I thought long and hard about what had happened.

The first day back, the student was in class. I let everyone go a minute early, knowing that this student rarely left quickly. As they packed, I sat next to them and quietly apologized for my role in their distress. They ducked their head and looked away, “No. it was me. I’m really sorry.” We talked briefly, me explaining that I could have noticed their distress, them explaining that there was a lot going on. 

After that moment, they came to class a little more often and showed up during exam days for extra help so they could pass English. Every interaction felt a tiny bit more relaxed.

Then the semester ended, and the student was no longer in my class. Last week, I popped over to the public library (right next door to the school – so convenient), and saw this student, this child, standing, clearly forlorn, a large bag dangling from one hand. When I greeted them, I noticed their red eyes. I asked about the bag – they didn’t say much. I asked if they were ok.

“People are mean,” they whispered, and tears welled in their eyes. I said yes, sometimes they really are. I asked if I could help. No. I asked if teachers or students were being mean. Students. Silence. The tears spilled over. 

I leaned in and touched their shoulder gently. “I wish I could give you a hug,” I said.

“You can,” they replied, and looked up.

I’ll stop there. 

These days, teachers cannot hug students. Just this week, the Ontario College of Teachers’ newsletter included “hugging” as one of the several reasons a teacher’s license was suspended. Even touching the child’s arm was possibly a bridge too far. We do not hug students.

On the other hand, the child was crying. They had been bullied and spent much of the class in the office as a result. They did not see school as a safe space, but they were starting see me as safe. 

So, what do you think? Should I have given them a hug? What would you have done? What would you want for your child? Does your answer change if I am NOT a middle-aged white woman? Does it change based on the child’s gender? Or are teachers – acting in loco parentis – allowed to treat all children in our care with, well, care? Can we comfort them when they ask for comfort? 

I know my answer. What’s yours?

Thanks to for hosting this space for teacher-writers.

Try to remember

Last night, I went into Mr. 12’s bedroom to give him a kiss goodnight and found this

That is a trash can balanced on the edge of his bed. Naturally, I asked him if he wanted me to put it on the floor. “No!” he sat up. “It’s for my memory.”

Pardon? I must have looked at him funny because he answered my unspoken question.

“You know, like Dad does.”

I was still confused. As far as I know, my partner has never placed a plastic garbage can precariously close to the edge of our bed in honour of his memory.

“Like the clothespin.”

That little tidbit was no help at all. I wondered if perhaps he was sleep-talking.

He sighed, “You know how Dad does weird things so he doesn’t forget something else? This is to remind me that I owe D money and I have to bring it tomorrow.”

Ah-ha! Andre has recently been using a memory technique where he does one thing to help him remember to do another. So we have a blue clothespin on our dishwasher detergent to remind him to… something. He’s also trying to create new habits by placing something we want to remember near something we already use. So, this is happening in our kitchen

And, while parents hear the platitude that “your children are watching you” so often that it is banal, I realized that somehow I had begun to think that my preteen and teen were, in fact, no longer watching us at all. Turns out, I was wrong in the best of ways.

But I still don’t know what the clothespin helps us remember.

And then, a miracle occurred

Only years after we started did anyone outside of schools begin to wonder. After all, teachers had been doing so much with so little for so long that people had forgotten that we, too, were subject to the basic laws of physics. Let’s be honest: most people had forgotten the basic laws of physics, so it was easy to forget the rest.

No one questioned how our classrooms were set up, the computers charged, the rooms tidied. No one wondered how teachers were able to give exams, grade all the final projects, communicate with parents, write report cards and start an entirely new semester with an entirely new set of classes and students all in the same week.

When politicians or parents or the public added another thing to teachers’ plates, they never wondered how it would get done. “This isn’t much,” they thought – if they thought about it at all. Soon we were able to give epipens, handle both epileptic and non-epileptic seizures, monitor blood sugar, stop bleeding, re-start hearts and more. We could identify and support students with any and every learning need because we seemed to have endless time to read the latest research and put it into place in the classroom.

