After classes

As I watch, the little circles disappear, one by one. Some of the students say or write goodbye before they leave, but some simply vanish. The last one blinks out and I end the call. Then, defeated, I close my eyes, fill my lungs with air, and I let my head fall into my hands. I will not cry, I think fiercely. There is no point in crying. Breathe. Breathe again.

It’s the end of the second day of the most recent round of online school. I will not cry. I close the laptop, close the Chromebook. I stand up and close the folding screen that hides my laundry space when I’m teaching.

This first week, I’m teaching two two-and-a-half hour classes. We found out on Monday that we would be online starting Wednesday. Not enough time. Not enough time to change what would have been on the whiteboard into pre-prepared slides with little room for reacting to the students as they learn. Not enough time to figure out how to slow down to accommodate the pace of online learning and still finish the course in the 10 days that are left. Not enough time to make sure all the students have computers (they don’t) or wifi (they don’t). Not enough time.

But I got it done. Wait – *we* got it done. Four teachers worked together – remotely – for hours to create days worth of effective on-line learning for our grade 9 classes. Teachers shared slides and lessons on Twitter. Everyone chipped in. I didn’t sleep well Monday or Tuesday nights, my brain so steeped in planning that it couldn’t quite turn off.

And now it’s Thursday, only two days into our two weeks of online school. And I’d forgotten about the silence, and the stiffness of being stationary for so long. I’d forgotten about asking questions to a bunch of empty space. I’d forgotten how often I fumble with the various classroom tools, how foolish I feel. I’d forgotten how much I hate this.

To shake off today’s teaching, I take a walk and call a friend. I try to laugh about how much planning is required to give directions well. I remember an assignment in grad school: we had to give our peers directions for a game, and they had to follow our directions exactly. I thought I would nail it the first time. I did not. All these years later, I know how to plan directions – break the steps down; leave plenty of wait time; be precise; anticipate questions; speak slowly; add visuals – but somehow, today, it didn’t work.

I text my planning buddies. I say “no one participated.” (This is untrue). I say “they don’t see the value in learning unless they have already done the work.” (This is untrue.) I swear I am NOT going to teach tomorrow; I’m just going to give an assignment and make them work.

I eat dinner, hang out with my children. Then, when they head off to bed, I go back to planning. I write out the directions I will say. I start writing this post to calm myself down. I remember that this is just a slice of life; tomorrow’s slice will be different.

Tomorrow

TW: threats of violence/shooting in school.

The post circulated during lunchtime, which meant that none of the teachers knew about it until class started. I had opened my classroom early, as usual, and enlisted a few students to help with some tidying. They didn’t know either. We’d been laughing at my apparent infatuation with pretty file folders and had no idea anything was wrong. In fact, as the students wandered in, only M’s dry “I assume you know about the, uh, social media, issue?” caught my attention. I sighed.

“What is it this time?”

High school is busy, you know? Last week, it was a mean instagram account where someone was posting pictures of students without their consent. Or maybe there were two accounts? One of students sleeping & one of eating? And one was mocking but one was not? Or maybe I’m wrong. This year alone we’ve had everything from the really bad – sexual harassment – to the really minor – soccer balls should not, in fact, be dribbled down the hallways. I’d love to blame it on the pandemic, but that’s not the truth: high school is always about transgressing rules. Part of my job is deciding which rules are worth enforcing (sexual harassment is NEVER ok) and which aren’t (I honestly do not care if you use the sign out sheet for the bathroom – but don’t tell the kids).

This time, however, “it” was an explicit angry threat to shoot the Vice Principal, teachers and students tomorrow. Or maybe Thursday – because the day of the week and the day of the month in the threat do not match. The note is chilling, but it’s also oddly high school – a few errors here and there; that date mismatch; the assurance that this is NOT a “hoax” complete with the air quotes that drive me around a bend when they show up in formal writing. There were pictures of guns, too, of course.

