Who’s right? #SOL22 22/31

For the past few semesters, influenced by Kittle & Gallagher, most of my English classes have started either with short memoir or flash fiction. One of the minor miracles about doing this type of writing at the beginning of the semester is that students often invest in their stories in ways that elude them if we start with expository or analytical writing. Short pieces allow us to get into the nitty gritty of craft without getting overwhelmed by, as one student said, “all the things.”

These assignments also allow plenty of time for feedback and revision. Students begin to ask for feedback from peers and, in turn, to offer comments beyond, “it’s good” and “I think this is a run-on?” As they tweak their imagery, diction, rhythm and structure, I can offer plenty of feedback via quick conferences, voice notes, and written comments on drafts in progress. In the end, the best part is that these stories emphatically theirs. Most students finish with a well-written narrative that they actually like.

Once I had this assignment as part of my repertoire, I started to focus on improving my feedback because feedback is part of what creates the magic of these assignments. (I wrote about commenting on student work once here. More recently, Melanie and Heidi (and Joel in the comments), have addressed feedback in their posts.) If we just grade for grammar or comment on what is not working, our students will stop writing. Growth happens when we highlight what is working in a piece. So I’ve learned to share my reactions as a reader, explain what I see students doing, and ask a lot of questions.

This semester, one student used identical phrasing at the beginning and the end of a short memoir. I didn’t love it, so in my comments I asked what effect they were hoping to create. I was thinking of this essay on picturing narrative structure, and particularly of the visual about coming full circle, where the author writes, “For… (the) conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete… So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.” I thought the story would be better if it were a little more open.

A visual of coming nearly full circle, then opening up

Then, the most amazing thing happened. In the classroom, the student called me over and told me that they didn’t agree with me. They liked their closed loop. As soon as they finished speaking, they took a deep breath and looked away, astonished, I think, at their own boldness. Are students allowed to tell teachers no?

Disagreeing with teachers isn’t an everyday occurrence in schools. Too often, even when teachers try to demonstrate openness or give effective feedback, students just nod and do what we ask. After all, we have all the power. If we don’t like what they write, they get lower grades. For kids who’ve learned to play the game of school, disagreement about how to do an assignment can be nearly unthinkable. After all, they explain, being right doesn’t get you into university; doing what the teacher tells you to does.

When this student told me she didn’t want to change her work, she was telling me that her story mattered more than the grade. THAT IS INCREDIBLE. So I told her the truth,

“Look, I’m only one reader. I’m not your only audience, and I might not even be your target audience.”

She looked dubious. I told more truth: I admitted that I sometimes don’t like books that have won awards. I told her about reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-admired novel The Corrections and hating it so much that my spouse begged me to stop. (I read to the last word so no one could ever say, “Oh, but the ending was so good” thus making me go back and reread.) It won the National Book Award, so obviously lots of people really liked it; just not me.

I asked who the student imagined enjoying this story. “My friends.”

“So, show it to your friends. Shop it around. Tell them that you like this and that I would change it. Ask what they think and why. Come back and tell me about the effect it has on your audience.”

It took them a few minutes to turn to a peer and share their story, but once they started, they gathered opinions from around the classroom. They made some changes based on what they heard, but they kept that circular structure exactly as written.

I still don’t like it, but they earned an A.

Make Writing #SOL22 13/31

I suspect that I found Angela Stockman through my knitting and reading (and all around awesome) friend Lisa Noble, though I honestly can no longer remember. I’ve lurked around Angela for a while – reading her emails, checking out her free units. Not only is she incredibly generous and thoughtful, her specific thinking and doing around writing intrigues me to no end.

Lately, I’ve been reading her work on using “loose parts” to teach writing. I find it fascinating, but each time I think about using it in the classroom I balk: I’m just not very spatial, I tell myself; I haven’t tried this myself, I worry, how will I explain it?