Every English teacher read hundreds of books per year so they could always recommend the latest ones. Science teachers set up perfect labs, day after day, week after week, month after month. History teachers never lacked for primary sources. Art rooms were constantly clean. Teachers called home for every absence, every missed test, every concern. We all returned student work the day after it was submitted.

No one really noticed. “After all,” they thought, “that’s what teachers *should* do.” The less generous grumbled, “It’s about time they did their jobs” while the more charitable thought, “teachers seem much more relaxed than when I was in school.”

When the first scientist suggested that maybe something unusual was happening, teachers basically ignored it. “Oh,” we laughed, “don’t be silly. Teaching is easy. We have plenty of time.” When the second voice joined the first, a few of us started to worry. Luckily, it was a long time before our secret stash of time turners were revealed and we had to confess just how many hours all of this actually took…


Sorry. Just kidding. Today we had about three hours to tie up loose ends from last semester, tidy our rooms – or change rooms or even schools – and prepare for all new classes. But fear not, we have three whole days of teaching full time before our report cards are due. Totally normal.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

What I didn’t expect

What I didn’t expect
at the complicated end of a complicated semester
was that he – who talked through the quiet and through the loud and through the movie and through the reading and through the writing and through it all – 
would declare “Done!”
then stand up and walk, ungainly, to the next table.

I didn’t expect him 
to land his tall body, still heavy with childhood,
in the small plastic chair
next to a slender child
who had embodied invisibility since September.

I didn’t expect him to say,
“You can give me feedback” 
unselfconsciously shoving his words in front of his silent peer.

What I didn’t expect  
was that the second boy
who had spent the semester shrouded in his hoodie, 
his face wrapped in the winding sheet of his wispy brown hair,
the boy who had only used his voice to say “no”
that boy
would use the excuse of a keyboard and “nothing else to do”
to lean towards the awkward offer
and accept.

(I was so stunned that I took a picture of the two of them, hard at work. I don’t have permission to share – I didn’t even ask – but I invite you to imagine it.)


The email arrived after lunch: “Attention grade 9 Period 1 teachers… mark DECEMBER 20TH on your calendars!”

That’s me. I opened it.

Turns out, I need to mark December 20th – a mere week away – on my calendar because the grade 9 students will have an activity that day.

Y’all. I had plans. We have eight days left before the Winter Break. One of those is full of assemblies and merry-making, so seven teaching days. Since we finished our review unit today, that left just enough time to shoehorn in a tiny tightly-scheduled unit. But to make it work, we need all the days. I’d already cut all the corners that could be cut and still make it function. I stared at the calendar for a few minutes, but losing a day meant losing the unit.

I could whine or complain, but there’s really no use: the December 20th activities will be just what the grade 9s need – and even if they weren’t, I couldn’t change them. So, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, if you can’t change something, change your… lesson plans.

Luckily, I had already confirmed that my afternoon class was going to watch today’s FIFA semi-final whether I let them or not; rather than have fully three-quarters of the class skip and/or watch on their cell phones under their desks, we had agreed to watch the match as a class. So I turned on the game, sat down next to the student teacher, and introduced him to one of teaching’s many hard truths: we had to change all of our plans. By tomorrow morning.

First, we considered the big questions that have been coming up in our class and how we’ve addressed them through various texts. Pretty much since September, students have been voicing questions that boil down to how we come to believe our beliefs and how we know what’s true (though they haven’t phrase the questions quite so cogently.) Mr. K and I spent some time working through various ways to help 14-year-olds complicate their thinking about this. How will we help students approach the topic? Whose perspectives will be centred by our choices? Which things that seem perfect may actually be problematic? When will we let students choose their own exploration? How will we support this? And how will this change fit with the 11 days we have left in the course after the holidays?

Slowly, steadily, we talked through the new plans. By the time Argentina scored their second goal, we had the outline of a plan – an introduction, a story, an activity. When the bell rang for the end of the school day, we had a few resources. By the time you read this, I will probably have most of the rest of the week fleshed out.