I’ve taught through a lot: 9/11 in a school in Washington, DC; the sniper who was targeting schools & children (for days we shielded them with our bodies while they boarded the bus home); intruders in the school; a day when a bunch of children reported that they had taken unauthorized pills and were afraid of the results; drills for an anthrax attack, drills for a “dirty bomb”, lockdown drills, evacuation drills; a shooter in the neighbourhood where my own children attend school – while across the city my school was “secured”. I’ve never taught through the threat of a school shooting, but I’m practiced in helping students deal with threats of violence.

So I listened when my students worried, and I told them we were safe for now. I told them about my plan to keep them physically safe – a plan I didn’t even realize I had but which was remarkably well-formulated when I needed it. I told them about times when my students and I have been safe. I made them laugh, then I made them put their phones away – social media only fans the fire – and I assured them that the antidote to fear is focus and made them write. And, because teenagers are amazing – and trusting – they did.

After school, we had a staff meeting – virtual, of course, because this potential shooter is not the only threat we are dealing with. And, while the Principal tried to offer staff what I had offered students, there really is only so much assurance anyone can provide. Someone has threatened to come to school and shoot people tomorrow. They threatened a VP by name; they threatened an “English class” and students. I am an English teacher. That could be my class.

After work, teachers from other schools wrote to make sure I was aware of the threat, to encourage me to stay home or stay strong. Many students will stay home tomorrow and the rest of the week, and I totally understand. I suspect that many teachers will stay home, too, and that also makes sense – what other protection is there, really?

When I chose teaching years ago no one had ever died in a school shooting. Can you remember that? Can you imagine it? There was a time when people who chose teaching did not also choose to put ourselves in harm’s way.

Tomorrow, I will wake up and decide if I am going to work. I will have to decide if this threat is credible, if the school system can adequately protect me. (It cannot.) This is not a decision I should have to make, but here we are.

As I go to bed this evening, I keep thinking about my students. Do they know how much I care about them – how deeply I wish to help them become themselves? I don’t know what else to hope. I don’t know how else to pray. I will pray with love and for love. I will pray that we can continue to create a society and a school system where all children feel valued and supported. I will pray that someday we create schools full of joy.

And I will (almost definitely) go to school tomorrow.

Just add salsa

I was still grumpy from school nonsense when I got home. Since the time changed this weekend, I’ve been walking in the mornings, but my husband took one look at me and suggested I should maybe take an evening walk, too. I declined. He backed out of the kitchen, supposedly to go finish some work.

I stewed.
I scrolled.
I texted.
I muttered.

Finally, I had to admit that none of this was making me feel any better at all. And since I was filling the kitchen with my frustration, no one was making dinner, either. Even Mr. 11 – hungry, as ever, 20 minutes before dinner time – had abandoned the space when I glared and said he could not have a snack. Harumph.

At least if I was alone in the kitchen, I could play my own music. My finger hovered over my list – this was not the moment to let some app determine what I needed to hear – and I landed on Dream in Blue by Los Lobos. I heated water for the pasta and smiled at the thought of Patrick – his horror at my unformed musical taste; his insistence that I listen to, well, everything; his eclectic music the soundtrack to our relationship and the fun we had while it lasted and we listened. 

By now I was reheating the chili and cutting the bread. When the song ended, I didn’t hesitate: very sharp knife in hand, I found Carlos Vives and cranked the volume on Pa Mayte. Ah… My feet started moving, then my hips, and despite the fact that I was in the kitchen making dinner for my family, despite the fact that I will turn 50 in two short weeks, I was back in Chief Ike’s Mambo Room with Linda, sweaty and happy as we danced with whichever partner was nearby, danced after-hours until we were so tired that only their hands and the music held us up. I was at the Gipsy Kings concert dancing on the lawn and I was in Belize, with Amy and Janny and no, I don’t remember how we ended up at the club, but oh, we danced until our feet hurt and we took our shoes off and danced barefoot and then…

Well, then the pasta was done and the chili was warm. Andre came in and turned down the volume because he needed to tell me something. The kids tumbled in and we sat for dinner. And it was good, life was good, life is good.

