I threw them out

Our school board moved from fully online teaching to hybrid in-person when February began. No transition day, no time to clear out the classrooms we had been teaching in when Winter Break began and online learning was abruptly declared. No time to move textbooks, supplies or decorations into our new classrooms. Friday we were at home teaching one set of classes; Monday we were teaching new classes in a new semester and often in new rooms. Less than ideal.

I have a prep period right now, so I’m trying to help clear out some of the classrooms that aren’t occupied this week. This gets a little complicated because teachers can’t go into classrooms with students who aren’t theirs, but there’s still plenty that can be done. For example, today I went into my old old classroom (from two terms ago) and found that my now sad-looking displays of student work were wilting off the bulletin boards. As I started to pull them down, one pushpin at a time, I spied a stack of shiny objects tucked into the corner of a shelf. Books! From a distance, I couldn’t tell which ones.

Ever willing to be distracted from a dull task, I cupped the sharp tacks in my hand and ambled over to see what people had been reading, but my heart was already sinking: these books were not appealing to readers. At some point in their lives, these poor novels had been denuded of their original covers and reclothed with paper, laminated, folded and glued on after someone used a thick marker to scrawl the title – but not the author’s name – across the front. Now the cheap covers clung somewhat desperately to the books’ spines creaking open to reveal torn, yellowed pages full of tiny print. I flipped sadly through one of the books and realized that a teacher had handed these out as a class novel last quadmester.

I’ve written several pages of unpublishable material about the infuriating task of trying to update a book room with no budget, but despite my frustration, our school is in no way left with only books whose very appearance actively repels readers. Teachers are not required to choose novels whose presentation tells students that their reading lives are not valued. We have better books than this. My initial curiosity about the books in the corner was rapidly shifting.

We have better books than this. What we don’t have right now are better books that require little prep by teachers because they have been taught off and on for 50+ years. No, wait. Even that is not true: Our bookroom houses many old “classics” that are in much better shape than this. We are trying to update our reading lists to better reflect our diverse student population, but we are far from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have plenty of books that would have honoured our young readers by showing them that they deserve books that still feel alive.

I stood there for a minute, laminated book slick in one hand, sharp tacks gently pricking the other. I loved this novel when I was in high school, but I am nearly 50 and so, I suspect, are these books. The world has changed beyond what the author would have recognized; it may have changed into what he feared. Still, few readers are hooked by books so old they are barely hanging together. Will we have enough money to replace these books? Will we choose to replace this title if we do have money? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I do know that we have to show our students that their intellectual life matters to us. These books didn’t do that. I threw them out.

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Almost ready

I’m exhausted. I haven’t blogged for the last two weeks. I have plenty to say but no time to say it. I’ve put my entire classroom library into boxes and put all of the boxes onto shelves in the book room. I’ve cleaned classrooms and shelved more books than I could keep track of. I’ve thrown out papers and binder and, yes, books. Old books. Damaged books. Doesn’t matter because, as it turns out, we’re not allowed to hand out *any* books. For a week? two? the semester? No one knows. We are now teaching bookless.

I’ve been making up words.

With two colleagues, I’ve created a course shell, a course outline, and a Google Drive full of mentor texts to help English teachers make sense of how to teach for 225 minutes a day to groups that are in school every other day of every other week for a “quadmester.” I’ve copied and pasted and searched and linked and categorized until my eyes nearly crossed.

I’ve tried to connect to the internet, changed my password, moved to a new room, sent in call tickets to support staff. I’ve done the required PD in the early morning and late at night, sitting at the kitchen counter, grateful that my internet works.

I’ve argued about class novels and talked about racism. I’ve asked questions, said no, said yes, and said, “I have no idea” over and over. I’ve suggested changes. I’ve encouraged people to be kind to themselves. I’ve encouraged people to lean in to discomfort. I’ve publicly said, “We’ve got this” and privately fretted that we don’t have it at all. Then I’ve changed my mind. And changed it again.

I’ve limited my children to two hours of internet a day except when they took an online class that lasted 1.5 hours per day and taught them how to program, aka use the internet more than two hours per day. I’ve told them to play outside and said, “it’s just rain; you won’t melt” even as I opened the door and greeted them with towels. I’ve prepared them for classes that may or may not end up outdoors or indoors or on line for who knows how many hours per day.

I’ve baked banana muffins.

I’ve shamelessly taken advantage of my spouse who took two weeks off so that I could prepare for a school year unlike any other. He has magically produced three meals a day, done the laundry and managed to landscape our backyard. He has not complained though he has taken refuge in board games.

I have given up checking the news, drinking alcohol and eating ice cream, then changed my mind within a day or an hour or a minute when yet another new announcement arrived and all of the rules changed again. I’ve avoided social media and the news; I’ve allowed social media and the news to swallow me whole.

I’ve walked every day. I’ve laughed and cried and talked and raged and read and written. I’ve picked up the phone and sobbed; I’ve ignored calls from those I love because I couldn’t bear to utter even one more word about school. I’ve recorded a podcast. I’ve recorded a podcast that didn’t record. I’ve said things I wish were not recorded.

I’m exhausted, but I’m ready. Half of the grade 9s came today; the other half come tomorrow. By Thursday, classes will start. The IEP system isn’t working; there are no paper towels in the girls’ restroom; the class lists are still changing; no one knows when teachers get bathroom breaks; we still cannot hand out books.

And despite it all, what I want more than anything is to see the students. What I want most is to look at them and say, “Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been waiting for you!”

2020-2021 is going to be a year like no other. I’m exhausted and incredibly excited for the changes that it will bring.

Who gets the credit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

Chewing.

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

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

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

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

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