Unless, of course, I get another email. Then, we’ll reboot again.

Phone home

A few weeks ago, Jessica – who blogs over at Where There’s Joy – wrote about making a positive phone call home. Oh, I thought, I love making these. In fact, earlier this semester I called home for a young person who often struggles but who had a really wonderful Thursday. I waited until Friday afternoon & called home. On the phone, their father was quietly delighted; by the time the student made it home, their father was over the moon. The student was still happy Monday afternoon when they got to class. “What did you even say to him? Can you call home every Friday?” It was wonderful.

Today, however, I steeled myself for the not-so-positive phone call home. I should probably use a moniker that is more, well, positive, but these are the calls I make when I find myself worrying about a student. Frankly, even with the worry, I often put them off. I hem and haw and tell myself “tomorrow will be different” or “they’re probably at work.” I hesitate, face to face with systemic inequity and cultural differences: what does it mean for me, a white authority figure, to call home when the student’s racial or cultural identity is significantly different from my own? What do I need to understand before I call? What are the results that I might not anticipate? I waver.

Eventually, my inner teacher voice gets louder. “If it were my child,” I think, “I would want to know.” Then, more powerfully, “These parents know and love their child. What if we were a team?” The team thing gets me every time. As soon as I know that I am truly calling to ask the parent to help me figure out how to best support their child’s success, I am ready to pick up the phone.

Which is how I found myself on the phone this afternoon, laughing with the mother of a child who has been increasingly belligerent over the past ten days or so. She was almost relieved that I had called, she said: she knows her child struggles with some parts of school, and she knows his IEP is woefully inadequate, so she had been waiting for a phone call ever since he transitioned to high school. No one had called, and she had started to wonder if we were aware of him at all. Last night things had gone a little sideways at their house – the way things do when kids are growing and rules have to be enforced – and he had come to school frustrated. Knowing that we were both seeing the same things, that each space was feeding into the other, assuaged some of our fears. “How is he in class?” she worried. “What helps calm things down at home?” I asked. We shared ideas and observations, parenting woes and commonalities until, suddenly, we were laughing because sometimes helping teens grow can be exasperating and ridiculous, all at the same time. Somehow we recognized that this is just a moment in time, and it, too, shall pass.

Before the call ended, I reminded her – and myself – of some of the wonderful things her child does in class: he’s whip smart and always willing to speak up. He cares deeply and is making friends. Even though he has had some tough moments lately, he often comes to class early and chats with me. Recently, he mentioned one of her accomplishments. As we began to sign off, I added, “You know, he’s really proud of you. He’s told me all about [the accomplishment].” Her voice caught, “Thank you. After last night, after these last few weeks… I guess I didn’t know.” I laid out our next steps one more time, and we said goodbye.

“I’ll call again and let you know how it’s going,” I said.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she replied.

And you know what? So am I.

Remind me of that the next time I’m hesitating to call home.

Book Love

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the student teacher looking around the classroom in astonishment. 9:30 on a Tuesday morning in mid-November and every one of the students in Grade 9 English was reading a book. Every single one. L had finally caved last week when I plunked a shiny copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes in front of him and walked away as though I didn’t care even the tiniest bit if he opened it. (Reader, I did care. I cared a lot. And I walked away anyway.) Now, for fifteen minutes, the regular rhythm of ocean waves filled the room (thank you YouTube) and we all read.

He commented on it later; I knew he would. A room full of 14-year-olds reading books is, after all, truly an unusual sight, and it was this young teacher’s first day with us. “How did you do that?” he wondered. I almost laughed. Those fifteen minutes are the result of a career’s worth of practice, a lifetime of reading and a lot of support from other people.

My classroom is full of books. A wonky combination of scavenged bookshelves line the back wall, full of novels and nonfiction, poetry and graphic novels, all shelved according to the eclectic organization that more or less mirrors students’ reading tastes. Books have been tossed into class bins, waiting to be picked up the next day. Books lean against the blackboard, begging to be chosen next. They teeter in uneven stacks on flat surfaces around the room, waiting to be reshelved. They linger in desks where they were stashed just in case the reader could sneak in a few extra words before class ended. 