(especially if you can fit in a little salsa)

Forswunk

I felt fine when I woke up on Sunday morning. Well, maybe not 100%, but pretty good. We had a fun morning ahead, so I took something for my headache and got on with the day. By lunchtime, I knew the headache wasn’t going away. And I was starting to realize that my digestive system was also unhappy. Plus, I was exhausted despite a good night’s sleep. I was sick.

Before I could ease my aching body into a warm tub, I checked our public health site: none of my symptoms warranted a COVID test in a vaccinated adult. Phew. I’d gotten the flu shot the day before, and my symptoms *did* match reactions to that.

The day wore on. I didn’t get any better, and I didn’t get any work done. Sometime Sunday evening, through the haze of the headache and nausea, I recognized my dilemma: should I call in sick?

This was a more complicated decision than usual. This year, secondary teachers teach two two-and-a-half-hour classes every day for one week. The next week, we “only” teach one of those blocks, though to different students. On paper, this looks reasonable, but in reality, it’s exhausting. Planning lessons that are effective, engaging, and well-paced – and also accessible to students who can’t attend in person if they are sick or quarantining – and that work within the arc of a week (because 9 days later, few students remember exactly what we were doing), well, it’s a lot. Being in the classroom, on my feet, engaging students, making changes on the fly, making sure everyone is learning, for five hours: also a lot. Add in a few meetings – at least two per week – outside of class time and then, of course, the marking. That’s really a lot. 

Taken altogether, this means that every weekend I need to work for at least five or six hours just to keep up. Is this a strain on my family? Yes. Is this a strain on me? Yes. Should I be doing something different, more efficient, more effective, more… I don’t know… better? Probably, but this is what I’ve got right now and, frankly, I’m too tired to choose anything else.

And now I was sick, so I’d lost most of my weekend planning and marking time. Pre-Covid, I could have waited to see how I felt Monday morning; there was a good chance I would feel fine and I hate missing classes. Plus, my grade 9 class does best with consistency, already hard to maintain with nine days between classes. Pre-Covid, I wouldn’t have worried that calling in sick first thing in the morning would mean that one of my colleagues would have to cover my class. They still would have covered my class, of course, but they wouldn’t have been so incredibly tired; their prep time wouldn’t have been so incredibly necessary. If I declared my absence Sunday night, the school could hire a supply teacher instead of further swamping someone who was already up to their eyeballs in muck. And then there’s the truth that pre-Covid, I wouldn’t have been facing down a week so busy that I already felt smothered; I would have been better able to spread out my work; I would have had more flexibility because I wouldn’t have been planning for huge swaths of time and not everything had to be pre-created and available online. 

I was forswunk*, exhausted before I even began. Even the decision to take a sick day was overwhelming.

In the end, I took the day. I forced my muddled brain to re-write the lessons I had so that they would be accessible to a supply teacher, emailed all the right people, and fell, exhausted, into my bed.  I did, indeed, feel a good bit better on Monday, though I needed a lot of extra sleep. And what did I do on my sick day? I worked.

Forswunk. Overworked. No idea why that word is obsolete.

*https://www.wordsense.eu/forswunk/

Nervous Excitement

I’m teaching at a new school this year. Now, there are a few things you should know about this before I continue:

  1. I was at my previous school for eight years and I loved it.
  2. This was my choice. I mean, I interviewed for this position, said yes & everything. On purpose.
  3. I have moved schools before – a lot. In my twenty some years of teaching, I’ve taught at seven schools (counting overseas; not counting my practice teaching). 
  4. I am nervous every. single. time. 