Angela writes, “Offer writers a variety of loose parts to build their ideas, responses, and drafts with.” In this phrase alone, I see all the reasons that loose parts fit with my writing pedagogy: play, multimedia thinking, draft, response… still, I couldn’t do it. Once I almost brought in a tray of thingamambobs, but then I didn’t.

On Friday, a student asked to conference with me about her personal narrative. She knew what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. She could articulate that the beginning was too long, “too much exposition”, but how could she tell the story without the background? She was stumped.

As we brainstormed, I found myself wanting to take scissors to her work – to physically move pieces around and see what might work where, but of course the writing was on the computer and somehow we couldn’t quite *play* with it. Play – PLAY! Of course!

I reached over to my desk and found some loose parts – a few pen caps, some paper clips; some random yarn (I have no idea – don’t ask) and a box of tacks. I plunked them down on the table where we were working. “Ok,” I said, “bear with me. What if these three pen caps were the aunties…”

We named parts, moved them, played around, and she ended up with this structure:

The final essay structure, minus a pen cap.

“This is great!” she said. “I can see exactly how to do it!”

I could, too, so I snapped a photo as the bell rang and thought, loose parts play. Got it.

Next step: figure out how to incorporate this on purpose. I have a feeling I won’t have much trouble with this now.

Many thanks to Angela Stockman, who doesn’t even know me, but who nevertheless just made my teaching better than it was before. Amazing. (And thanks to Lisa, too, for her neverending encouragement.)

Hot tub #SOL22 11/31

“Write about the hot tub,” they say. I’ve done a quick write in front of them, randomly listing childhood memories. Trampoline and Hide-n-Go Seek haven’t piqued their interest in quite the same way as hot tub.

I laugh. “Sadly, there’s not much to say. We had a hot tub in our backyard when I was in high school… nothing really happened there.” I trail off and end up writing about the trampoline after all, shaping the story, modeling various openings, playing with structure.

I don’t tell them that images of the hot tub bubble in the back of my mind. Look: my sisters and I are playing in the warm water, snow on the deck. There: I am 13 and awkward, wearing my bubble gum pink bathing suit, my hair pulled back – the photograph reveals a liminal beauty that I can only now appreciate. Over here: My birthday party, fifteen-year-old girls full of high spirits and loud laughter, though in every photo of the evening our heads are hidden in our arms, as shy away from the very lens we crave. “We’re in our bathing suits!” someone had squealed and the camera was put away.

Was that the night the boys crashed the party? Possibly, but even that phrase implies a wildness we didn’t embody. Maybe I should rewrite it and say, “was that the night that Michael and some friends came over while we were outside and we sort of pretended to scream but mostly chatted?” Or maybe both ways of telling the story are true.

With my sisters in the snow

How disappointed they would be with the truth: “The hot tub story” isn’t really a story, and it isn’t salacious. The hot tub is evenings with family, breath-holding contests with my sisters, a science fair project done with my dad (about the chemicals – the only science fair I ever won. Figures that it was about that hot tub.) I know what my students expected to hear when “hot tub” appeared in my list. Instead it’s moments of connection with my family and friends, moments from a time so distant it seems almost unimaginable now.

On the other hand, the trampoline – now, *that’s* a story.

Fatigue #SOL22 10/31

When she first came to visit, I wasn’t surprised; March Break was coming, and she often arrives around this time. Most days, she showed up in the late afternoon, hung around until bedtime and then left, sated. I reminded myself that there was no point in pretending she wasn’t coming, no point in ignoring her – better to accept her visits and maybe go to bed a little earlier than usual to help send her on her way.

But since the beginning of this week, five days before break, she’s been here every day. Some days, I swear she shows up first thing in the morning and lingers until lights out. I can’t shake her. I’ve tried warm baths and early bedtimes. Still, she’s there the minute I open my eyes, laughing. “You thought I’d leave?” Her shoulders shake as she chuckles, “You know better.”