Some students enter this room and feel at home; others are less excited. By 9th grade, some people have already abandoned reading. Every year I ask, “When was the last time you read a book cover to cover?” Every year, I hear stories of reading lives gone dormant, reading lives that have never had a chance to grow.

“It’s ok,” I say, “it’s ok. There’s something here for everyone” and I offer books from childhood, books they used to love, books someone once read aloud or books they’ve seen as movies or books full of pictures. I tell them about stories that have made me cry or laugh out loud. I ‘fess up to my serious crush on Jason Reynolds and admit that I have read past my bedtime and that I still can’t read horror novels – then I show them the collection of horror novels that I won’t ever read.

I tell students that I am a scavenger. I frequent little free libraries and I know which public libraries sell books cheap. At garage sales I explain why I need to buy all the books for much less than they are asking. I convince friends to pass along the books their teens are done with. Once, a former student cleaned out her room and brought me all the books she thought other students might like. I even ask on Facebook (because I’m old).

And this year? This year I won a grant from The Book Love Foundation. I applied last Spring, knowing that it was a long shot – so many teachers apply; so few can be funded. When I found out that I had won the grant, I cried, and then I got to work making my list. The books arrived last week – boxes and boxes of them. Books by Indigenous authors and Black authors and Muslim authors and LGBTQ authors; books with characters who wear hijabs or who face monsters or who had a child while they were in school or who found success beyond their dreams. Books about sports and books about travel and books about memories and books about the future. Books you’ve definitely heard of and books I haven’t read yet. (That might have been the students’ favourite part. “Wait. You haven’t read this one? Are you kidding? I’m going to read it before you!”) So. Many. Books. Good books.

We unboxed the books together, and already the Rupi Kaur is tucked next to someone’s bed; two of the Maze Runner series are out; Alice Oseman is circulating; Girl in Pieces has a waiting list; Kwame Alexander went to basketball practice, and Tupac’s poetry may have lured in the one last reading holdout – the lone student who hasn’t really read anything yet. These books honour the students in the classroom. Thanks (at least in part) to the Book Love Foundation, the students know that they are valued and valuable.

As for that student teacher, I don’t think I’ll have to convince him that choice reading is magic. Oh, I’ll I need to let him know that in September we could barely read as a class for five minutes, but he’s seen what happens when people know that they can read what they want, for real. And once I shelve these new books, maybe I can help him start his own classroom library, too.

(FYI – these grants are made possible by donors. If you want to help support classroom libraries, please consider donating here.)

Who is Charlie?

Lately I’ve been having trouble getting to sleep. I finish reading, turn off my light and close my eyes… then some rebellious part of my brain hears “PARTY!” and gleefully begins to list all of the things I need to do. These wild worry-happy neurons are willing to let pretty much anything in:

  • things I should have completed but haven’t
  • things I need to do for school
  • things I need to do for my family
  • things I need to do in the morning
  • things I need to do before I die
  • things I don’t really need to do but, you know, I might as well add to the list

Any self-respecting 50-year-old working-parent-brain knows how to handle an unplanned fret-festival: paper. I live by the mantra on the paper is out of my head, and I keep a pencil and post-it notes next to my bed. I like using the little ones because they imply that my lists are somehow manageable. I also like to pretend that I won’t fill up three or four or five…

Things usually look more manageable in the morning, even if sticky notes litter the cover of my book. But Monday, I woke up to this:

Um, y’all… I don’t know anyone named Charlie. And who is the questionable person who goes with Charlie? What activities do they need? Was I planning them? Do I need to plan them? I have no idea.

I spent Monday dutifully crossing off most of the things on this list, but Charlie lingers. What does Charlie need? Who is Charlie? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that my list-making brain was playing a practical joke on me. I suppose the only solution is to go upstairs and read for a while and see what I put on tonight’s list… Maybe I’ll wake up with things for Charlie to do.