Number four begs the question of why I keep moving. Well… sometimes I had a one-year contract (overseas); once I got married and moved to a different continent; twice I was ‘surplused’ (had a contract, but no placement in that school). Only once before have I intentionally decided to move. Both that time and this one I was ready for a new challenge and sought out the right opportunity: I’m going to be head of a department that the Principal is calling “Global Citizenship and Literacy” – English, Languages, History & Social Sciences – how cool is that? Does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself that this was a good decision? Yup, here I am, nervous.

So far I’ve mostly been able to pour my nerves into cleaning. First, I threw away a bunch of nasty old books that no student should have to receive as a class book along with a few frankly racist books that we really didn’t need to keep as a class set. For the first time in 13 years I have my own room, so I’ve been cleaning (paper alone took one full day – the teacher in there before me retired & pretty much left everything behind). Today I started unpacking and organizing. My mother is visiting me and a 13-year-old friend of mine is an organizing genius, so I recruited them to help me out. We worked through the morning until our eyes were red with dust and we were sneezing into our masks. We worked until we’d drunk all the water we brought and really needed lunch. We worked until we were tired enough that we were spending a lot of time talking about the books we liked and less time putting them on the shelves. There’s more to go – I have a LOT of books – but things are starting to take shape.

Wait a minute. Truth: while they threw away the dried-up pens and White-out that seemed to lurk in every drawer and cubby, or decided whether to place a book in “realistic fiction” or “Canadian”, I was in and out of the room, starting to meet my new colleagues, chatting about summer, classroom assignments, course assignments, books and pedagogy. We’re all feeling each other out, looking for commonalities, checking to see how we’ll fit together. 

“Do you think that we should all teach one book in each grade so that students have a shared experience?” No, I don’t. 

Gatsby is one of my favourite books.”
Oh, how I love Gatsby, though I no longer teach it as a class novel.

“Don’t you think that Of Mice and Men will make a “comeback” some day?”
Nope, though I’ve taught it before and I loved it for a long time. 

“I know that the students probably need to build up their literacy skills after a year and a half of Covid. What will you prioritize in your classes this year?”
That one’s easy: joy. 

“Joy?”
Yes, and laughter.

Nervous nervous nervous. Will my colleagues like me? Will my pedagogy be too “out there”? What if I can’t teach these students? (Honestly, I have worried about this at every school. You’d think I would have learned by now.) What if this doesn’t work? What if… what if… what if…

A few years ago, when students’ final project in English was to deliver a TED Talk, I used to play Kelly McGonigal’s talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend. To be honest, sometimes if students are stressy enough, I still do. Over and over, I have listened to her tell us that stress can be energizing, preparing us to meet a challenge, that it can feel like joy and challenge. Joy. This is the message I keep with me. It’s okay for me to be nervous, stressed or even – gasp – scared. This is normal. This is good. This is why I decided it was time for a change. I need to be challenged; I am ready for something new. My task now is to remember that these nerves have an upside. My journey is to find the challenge and meet it with excitement.

When I came home from cleaning, after buying lunch for my amazing helpers (Thanks, Mom), my own children were hanging around, savouring the last days of summer. “How are you feeling, Mom?” they wanted to know. “Nervous,” I said, “Nervous and excited.” 

Every week I blog with Two Writing Teachers. Maybe this is the year that you, too, should join this supportive community and become a teacher who writes.

Three more days

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

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

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

But our schools stay open.

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

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

Today, Toronto schools moved to online learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have we done?

Bye-bye books #SOL21 29/31

I’ve been at my current school for almost eight years. When I arrived, I was awed by our book room: a cavernous space filled with rows and rows of giant, heavy, rolling bookshelves, mostly full to the hilt. That first year, I went down to the book room just to revel in all of the books.

Of course, I never stayed long because the room was centimetres deep in dust and smelled strongly of book mold. Most of the time, my revelling was quick: I scurried in, got a class set of books, and scurried back out, largely leaving the books to other scurrying creatures. Then, at the end of the year, part of my job was counting the books.