At work, she’s been messing with my calendar: every day this week I’ve found myself accidentally double-booked for at least one meeting. I’m usually very good with time management, so I’m sure it’s her fault. And she’s making me very grumpy. I’m trying to ignore her, but she’s *always* there, and I have to admit my temper is short. She’s even infiltrated my writing – I’ve been posting later and later even though I’m often a morning writer.

The good news is that March Break starts at the end of the day tomorrow. She may try to accompany me on vacation, but I have a feeling that some serious family time, a lack of commitments and, yes, some morning sleep-ins will let her know that it’s time to leave. After all, I much prefer her more pleasant sister, Energy.

Observation #SOL22 9/31

“They were all on-task the whole time; they were literally all sharing their stories.”
I try not to blush – can one intentionally not blush? – and say, “Well, we’ve been practicing.”

Today, a colleague from my previous school came to observe and collaborate. (Pause for a moment and cheer for her principal – and mine – for deciding this was important.) I like to think of my classroom as open, and I regularly say that anyone is welcome at any time, but the truth is that most teachers spend most of their career playing to an audience comprised entirely of students, and I am no exception. I wasn’t nervous, exactly, but having a colleague in my room definitely heightens my senses.

Right away, I noticed that my instructions for one activity weren’t as clear as I had hoped. I noticed that I move around the room an awful lot, and that I am very comfortable with students moving, too. I noticed that I am (ridiculously) enthusiastic about student writing, and I recognized that this probably makes it easier for students to share. Mostly, however, I noticed that my students were willing participants in even unfamiliar activities, like stations that asked them to tell their narrative aloud, read examples of narrative essays or write first drafts. The last time they did “stations” was probably elementary school, but they humour me.

As a teacher I am so obviously my own worst critic that even my students (I see you, Leah & Nadiya) have commented that I should be easier on myself, but I knew that today’s class went well. After lunch, my colleague and I debriefed, which is when she pointed out that even at the “talk” table, everyone was on task. I explained that we had practiced this: we have shared stories in pairs and small groups; in class today, I referred to research we’ve already discussed, research which suggests that talk supports writing; we have also practiced providing effective feedback for other people’s stories. Because of my self-criticism, I am teaching some of these skills more effectively than I did last semester.

If I keep writing, I will find the flaws in the lesson – I misjudged the length of the final activity and there were those imperfect directions at the beginning – but I know that no lesson will ever be perfect. Today was pretty darn good, something I can recognize mostly because I saw someone seeing me teach. And I’ve realized that I’m pretty proud of me – which is not something I let myself say very often – so I thought maybe I should share that.

Talking with my colleague today was not only a pleasure but also a moment of reflection and growth for both of us. Think of how much teachers could grow if more schools prioritized time for observations and collaboration. Wouldn’t that be something?

Losting #SOL22 8/31

Near the beginning of each semester, my students write 100 word memoirs (thanks, Kittle & Gallagher). These never fail to knock my socks off, and this year that’s even more true. At my new school, many students have clear memories of coming to Canada, and many of them are continuing to learn English. Combined these lead to some great moments. For example, below, Tung wrote about his first time in a Canadian high school. Pay particular attention to the word “lost” – we’ll come back to that.

Walking through Canadian high school for the first time was like walking, lost, in an old tunnel surrounded by unknown creatures. The low-ceilinged crowded hallway was an ant’s nest of students trying to sprint through the narrow corridor. The thick moss-green bulletproof door had only a small glass cut-out, covered with an English-only poster. This prevented my curious eyes from spying on the Canadian students in the classroom. Everything was beyond my imagination. Each step I took, one rhythm faster my heart beat. What was I getting myself into? Would there be a light at the end of this tunnel? 

Tung, Grade 12
What I was seeing/ What was in my mind

He added pictures – including some pictures of his school at home. It’s much, much brighter and airier than our school and I can safely guess that it has never seen snow.

Watching Tung try to capture the feeling of that first day was fascinating. Some descriptions came easily – he knew he wanted a tunnel and he knew the door needed to be moss-green and bulletproof. Those things never wavered. Other things changed – coming in, getting cut out, changing form. To me, the most interesting thing of all was the word “lost”. He really wanted it to be “losting”.

We chatted in the back corner of the room – the place he’s chosen for now – about this word. Somehow lost just wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He had a sense that losting wasn’t a “real” word, but he wanted the word to be active. He wasn’t simply lost, he was wandering, loose, casting about, feeling the sense of not fitting in, not knowing if he belonged. He was losting.

I couldn’t help but think of my own child, then quite small, crying as his grandmother left after another wonderful visit. He threw himself into her arms and said, “It’s your fault, the goneness.” The goneness. Really, it’s the only word for the feeling.

I told Tung he could keep “losting” – that it made sense to me and described what he was feeling – but English isn’t thoroughly his yet; making mistakes and making new words are still too intertwined to tease one away from the other. Still, I expect that the word exists now. I suspect that someday, probably soon, I will see a student wandering in the hallway with a particular look in their eye, and I will know that they are losting. When I do, I’ll try to help – because the goneness can be overwhelming.

Join us – or just come to read – as we blog every day in March at twowritingteachers.com

Letting Go #SOL22 7/31

In the front of the room, Mr. P was talking. Technically, this was “my” class – I was the assigned teacher – but I’d stopped teaching and started functioning as a co-teacher/ support a few days earlier. Now, I was moving about the room, answering quiet questions, checking on student work, when one of the Black students touched my sleeve. I leaned down to hear her question. Without taking her eyes off of Mr. P, she whispered, “Thank you.” I knew exactly what she meant.

***

One week ago – on day one of this challenge – I wrote about the moment when Mr. P and I decided to team teach a class. And not just any class: we decided to team teach a new interdisciplinary course called “Anti-Black Racism in the Canadian Context.”

Some background: I am an experienced teacher with a permanent contract in our school board, and I am white; he is an experienced teacher who is not yet a permanent teacher in our school board, and he is Black. I grew up in the US; he grew up in Jamaica. Last June, when courses were being assigned, there was only one – ONE – Black teacher in this school, and he was not able to teach this class, so the principal asked me. I’m not Black, but I have been working towards anti-racism; filled with both trepidation and excitement, I said yes. To be honest, I was kind of proud that he thought I could do it.

Over the summer and the first semester, I read a lot, talked a lot, and thought a lot about how I could teach an Anti-Black Racism course to a group of students from many racial backgrounds. I researched and learned. I was determined to do my absolute best. The course began on a frigid February day, and I started by acknowledging my precarious position. No matter what I said or did, I was still a representative of white authority standing at the front of the classroom. Even though I planned to have an inquiry-based course, the structure of our system means that I was still “in charge”. It was uncomfortable, but we could live with discomfort.

And then came Mr. P. He had been hired to cover a position at our school this semester. We started chatting about literacy instruction almost the moment we met. Each of our discussions was better than the last, our pedagogy in synch, our hopes and expectations for students overlapping. He is wildly knowledgeable and wonderfully expressive. Within days, he was popping into the classroom; days after that, he started co-teaching with me. By Friday of last week, he was leading the course, and I had stepped into the background.

I’m pretty opinionated about what constitutes good teaching, but watching what happened when a person with lived experience of racism taught the course was humbling. I have been taught by Black educators, listened to Black colleagues, sought out Black perspectives. I am aware of the need for diverse voices – especially Black voices – in our schools. I knew all of this. But – oh, how I wish you could have been in the room last week when he talked about Bob Marley or recognized a Jamaican poet I had quoted. I wish you could have seen the moment that he addressed the racist coverage of the war in Ukraine. I wish you could have heard him talk about what it was like for him to come to Canada as a Black man. I can teach all sorts of things, but I can’t teach that.

Friday afternoon, the principal came by to tell me that Mr. P was needed in the room where he was originally assigned – a support position: valuable, but flexible enough that he had been able to spend a week in our class. Still, that couldn’t last forever, and I knew what had to happen: I asked the principal to transfer the course into Mr. P’s name. I didn’t know that the change would happen right away, but it did. This morning, with little warning, I said goodbye to that group of students and to the Anti-Black Racism course.