That proved to be nearly impossible – books were everywhere and, while they had clearly been vaguely alphabetized at some point, they now appeared to have been organized by someone whose preferred writing system veered more towards the arcane than strict alphabetic. Books were stacked haphazardly on the counters near the front, squirreled away on back shelves so no one else could find them and left, lonely, in the classrooms where they had landed. That summer, I spent sweaty hours trying rearrange the books into some order – any order – struggling to stay in the room long enough without being overwhelmed by the dust. I got somewhere, but not far enough. The work would have to continue into the next year.

As I reorganized, I began to purge. We had set after set of books that were falling apart or mildewed beyond use. We found books that no one in the department recognized. One school year, I declared that no one should leave the book room without throwing away at least three old books. We barely made a dent in things.

Over the years, we’ve used part of a PD day to purge (just 30 minutes to stretch our legs, I swear!) and one teacher even came in with his wife and spent hours rearranging books into a *much* better system than the original. At first, I kept track of the books we threw away, but eventually that seemed both fruitless and depressing. Still, we found some great things: an old textbook that had been signed out to one of our current teachers – although he had attended another high school; a book once used by a parent of one of our students; and an entire set of books published in 1943, before our school was even built, before our school board even existed. Each time, we marveled, shared, and threw them away.

Throwing books away is emotionally exhausting, so I tend to do it in fits and starts. Sometimes it makes me sad: I have thrown away books I love as their pages flutter out, falling to the floor in an attempt to escape; I have thrown away books I hated in high school, their spines stuck together by duct tape until they form one big clump of unreadable print; I have thrown away books I’ve never read whose covers whisper of bygone eras and stories I don’t yet know, but whose brittle yellow pages actively prevent me from reading them. Sometimes I go in excited to purge: we need to make space for new books! The new books rarely come – our budget doesn’t buy much – but the idea of making space is invigorating. Sometimes I’m wistful: why don’t we read these anymore? Once upon a time, I loved this book. And sometimes I’m angry: why are we still handing out these books? What must the students think when we hand them such damaged material? They certainly know what we value.

Throwing them out is physically exhausting, too, and no matter how much I clean and toss, the dust never seems to dissipate much. I can only spend so much time in the book room, even with a mask on for Covid, before my eyes get red and I start to cough. Then I have to leave.

Today I dragged a colleague in with me, and we threw away three bins of books. Yes, I have been doing this off and on for eight years and I can still fill three bins in a day. (Our bins are biggish trash bins on wheels – not huge ones.) I shuddered as I threw away Fahrenheit 451 – I whispered a silent apology to Bradbury, but the pages were no longer attached to the cover – and Brave New World – but even Huxley would have had to acknowledge that a mouse had eaten through a fair bit of several of his books. I threw away copies of books that haven’t left the book room since 1976. I found books that had last been signed out before I was born. I threw them out. I let go of some Jane Eyre (sigh) and a media textbook from the early 80s. I didn’t feel very bad at all about throwing away some Hemingway short stories, though I had a small pang about the really old Steinbecks. I imagined blackout poetry projects and repurposed book projects and collages and… I threw them out. I checked the contents of poetry anthologies, sighed over my favourites, and tossed them and their cracked spines and missing covers in the bin. It was cathartic and awful and it had to be done.

Somehow, this feels like my last stand: I can almost see the end of the purge. Surely, surely by the end of this school year, we will have a book room that represents what we actually teach (or what we might legitimately teach). The books in there will not be trashy things with yellow pages that creak and smell and fall out as we touch them. Our students will have books that honour them – at least that’s what I hope. Once this round is over, I can give the principal a tour of our near-barren shelves and then I can ask for new books. Right? Right? (Cross your fingers for us!)

When you write with https://twowritingteachers.org/ in March or on Tuesdays, you’ll find lots of people who love books as much as you do.

Words can never hurt me #SOL21 27/31

This week, the end of week four, one of my students turned in her first major assignment. In a quarter that lasts only four and a half weeks, her piece was two weeks late. I was delighted.

The first week of class was, I think, a shock to many of my students: they read every day & chose their own books; they wrote every day, too, in quickwrites, freewrites, prompted writes. The rhythm was unfamiliar, not least because of our compressed and off-kilter pandemic scheduling. By the end of the week, they had written a short memoir.

Not every student, of course, slides easily into memoir. She was one of these. No matter how many mentor texts or brainstorming sessions, no matter how many small group or large group discussions, when it came time to write something “important,” she shut down. I managed to finagle a 100-word mini-memoir out of her, but she steadfastly refused to consider the longer piece.

In a normal school year, I would have waited her out. Slow steady relationship building goes an awfully long ways, and I know how to use daily interactions to learn about students. This year, I don’t have time. Of course, the thing about trust is that it can’t be rushed; trust comes when it comes. The best I could offer this child was conversation and genuine curiosity, so I started talking to her during the walk breaks I’d built into our 4-hour-long classes. Every other day, every other week… and I didn’t realize there was a problem until near the end of week one.

But there is something about that memoir unit… I swear she wanted me to know her story. During week two she confessed: she had never – not once – submitted an essay for a high school English class. She shrugged, “My mark is always good enough that I can afford to take the hit.” The hit? The zero she would get for not writing the one assigned essay. I must have looked physically ill because the poor child rushed to reassure me, “It’s ok, Miss, my mark doesn’t go down that much.”

My mind reeled. Where to start? One essay? Just one? No other writing? “No,” she told me simply, almost quizzically, “not usually.”


“And no one said anything?”

“Well, I mean, they are definitely disappointed with me.”

I closed my eyes, and then, just to be sure, I repeated, “So you really haven’t written any long essays in all of high school? None?”

“No.”

Something lurked under that word: fear? or hurt? defiance? anger? I didn’t know, but I had to ask. “Why not?”

The story came out over a few separate discussions – the teacher, the public reading of her work, the shaming; the demand that she re-write or take the zero; the twin feelings of impotent fury and mortification; the decision not to write again.

And now I wanted her to write. She told me, frankly, that she couldn’t do it. Oh, we brainstormed together on Google Meet; she acknowledged that ideas were not her problem. I did my trick of scribing what the student says and giving it back to them; she said it looked better than she’d expected. Still nothing. And the quarter raced forward. During our class walks, every other week, every other day, I made sure to chat with her. She completed an infographic and participated in book club discussions. I praised her liberally. Week two ended and still no essay, though she wrote happily in her journal.

Week three, I kept looking for strengths, but she was keeping her head down. She still was reading, freewriting, participating in class… It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t a piece done from beginning to end.

Week four and the class working on another essay, this time analytical. And there she was. “Maybe,” she said, “you could help me with a checklist for the essay?”

I looked up, trying to keep my breathing even. “Sure. The analytical essay?”

“Oh,” she said, “yeah. I turned that other one in just now.”

I used all my strength not to open it right away. We made a checklist. Two steps at a time. She went back to her desk. I did not read her essay until after class.

It was excellent.

And then, suddenly, I am angry. I am angry that a teacher decided to humiliate this child. I am sure that the teacher didn’t *intend* to humiliate her, but it happened nonetheless. I want to scream. I want to yell at the universe. This child has missed three YEARS of writing. Three years. I imagine where she could be now if someone had said something kind instead of something hurtful.

Nothing I do in the classroom is magic. Nothing I do is shocking or wild or inexplicable. I look for their strengths. I try to help them see the possibilities that exist. I insist that all of the students are capable, even when they tell me they are not. That’s it.

She turned in an essay. I told her all the good things about it. Now maybe she can write again.

(For more on the power of a teacher’s words, consider reading Melanie White’s post Journals or Molly Hogan’s post Thank you, Mrs. Minzy!)