I’m a little heartbroken – if one can be a little heartbroken. I would love to keep teaching the course for many reasons. I think I’m mourning my preparation. I know I’m mourning my own chance to learn from Mr. P. I’m absolutely mourning the students and the connections we were making. I love the classroom, and I will spend the rest of this semester with only one traditional class.

On the other hand, a highly qualified Black teacher is leading a diverse group of students to a new understanding of race and racism while he shares a powerful lived experience. And that is worth celebrating.

#SOL22 5/31

It was only the beginning of second period, but all of us were already over this day. Before classes had even started, a few teachers had received an email threatening a school shooting. The actual threat level seemed low, but just in case, the police had been called, the doors locked, a “shelter in place” instituted. Then, the internet went out. And it was Friday. We wondered if the universe was laughing at us: “Good luck at school today,” it snickered.

The grade 12 students were unimpressed. Someone had flicked off the lights as they entered the room – “Hope that’s ok, Miss” – and most people were slumped, exhausted, onto the tables. So much for any lessons I had planned. On the other hand, thanks to the power of routine, almost everyone had a book out.

“I have an idea. You read, I’ll plan something that makes some sort of sense.”

“I can set my watch for 15 minutes,” one student volunteered.

“Miss, can it be 20? Please? I mean, the internet is down and…”

I looked around the room. Heads were nodding. “20 it is,” I declared.

They read; I planned. Then I read, too. 20 minutes passed. C’s watch beeped. An impassioned “NO!” slipped out of a student as she turned a page. “I’m so close to the end of the chapter!”

“Me, too!” “Yes!” “Please, just a few more minutes…”

Of course I said yes. And we all read just a little bit more. And our Friday was just a little bit better. Not perfect, but better.

Team teaching #SOL22 1/31

I am finishing my third (or thirtieth or three hundredth) meeting of the afternoon when he pops in. He’s been “pushing in” to a class and thinks that maybe he’s stepping on the teacher’s toes just a little bit. I taught that class last semester and was grateful for every extra adult body I could get, but I trust his judgement. Maybe this new, young teacher has things under control; maybe she has a higher tolerance for high jinks; maybe she likes to have some space to teach by herself. Whatever it is, if he thinks he’ll serve the class better by stepping away for awhile, then that’s probably the right move. I, too, am finding that pushing in is complex.

He and I have only talked a handful of times, but we’ve already had several of those discussions that trip along from one topic to the next, our tongues flying and our hands gesturing. I don’t know much about him yet, but I already admire him. Today he senses my fatigue. “How’s that class going?” he asks. I take a deep breath.

I confess that we have finished unit 1 – Foundations – and are moving into a unit on history. I explain that I am drowning in information. I keep thinking of the title of an article I read in grad school: A Little Too Little and a Lot Too Much. I feel wildly uncertain. What is my next step? How can I honour student voice? How can I acknowledge what they know and what I don’t know?

He understands right away, and he points out – gently, politely – that I am too deep in my emotions and too light on academics. I shake my head: No. No. That can’t be it. I am a white woman teaching a course called “Anti-Black Racism in the Canadian Context”; I have to be aware of emotions and student knowledge and… “No,” he is saying, “no.” He can see through me. I am aiming for perfection. He laughs, “It’s just history. I know that teachers can be possessive of their classrooms, but…would you let me come tomorrow? This is my specialty. I am salivating at the thought of teaching this class.”

We talk. More than once each of us prefaces comments with “can I be honest here?” He finds the holes in the anti-racism that I hope permeates my soul but which I sometimes wear like armour. We talk about the dismal truth about the numbers of Black teachers in our board and our province. I tell him that I hope that someday I will not be teaching this class because someone more qualified will teach it. He reminds me that I am good enough even while he reminds me that I will never be enough. I push back, get frustrated and feel seen all at the same time.