Done #SOL21 25/31

I might be done. I am definitely done for today. I’ve already cried & I think I will just go take a bath and go to sleep. It’s not even 7pm.

The school board just took away our last day of classes for this quarter – which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is because each class is four hours long plus (supposedly) an hour at home, and we only had five classes left. So now we only have four classes left which means we’ve lost four or five *hours* of learning – the equivalent of nearly a week! – and, as it turns out, I can’t squeeze all our plans in without that day.

It means that I will only see the students I saw today, cohort A, two more times. Ever. That’s it.
It means that even though they class (minus two students) *asked* for Hamlet, I can’t fit it in. Which means that I will have to spend my weekend and/or next week replanning the final week, which is now only three days.

I’ve already cut so much. We’ve already lost so much. I am trying to bring joy to the classroom – I really am. Even in the middle of chaos, I am trying to teach the kids the joy of exploration, of risk-taking, of the kind of learning that allows for failure and success. I want my classes to feel compelling and important and personal. And, honestly, even in the pandemic, even in this truly crazy school schedule, most days I think I’m managing or at least coming close. But that kind of teaching doesn’t just happen. I have worked a LOT and now I’m losing four precious hours with them.

I only just learned their names.

In all of March I haven’t even written about my students because I’ve only just started to know them. This is a real loss because they are magnificent, these students: passionate, daring, creative, curious, funny. They wanted to write essays and study Hamlet (minus those two kids – but we need those two, too) and they so desperately want to learn something real, something important. For this whole year I will only see any of them 12 times because the year is a quadmester and the quadmester is every other day, every other week. And now we’ve lost a whole day together.

And I get it, I really do. The school board is trying to help students feel less overwhelmed. Everyone is doing their best. But they keep forgetting that teachers plan and dream and hope. They keep forgetting that every hour with my students is another hour to build a relationship, to remind these people who are on the cusp of adulthood that they are allowed to join the world of intellectual discourse and that even in a pandemic – especially in a pandemic – their voices matter.

So today I’m done. I can’t take anymore today. A bath and a good night’s sleep will help.

And if we can’t do Hamlet, we can do poetry. I bet some Mary Oliver will be balm for their souls. And Jericho Brown will call them into being. And maybe Adrienne Rich and – yes! – Naomi Shibab Nye. Maybe we’ll talk about Chen Chen.

It appears that I have written my way to something new – and maybe my students will, too. But the bathtub calls. Here, read this and we’ll all feel better: Kindness by Naomi Shibab Nye

You didn’t click, did you? No worries – I’ll just give you the final stanza; then you’ll want more:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Back to class

The night before, I chose my clothes, portioned out my lunch and packed my bags. As I left the house, I double checked everything. I headed out early, earlier than almost any other day this school year. My children, knowing how I felt, wished me good luck as I left.

At school, I pulled books out of the book room and speakers out of drawers; everything went into the classroom. I gathered blackout poems and other decorations from last semester’s classroom and brought them into this quadmester’s room. I washed the blackboard and found my coloured chalk. I waited. Nervous? Excited? Yes.

The bell. And then the students. Slowly, masked and distanced, they arrived. Well, half of them. The other half were at home – but no matter! After months of teaching from home, after a quadmester of teaching Spec Ed (which has its own pleasures, but which is very different from classroom teaching), I was in a room with students, and we were about to start an English class.

We wrote. We read a poem. We talked about it and about ourselves. And, like every single year, like every single class, they blew me away with what they saw, what they said, who they are. Sure, I made mistakes – I talked too much (such a weakness), some students couldn’t find the meet link, my written instructions were too long – and for sure the hybrid portion of the day felt odd. “Can you hear me?” I asked the screen of avatars. The screen said yes.

I know it’s a pandemic & I know this will be exhausting & I know things will probably go sideways (and backwards & upside down) But for now, I’m back in the classroom – the chaotically hybrid pandemic classroom, but the classroom nevertheless – and I am happy.