We end up planning together – we are both committed to a pedagogy of inquiry – our ideas intertwine and the course takes shape again. When we pause he says, “I am a hugger. Are you a hugger?” and we hug because for now this course – which until today was taught by me, a white woman doing her best – will be team-taught by a white woman and a Black man who have found a way to disrupt the system that put us in separate spaces when we should be together.

Welcome to Day 1 of the annual March Slice of Life Challenge. Come, write with us for 31 days. We would love to meet you!

Ice

Sometimes, when my heart or my head have raced so far ahead of my body that I can no longer tell if I am getting enough oxygen, I take a cube of ice from the freezer and clutch it until the sharp edges dig into the soft centre of my palm, until my fingers go cold, then numb. I close my eyes and feel every bit of the ice in my hand. I cling to it as my body’s warmth softens its sharp edges, as my animal heat grows and pushes against the coldness, until every bit of me – my cells, my blood, my breath – responds to this challenge and water, cold and clear, seeps through the cracks between my fingers. When I can breathe again, I let it go.

****

I am looking for the story equivalent of that ice cube, a cold hard undeniable centre that grounds me, but I’m having trouble finding it.

Protesters currently occupy Ottawa. I’ve lived in the capital cities of three different countries, so I’m familiar with protests. This one, though, this one is wearing me down. You can read about the protests on your favourite news site – but the long and the short of it is that there are trucks blocking our streets and honking honking honking. This despite the fact that there are few (no?) politicians currently in Ottawa. These protesters are mostly affecting residents, causing small businesses – already struggling from Covid restrictions – to close, along with public libraries, an elementary school (for one day), the local mall, city service centres, a vaccination clinic, a Sikh temple and more. People can’t think for the noise; the blocked streets prevent elderly people from getting their food delivered. Some of the people involved in the protest have behaved badly and their demands are unclear.

Monday morning, I tweeted about sending my child to school through the protesters. Monday evening, I spent hours hiding truly hateful responses – some threatening – and blocking accounts. The work was deeply unsettling and exhausting. 

I foolishly tried to lead a “discussion” with my classes – because this protest is affecting students, too, and because it’s a great example of how different news sources report different things and shape our thinking via diction, selection and omission –  but I was in no way able to model critical thinking. I was too tired and too angry. I even shared a piece of “news” that turned out to be false. I should have done better, but I did what I could.

****

Meanwhile, sexual harassment lurks in the hallways and corners of our school. Children who have learned largely online or in interrupted spurts are behaving badly. Some profess astonishment when teachers talk about truths: that sending unwanted pictures of body parts is harassment; that even “compliments” are often unwelcome when they are comments on people’s appearance. Others are angry that their requests for help are going unheard. Some of our students have told us about assault. Their stories are unsettling.

In the school, lines of communication feel broken. There is no time to talk. We’ve moved from a shooting threat to winter break to online school, then through a snowstorm and straight into the end of the semester. Tomorrow – a “catch up” day for students – is overflowing with meetings as staff members scramble to connect with one another, to find ways to cram months of desperately needed conversation into the hours that we desperately need to mark student work and begin writing report cards. Thursday, we will return to our pre-Covid school schedule (four classes per day) and call it “normal” even though half of our students have never experienced it. We have no time to plan for this. We will pretend this is ok.

In one of my circles of teacher friends, we no longer ask each other if we cried today; we ask if we cried in public or in private. Our sleep is restless or hard to find. We are exhausted.

****

Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on. In Canada, Wednesday saw the highest number of deaths from Covid so far. Wednesday.

In school, I endlessly repeat, “put your mask over your nose,” heed the recent notice that we should not open our classroom windows, pretend that it’s normal to have five, six, seven students away from each class.

I remind myself that endemic is not synonymous with mild and nevertheless hope for endemic.

****

What is my cold hard truth? What can I feel so deeply that it transforms? Today, it is Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” Here, feel the pressure of its hard edges, then let her words melt between your fingers until you can breathe again.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.